After successful execution of Discovery’s newly enhanced spores-based drive system, Captain Lorca is ordered by Starfleet to assume a low profile in the war effort for fear the Klingons may now have Discovery on its radar following its actions at Corvan 2.
Lorca is soon captured by the Klingons, however, and held prisoner, forcing Saru to take command of Discovery and mount a rescue of his captain. In the meantime, Michael Burnham is learning the new drive system is harming the assimilated tardigrade. Her pleas on the creature’s behalf put her at odds with a desperate Saru, who is determined to assert his newfound authority and use the tardigrade to rescue Lorca, despite its weakened state.
Lorca manages to escape the Klingons’ clutches with help from a fellow human prisoner, Lt. Ash Tyler, who served aboard the U.S.S. Yeager at the Battle of the Binary Stars. The two steal a Klingon Raider and make their way back to the waiting U.S.S. Discovery, where they are safely beamed aboard — and after taking on a terribly risky experiment to get Discovery out of Klingon territory, Paul Stamets is seeing double…
What we have with “Choose Your Pain” is a powerful and compelling installment that’s certainly the best of what Star Trek: Discovery has so far shown us. It’s also one that’s certain to divide fans over its harsher and more violent approach to Star Trek storytelling (we do, after all, get Star Trek’s use of “fuck” in dialogue used twice in the same scene).
If you need an example of the freedoms now afforded an aging series like Star Trek in a more flexible, streaming-service platform, this episode is it. “Choose Your Pain” is a pretty intense episode, by Star Trek’s television standards. Necks are broken; faces are bashed.
There was a time when Star Trek episodes like Next Generation’s “Chain of Command” (with its Picard torture scenes) and “Conspiracy” (with its parasite ingestion and head explosion) were all the talk around the water cooler for their level of ground-breaking Star Trek violence.
Those days are long gone. Standards change, and what we can stomach as viewers in terms of gore has also changed. The question is – how much is too much when it comes to graphic content in Star Trek? Was it gratuitous for Cadet Tilly to exclaim how “fucking cool” Stamets’ research is — and then have it backed up by Stamets himself — in their shared scene in this episode? Or is context the real arbiter in these instances?
It’s a dilemma Star Trek will continue to wrestle with as it adapts to the sensibilities and expectation of modern audience.
Back to the episode. “Choose Your Pain” is so dense with subplots, it’s a pretty remarkable feat that it all comes together as well as it does. It’s refreshing to see some real physical action for the Klingons after several episodes of talk. It’s also good to see Saru getting something meaty to sink his teeth into.
It’s become something of a cliché in Star Trek to test its secondary characters with a shot at the hot seat for an episode or two. Star Trek: The Next Generation featured several examples of it, to varying degrees of success — the best being Riker’s battlefield promotion to captain in “The Best of Both Worlds” and Geordi’s turn at command in first season’s “Arsenal of Freedom.”
Although Saru hasn’t given us much personal backstory so far, his struggles with command resonate because of his established conflict with Burnham and his stated desire to protect his new captain and prove himself as a first officer.
There’s a lot of about Lorca we don’t know and it’s pretty clear that Star Trek: Discovery is intent on peeling back the layers of his backstory, piece by piece.
In this episode, we learn that Lorca previously commanded the U.S.S. Buran, which he destroyed and escaped from during a battle with the Klingons. Some fans have floated theories that Lorca is actually from the Mirror Universe, explaining his combative behavior and all-around atypical Star Trek captain’s demeanor — but while executive producer Alex Kurtzman has confirmed that Discovery will be crossing dimensions sometime this season, we’re more of a mind that Lorca is just hardened by the ongoing Klingon conflict than anything else.
Speaking of mirrors, Stamets’ decision to sacrifice himself as Discovery’s tardigrade-by-proxy is a bit of a groaner. For a second you’re wondering if he was being killed off in the same sudden, warning-free way Landry was dispatched in last week’s episode — but of course it’s a fake-out, with the scientist coming back to life after his trip around the galaxy… and it appears his experience has created some kind of hiccup in the universe, as evidenced by episode’s final scene with Stamets’ mirror reflection.
What seems particularly intriguing at this point is the possibility that Lt. Tyler is a Klingon masquerading as a human – namely Klingon torchbearer (and T’Kuvma acolyte) Voq.
This theory is being discussed heavily in fandom after this week’s episode, and while I’m not going to spend much time digging into every each clue here — though the credited man behind the mask, Javid Iqbal, has never done a single moment of publicity for the series, and actor Shazad Latif originally being cast as a Klingon — a strong narrative clue comes from “The Butcher’s Knife…” when L’Rell tells Voq that in order to move forward with his next mission, he sacrifice “everything.”
This could imply his giving up his identity as a Klingon for that as a human spy, much like undercover Klingon Arne Darvin from the classic episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” Let’s not forgot also that L’Rell was commanding the Klingon ship that held Lt. Tyler prisoner, who was kept alive because of a suggested relationship with L’Rell.
Overall, “Choose Your Pain” is a standout installment that sees all of its primary and secondary characters given a nice piece of story pie, working effectively as a team. The ending, where Burnham gives Saru the telescope willed to her by Captain Georgiou, is a touching scene that nicely counterbalances the darker and more violent points of the episode. It also introduces the expected path toward reconciliation for Saru and Burnham.
Burnham and Tilly’s release of the tardigarde back into space is also a sentimental callback to Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Encounter at Farpoint” coda where that episode’s ‘jellyfish’ creature is released from captivity after being exploited for its energy-producing capabilities.
Kudos also need to given to Jayne Brook as Admiral Cornwell — interestingly, an officer who is also a psychiatrist by training, revealed during After Trek — and Rainn Wilson as Harry Mudd, who is introduced in Discovery as a more sinister and angrier version of the persona seen in the classic series… and we haven’t seen the last of Harcourt Fenton Mudd.
Star Trek: Discovery returns this Sunday with “Lethe.” Watch for our ongoing Canon Connections series to continue later this week as we look for the ties to Trek‘s past in this most recent episode!
Rob Heyman is a freelance journalist and entertainment critic. He is a regular contributor to both TrekCore and The Logbook, where he has written episode reviews of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Voyager, and the Star Trek movies.