Star Trek Discovery - S1E7: Magic To Make the Sanest Man Go Mad - Review: A Season's Best!
Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad – Everything was going swimmingly awkward at Burnham’s first party aboard the Discovery until they encounter a giant space whale and the ship blows up.... and that’s just the beginning of their problems when an old face makes a timely return.
A simple concept well-executed; bravo, Discovery this is your offering yet. This episode makes merry with the always fun concept of a time loop with a 30-minute period repeating itself indefinitely; but a few crucial tweaks on the conventional formula give it a fresh and entertaining feel. Firstly, the story is not told from the perspective of those aware of the loop. Think of the well-known cases like Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow or more recently Happy Death Day. All those stories were all told from the viewpoint of a central protagonist aware that they are reluctantly repeating the loop. However, here we see everything from Burnham’s continually fresh perspective, retaining no memories in each loop. This allows the self-aware Staments to dip in-and-out of scenes whenever he needs to rather than making excuses for him to be everywhere at once. This sustains the feelings of confusion much further into the story and gives the fun sense of Staments regularly scrambling behind the scenes, trying to make things work out.
Next, there’s the heavy loop-skipping. If you take all the aforementioned example films, they all begin with a slow build over their first couple loops showing the lead character journeying from disbelief to acceptance of their fate. Whereas here, that’s completely negated with a few carefully-placed dialogue lines and a little faith in audience intelligence to allow the concept of the loop to be easily conveyed with no easing-in required. In fact, the loop progression is quite rapid with an impression that dozens of loops take place in between every one we actually see. The episode also allows Staments to be unsuccessful without seeming incompetent. Rather than rising to the occasion, we see him clearly out of his depth and forced to seek forgetful help. Finally, there are all the little touches like Burnham’s opening narration about falling into the same routine or the loop commencing with Staying Alive playing at the party when must loops end with everyone dying. It’s a really well-written approach to such a classic troupe.
Then there is the returning antagonist of Harry Mudd (if you missed him in episode 5, he’s an older re-imagining of an original Trek series character). We knew he’d be coming back for his revenge but merely 2 episodes later is a lot sooner than expected. Still's the ideal choice as he reveals in gaining the upper hand over the ship or continually finding new ways to kill Captain Lorca (cue a hilarious montage). His tendency towards humour and mockery almost makes this feel like a TNG Q episode as he meddles in their goings on, or a Supernatural Trickster episode. His motivations are well established and reasonable in making this venture equal parts business and revenge by looking to sell Discovery’s secrets to the Klingons. Mudd’s presence directs the story away from a more conflict-based resolution as he attempts to shoot him prove Borg level futile, leaving only one option. To win, they must out-trick the trickster, and this is accomplished in satisfying ways.
I also really like the way the time loop concept circles back to Burnham’s initial difficulties with social interactions and trying to become accepted as crew member than an infamous prisoner. It’s always a nice touch when a seemingly insignificant moment, like being able to make small talk at a party, becomes that crucial difference maker. Staments is also a lot of fun as he tries to help Burnham with this. I haven’t been completely sold on his more spaced-out mindset since indulging in alien gene-splicing but here his lightening up works very well within the context of the episode. Tilly is also on great comedic form as she gets her party girl on.
Episodes like these are what I really love about Star Trek in the way they can be both serious science fiction and a daft fun at the same time for really entertaining results. It’s not something the show can do every week but when it does, it’s so skilfully executed like this episode: the results are worth repeating.