Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Clear as Mudd

I'm challenging myself.

I must be because why the hell would I want to write something about one of the characters that infuriates me the most with Star Trek?

An individual that I hold with the same distain as Vedek Bareil, Lwaxana Troi and Voyager's character assassination of Q?

Because Harcourt Fenton Mudd is where it all started for me. Now I can stand a decent Star Trek comedy episode and who can't stomach The Trouble with Tribbles just once more? But there's a time and place in which Star Trek's more light-hearted moments work but in relation to Harry Mudd it couldn't be further from the truth.

Not content with him being inflicted on us the once with Mudd's Women, we were subjected to I, Mudd the following season and then again with the Animated Series' Mudd's Passion. Jesus H Christ could we not be spared from this?

I have no beef at all with the actor Roger C Carmel who took control of the character for all his live action and animated outings in the '60's and '70's but the stories were awful and are some of the most cringe-inducing works of Star Trek ever. People might complain about the Kelvin Timeline or how Discovery will kill Star Trek but they seem to forget the original take on the character and I for one still find them episodes I would willingly skip.

For some unknown reason when it comes to characters with some form of Irish connection as is hinted at with Mudd's accent, the writing staff seem to chuck all reason out of the nearest window and horribly dumb down our neighbours. I refer you to Up the Long Ladder and the even more disgraceful Fair Haven and all matters relating to them. 

So to Mudd and the idea behind him seems to be fairly sound however he comes across as a bumbling idiot that somehow has the mind of master criminal or a wheeler-dealer dependent on the scene and the situation. 

My problem with The Original Series is that aside from the magnificent The Trouble with Tribbles I find the comedy aspect of the show to be lost on me by a fair margin. It just ain’t - nor was it ever - funny. I find that in most respects Star Trek as a franchise falls flat when it comes to comedic scripting because the writers are so focused on a more serious and relevant story that stays true to their characters (I do reserve a special place for The Magnificent Ferengi).

Carmel's Mudd makes Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise look dumb. His methods are pantomime, his reasoning lax and his expectations high for such questionable actions. In Mudd's Women the use of the Venus drug (and later the placebo version) covers up a bad deal that he hoped would stay concealed until well after the deal is done. He also travels by an alias that the Enterprise computer repeatedly sees as false under questioning. It's all a bit bumbling but even then, the twist around the looks of Mudd's women is suitably dark even if the rest of the story is lighter-hearted. Hell, could it get any more obvious than beauty being only skin deep?

Now step forward to 2017 and we have a new Harcourt Fenton Mudd. Thing is, this one in no way pisses me off. In fact it's a new dawn for the character and one that makes him more realistic and believable than that of Carmel.

Appearing first in Choose Your Pain this is a younger, less Irish stereotype and seemingly more calculating Mudd. While the older Carmel Mudd involves himself in tomfoolery and frivolous activity this version, this earlier version, is more devious, more controlled in some respects although that mischievous air still exists. Watch for example his "relationship" withe the bug, Stuart or his blatant disregard for the welfare of anyone but himself when it comes to choosing his pain.

Harry in I, Mudd was equally selfish seeking to replace himself on the android planet with the crew of the Enterprise and make good his escape but his over confidence there as with later during the repeated timeloops of Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad is his downfall as the crews of the Enterprise and laterly (or earlier?!) use his own methods and tools against him to bring about his comeuppance. 

Rainn Wilson offers some of the ham that made up the bulk of Roger C Carmel's portrayal but makes his version that much more layered. While he's still not bothered about doing the right thing by anyone other than himself and his own skin, Wilson's Mudd seems to have more to lose and is striking deals anywhere to save his own skin. His older self however seems to play it a little closer to the edge with perhaps less certain results. 

Carmel was suitable for the time and just as Discovery has "grown up" for 2017 so has the character of Harcourt Fenton Mudd. I did think it was an odd choice to bring into the latest iteration of the franchise but bizarrely Kurtzman, Sullivan and co have made it work and work in the finest of ways because you can buy into the real tragedy of the character especially when you see the conclusion of his second Discovery appearance. Carmel offered a charismatic rogue but without the darkness and hint of malice that you can see in Wilson's take. The latter will give up anything for his own survival and preservation but perhaps 

In both cases from Choose Your Pain and Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad it feels that nothing can go wrong for the trader. How could he possibly come out as the loser when he has the apparent backing/ear of the Klingons either as his captors or as his potential buyer for the Discovery?

He is also a lot more driven and vengeful than in his later, The Original Series years with a desire to defeat and destroy Lorca for leaving him to rot in the Klingon jail cell. His encounters with Kirk may be less angered because of age and wisdom but it feels as though he underestimates Kirk while at the same time being portrayed as less intelligent than the revamped Discovery version who is able to deceive and take down a Crossfield Class starship by learning and re-learning more about the craft during multiple timeloops.

Wilson's Mudd is more calculating, devious and self-obsessed/dependant than his older self and unless there's some massive revelation coming in season 1.5 or 2 I can't see how these two can be reconciled as the same character.

The Wilson Mudd fits the darker tones of Discovery perfectly and I have to now admit that the ending of Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad and the reintroduction of Stella is a stroke of genius. In I, Mudd the character was verging on unbelievable even if it was an android recreation that Harry had most likely accentuated all of her character traits. Katherine Barrell is nothing like her older mechanical interpretation, besotted with the rogue trader but yet seeming to have a hold on him that frightens Harry to his very core. Is her demeanour here a show? Probably is and it also echoes a trait of Mudd's from his The Original Series in that his outward persona is about 95% bravado hiding a deeply insecure core once he is without control of a situation.

In fact, watch back on all four occasions we have encountered Mudd in live action Star Trek and once the situation is diffused he seems to lose the plot and become subservient or out of personal control. In this way it's nice that there are at least some parallels between the two interpretations of the character almost 50 years apart.

In Discovery, Mudd has become much less the one dimensional comic villain and more a fragment that contributes to the whole of the ongoing Klingon arc. His role will probably be explained more in the next half of the first season but already we have a character who does not seem to have been fully opened up. His skills in these "earlier" years are apparently much more impressive than those during his two head-to-heads with Kirk and the Enterprise and I think it suggests that Mudd is a certifiable genius who has just chosen the wrong path. After all he can communicate with bugs, has a clear photographic memory allowing him to continually absorb more information as he learns how to operate Discovery and is a clever negotiator since he managed to be freed from a Klingon prison; in no way do I think he escaped just because of the difficulty encountered by Lorca and Tyler when they made their attempt.

Will Discovery explore some of the elements listed on his file as shown (above) in Mudd's Women? Certainly that psychiatric treatment intrigues but was it before or after what we have seen in the latest series? 

Rainn Wilson is, for me, the stronger version of the Mudd character in Star Trek. It feels more developed and so it should. Back in the 1960's this was a one-off villain of the week but now in 2017/18 he's a fully fleshed out part of something bigger and those pink flannel shirts just won't cut it....

Star Trek Discovery returns in 2018 - read our full series of episode reviews right here to bring yourself up to date.

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