Star Trek: Discovery – Season 1 Episode 3
“Context is for Kings”
Star Trek: Discovery enjoys something of a second pilot when Michael Burnham finds herself aboard the U.S.S. Discovery; a mysterious scientific vessel acting as a testbed for experimental technology and top secret projects.
The events of the previous episode were about as definitive as it could get for Michael Burnham. In one fell swoop she threw away her career. all the good faith she had built up with Starfleet and lost a friend who also happened to be her Captain. Essentially she fell as far as it was possible for a person to fall which obviously places her character arc at the beginning of a journey to building herself back up again.
As the episode begins she is aboard a prison shuttle with some fellow inmates on her way to her next bout of servitude. Dialogue suggests that word has spread about her actions and she has been tarred with the brush of being the first mutineer ever in Starfleet. Not only that but the War with the Klingons that she is credited with starting really isn’t going well and has every able bodied member of Starfleet on edge. Basically it’s a less than ideal situation and Michael has a lot to atone for.
She makes it clear that she accepts full responsibility for her crime and is willing to accept the punishment given to her. Life imprisonment isn’t an easy thing to deal with but Michael approaches it with grace and dignity which reminds the audience that she is a principled woman who made a big mistake. Whether she is beyond redemption is up to the viewer but the show definitely sets up a redemptive arc for her.
Her life is further complicated by being unexpectedly picked up by the U.S.S. Discovery; a brand new ship with no signs of wear and tear and a completely mysterious purpose. Michael’s fellow prisoners comment on everything that is irregular about the ship which is fairly clumsy as expositional dialogue goes but it certainly gets the point across. What to take away from this is that something seems off about the arrival of this advanced starship and a good chunk of the show will be spent exploring what that it.
The perspective is keyed on Michael at all times which is a smart idea as she is in a position to observe all the strangeness without being deserving of the answers to her questions. There is a really poignant line in the episode that sums up Michael’s current role “Universal Law is for lackeys; context is for Kings” which also gives the episode its title. Michael is currently in the position of the lackey who has to accept “Universal Law” without question as the details -or “context”- is forcibly kept from her. In her previous position as first officer of the Shenzhou she was among the “Kings” and now that position has been taken away from her. It further solidifies the redemptive arc that Michael has to go through in order to be worthy of that context once again. It’s an excellent merging of character and theme that gives the show a compelling baseline for Michael to develop from.
Despite the hokey dialogue; the mystery of the Discovery is established really well. There’s almost a hint of “Lower Decks” to Michael’s role though this episode is far more sinister. The broad stokes of her being asked to carry out tasks without the reasons being explained to her reminded me of that Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Sonequa Martin-Green does a good job playing Michael’s tempered frustration with the situation. She knows she has no right to be frustrated but also isn’t used to being out of the loop when it comes to clandestine operations. She also excellently portrays the sense of unease that comes with her current circumstances and reaction to the ship itself.
Adding to this sense of unease is the enigmatic Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs); a man who keeps his cards very close to his chest while projecting something close to a friendly demeanour without ever fully committing to it. He’s clearly a man who believes in getting the job done by any means and sees recruiting Michael as being a part of it. By the end of the episode he admits that picking her up was no accident and offers her a chance to redeem herself by serving on a Starship once again and atoning herself by helping to end the War that she had a big part in starting. Lorca says the right things to appeal to Michael’s sense of duty and buried desire for redemption. Prior to this point she had refused to join the crew and lend her expertise but once Lorca changes tactics with her just a little he is able to manipulate her.
Outwardly Lorca says the right things about scientific discovery and ending the war with the Klingons through peaceful means though the episode teases something much darker lurking beneath the surface. His chamber of horrors is proof of that and the fact that he beams the mysterious creature over from the Discovery’s sister ship; the U.S.S. Glenn. It is made clear that he has been less than honest about his true agenda. This creates an interesting contrast between Lorca and many of the Starfleet Captains of old who were defined by being morally upright -except from the evil ones- and overly simplistic in their motivations. There are exceptions to this but Lorca is clearly complex and interesting so will hopefully continue to surprise the audience with the upcoming reveals. Jason Isaacs is perfect in this role as he is an expert at playing the outwardly trustworthy with inner darkness character type.
Captain Lorca isn’t the only crew member that Michael has to deal with. Most notably she is reunited with fellow Shenzhou survivor Saru, now First Officer of the Discovery and clearly harbouring strong feelings about her. On one hand he greatly respects her as an officer and holds her skills in high regard but on the other he sees her as a liability who made a mistake that sealed the fates of thousands. As with his introduction in the first episode he is still shown to have mainly binary thinking in keeping with the cultural influence of his species. He comments that Michael was a great officer until she wasn’t with no scope for nuance in between at least in terms of how he sees the situation though there are shades of grey starting to creep through in the way he approaches the situation. For instance he is the one who vouches for her involvement on the away mission because he believes that she deserves the chance to redeem herself. It could be his past familiarity with her that helps him think along these but either way it shows that he doesn’t see everything as black and white as had been established before. Of course there is still a long way for him to go but there is definite progression there and it feels organic.
Michael’s area of focus is Engineering which puts her in contact with Lieutenant Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp); a human male with a massive chip on his shoulder. He has no love for Michael and hates having her forced on him but his main area of hatred comes from the fact that he has been split up from his partner so that they can theoretically work on the same project faster. Stamets loathes the fact that the war with the Klingons has made Starfleet turn its back on scientific discovery for the sake of itself and is taking a more aggressive approach to progress by way of science. He’s basically a bitter man and has a lot of reasons to feel the way he does. It all becomes more complicated when his partner is found inside out by some strange accident on the Glenn.
The most striking thing about Stamets is how abrasive he is to anyone who will listen to him. As engineers go he has a bit of Star Trek: Enterprise engineer Trip about him but is definitely a very different character. His dialogue is cutting, edgy and unkind which completely counters the approach Star Trek has historically taken to how characters deliver their lines. It’s refreshing, interesting and leaves the door open for interesting conflicts to play out. His relationship with Michael is already engaging and it’s clear that they will challenge each other frequently.
Michael’s other main point of conflict is Cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman). The best way to describe this character is that she’s flawed in the most obvious ways. She has allergies, lacks confidence in her own abilities and is the very definition of naive. There is also a hint of mystery around her as she is stationed on Discovery but it is unclear why and that adds intrigue. It’s clear that there will be something of a mentor/mentee relationship between her and Michael and I like the fact that she is one of the few people on the ship willing to give her a fair chance. In some ways it reminds me of the Tom Paris/Harry Kim dynamic over on Star Trek: Voyager; at least in the beginning.
As with all great Star Trek this focuses on the characters in a big way. Michael is the central character which means that most of the scenes are about her and how the new characters relate to her. It’s a solid way to introduce the characters as it provides them with a hook right away. Michael is a disgraced former offer drafted back into the service for reasons unknown to many so that only amplifies the resentment and the scene where she faces one of the survivors of the Shenzhou who was clearly profoundly affected by the experience is a great example of that. At its core this is a story about resentment as much as it is about redemption as the other characters have to find a way to work with her.
Another nice touch is that the episode doesn’t overload the viewer with the entire cast of new characters. Michael interacts with three new characters in Captain Lorca, Lieutenant Stamets and Cadet Tilly with a cameo appearance from Commander Landry (Rekha Sharma). The other character she interacts with is Saru who was introduced and developed in the prior episodes. The rest of the cast can trickle in as the episodes progress but focusing on a handful of them at a time is a really good idea.
Lastly I’ll discuss my thoughts on the design of the U.S.S. Discovery. Ship design is a hot topic in Star Trek and this is no exception. To my mind the design is interesting but I’m not prepared to say that I like it at this stage. I feel that it looks clunky and awkward though it may have to grow on me. It does look like a powerful and experimental ship so at least that tracks. I’ll pass comment as the weeks go by but for now I’m undecided.
An excellent episode that follows on from the strong prologue chapters and starts to define what the show will be. Captain Lorca is a compelling character already and the air of mystery surrounding him and the Discovery creates fascinating possibilities. His dynamic with Michael works well so far and Michael’s arc focusing on her redemption is a great setup for the series as it allows the different characters to feed into it.
This show still has a tendency to overexplain things with hokey dialogue. It isn’t a huge problem as much of the dialogue is really dynamic and interesting but it is noticeable.
- the mystery that is Captain Lorca
- focusing on Michael and her redemptive arc
- gradually introducing the Discovery crew
- strong character focused storytelling
- a tendency to overexplain things
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