Star Trek: Discovery has had some very good episodes before (and some truly awful ones), but Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad is the first to really mix in a little fun with along with the high stakes adventure.
Rainn Wilson’s Mudd is back, and he’s still understandably upset that Lorca left him to rot in a Klingon prison a few episodes back. But in Magic, he’s got some new tricks up his sleeve, and they involve time travel. The new toys he’s acquired allows him to keep reliving the same thirty minutes, which gives him the chance visit the U.S.S. Discovery over and over, until he learns enough in order to take command of it, kill Lorca a few times for good measure, then eventually sell the ship to the Klingons once he’s learned just what makes it so special.
Fortunately Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp, who deserves more support than ever in light of recent events) is quirkier than ever thanks to the fact that he’s still using himself to pilot the Spore Drive, and in this episode he takes center stage. His work means that he now exists outside the timestream, and is thus the only one who’s able to notice the constant repetition. After he’s unable to “find a way where it ends with a win for the home team,” he enlists the skeptical Burnham’s help.
Once Burnham is on board, Magic is wise enough to tie her race to save the ship into her personal growth, and her ongoing struggle to more fully embrace and accept her humanity and all the emotions that come with it. Last time the focus was on Burnham’s past, but here she’s in completely unexplored territory, as she is now struggling to cope with her growing feelings for Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif). It’s quickly revealed that Burnham has never been in love, but her and Tyler’s burgeoning connection may be what will enlist the security officer officer’s help and allow them to turn the tide against Mudd.
The show hasn’t given us much of a chance to watch a purely romantic relationship grow from scratch, and it’s genuinely charming and moving to see Tyler and Burnham work together to both save the ship and each other. It also helps that Rainn Wilson is so much fun as Mudd. He may not exactly be stylish, but you can’t deny he does have style. He doesn’t need an army in order to destroy the Discovery time and again, and oddly enough, Lorca barely figures into the fight to defeat him. It isn’t the captain’s might that’s needed to bring down Mudd, it’s strategy and intelligence of those few who know Stamets and Burnham enough to trust and help them.
There are a few misfires, such as a space whale that’s oddly used as a kind of way too on-the-nose metaphor for Burnham’s issues, the somewhat anticlimatic ending, which seems at odds with what Starfleet would actually do with a man who caused so much damage, especially when he has the potential to tip the war in the Klingons’ favor, and there’s sometimes a lack of patience and creativity with the episode’s inevitably repetitive storyline. Star Trek: The Next Generation managed to play around with such repetition and allow it to build up the crew’s increasingly unnerving sense of déjà vu, but the most Discovery can seem to do is skip through or just add a bit more to what we’ve already seen before. By contrast, Burnham’s weariness simply doesn’t make much sense in light of her never actually remembering all the repeats. But in general, Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad is a charming interlude before the storm that seems ready to hit next week.