I haven’t been reviewing individual Discovery episodes, despite really wanting to, because I’ve been insanely busy as of late. I may do a mid-season break review, so look forward to that. But I wanted to take a moment to compare last night’s episode, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”, and The Next Generation’s “Cause and Effect”. To be frank, Discovery’s implementation of the “time loop” device is thousands of times more entertaining than the episode than most likely inspired it.
“Cause and Effect”, like many later Berman-era Star Trek episodes no matter the series, is a puzzle, plain and simple. It does nothing and says nothing. A lot of people remember it fondly because the Enterprise blows up several times and Frasier shows up at the end. But between all that mishegas the crew painstakingly acts out the same boring card game over and over, the Enterprise’s entire propulsion system fails catastrophically due to a minor knick of its engine, and the answer to the whole thing comes down to a choice between two random actions. Nothing that happens says anything about the crew and their personalities or their ability to cope with their situation. We learn nothing about these people even as we follow them through their daily lives over and over again. If there is a personal conflict in the episode it’s Picard’s ridiculously long inaction as he asks for and has solutions explained to him. Both the tractor beam and the shuttle decompression would have worked fine if they’d been enacted thirty seconds earlier. But that’s never addressed because mindless discussions during a crisis are a feature of TNG, not a bug.
“Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”, which is a repulsively long title, kicks the whole concept up a notch by bringing in very real, personal stakes. Each time the 30 minute window loops we learn more about Michael Burnham, her weaknesses, her anxieties, and her joys. And when the solution for saving the ship comes to her it’s based on her need to save someone specific she cares about, not a mechanistic desire to solve the puzzle. In fact, seeing Michael pop the dark matter pill in her mouth might just be one of the most frighteningly real and oddly delightful moments in the series so far.
A lot of stylistic choices also set the Discovery episode apart from the TNG version. “Cause and Effect” really focuses on repetitive action. It’s a mildly fun watch the first time around, but I rarely rewatch it because, knowing the end, it’s just tedious. “Magic” avoids this completely by not only making every loop different, but quickly skipping over bits we would have recognized from the previous loop. The main reason Brannon Braga says he wrote “Cause and Effect” was because he personally loved blowing up the ship over and over again, making the episode a means to an almost pornographic end. It’s really no wonder the episode lacks any real substance. “Magic” gets rid of the ship exploding gimmick completely, showing the Discovery blow up only once on screen before relegating it’s destruction to flashes of fire. It’s all quick and painless to make room for the plot, not pad things out between money shots. Basically, “Magic” is built around getting Burnham to fall in love while the central mission of “Cause and Effect” is simple pyrotechnics.
No, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” isn’t perfect. I mean, look at that title. Its ending is a comical reduction of the climax of a typical Mudd story, basically letting the extremely dangerous rogue off the hook by trapping him in a silly situation rather than punishing him outright. This time it’s worse, because Mudd isn’t even really stuck some place with no conceivable escape. I could see him fleeing Stella mere minutes after beaming away. Stella, of course, is hot now, because every out-of-shape old man since the beginning of TV has had a spouse who’s utterly out of their league. Crewmen running at Mudd with rifles instead of shooting at him from a secured position during the initial loop is completely unbelievable. I also mourn the dwindling number of moral foils on this show. Stamets is now fully compliant on water bear happy pills, and Mudd, instead of being an ambivalent voice of the civilian population, al la Tom Zarek, in now just a full-on Klingon collaborator. That leaves Discovery’s war mission nearly unopposed. Even Tilly is hot for soldiers now. Hopefully this will change as things develop.