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‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Review: ‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad’ Delivers the First Truly Great Episode of the Series

A fresh take on a classic trope leads to the most exciting and fun "Discovery" yet.

"Star Trek: Discovery"

“Star Trek: Discovery”

CBS

From the very beginning of “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” we knew something different was in store for this episode. Up until now “Discovery” has favored extended cold opens, delaying the opening credits for several minutes. But instead, following the always moving opening theme by Jeff Russo, “Discovery” took on a narrative device well-explored by other sci-fi franchises — including another “Star Trek” series — and managed to both utilize the fun, appealing elements of the trope while finding its own spin on the action.

[Editor’s Note: Spoilers for “Star Trek: Discovery” Season 1 Episode 7, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” follow.]

Over and Over and Over Again…

Turns out that you can’t keep a con man in Klingon prison, and Harry Mudd finds an ingenious way to sneak on board the Discovery — via an endangered space whale (endangered, for the record, because it’s too interested in eating to have sex, which means it should really be called a space panda, right?). Mudd’s ingenuity extends beyond that, as he proceeds to use a device that allows him to reset time over and over again; the genetically modified Stamets is aware of what’s happening, but convincing others is tricky. However, Burnham and the rest of the crew eventually get on the same page, and together they not only escape Mudd but deliver him to his worst nightmare: his “true love” Stella.

Whether your frame of reference is “Groundhog’s Day” or “Star Trek: The Next Generation’s” “Cause and Effect,” even the teaser for this week’s episode made it clear that we were in for a time loop narrative. It’s a device that’s been so popular in this genre that in the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episode “Life Serial,” the characters utilizing it acknowledged how popular it was:

Andrew: I just hope she solves it faster than Data did on the ep of “TNG” where the Enterprise kept blowing up.

Warren: Or Mulder, in that “X-Files” where the bank kept exploding.

However, one aspect of what made “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” so interesting is that (similarly to the “Buffy” example) the time loop wasn’t a random phenomenon — Mudd was actively resetting time for his own ends.

The fact that it was character-driven helped in bringing new levels to this, but also it was aided and abetted by an understanding that the most frustrating part of a time loop tale is waiting for the characters to figure out what the audience already knows. There’s always at least one person who’s aware of what’s going on, but their ability to convince others often drives the bulk of the plot.

Fortunately, the writers were aware of this, and gave Lt. Stamets the smarts to figure out exactly what to say to Burnham and others, as he waded through each new loop. The fact that he asked Burnham to tell him a secret that would convince her in future cycles that he was telling the truth was the sort of plot point that weaker versions of this idea have avoided.

Great Moments in Leadership, Courtesy of Captain Lorca

“Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” doesn’t really touch on Lorca’s borderline crazypants-ness (or Admiral Cornwell’s POW status). But in this episode, he does spend a fair amount of time in the captain’s chair (something Jason Isaacs told IndieWire he was actively avoiding) and also demonstrates a pretty hilarious attitude towards the gormagander Discovery encounters. “I still don’t give a damn.” Lorca might be on the edge of sanity, but he has some great management skills.

Party Down

"Star Trek: Discovery"

“Star Trek: Discovery”

CBS All Access

Integrating any sort of 20th or 21st-century pop culture into a show set in 2255 is extremely tricky to pull off, as it triggers questions of believability — after all, how many young people today are currently jamming to the hottest tunes from 1779?

Yet the choice to anchor the episode with a song that draws from two different eras — specifically, Wyclef Jean’s “We Trying to Stay Alive,” which prominently samples the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” — somehow keeps the choice believable. It might have been more fun to hear 23rd century EDM at the crew party, but perhaps less engaging.

Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” doesn’t have the same luxury of already feeling like two different periods of time. But honestly, it’s such a damn good song that we can’t be bothered to nitpick.

“Inappropriate”

We got more of an explanation as to why, despite spending seven years serving on the Shenzhou, Burnham is more Vulcan than human in her social interactions. Or, rather, we got an excuse: That her ranking made it “inappropriate” for her to be more familiar with her fellow crew members. It’s of course bullshit, which Tyler calls her on, and it looks like she’s close to opening up a bit more.

The fact that her social blooming might be inspired by Tyler is intriguing — in previous episodes, let’s be clear, her connection with him felt a bit forced, and the beginning of “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” did little to shift that. (To be clear: You can’t just create romantic chemistry between two characters by having a bunch of people hint that they should be together.) However…

Best Line of the Episode

“I’m just sad we missed our first kiss.”
— Lt. Tyler

There’s a danger here, in celebrating this quote, because it’s still unclear just what kind of direction the relationship between Tyler and Burnham is going to go. Prior to this episode, all that “Discovery” had been doing on this front had frankly felt a bit forced, but “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” did deliver some genuinely believable moments between the pair that will ensure our interest in seeing where their new bond goes. That first kiss, lost to the time loops, was sweet in its execution.

"Star Trek: Discovery"

“Star Trek: Discovery”

CBS All Access

Final Thoughts

It’s important to note that “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” might technically be classified as a stand-alone episode, which technically “Discovery” has been veering away from. But what it genuinely is is the best kind of stand-alone, one which is built upon many previous events, and promises that it will have an impact on stories to come.

After all, the greatest frustration fans might experience with stand-alone episodes is that events from one episode have no impact on the following installment. A character undergoes a traumatic experience, but next week everything’s hunky-dory — it’s a storytelling rhythm that was accepted decades ago, but feels less and less natural for shows where we expect the characters to learn, grow, and change from week to week.

“Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” told a complete narrative, but there’s no doubt that things like Stamets’ enhanced abilities and the newfound connection between Burnham and Tyler will be a part of the ongoing story. And more than ever, we can’t wait to see more.

Grade: A

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