It’s difficult to talk about this week’s episode of Discovery without acknowledging Anthony Rapp’s allegations that Kevin Spacey attempted to sexually assault him when he was a 14-year-old actor on Broadway. It’s part of a recent conversation about serial predators and their network of enablers in Hollywood that feels massive and overwhelming and like the start of something wholly unprecedented, and I couldn’t help but experience “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” in the light of Rapp’s revelation.
The fact that Rapp’s Lt. Stamets is the only character aware that the entire ship is suffering from a temporal loop and has to spend countless cycles convincing his fellow crew members of the truth felt astonishingly prescient and added a profoundly poignant cast to the episode’s events. Rapp has never been better on the show than he is here — alternately wry and frustrated and fond and sorrowful as he attempts to help Burnham and Tyler come to terms with the reality of their situation as well as their connection to one another. I found myself unable to look away from his face, which was astonishingly expressive. In previous episodes, I’ve found it difficult to connect to Stamets, who came off as a paint-by-numbers grump. When he “came back wrong” after combining his genetic code with the tardigrade’s, I feared that he was about to turn into a cautionary tale, a character who forfeited his humanity for the sake of technological innovation, and the rest of the season would see him lose touch with reality and become a monster.
This may still happen! I don’t know what future plotlines hold. But this episode, at least, finds a joyful, tender thread in Stamets’ newly expanded consciousness. He’s more in touch with humanity, both within himself and in others, not less, as a result of his genetic enhancement. I’m aware the word “humanity” isn’t quite correct here, since Starfleet is about so much more than humanity. A better phrase might be a sense of the value of life and connection that extends to both nonhuman and human characters; a newfound camaraderie that is both whimsical and deadly earnest.
In this episode, the crew of the Discovery are repeatedly attacked by a vengeful Harry Mudd, who torments and kills them repeatedly before resetting a 30-minute temporal loop using a “time crystal.” We’ve seen temporal loops play out on previous Star Trek series, mostly notably in The Next Generation’s “Cause and Effects.” The crew are afraid, and in pain. They don’t know when they’re going to be hurt next. They don’t know if they’re going to be able to save themselves, or from which direction the next attack will come. Years after the alleged attempted assault, as Spacey’s star began to rise, Rapp unexpectedly saw the actor visiting the set of a movie Rapp was filming. As he told Buzzfeed News’ Adam B. Vary: “‘It started to occur to me: What am I supposed to do if I ever work with him?’ Rapp said, his voice rising. ‘What am I supposed to do? What do I do?!’”
Tonight, on Discovery, Stamets is able to save his own life and the life of his fellow crew members. He wins Burnham to his side again and again, despite telling a story she finds to be unbelievable at first blush, by telling her a secret she told him during a previous loop. Honesty and mutual confession serve to build trust, and their trust in one another enables them to beat Mudd’s game, to escape certain defeat, and deliver him to justice. It was beautiful to see, if only in fiction, someone in Stamets’ position tell the truth — a truth that is difficult and painful to accept — and to be met with belief, support, companionship, and help. I hope it happens in real life, too.
As I was attempting to write tonight’s recap, I saw that Kevin Spacey had drafted an almost-immediate response to Rapp’s interview, which boils down to the following:
1. I don’t remember trying to have sex with a 14-year-old child.
2. If I did, I’m sorry, and I was probably drunk.
3. This makes me want to address unspecified “other things” about my life, I may have guarded my privacy too closely in the past, and I’m choosing to come out as gay.
Imagine framing your response to the claim that you had once picked up and put a 14-year-old into your bed as an “opportunity” to come out. The minimization and misdirection of such a framing, the careful sidestepping of grappling with truth, the attempt to distract and redirect and change the conversation, is a catastrophic failure to reckon with reality. It is a wholly insufficient response. It lacks moral weight and imagination.
Star Trek, for all its flaws, is a franchise that is deeply committed to the moral imagination. Tonight’s episode is deeply committed to investigating possibilities, to fostering cooperation and mutuality and honesty and respect among the members of Discovery’s crew.
To hear, “You attempted to have sex with me when I was a 14-year-old child watching television at your house,” and to respond, “I am gay,” as if there is any connection between those two things, reinforces an old and hideous stereotype about the innately predatory nature of queerness. It’s an attempt to deflect the real question, which is not, “Are you gay?” but “Did you try to hurt a child?” Any attempt to conflate the two should be resoundingly and immediately rejected.
There is a beautiful moment in “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” where Lt. Stamets and Burnham slow dance in Discovery’s hallway in preparation for a later dance Burnham will have with Tyler as she attempts to convince him of the reality of their situation. Stamets encourages Burnham to investigate her own feelings for Tyler, and offers up the story of how he met his husband, Dr. Culber: Stamets had been sitting in a café on Alpha Centauri and heard a man obnoxiously humming Kasseelian opera. “I told him to stifle it or sit somewhere else,” he says. Burnham is understandably unclear on how that moment began a lifelong partnership.
“Because I told him how I really felt,” he says. “And he did the same. And we liked that about each other.”
“I’m good at honesty,” Burnham says.
This was a very good episode of Star Trek, and I’m glad to have seen it.