Welcome to Trek vs. Pop Culture, where we’ll occasionally break from our usual format to compare an episode of Trek to an episode of … something else entirely. The goal is to explore Trek’s influence on the rest of pop culture, and how it’s been influenced by the rest of pop culture, all while having a bit of fun looking at some other great shows!
*This post contains spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery, up to and including episode 7 of its first season. It also contains spoilers for the season 6 episode of The X-Files, “Monday”, but no significant spoilers for the series in general.
The X-Files – “Monday” (season 6, episode 14)
Written by Vince Gilligan & John Shiban; directed by Kim Manners; first aired in 1999
This episode begins at the end of a very bad day for Agents Mulder and Scully, as a bank robber sets off the explosives strapped to his chest, killing himself and all of his hostages, the two Agents included. But they get a do-over: Mulder wakes up at the beginning of the same day, with no memory of the hostage crisis, and relives the same bad Monday morning – leaky waterbed, angry landlord, hastily-cashed paycheque and all – that led him to that bank in the first place. He ends up there, again, and it all ends badly, again, and he wakes up on the same bad Monday morning, again. And again. And again. Aside from some deja vu here and there, Mulder, Scully, Assistant Director Skinner, and everyone else involved in the hostage situation are oblivious to the fact that they’re stuck in a time loop. Everyone except Pam, the bank robber’s girlfriend, who remembers every trip through the loop. She’s tried everything to stop this day from going so badly, with no luck so far … but is Mulder finally starting to recognize her?
Star Trek: Discovery – “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” (season 1, episode 7)
Written by Aron Eli Coleite & Jesse Alexander; directed by David M. Barrett; first aired in 2017
Michael Burnham is starting to feel more at home onboard Discovery, but the party she’s attending is definitely outside of her comfort zone … and so is her budding romance with Lt. Tyler. But she’ll get many, many tries at both – whether she knows it or not – when Tyler’s and Captain Lorca’s old cellmate, Harry Mudd, uses a “time crystal” to set time on a 30-minute loop. Mudd plans to use his infinite do-overs to learn Discovery’s weaknesses, figure out its spore drive technology, commandeer the ship, and sell it to the Klingons, all while taking revenge on Lorca by killing him as many times, in as many ways, as possible. But whatever it is about the spore drive that has changed Lt. Stamets’ personality so dramatically has also made him aware that time is repeating, and he seeks out Burnham’s help to stop Mudd. In the process, Burnham learns a little about relationships, and a lot about the lengths she’d go to in order to save Tyler’s life.
After “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” first aired, a common response online went something like this: ‘Really, another time-loop episode?’ This seemed strange to me, since I could only think of two other episodes of Trek to feature an on-screen time-loop: TNG’s “Cause and Effect”, and Voyager’s “Coda”. (If I’ve missed any, let me know in the comments.) But three time-loop episodes or so, out of the hundreds of episodes that have aired across all of Trek, hardly sounds like lazy repetition to me. Honestly, for the purposes of this blog, I was disappointed that there weren’t more, since I needed an episode to compare to “Magic”, and I’d already written about the other two! But online accusations that “Magic” was simply ‘ripping off’ 1992’s “Cause and Effect” seem especially unfair, given that the time-loop concept has been explored in any number of other TV shows, movies, books, and games, both before and after “Cause and Effect”, from the classic Twilight Zone episodes of the 50s and 60s, to the Nintendo 64 game The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask in the year 2000, to Edge of Tomorrow (or Live, Die, Repeat, or whatever that movie ended up being called) in 2014. Even Groundhog Day, the film whose name has become pretty much synonymous with time-loop stories – ‘hey, they’re doing a Groundhog Day episode’ – came out in 1993, the year after “Cause and Effect”. Was Groundhog Day ripping off “Cause and Effect”? Was “Cause and Effect” ripping off The Twilight Zone? Or is it just that there’s something so intriguing about the idea, so compelling, that it’s bound to pop up from time to time, as it’s used by different creators with different things to say? And maybe it feels like Trek has done a lot of time-loop episodes because these stories are so widespread and memorable in pop culture in general.
What is it that makes the concept as compelling and memorable as it is? My guess is, like many of the most tried-and-true story concepts, time-loop stories manage to be both specific and widely relatable at the same time. The concept is incredibly versatile, allowing us to ask questions ranging from the broadly philosophical (Does free will exist? Can people change?) to the sociological (How do we break unhealthy habits? How do we build healthy relationships?), or just sit back and enjoy the trial-and-error problem-solving. But regardless of the specifics, who can’t relate to both the fantasy, and the nightmare, of reliving a particular moment in our lives until we get it right? Time travel stories in general capitalize on the most universal, relatable fact of life – that time is a one-way street, with no parking allowed – and time-loop stories specifically capture, and invert, the bittersweet-ness of that fact. Bad moments in real life can’t be re-lived and fixed, it’s true … but at least they end.
In “Monday”, The X-Files certainly seizes on that ‘careful what you wish for’ element of the time-loop trope. Pam is presented to us as a tragic figure; by the time we meet her, she’s already been through the loop many, many times, and has long since crossed over from viewing it as an opportunity to seeing it as a curse. When we fantasize about reliving our bad moments, it’s always with the implicit assumption that our own actions could change that moment. But Pam is living through a nightmarish inversion of that fantasy, as she does everything she can think of to keep Bernard, her boyfriend, from blowing up that bank – including, as she says, drugging his coffee – only to watch things end the same way every time, regardless of her actions, as if it were fated.
The notion of fate is discussed directly by Mulder and Scully, when they think there are no higher stakes involved than Mulder being late for a meeting. It’s a great, fun scene, of the sort that often makes up my favorite parts of any given episode of The X-Files – philosophical musings which could easily have ended up wooden and heavy-handed if not for the clever, self-aware writing, and the now-legendary chemistry between Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny:
Mulder: Scully, did you ever have one of those days you wish you could just rewind and start all over again from the beginning?
Scully: Yes. Frequently. But I mean, who’s to say that if you did rewind it and start over again that it wouldn’t end up exactly the same way?
Mulder: So you think it’s all just fate? We have no free will?
Scully: No, I think that we’re free to be the people that we are, good, bad, or indifferent. I think that it’s our character that determines our fate.
Mulder: And all the rest is just preordained? I don’t buy that. There’s too many variables, too many forks in the road. […] Free will. With every choice, you change your fate.
Scully: Then, let’s change yours. I will deposit your cheque, you gather your files, go to Skinner’s office, give your report, before he takes it out on both of us.
This exchange is interesting, because while they differ on details, both agents’ views on fate vs. free will – Mulder’s belief that our choices change our fate, and Scully’s belief in character as fate – seem to suggest a level of individual agency that conflicts with the tragic ending of this episode (as foreshadowed by the fact that Scully’s choice to go to the bank instead of Mulder changes very little). But it’s not just this episode; many an episode of The X-Files – the typical episode, I’d argue – comes to a tragic ending, on which the actions of Mulder and Scully often have very little effect. It’s one of the things I find most striking now, when I go back and watch episodes from the series’ original run. Where conventional storytelling logic dictates that the actions of the lead characters should drive the plot, The X-Files stays true to its name by allowing its FBI agents to often simply be witnesses to the strange, often tragic events documented in Mulder’s cabinet of X-Files.
TNG’s “Cause and Effect” aired 7 years before “Monday”, and probably provided at least some inspiration to X-Files writers Vince Gilligan and John Shiban; both episodes kill off their main cast in an explosion before the opening credits even roll, after all. But where the time-loop in “Cause and Effect” gives the entire cast a chance to gradually realize what’s happening and change their “fate”, “Monday” features a time-loop centred on one person who is solely aware of what’s happening, more like Groundhog Day. But unlike Bill Murray’s weatherman, Pam isn’t presented to us as having any obvious lesson to learn, any necessary character development which will end the loop. The failed heist around which the loop centers was Bernard’s fault, not hers, and aside from the effect she gradually has on Mulder, her attempts to stop Bernard almost seem like they’re being deliberately thwarted by whatever forces trapped her in the loop in the first place, with Mulder and Scully serving not to help her solve the loop, but only to end it. Murray’s weatherman experiences the time-loop as a sort of purgatory, but for Pam, as Mulder says, “It’s hell”, and it only ends with her death.
Where “Monday” follows the X-Files tradition of documenting a tragic, arguably fated story through the eyes of its lead characters, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” follows the Trek tradition of forcing its characters to work together to solve a problem, through discussion, reasoning, and trial and error. While Stamets is, like Pam, the only character conscious of the time-loop, his attempts to change things aren’t thwarted by fate, as hers are. The first time we see the loop reset, we already, almost immediately, see Stamets working to change things, by telling Burnham and Tyler about the “space whale” that Mudd has used to hide his ship. And they act on this information, responding differently to Mudd’s arrival on the ship than they did before, only failing to stop Mudd because he’s changed his own approach, beaming directly from the whale to Engineering. Still, the episode makes it clear right from those early scenes that what Stamets does differently on each trip through the loop can change the outcome of Mudd’s attack. He fails many times, yes, but not because he’s fated to fail. Mudd simply has the advantage of learning from his own many trips through the loop, as, we eventually learn, he has done before, robbing a Betazoid bank by simply trying – and failing! – so many times that, unlike Bernard in “Monday”, he eventually learned how not to fail. Mudd’s own trial-and-error cycle mirrors that of Stamets and Burnham; to paraphrase Mulder, with every different choice they changed their fates.
That cycle of trial and error can be seen not only in Stamets’ attempts to save the ship, but in Burnham’s attempts to express her feelings to Tyler. Again, “Magic” is built around the idea that nothing is fated, that nearly any problem can be solved with enough time and cooperation, and that idea is cleverly applied to Burnham’s private life; Stamets needs her to get information from Tyler faster than he could, and that means he needs Burnham to communicate more effectively with Tyler. But Stamets’ advice to Burnham never feels like only a means to an end. Stamets’ dancing in the hallway with Burnham, and his story of how he met and fell in love with Dr. Culber, are great, genuine moments, some of my favorites in Discovery so far. Trek’s focus on collaborative problem-solving is, I think, a big part of what drew me to the original Star Trek and The Next Generation when I was young, and what kept me interested in the franchise as I got older. But where TOS and TNG tended to focus that collaboration and problem-solving on the plot of each episode, I’m excited to see Discovery applying it to character development as well. (And interestingly, Stamets’ advice to Burnham – “Never hide who you are” – almost seems to reflect Scully’s claim that “It’s our character that determines our fate”, while Burnham’s recounting of what she’s learned – “Just as repetition reinforces repetition, change begets change” – might reflect Mulder’s belief that “With every choice, you change your fate”.)
And if “Magic” commits, in more ways than one, to the classic Trek philosophy that we are stronger and better off together, then the choice of Harry Mudd as this episode’s antagonist seems significant. Personally, I had misgivings about Mudd appearing on Discovery when we first saw him in its fifth episode, “Choose your Pain”. I liked Rainn Wilson’s portrayal of the character in that episode, but I was nervous as to what the show would do with him from there, given that the episodes of TOS in which he previously appeared – “Mudd’s Women” and “I, Mudd” – have not aged well, to put it mildly (I originally considered comparing “Magic” to one of those episodes, but found them to be so rooted in 1960s sensibilities, regarding gender particularly, that I just honestly wouldn’t know how to compare them to a show that aired in 2017). But I was pleasantly surprised by his appearance in “Magic”. Not only was Wilson incredibly entertaining – his delivery of “Computer, pump up the volume” makes me laugh out loud every time I hear it – but he is, in retrospect, the perfect villain for an episode so focused on the need for collaboration.
What many Trek fans find compelling about the character, I think, no matter how dated his TOS episodes might be, is the way he represents the concept of ‘the final frontier’ in a way we rarely see in Trek, despite how thoroughly that phrase is associated with the franchise. He’s the lone space pirate, lying and scamming his way through sectors of space dominated by large governing bodies like the Federation and the Klingon Empire, and there’s something romantic about that. What I like about Mudd’s portrayal in “Magic”, though, is the way it subtly, gradually strips some of that romanticism from the character. By the episode’s end, we see that the biggest advantage his time crystal gives him is not his infinite do-overs, but the way it prevents the crew from working together against him, since none of them, in theory, can remember past loops. Once Stamets is finally able to get everyone working together, they have the advantage, because no matter how romantic it might sound to be alone against the universe, two (or more) heads are always better than one. As much as Mudd learned from his trips through the loop, he was, like Burnham, stuck in a routine – killing Lorca dozens of times, for instance – which made him easier to stop, all because, unlike Burnham, he had no one to help him recognize that and change it. If Pam’s story in “Monday” is a typically X-Files-esque tragedy because she’s unable to change anything herself, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” has a typically Trek-ish hopeful ending because the crew of the Discovery, unlike Mudd, have friends who can help.
Next time, at long last, Trek vs. Trek will take its first trip to the Mirror Universe, when we compare the TOS classic “Mirror, Mirror” to Deep Space Nine’s “Crossover”!