“As days go, this is a weird one.” — Star Trek Discovery Review — Magic To Make The Sanest Man Go Mad

Star Trek: Discovery, Episode 7
Magic To Make The Sanest Man Go Mad
Posted by Clinton
Mudd in Engineering
source: tillysfeelings.tumblr.com/

This episode of Discovery has been described as just another rip-off of “Groundhog Day,” or a rehash of the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode, “Cause and Effect.” But that would imply that all time loop stories are the same. Can that be true? Well, yes and no. After all, they are all time loop stories, but it turns out there are variations on the theme.

To demonstrate this, I decided to look at five time loop stories to show how they compared in setup, execution and resolution. There are dozens of stories I could have used as examples. Not only are there several loop movies and TV shows, there are also novels, short stories and more. But, for purposes of this review, I concentrated on three well-known movies, bookended by two “Star Trek” episodes. The five stories are, in order of premier date:

  1. Star Trek: The Next Generation. “Cause and Effect” (first aired 23 March, 1992)
  2. Groundhog Day (premiered 12 February, 1993)
    Inspired by the 1987 novel “Replay”
  3. “Edge of Tomorrow” (premiered 6 June,2014)
    Based on the 2004 novel “All You Need Is Kill”
  4. “Happy Death Day” (13 October, 2017)
  5. Star Trek: Discovery, “Magic To Make The Sanest Man Go Mad” (first streamed 29 October, 2017)

Be forewarned — if you have not seen any of these programs, there will be spoilers.

“How did it happen? How did we get there?”
— Captain Jean Luc Picard, “Cause and Effect”

Enterprise spins in space and explodes.

It all starts with a bang.

Or an alarm clock.

How a time loop is initiated varies wildly from story to story. In “Cause and Effect,” the catalyst is revealed to us at the end of the first act: the crew of the Enterprise encounters a “highly localized distortion of the space-time continuum.” We know the “how” even before the crew figures it out.

Sometimes the loop is created by an antagonist for the purpose of using it against our heroes. In “Edge of Tomorrow,” invading aliens, the Mimics, create the loop to stay one step ahead of Earth’s defense forces. They appear to know what is about to happen, but that is simply because they have already experienced it. In “Magic To Make The Sanest Man Go Mad,” Harry Mudd uses alien time technology to create the loop in order to learn the secrets of the U.S.S. Discovery.

In some cases, however, the loop’s origins are never actually explained. We have no idea how Phil Connors (“Groundhog Day”) or Tree Gelbman (“Happy Death Day”) became ensnared in their time loops. Was it the act of a higher power? The universe? We never get that answer. (Although “Happy Death Day” director Christopher Landon says he knows the answer and would use that information as the foundation of a possible sequel.).

“We have been here before. All of us. I cannot be the only person who recognizes this!”
— Lieutenant Paul Stamets, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”

If our heroes simply kept repeating the same actions again and again, there would be no story. Well, at least not an interesting one. They must be aware that a loop is occurring. Again, this varies from story to to story.

In “Cause and Effect,” the entire crew slowly becomes aware of feelings of déjà vu (or, as Worf calls it, “nib’poH”). The previous loops are leaking through to the current one, providing a tiny window into the situation. This type of collective recognition is rare in a time loop story.

Typically only one or two characters are aware of the cycling of time. Understandably, they make attempts to convince others that time is repeating. The rub is that, even if they are believed, when the cycle starts anew, they must start the indoctrination all over again. Stamets feels this frustration in “Magic,” He looks and sounds more haggard with each successive retelling of the situation to Burnham. Even Mudd expresses his boredom with repeating his demands.

“Edge of Tomorrow” has a slight variation on this theme. Sergeant Rita Vrataski had the ability to see and even affect the loop, but loses her connection before we first meet her in our story. She then trains William Cage, another human who has gained the same type of powers she once possessed.

Edge of Tomorrow

“There isn’t any time. Or rather, there is time. Too much time.”
— Lieutenant Paul Stamets, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”

If a loop took years to cycle, it might be difficult for our characters to recognize it. Imagine a cycle that started at birth and ended at the dusk of a long, full life. No, the loops in our stories are much shorter. In addition, they almost all have one thing in common — they are reset by the death of our main character(s).

In “Cause and Effect,” the Enterprise explodes, beginning and resetting the loop. We are taken back one day before the encounter with the space-time distortion. In “Edge of Tomorrow,” when Cage dies, the loop repeats. Again, it is to a point a day before his initial death .However, in this case, the longer (or shorter) he lives, the longer (or shorter) the total loop. One can speculate that the reason the loop is so long in these cases is because the person or persons aware of the loop must accomplish a great deal before time resets. Conversely, Tree in “Happy Death Day” and Phil in “Groundhog Day” are only sent back to the morning of the same day. They are not out to save a crew or a world, but only themselves.

The loop Harry Mudd must deal with is the shortest of all, only 30 minutes. He finds it frustrating, as he must blow up Discovery every half hour to maintain the loop. It makes his exploration of the ship slow and tedious.

I will note here that of the five examples mentioned, only “Happy Death Day” attempts to show the end of one loop fading into to the beginning of the next. It gives visual form to the idea that this is a never ending cycle for our protagonist.

Death Day

“…the only way is to get Mudd to reset time himself.”
— Michael Burnham, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”

Everyone wants out of the loop. Right? Yes, eventually they do, but this can be a conditional statement.

Clearly, the crew of the Enterprise wants out as quickly as possible. They have to devise a way to prevent the explosion that keeps pushing them into the loop. Throughout the episode they are on a clear march toward that goal.

Phil Connors may be seen as marching toward a goal, but the journey becomes filled with side quests. In fact, he reaches a point where exiting the loop no longer appears to be his ultimate task.

But sometimes it is not that simple, even if our hero knows the way out. For example, while in what could potentially be the exit cycle of each of their loops, Tree and Burnham choose to kill themselves to reset their timelines. Why? Their respective companions, Carter and Tyler were killed during the cycle in progress, and exiting back to normal time would have meant that those deaths were permanent.

Likewise, in “Edge of Tomorrow,” Cage has every reason to stay looping for however long it takes to accomplish his goal. His exit is not voluntary or desired. In fact, it threatens mankind’s survival.

“Let’s see if we can find out how long we’ve been in this causality loop.”
— Captain Jean Luc Picard, “Cause and Effect”

Groundhog Day

Time, of course, is reset each time the loop begins again. As far as we can tell, that reset covers a wide area of space-time, with one exception — “Cause and Effect.” Remember, the Enterprise encountered a “highly localized” distortion.

We are rarely given an exact number of times a loop occurs, but sometimes we have clues. Mudd had to reset his loop every 30 minutes and it appears it was reset somewhere around 60 times. That would mean that pat of the universe was continually resetting for some 30 straight hours..

Tree tried various methods to discover who is killing her on her birthday. She relived the day somewhere in the area of 16 to 20 times. However, each time the loop repeated she carried forward internal damage from her previous deaths. Her days were numbered, even though each was the exact same day.

We don’t know how many times Phil repeated his Groundhog Day. But director/screenplay co-author Harold Ramis said that, because of the number of skills Phil acquired, it was in the area of 30 to 40 years.

That would seem to best “Cause and Effect,” where the crew determines they were in the time displacement for 17.4 days. However, the U.S.S. Bozeman, which was caught in the same rift with the Enterprise and was freed at the same time, had been in the cycle for 90 years.

The count for “Edge of Tomorrow” is virtually incalculable. We never see anything close to the number of incidents where Cage resets time. Nor do we see any of the times Vrataski turned back the clock while she possessed the power to do so.

Never get stuck in a time loop if you left the stove on. Or maybe that’s totally fine.

“Stamets told me that in a previous timeline, that we, um — danced.”
— Michael Burnham, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”

Ultimately, there should be a lesson learned from, or victory achieved by being stuck in a time loop. The repetition of events should inform, reinforce or change something.

In “Cause and Effect,” the crew really learns nothing — other than the solution to the problem. The crew of the U.S.S. Bozeman is sure to be profoundly affected by a jump of 90 years, but they are not the protagonists in this story. At best, Captain Picard and company have discovered an area of space that others should avoid.

Conversely, Phil Connors learns to be a much better person by the end of “Groundhog Day.” He has grown emotionally and fallen in love. He has also added an untold number of skills to his resume.

Tree also learns to be a better person; she is kinder to those around her. She also finds herself reconnecting with her father, as well as with a young man she had too readily dismissed.

“Edge of Tomorrow” ends with the victory of Earth over an alien invasion and a final reset of time, sending Cage back to a point where all those who interacted with him, including Vrataski, have not yet died in the war, nor will they die. Only Cage has knowledge of the reset.

Burnham and Stamets dancing

Aboard the Discovery, exit from the loop is a bit more open ended. Tyler and Burnham are aware of their feelings for each other, but are somewhat at a reset. Stamets must relay to them what transpired in previous loops — their first dance, their first kiss. We also are left with the question as to what may happen now that Harry Mudd actually gained knowledge of how the Discovery’s spore drive works.

What does it all mean? If someone tells you this episode of “Discovery,” or any other story, is just a rip-off of “Groundhog Day,” you can know that that is probably not exactly true.

— Explosion —

What does it all mean? If someone tells you this episode of “Discovery,” or any other story, is just a rip-off of “Groundhog Day,” you can know that that is probably not exactly true.

Next episode: “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum”


Random Thoughts and Observations:

  • I cannot identify the piece of classical music Harry Mudd pipes onto the bridge. At first I thought it might be from Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet,” but that does not appear to be the case. If you know what it is, contact me!
  • Like others, I question the use of songs from the 1970’s and early 2000’s as party music for the crew. Maybe it’s a fad at this point in the future.
  • The crew must realize that they have let someone with knowledge of how the spore drive works leave the ship in the company of an arms dealer. Right?
  • Discovery is in desperate need of a jogging track.
  • Count of others who have been inside Lorca’s “secret” lab is now up to five. Six, if you count Ripper.