REVIEW: “Context Is for Kings”
Star Trek: Discovery Season 1, Episode 3 – Debuted Sunday October 1st
Written by Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts & Craig Sweeny, story Bryan Fuller & Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts
Directed by Akiva Goldsman
The third episode of Star Trek: Discovery effectively delivered a more traditional Star Trek pilot. Many of the main characters – along with their various foibles – are deftly introduced along with the primary ship for the show, the USS Discovery itself. While much of the episode is dedicated to in exposition, which is typical of a pilot, “Context Is for Kings” offered up some intriguing character and plot mysteries that will hopefully pay off later in the season.
With just a few light moments, the tone of the show continues to take itself a bit too seriously. The problems with pacing and stilted dialog that troubled the premiere were not as evidenced in episode three. And there were also plenty of moments of delight and Trek references and details to require a second viewing for easter egg hunting. Now that the show has started more properly, Discovery feels more Star Trek and the desire to see more only grows stronger.
Con Air Shuttle
“Context Is for Kings” starts with a six-month time jump with Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) serving the life sentence she received at the end of the premiere. She finds herself on a prison transport which runs into trouble and things only gets worse when the pilot decides to go take a walk in space and loses her tether. However, this all leaves Burnham unfazed. She is either showing her Vulcan-trained calm or – more likely – demonstrating she has sort of given up on life and is worn down by the guilt of her actions. Burnham is joined by some some unseemly criminals who drive home the point that they might be racist murderers, but at least they aren’t the mutineer that started the war with the Klingons.
A criticism that has been leveled at the premiere is that Burnham is not an entirely likable character, which is unusual for what should be the heroic star of this Star Trek show. This second episode really hammers home the point, Burnham’s actions in the premiere are well-known and they haven’t made her popular. Her lack of likability may be a feature and not a bug as the creatives behind this show are looking at the first season as a complete story with an arc of her starting at the bottom.
Martin-Green seems to be pushing this unlikability, playing gruff with pretty much everyone she meets. But, we do get a few nice moments of character development and even a reference to her upbringing by her foster mother Amanda Grayson (who we now know will appear later in the season). This slow burn redemption arc may pay off better for those who binge-watch later, but just like the crew of the USS Discovery, it takes some adjustment to get used to Michael Burnham.
As noted in our review last week, the two-part premiere was really a prequel movie and backstory for the main character of Michael Burnham “Context is For Kings” picks up a lot of the load of a traditional pilot, including a lot of densely packed character introductions. All of these are done through Michael Burnham meeting the various members of the crew, with each showing varying levels of disdain. We start with Commander Landry, played rather one-dimensionally by Rekha Sharma as a hard-ass security chief. But she does get fleshed out a bit, and there is some intrigue with her and Lorca that will likely be explored.
The introduction to Ensign Tilly provides some of the episodes only levity as Mary Wiseman effectively makes us believe Tilly is riddled with enough allergies and anxieties to qualify her for a part in a Woody Allen movie. We later find out that despite this, she sees herself as someday being a captain. Despite a very awkward beginning, we see the start of what should be an interesting dynamic between Tilly and Burnham as bunkmates. Wiseman was a standout and may provide a lot of the relatability and heart for Discovery.
Lt. Paul Stamets enters the stage with Anthony Rapp really digging into the gruff anti-social scientist type. His disdain for Burnham goes deep, but he also shows he has no love for Captain Lorca, as he feels his important research work is being corrupted Starfleet. This tension has already started to pay off with some blatant insubordination that wouldn’t fly on any Starfleet ship we have seen before, but everything about this episode says there is something different about the USS Discovery. Like with Burnham, the hope here is that this is a starting point, because this prickly pear routine is going to get old fast.
Captain Lorca is found in his ready room, and mysteriously he seems to prefer it to the bridge. While an eye injury provides the reasoning, the literal darkness of his lair may be a bit too on the nose. As captain, Lorca even merited some little character backstory quirks like offering up fortune cookies, having a pet tribble and keeping a menagerie of skulls and skeletons from alien creatures. Jason Isaacs chews up the dialog he is given, delivering us an unusual kind of captain that appears to relish the war and at one point even gets schooled on the ethics of Starfleet by its most notorious prisoner. Lorca and Burnham’s interactions were some of the better-written and delivered, with conversations played out like games of three-dimensional chess and each trying to uncover the other’s hidden agendas and motivations.
Burnham’s series of awkward interactions with the crew isn’t limited to new characters. She finds herself face to face with her old friend from the USS Shenzhou, Saru, now first officer of the USS Discovery. Gone is the fun banter, now Doug Jones is playing the relationship with deadly seriousness. Hopefully we get to see more of Saru in future episodes as he was a standout in the premiere.
Burnham also has an unpleasant reunion with Lt. Keyla Detmer, former helm officer of the USS Shenzou. Detmer now has some sort of cybernetic device on her head, likely due to a trauma suffered during the Battle of the Binary Stars. Keyla symbolizes a crew that all seemed damaged in one way or another. Again, this is no ordinary ship and crew.
Of course, one of the most important characters on any Star Trek show is the ship. While the episode did not deliver 10 minutes of drydock starship porn, we did get a few beauty shots of the USS Discovery. We also learn it has – or had – a sister ship, the USS Glenn, presumably named for astronaut John Glenn. And as we come to expect from the premiere, the production design and effects are top notch. And while the USS Shenzhou was a rather dark place, the interior of Discovery seems a bit more familiar and comfortable. Interestingly, they spent almost no time on the bridge, leaving scrutiny of that most important set for a future episode.
While the introductions to a lot of the characters tried to quickly cram in as much personality as possible, the ship itself was presented as a mystery from the start. It was filled with oddities such as black badges, black alert, and classified rooms requiring breath-print ID. And they went out of the way to drop a lot of technobabble without providing context, all to enhance the mystery with terms like speirien, bloom failure, basiodiasac and references to “the project” and a thing called the “reaction cube.”
Some of this was paid off as we learn that Stamets is experimenting with a “new way to fly” using “mycelium spores.” As we suspected, the USS Discovery is literally mushroom-powered. Sure that’s a bit strange, but it’s Star Trek which is full of quirky science and this is certainly a new angle. Although the reaction cube where someone can connect with the “Mycelial Network” to travel anywhere had a bit of a Dune feeling so perhaps in Discovery, “the spice shrooms must flow.”
It also adds an interesting dimension to this ship as it is a sort of secret weapon and possibly one that isn’t entirely ethical. This show clearly wants to play in the grey areas with the characters and the USS Discovery is no exception. And in case you didn’t get the point, Lorca makes it explicit when he notes to Burnham that “Context…is for kings” when determining the morality of their actions. All in all, the USS Discovery is really coming into bloom.
We learn a bit more about the USS Discovery through a visit to her sister ship, the USS Glenn. Short of a brief fight scene in the mess hall, this trip provides the action sequences for the episode as we get a mini-version of Alien when Burnham, Stamets, Landry, Tilly and Ensign Ricky board the now-derelict ship. The creep and gore level are turned up a bit beyond what we are used to with Star Trek and Goldsman shows some good chops here keeping up the tension as we explore the Glenn which turns out to be inhabited by a short-lived Klingon and some sort of mole monster thing. Oh, and it seems the crew have all be turned into misshapen grotesques reminiscent of fatal transporter malfunction from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
This sojourn to the Glenn also has to provide most of the plot for an episode laden with introductions and exposition. Instead of being just a device to add a fear factor to the action sequence on the Glenn, it the monster thing turns out to have some importance. We later learn that Landry and Lorca arranged to have it brought on board the Discovery. Why did they bring it on board? What’s up with Lorca’s collection of alien bones? These are the kinds of questions you have to get used to with Discovery. Again, the hope is the serialized nature of the series will deliver in the end.
Without scenes with the Klingons to cut to, this episode is told almost entirely through the perspective of Michael Burnham. The exception is this one scene with Landry and Lorca in his menagerie at the end. It is unusual for a Star Trek show to put so much emphasis on any single character, even Captain Kirk. But, it does offer the opportunity to imply something sinister, merely by not having Burnham present.
Down is up
All-in-all, as pilots for Star Trek go, this was pretty solid episode, if not one of the best. “Context Is for Kings” taught us a lot about the show, and provided some good action, a lot of little Trek details, and a little bit of fun along the way. There was a lot of exposition and introductions to get through, and hopefully much of that is now behind us. And it certainly introduced a number of intriguing mysteries creating good anticipation for the next installments. With first-class production, Star Trek: Discovery is delivering on its promise to bring Star Trek into the world of premium TV drama without forgetting its roots.
“Context Is for Kings” made a number of improvements over last week’s premiere. It was not as uneven, and didn’t suffer the same kind of lapses in logic. There is still somewhat of a feel of being written by committee. No doubt many issues with the early episodes flow from the behind the scenes discord and exit of co-creator and original showrunner Bryan Fuller, who still retains story credit for this episode, along with three other writers in the mix. It is also hard to shake the notion that Discovery is just kind of a bummer. Everyone seems to hate everyone else, people are getting turned into pretzels by the tech that is running the ship, the captain may be a war criminal, and there is still that war with the Klingons.
Such is the pitfall and the promise of the serial nature of the show. We have to go down the rabbit hole first and it will apparently be dark there in a way we haven’t seen since the Dominion War arc on Deep Space Nine. But, as if the show remembered it was still Star Trek, “Context is For Kings” did find a ray of sunshine at the end with a typical Trek literary reference. The mention of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland leads us to see Michael finding herself through the looking glass. Gone is the woman who had given up on life seen on that prison transport. The episode ends with Burnham seeing a ray of hope, and making references to Spock and Amanda while she is at it. If you feel a bit out of sorts with this different kind of Star Trek, Burnham reminds you “Sometimes when you are lost, you are found.”
- We now know that Airiam the robot is a commander (or possibly Lt. Cmndr).
- Relax, they are “boarding parties” on Discovery (like TOS), not “away teams” (like TNG).
- We got to see our first Jefferies Tube in the show.
- Good use of walla with announcements and such creating real ship-board feel.
- Amanda teaching her kids Lewis Carroll appears to be a reference to the Star Trek: The Animated Series.
- Was that a Gorn skeleton in Lorca’s bone collection?
Star Trek: Discovery is available exclusive in the US on CBS All Access with new episodes released Sundays at 8:30 pm ET. In Canada Star Trek: Discovery airs on the Space Channel at 8:00 pm ET. Discovery is available on Netflix outside the USA and Canada with new episodes made available Monday at 8 am BST.
Keep up with all the Star Trek: Discovery news at TrekMovie.