Episode 1.7 of Star Trek: Discovery, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” has had a singular reception among the episodes of the first season. Widely acclaimed as the best episode of the first season, it is also the most traditionally “Trekky,” a standalone adventure largely independent of the main series arc (despite its nominal status as a sequel to episode 1.5, “Choose Your Pain”). Harry Mudd returns on a mission of vengeance after having been abandoned in a Klingon prison cell by Lorca and Tyler; armed with a time-travel device that allows him to relive the last half-hour over and over again until he is happy with the results, the time-loop narrative is complicated by Stamets’s new, spore-infused status outside the normal flow of space and time. Stamets, Burnham, Tilly, and Tyler are able to use Stamets’s knowledge of the loops to contrive a situation that convinces Mudd he has achieved all his goals, only to pull the rug out from under him at the end of the episode after he has shut off the device and ended the time loop.
The episode’s ecstatic early reception was produced in its moment by a number of factors, perhaps most especially its status as the first “fun” episode after a series introduction dominated by dark and depressing plotlines (including among other things mutiny, war, the total destruction of the Shenzhou, and the brutal torture of sentient and nonsentient lifeforms alike). Rainn Wilson’s Mudd does indeed inject an infectious spirit of chaos into the proceedings, and the crew not only gets a longed-for “clean win” but achieves it by working together as a cohesive whole in a way that had not yet been seen on the series (a mood of TNG-style camaraderie that would return in even grander form as the moment of triumph at the end of the Mirror Universe arc in 1.13, “What’s Past Is Prologue”). The episode is also a familiar take on a well-worn Trek concept, the Groundhog’s-Day time loop, certainly updated for contemporary sensibilities and cinematic style but still coloring within the well-established lines of the Trek franchise (to an extent not found, arguably, in most of the rest of Discovery).
And it is, to be sure, a perfectly delectable episode.
But despite this popular acclaim rewatching “Magic” in light of what comes after does present some evaluative difficulties. First, its status as a self-contained bottle episode makes it, in a way, the exemplary Discovery episode, rather than an exception; in both “Magic” and the larger series events only happen so they can unhappen, with the series frequently giving the appearance of foreward momentum without ever being willing to actually commit to consequences that stick. “Magic”’s status as a sequel foregrounds this as much as its time-loop narrative logic; Mudd returns to expose Lorca’s decidedly un-Starfleet decision to abandon him in Klingon prison, but on none of the loops does anyone else worry about it or even question it, even once the crisis is resolved. Likewise, the episode’s return to Lorca’s imprisonment and the rescue of Ash Tyler only reminds us once again that neither man should be on active duty after their extreme experiences (an issue so fundamental to the series and to Trek in general that it actually becomes the B-plot of the following episode)—nor, for that matter, should Stamets, whose behavior after unethically and irresponsibly injecting himself with the spore serum has grown unstable and deranged even before the time-loop has begun, nor Burnham, whose happy-ending voiceover about “finding where she truly belongs” belies the sheer unbelievability of her own continued participation in Starfleet in any form (a fundamental narrative problem with the series also voiced by Admiral Cornwell, again with no results, in 1.8).
The basic mechanism of committed Trek fandom is the dialectical interplay between the two impulses of escapist pleasure and dyspeptic nitpickery—as well as their cross-pollination in nitpicking other people’s pleasures, ruining them, and in reveling, joyfully, in the perfect picked nit (especially when you can also provide a clever, No-Prize solution to an apparently insolvable problem of canon). It would not be a stretch to suggest the time-looped Mudd as a kind of metafictional stand-in for the obsessive Star Trek fan, rewatching the same events thirty, forty, fifty, sixty times until he knows their every nook and cranny, inside and out—and, true to Trek’s infamous “Get a Life” attitude towards its own most devoted fandom, Mudd becomes not the good, loyal fan but a science-fictional version of what Emily Nussbaum calls the Bad Fan, that obsessive figure who knows the text intimately but in the wrong way, wanting the wrong things.
Except what he most wants to do with his total knowledge of Discovery is to kill Lorca, a person who he not only has a perfectly legitimate personal grudge against but who is revealed as the season goes on to be a monstrous, murderous duplicate from the Evil Universe whose every action and intention is malevolent.
I had originally selected “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” to write about for this Star Trek: Discovery event because I was nerdishly interested in the pseudo-philosophical ontological puzzles produced by the time-loop (especially those caused by the interesting choice to loop not Burnham but Stamets, who can inform Burnham of information in various ways but who [in this episode anyway] is too addled and ineffectual to save the ship himself). Of course I’m still game to geek out about it on that level. But rewatching the episode I found some of my worst fears about Discovery‘s big Lorca reveal confirmed; having exposed and then immediately ejected Lorca from the series has not “solved the problem” of Lorca but retroactively turned rewatching the series into an exercise of trying to read Jason Isaacs’s exquisitely opaque facial expressions for some slight dropping of Lorca’s mask. On rewatch the whole series is now even more about Lorca than it was before. How does Lorca—a true believer, recall, confident in his own destiny, and a ruthless survivor devoted to victory at any cost in any circumstances—maintain his masquerade so completely even in the face of his repeated murder by Mudd, loop after loop after loop after loop? How can we never once see the true essence of the vile person we come to know even in these extreme moments of personal threat and defeat? I was inspired to rewatch the surrounding episodes and generally speaking the same problem presents itself there in different ways: Lorca maintains his masquerade flawlessly whenever the camera is on him, even when he is utterly alone, even when he is facing imminent death, even when he is presented with excessively humanitarian suggestions from the crew that he could easily say no to on pragmatic or logistical grounds…
Where the Tyler/Voq reveal was hamhandedly telegraphed from the very start, with nearly every line of dialogue uttered by Tyler offering a double meaning, by and large the Lorca reveal remains utterly inscrutable even on a rewatch, offering no better understanding of the character than we had the first time. There is really only one moment in “Magic” that provides that glorious frisson of recognition on rewatch: Lorca carelessly letting slip that he believes the gormagander (the space whale at the center of “Magic”) was hunted to near-extinction, as one assumes it was in the Mirror Universe, rather than having species-level problems with its reproductive practices (as Burnham explains happened in the Prime Timeline).
To the extent that our retrospective interest in Discovery season one is now overdetermined by the Lorca twist, I find “Magic” is actually much less rewatchable—much less rethinkable, much less endlessly redebatable—than any of the episodes near it. “Choose Your Pain” gives us not only Lorca in extremis, undergoing imprisonment and torture without breaking his cover, but includes the strange story of the destruction of the Buran, which now looks entirely different in retrospect. “Lethe” gives us Lorca’s tense and multi-layered reaction to the discovery that the Prime Burnham carries a piece of Sarek’s katra in her, information that seems to deeply disturb him for reasons that are much more compelling and interesting in retrospect than they are in their original moment. “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” gives us Lorca cold-reading and perfectly mirroring Cornwell despite (we realize) having none of the relevant experience or memories she is referencing, an incredible performance by Isaacs that reads totally differently before and after the reveal.
As of yet we know very little about Star Trek: Discovery season two. But I think it’s fair for us, in this off season, to ask what elements of season one will extend to season two that will reward repeated rewatching by obsessive fans. Lorca is gone; Culber is gone; Tyler is gone; the war is over; Burnham is reinstated; Stamets is a plot device; Sarek is boring; Tilly is extremely inconsistently written, and by the end almost exclusively for laughs. What, from the perspective of season two and beyond—from the perspective of the whole series as we will come to recognize it retrospectively years from now—will look like the must-see episodes of season one? I am of course speculating here, but if any such through-line exists I suspect the key figure will actually be Saru, a character sidelined for much of the first season due to the breakdown of his prior relationship with Burnham and his effective nonpresence in Lorca’s inner circle. With the possible, arguable exception of Deep Space Nine, no Trek series has ever managed to be a true ensemble show: a pair or trio of characters always rises to the top to provide the primary locus of narrative interest. Picard and Data; Kirk and Spock (and McCoy); Janeway and Seven (and the Doctor); Archer and T’Pol (and Trip). While Lorca dominates season one—so thoroughly that it is hard for me to imagine what the series will look like without him, and episodes 1.14 and 1.15 don’t exactly fill me with confidence—it seems hard to imagine that Discovery as a multi-season totality can be anything but Burnham and Saru. Their fraught, delicate, but genuine friendship is the last remaining source of compelling interpersonal drama that hasn’t been jettisoned from the series by the end of season one; if seasons two (and beyond) are to feel like an extension of season one, rather than a complete reboot, Burnham and Saru will have to be their foundation.
And this suspicion, perhaps, contributes to my sense that “Magic” will in the end prove too lightweight to stand the test of time as Discovery’s first truly classic episode: Saru is barely in the thing.