Star Trek: Discovery S01E03 Recap: 'Context Is For Kings'

After a week of arguing with people on the internet, and now having seen the latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery, "Context Is For Kings", it's clear to me that this version of Star Trek probably won't be for everyone. Forget the fact that it's been maligned for being a prequel, or the controversy surrounding CBS's distribution methods, this is just a different kind of Star Trek that many don't seem to be ready to accept.

What I wanted most from Discovery was for it to update what it means to be Star Trek. The kind of Trek that we grew up with, its episodic nature, it's idealistic view of the future, are outdated concepts. Gene Rodenberry envisioned Star Trek through a humanist lens that may have made sense in the 60s and even through the end of the 90s, but 2017 is a much different time. Some might say that pessimism doesn't belong in this universe, that it may even be an insult to what Rodenberry created. I say that it's a realistic update.

Rodenberry's Trek was not immune from pessimism. War exists in that universe, as do humans that do bad things. Discovery's purpose seems to be to shine a light on those deep corners of this universe. In this show, the Federation is still the same Federation that we know and love. Its member species still strive for peace and to better themselves, they're merely taking a detour through a war with the Klingon Empire that we all know existed at this time, one way or another. In many ways, Discovery is a show about the lengths some might go to achieve peace, to achieve the advancement that has been thrust upon them as the ultimate ideal. It's showing us what the Federation and Starfleet are like during a time of war, and, inherently, that simply cannot be the same as it is in peacetime.

Last week, in reviewing the first two episodes of the series, we posited that Discovery aimed to update the themes of the Trek universe to match the realities of 2017, with allegories to things such as the rise of right wing nationalism, to the threat of fundamentalism, to the forces that push back against a sweeping wave of progressivism. These things seem to take a back seat in "Context Is For Kings" as we're introduced to the titular ship of the show. The episode is almost like another pilot, introducing us to new characters, new settings, a new plot and, most importantly, certain mysteries that will seemingly span the course of the season.

The episode picks up six months after Michael Burnham is convicted for her mutiny on the Shenzhou. She's on route to a different penal colony when an incident with her shuttle has her picked up by the Discovery, where the captain, one Gabriel Lorca, puts her to work while they make arrangements for her transport. Of course, Burnham is skeptical of all the coincidences surrounding her situation from the very beginning, and quickly surmises that Lorca orchestrated it all in order to get her on the ship. He eventually fesses up and explains to her that he needs someone with her abilities to carry out his mission, but she's still hesitant, not only because she wants to persecute herself for what she did, but because she doesn't trust the Captain and presumes that he's building an illegal Weapon of Mass Destruction in order to dispose of the Klingons. Lorca reassures her that what he's building is not a weapon, but instead a mode of transportation that can take ships and people from one corner of the galaxy to another in a matter of milliseconds, which would not only present them with a tremendous advantage in the war, but also immeasurable advancements in science and technology.

Burnham is reassured, and agrees with stay on the ship and join the crew, but Lorca wasn't presented in a cryptic fashion without reason. The dude keeps a bowl of fortune cookies and a trible on his standing desk in a dimly-lit ready room, that's some evil-ass shit. If he had a chair, he'd be sitting in it stroking the trible like a bond villain. And sure enough, at the end of the episode, we find out that he's hording the monstrous creature that attacked the away team on their recovery mission at the USS Glenn, which was destroyed by the same kinds of experiments that the Discovery is running and which a horde of Klingons had infiltrated when it was adrift, before that same creature took them out. Like I said, there's a mystery on board the Discovery, and the episode makes no attempt to hide it, between everything going on with Lorca and the secrecy all across his ship.

I like, though, that the show isn't only about that mystery. It's very much also about Burnham as she begins her journey towards redemption. When we catch up with her six months after the events of the premiere, she's even lower than she was when she was court martialled. She's infamous across the Federation, hated by everyone for the war people blame her for and the lives it has cost. But Lorca sees something in her, and he knows that in a time of war, Starfleet can't afford to have that kind of asset on the sidelines. The rest of the crew, including those who know Burnham from the Shenzhou, might take more convincing, as might Burnham herself, since she's resigned to her fate; bearing in mind she's probably had her fair share of hate lobbed towards her for the last six months. Lorca instead drops the episode title to Burnham in his attempt to convince her to stay, telling her that he understands what she was trying to do, even if it didn't work.

And that's part of what makes Lorca compelling. He's clearly one of the antagonists of the show, the source of stress and conflict on the Discovery. Many might question how someone like that could exist in the Federation's future, but it kind of makes sense. The Federation is still nascent, and remnants of the old MACO army days might still reside among Starfleet's ranks. Plus it's war time, and that brings something different out of a lot of people. It seems pretty clear that Lorca is good at his job in this context. Outside of Lorca, there's Saru, who we become reacquainted with in a different context here, now a first officer and distrusting of someone who used to be her friend. There's Lt. Stamets, the engineering officer who condescendingly spouts exposition towards Burnham, possibly one of my favourite parts of the episode. And there's Cadet Tilly, Burnhman's coworker and roommate, who brings some much needed levity to the episode.

"Context Is For Kings" should be taken in the, well, context of a second pilot for Star Trek: Discovery. We're introduced to a new ship, a new crew, a new direction and a main character that is in a very different place. We're seeing the Federation at war, and while we've already seen that done in previous Star Trek series, it looks like we're going to explore what that means for this crew. We're seeing a character who's starting from the bottom as an outsider, we're seeing lower-deck affairs. When Burnham goes to the bridge, we don't see it from the front, as we're used it, we get a very limited view, from Burnham's perspective for the most part and limited to the back, near the turbo lift. Like I said, this is a different Trek, and it might not be for everyone, but from my perspective, it's a welcome update and change, and "Context Is For Kings" is a highly entertaining episode that takes pride in its details. That's why it gets 8 nanogalactic spores out of 10.

Notes & Quotes:

  • I'm not going to pretend to understand much of the science that's introduced in this episode, but it is based on reality (Lt. Stamets is inspired by a real-life mycologist). From what I can gather, they're using the discovery microscopic web of spores to traffic across the galaxy in mere seconds. But as everything on Discovery is secretive, it seems as if this might not be the only experiment that Lorca is conducting.
  • We get our first reference to Spock in this episode, as Burnham tells Tilly about how her adoptive mother Amanda read Alice in Wonderland to her and her stepbrother, who we obviously know to be Spock. It was also just announced today that Mia Kirshner will be portraying Amanda Grayson in the show's future, taking ove for Winona Ryder, who played the characters in the Kelvin Timeline movies.
  • Even better, we get our first peak at this era's Jefferies Tubes! And you know you're a true Trek nerd when you get excited over Jefferies Tubes.
  • I don't know if this is on purpose or not, but the technology Lorca shows Burnham to convince her to stay really reminds me of the Iconian Gateway that we've previously seen in episodes of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.
  • Saru/Lorca: "Her mutiny aside, she is the smartest Starfleet officer I have ever known." "Huh, and he knows you."
  • Lorca: "Universal laws are for lackeys. Context is for kings."