In “Context is for Kings,” Star Trek: Discovery does several interesting things, but some of the fundamental problems with the show’s premise and execution are on display as well. My appraisal of last week’s two-part series premiere as a prologue to the actual series is confirmed; though there are some familiar faces on the Discovery, there’s a significant difference in tone, content and style from last week. This is a much more Trek-y episode, structurally, than either of the previous two, which should please longtime fans of the franchise, but the strong shift from last week’s introduction and the necessity of reintroducing Burnham’s new circumstances, introducing some all-new characters, and setting up the rest of the season-long arc makes this hour feel like a pilot episode all over again. It’s still, overall, promising, but it’s also not quite as cohesive or compelling as the first two episodes were.
The episode picks up six months after Michael Burnham has been sentenced to life imprisonment, and she’s already infamous. The conflict with the Klingons has continued in the intervening six months, and the Federation and Starfleet are apparently fully focused on the war effort. During what appears to be a routine prisoner transfer, the shuttle Burnham is on with three other prisoners runs into some trouble and is picked up in the tractor beam of a brand new, state-of-the-art science ship, the Discovery under the command of Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs). When Burnham is basically conscripted into service on the Discovery, ostensibly until the shuttle she arrived on is repaired, she finds that her past has followed her here. She’s reunited with Saru (now Lorca’s First Officer) and another officer she served with on the Shenzhou, and things are awkward, but pretty much all reactions to Burnham range between distrust and hostility; she’s widely blamed for the war with the Klingons and the thousands of casualties at the Battle at the Binary Stars.
Sensibly, Burnham’s strategy is to keep her head down. It’s obvious that she’s still consumed with guilt and grief over the consequences of her decisions and actions on the Shenzhou, and she insists several times to Captain Lorca and to Saru that she wants to return to her imprisonment where she belongs. It’s also obvious that no one Burnham meets is willing to forget the Shenzhou either; even Burnham’s roommate, the sunny-dispositioned Cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) turns cold at the mention of Michael’s name. All the same, Burnham finds herself intrigued by the work being done aboard the Discovery. It’s the largest science ship ever built, with space to have hundreds of projects working at once, all bent on discovering, inventing or refining some new technology that will help the Federation win out against the Klingons. Burnham is assigned to work under Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), who is doing some kind of probably-mad-science experiment involving fungus and quantum mechanics.
Stamets is working in tandem with a close colleague on another ship, the Glenn, but whatever they are up to goes very wrong, knocking out communications with the Glenn and sending Stamets with an away team—including Burnham—to find out what went wrong. When they arrive on the Glenn, they find the place full of mangled corpses that have been twisted and torn apart by something that looks like a giant tardigrade, which they then have to escape from. It’s Burnham’s quick thinking and knowledge of ship architecture that lets her distract the monster so Stamets and the others can get back to their shuttle, but what I loved best about this sequence was Burnham reciting lines from Lewis Carroll to herself as she crawls through the ship. It’s a detail that works nicely on its own as an indicator of an interesting whimsical streak in an otherwise highly logical and grounded-seeming character, but it’s also a neat Easter egg for serious Trek fans, who may remember that Amanda Grayson was a fan of Lewis Carroll in the animated series.
In any case, the team makes it back to the Discovery, minus one redshirt (sadly difficult to identify with these new uniforms); the Glenn is destroyed; and Burnham has earned herself the offer of a permanent (presumably) place on the ship. She’s skeptical of Lorca’s motives, however. Stamets, an academic, called the captain a warmonger, and Burnham has drawn her own conclusions about what the Discovery’s mission may be. For all that her actions helped to foment this war with the Klingons, Burnham still believes in the more peaceful mission of Starfleet and doesn’t want to help develop weapons, especially when she suspects that Lorca’s goals are somewhat outside the bounds of what would be strictly considered legal. He insists, however, that they aren’t working on a weapon but on a new method of near-instantaneous travel using the power of Stamets’ spores, and, in the end, Burnham is convinced. She’s fascinated by the work and hoping for a chance at redemption, and that’s enough to overcome her distrust of Lorca and his motives.
And she should be distrustful of Lorca. His “context is for kings” speech, in which he pontificates about the importance of knowing when and how to break rules is a giant red flag. Also, the creepy lab where he’s keeping that tardigrade monster doesn’t exactly seem like it’s totally on the up and up, either.
- Lorca has a pet tribble on his desk.
- It’s not clear so far exactly what Cadet Tilly’s “special needs” are supposed to be. While she specifically cites allergies and a tendency to snore, it also seems like we’re supposed to understand her as being on the autism spectrum. Her tics and social strangeness read as something more than simple nervousness. So far, she seems like a sensitive portrayal of an autistic character, and I like that she’s ambitious, intelligent and seems to be cool under pressure. She does well on the Glenn, anyway. I’ll be interested to see what more expert-on-autism viewers have to say about this portrayal of disability, though.
- Saru is probably the second most interesting character on the show after Burnham. I loved his bowl of blueberries. I’m curious to find out what he was reacting to at the end of the episode when his danger-sensing frill thingies stood up. Was he reacting to the tardigrade being brought aboard or to Burnham not leaving?
- Commander Landry is played by Rekha Sharma, who was the cylon Tory in Battlestar Galactica.
- I despise Rent, so I thought I would hate Anthony Rapp as Stamets, but I kind of like him? The academic pressed to adapt his research for war is an interesting character through which to explore the tension between Starfleet’s ideals and the reality of their doubling as military forces.
- I was really hopeful that we’d see more of Georgiou in flashbacks, but that wasn’t the case this week.