Black alert! SPOILERS at maximum!
Much like the inter-dimensional, super transwarp spores which make up a significant narrative touchstone for the third episode of Star Trek: Discovery, this show is snaking an intriguing course as it charts this all new chapter in Trek history. Honestly, this week, everything is more unconventional for Star Trek as you’re likely to ever see. The show is boldly going into new dramatic territory and, at times, it feels a shaky, uncertain road. ‘Context is for Kings’, as a title, is really rather apt, as one senses this episode may work better on its own terms *in* context, framed against a season in which you know fully where Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and her story is going. As essentially a ‘second pilot’ designed to introduce the series’ parameters, it’s only partially successful.
This is not to take away, honestly, from how interesting a storytelling choice placing Burnham on our new ship, the USS Discovery, as a prisoner truly is. Trek series traditionally frame themselves around their Captain, their leader, be they as aspiring explorer (Archer), repairing, haunted widower (Sisko) or matriarch (Janeway) – who could have imagined Burnham would have been framed as not just a mutineer, but someone with Command potential entirely stripped of rank? It’s brave and unique and from that perspective, Discovery feels much more contemporary, as indeed it does contextualising the series around the backdrop of unseen conflict, hovering war, of two ideologies and sides depicted by a border chart on Captain Lorca’s wall. This is Star Trek working on multiple levels of allegory, with more of a flawed and broken protagonist than we’ve ever seen before.
Perhaps this is where the struggle comes from, as a viewer. It’s an adjustment to engage with and care about a character like Burnham (essentially our first Vulcan main character, if not by birth), who isn’t just emotionally locked away mostly but also determined to pay for her crimes at the Battle of the Binary Stars, crippled with guilt and doubt about actions she believed were in the best interests of her crew. It’s a sombre beginning for Burnham’s journey and given the amount of character conflict she finds with the Discovery crew, it feels at odds with Trek of old. You could have said the same about Deep Space Nine’s pilot, no doubt, but the characters involved immediately felt more distinct and layered – Discovery’s are taking a while to warm to, given the levels of mystery at the outset about Discovery and her mission.
A great choice is carrying Saru (Doug Jones) over, as he’s filled with a calm wisdom and temperament which makes him immediately likeable and in the spirit of Star Trek, as indeed is the bright, smiley idealist Sylvia Tilley (newcomer Mary Wiseman); her slightly hero worship of what Burnham represented, and how diametrically opposite they are, clicks straight away. Less engaging was the smug, somewhat entitled Lieutenant Stamets (Anthony Rapp), who practically makes early Julian Bashir look humble, but there is time for him to check himself and grow.
We’re all going to walk away the most intrigued by Captain Lorca, played with enigmatic strength by Jason Isaacs; a man who Burnham senses has his own agenda and could well end up a Colonel Kurtz-figure; don’t be surprised if Nicholas Meyer’s influence hasn’t resulted in more of a Heart of Darkness-narrative here than Insurrection ever managed to pull off. All the early signs are pointing to Burnham, eventually, being placed in the role again of mutineer, this time to perhaps prevent a renegade Captain doing whatever he must to save the Federation. Lorca could end up a more-subtle, less-overtly hawkish version of Admiral Marcus in Into Darkness – someone possessed of the right reasons via terribly unethical means.
That’s down the road. Gretchen J. Berg, Aaron Harberts & Craig Sweeny’s teleplay (partly still from a Bryan Fuller story) is concerned here with establishment. We have the lovely Discovery ship design, very clearly inspired by the original Ralph McQuarrie designs for the USS Enterprise in The Motion Picture which never came to be – much more angular, sharp and built as much for conflict as exploration, perhaps befitting the complex times of the 2250’s.
The interior feels a step ahead of the USS Shenzhou but still an evolution from the NX-Enterprise design; Discovery may have the visual aesthetics of the JJ Abrams movies but its still cleaving more to Enterprise (with contemporary Beatles references for instance) and The Original Series than its 24th century successors, which is perhaps appropriate. The show feels aware of its place in Trek chronology.
Character work weaves amidst a plot here which in the end channels a vein of Alien-style, haunted house horror which Star Trek has done before and while neatly executed with the Alice in Wonderland-allusions, wasn’t entirely original. Story needs to bed in, as do the new Discovery crew, and once by the end Burnham has her place and the beginning of her journey, we hopefully can start seeing the series place itself on an even keel and start telling stories in a clearer context (for kings). Trek fans will rejoice, however, at one particular easter egg mention in an episode chock full of them at the end.
Star Trek Discovery airs on Netflix on Mondays in the UK. Did you enjoy this episode? Let us know…