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Star Trek Discovery: Choose Your Pain

Season 1, Episode 5
Written by Kemp Powers
Directed by Lee Rose

“The more you hurt someone the less helpful they become.”

Perhaps the easiest way to define humanity, or at least humaneness, is to delineate what constitutes a lack of humanity or humaneness. Psychopaths lack some of the commonalities that thread throughout the rest of the human population. Though definitions vary, consensus suggests that lack of empathy and lack of remorse equals psychopathy. Empathy consists of the rather unfortunate ability to feel the pain of another. Remorse makes people regret their actions because they are wrong, rather than because they get found out or punished. In Star Trek terms, empathy provides the meatier theme. Humans historically struggle to empathize with people who are different from themselves. Empathize with someone you love? Easy. Empathize with someone who looks different, lives differently, or even just doesn’t hold the same opinions? Not so much. In living proof that great minds think alike, this problem of empathy materializes on both Star Trek: Discovery and The Orville this week.

On Discovery, the much-loved character Harry Mudd from the original Star Trek series voices a pretty compelling and scathing criticism of the Federation’s mandate to boldly go where no one has gone before. He says it really means go and set up a colony, even if there’s already other species there. He castigates Captain Lorca for this, and blames the Klingon war not so much on any single incident, but on generalized Federation arrogance that humans can go wherever they want and set things up the way they want them. On The Orville, the crew comes across a race of aliens who believe that every other being in the universe is inferior to them. They not only believe this like it was a religion, it is their religion.

This willingness to impose human will on other beings develops even further this week on Discovery with the treatment of Ripper. Burnham knows that the ship’s spore drive is hurtful and harmful to Ripper. Its pain haunts her dreams, turning them into nightmares. She voices her concerns to no avail.

Lorca attends a meeting with the Admiral who informs him that Ripper — in fact his whole species — has just become the most important commodity in the universe. Ripper’s kind happens to be very rare. Starfleet doesn’t want Lorca using the spore drive without authorization until they can locate and secure enough zippers to supply many more ships and fuel the war.

Immediately after that meeting, the Klingons attack Lorca’s shuttle and kidnap him. That leaves Saru in charge, so he promptly looks up on Wikipedia how to be a captain. He examines the service records of all of his idols and decides he needs to be a hardass in order to succeed. So when Burnham and Stamets observe Ripper deteriorating after every jump and express reservations about his ability to continue to move the ship, Saru overrules them. With the glaring example of the death of Captain Georgiou driving him, Saru determines to rescue Lorca no matter the cost to Ripper.

Not only do Burnham and Stamets discover that Ripper cannot bear the strain of jumps, they suspect that Ripper may be sentient. In other words, Ripper may be intelligent. He may even be capable of empathy. The show certainly tests the empathy reflexes of the audience, for the jump that takes the ship in pursuit of Lorca’s captors causes Ripper to scream, writhe in pain, and collapse. The poor creature then undergoes something that looks like space critter exsanguination. It loses all its fluids and curls up in a ball, in a kind of coma called crypto-biosis.

For her efforts to save Ripper from further torture, Saru banishes Burnham to her quarters. This does not end the dissent, though. Stamets and Tilly learn that they need a sentient copilot to navigate the spore matrix that permeates the universe. Rather than subject Ripper to another torturous jump, Stamets takes Ripper’s place in the chamber. He undergoes what must be the ultimate empathy experience. He certainly feels Ripper’s pain; in fact, it puts him in critical condition.

Speaking of pain, the Klingons holding Lorca devise a unique way to keep their prisoners from feeling empathy for one another and thereby potentially forming a unified defense. Periodically the guards enter the prison cell and instruct a prisoner to choose his pain. What they mean by this is that each prisoner gets to choose whether he himself suffers or one of his cellmates. Not surprisingly, they usually choose someone else. When faced with the choice of feeling pain or just feeling for someone else’s pain, it’s only human to save oneself.

Lorca finds himself on a Klingon prison ship with Ash Tyler and Harry Mudd. At first, none of the three seem like particularly sympathetic cellmates. Harry Mudd, we know from the original Star Trek series, is a rogue and a con man. Ash was captured after the Battle at the Binary Stars seven months previously. Lorca immediately suspects him of something nefarious, since nobody survives seven months of Klingon hospitality. Well, not unless they catch the eye of the female Klingon ship captain, that is. Tyler in turn suspects Lorca, since everyone on Lorca’s last ship died except him. A captain is supposed to go down with his ship, but somehow Lorca didn’t. Lorca finally explains what happened. The Klingons didn’t kill Lorca’s crew; Lorca did. When Klingons take Federation prisoners, they subject them to the most inhuman and inhumane treatment possible. Rather than subject them to that pain and degradation, Lorca killed them all. The eye injuries that plague him stem from that incident. Rather than get his eyes fixed, Lorca deals with the injury. It forces him to remember what he did. He empathized so much with the pain that his crew would endure under the Klingons that he saved them from it through death. He clings to his own physical pain in order to keep his remorse fresh.

Lorca’s mistrust of Harry Mudd proves correct. He figures out that Mudd has been feeding the Klingons information about his two cellmates. Lorca and Tyler jump the guards and stage an escape, leaving Harry Mudd behind on the prison ship.

Lorca and Tyler steal a Klingon shuttle. As Klingon ships pursue them, Saru notices that the Klingon vessels are chasing one of their own, not Discovery. He successfully beams Lorca and Tyler onto Discovery.

Saru commissions Burnham to save Ripper if she can. Putting herself in Ripper’s place, a key component of empathy, Burnham figures out that what Ripper most wants is to be free. She douses him with spores and releases him into space. This seems to help him recover from the jumps. He comes out of his coma and travels somewhere on the spore matrix, presumably far far away from humans.

Interspecies interaction fares far worse on The Orville. On that show, Captain Mercer infiltrates an alien ship in order to gain insight into their religion and thereby find a way to negotiate peaceful coexistence. Instead, he finds himself on the ship loaded with a huge bomb intended to wipe out the human colony on a nearby planet. The ship carrying the bomb also carries children, who are being inculcated with the religion that assures them that all other species are inferior. Mercer saves the colony and spares the children. But by killing all of the other adults on the ship, he has merely enforced those children’s view that humans comprise a subhuman species. Mercer’s empathy with the innocent lives of the children completely backfires. All he has done is cement a thirst for vengeance in a generation of future terrorists.

That theme of empathy may resurface on Discovery in future weeks. When Stamets took Ripper’s place in the jump chamber, it almost killed him. When he revived from the experience, he laughed hysterically. Prior to this scene, we’ve never even seen Stamets attempt a grim half-smile, let alone laugh out loud. This does not bode well. Further, Stamets assures his partner, the ship’s doctor, that he’s fine while they are brushing their teeth in front of the bathroom mirror. The good doctor leaves first, so he does not see what happens when Stamets leaves the bathroom after him. Stamets exits the room, but his reflection remains, smirking in a decidedly creepy way before it, too, turns and walks out. Prior Star Trek series have explored what happens when a human personality becomes divided. Many of Star Trek’s most memorable scenes (though possibly not the best-acted ones) depict the unhinged behavior that results when the empathetic part of a human becomes severed from the rest.

People are cruel to each other. Just imagine how cruel people could be when faced with other beings who aren’t even human. Without empathy, we are barbarians. Without empathy, advanced civilizations which develop amazing technologies like space travel are just barbarians with better weapons.

Grade: A-


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Amy Anna was raised by wolves. She spends all her time eating and watching movies while lying on the couch . Her animal totem is the velociraptor.

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