As ever, there will be spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk. Last week’s episode concluded the series introduction, and this week, we finally get to see the titular USS Discovery and meet its crew. However, first, we have to get Michael Burnham on the ship, which the show does by having her prison shuttle be damaged in an ion storm, only to be saved by the USS Discovery. After a brief demonstration of Burnham’s command of Suus Mahna, she’s assigned duties on board as well as quarters, featuring, horror of horrors, an overly chatty roommate who snores. In addition to this ignominy, it turns out that her former science officer has traded silver for gold and become the Discovery’s first officer, and he gets the dubious honor of escorting her to engineering, where we meet Lieutenant Paul Stamets, who is thus far unremittingly unpleasant. We also get our first look at Captain Gabriel Lorca, Chief of Security Landry, and the chattering Cadet Sylvia Tilly, all of whom seem normal. However, the Discovery itself is not—it’s a science vessel with some impressive capabilities, but it also has periodic Black Alerts, which feature strange gravitational effects. Curious, Burnham breaks into a top-secret lab and discovers a greenhouse. Seemingly having escaped detection and with a great deal of confusion, she gets deployed on a boarding party that discovers lots of corpses and a space monster, from which she saves most of the party members with a little ingenuity and a lot of Alice in Wonderland. Lorca asks her to join the Discovery’s crew, and she refuses because she worries that Lorca is Up to No Good. He reassures her by showing her magic spores, and he woos her with promises of exploration and diplomacy. The episode ends ominously with a shot of Saru and his Kelpien danger detecting whiskers at full extension.
There is obviously a lot here to unpack. First, let me say that the Discovery itself is beautiful. It is streamlined, slick, and spacious enough to accommodate the crew we see wandering the halls, and our first glimpse of the ship is framed perfectly to draw our attention to just how impressive it is. Admittedly, I could be biased as I am a sucker for show panoramics of new ships; I still get excited during the money shot of the Enterprise during Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Secondly, the script reinforces once again that This is Not Star Trek as you know it. Chief of Security Landry is unfriendly and disrespectful to the prisoners they rescue, calling them animals at one point. Stamets is not only unpleasant to Burnham, but he tapdances on the line of insubordination with Captain Lorca. Lorca himself is somewhat problematic, and in case Jason Isaacs’s capable performance did not alert you, the show introduces him literally swathed in shadow. Star Trek is rarely subtle, but that particular sequence sunk to a new low. Even Saru, who has thus far been a bastion of professionalism, outright threatens Burnham before delivering her to Engineering. I like that Burnham’s past influences how the Discovery crew interacts with her, and I like even more that it is clear that her transition will be difficult. That difficulty is a contributing part of any redemption saga, and Burnham, throughout the episode, calmly accepts the treatment as her due. She even goes so far as to explain to Saru that she will make no trouble while onboard, which makes her decision to snoop in Engineering all the stranger. I’m also intrigued that she does not find it strange to be quartered with a roommate, particularly one as innocuous as Tilly. She is, after all, a prisoner, and while it’s clear that Lorca trusts her to behave herself, putting her on the honor system seems a little out of place, even for Starfleet. Of course, as it happens, Lorca is largely allowing her to explore with an eye toward having her join the crew as an asset, particularly one who will flaunt Starfleet regulations when it is necessary for winning the war.
In fact, “Context is for Kings” appears to be setting up thematic issues for the series, specifically questions regarding subversions of morality and science in the service of winning a war. The conflict between Stamets and Lorca is a direct manifestation of that. Stamets wanted to remain in his lab with his friend Straal, but Starfleet paired Stamets with Lorca, who continues to demand more progress from Stamets in service to the war effort. Lorca, for his part, is explicit in his vision of his duty; he wants to win the war and will do what is required to accomplish that goal. When he explains to Burnham that slavish adherence to rules is “for lackeys” and that “Context is for kings”, we learn two things, that Lorca is going to be morally flexible and that Discovery is going to ask us whether Starfleet principles can survive real, large-scale conflict. Deep Space Nine did something similar with the fantastic “In the Pale Moonlight”, but that episode falls in DS9’s penultimate season. With Lorca, we’re coming out of the gate with a shaky morality, which is a new direction for the franchise.
The space monster seems almost to be a physical manifestation of this shaky morality, and the latter act of “Context is for Kings” plays out more like a dystopian space horror film than Star Trek, complete with all the gory trappings: grotesquely deformed corpses, gutted Klingons, and dismembered limbs stuck in malfunctioning doorways. Space horror is really nothing new for Star Trek; the franchise visited the concept in “Genesis” from The Next Generation, “Empok Nor” in Deep Space Nine, “Revulsion” in Voyager, “Impulse” in Enterprise, and arguably “The Naked Time” in the Original Series. However, the resolution usually involves the crew in question escaping or neutralizing the source of the horror, but in Discovery, Lorca has it beamed aboard. He chooses to carry this horror with him in service of the mission. Again, Discovery will not be winning prizes for subtlety.
Otherwise, viewers are expected to draw the same conclusions Burnham does—that the spore technology being developed is some kind of weapon technology or other perverted use, and the show attempts to execute a twist, with Lorca explaining that it’s a new propulsion technology that can be used both in combat and in service of Starfleet ideals. The look of pure, naked hope on Sonequa Martin-Green’s face in that moment is note-perfect, conveying Burnham’s desire for redemption in the face of her own dishonor, which makes Lorca’s decision to keep the creature all the more ominous because it undercuts that hope. I will admit that it’s an interesting set up for the series, and Isaacs is compellingly menacing. Martin-Green has softened Burnham, and we get some good characterization for Saru, Stamets, Landry, and Tilly. I’m intrigued by what the showrunners apparently want to do with the franchise, but simultaneously, I wonder if Discovery will maintain the principles that are so foundational to the franchise’s DNA. I certainly hope so.
- Why does every warmonger have to have a Southern accent? It’s an odd choice by Isaacs.
- Also, we never hear if the prison shuttle pilot survived. She just floats out into space, and no one seems to care unless I missed it. That’s a little odd.
- If Burnham is as capable as we’re told she is, I think she should have been a little more suspicious at the ease with which she broke into a top-secret lab. The lack of guards at her own door should have been an indicator. Maybe it was, but the script never makes a direct link.
- Burnham quotes Alice in Wonderland while she’s fleeing from a giant, Klingon-eating space monster. This will never not seem out of place to me.
- Stamets assumes Burnham will be Vulcan and fusses at her for not being Vulcan. I can’t imagine Lorca’s orders got Burnham’s species wrong, so either Stamets is fussing at her for his own assumptions or is generally being obnoxious about Burnham’s previous life. Either way, between Stamets and Landry, I’m starting to wonder if early Starfleet attracted an inordinately high number of jerks.
- I really love what Doug Jones is doing with Saru, and we finally get to see that Saru has hooves!
- One of the prisoners finally explains the new uniform colors. Silver is for science!