Discovery’s real premiere
Now that the third episode of Star Trek Discovery has aired, details are emerging about what the new Star Trek series will actually be about and what a typical episode is going to look like. As with many TV shows, the Discovery premiere took on a different vibe than the rest of the show.
Actually, Discovery takes it further. So much further that Context is for Kings felt more like the real series premiere than either of the two preceding episodes. They acted as more of a prologue than anything.
Now that we’re a few episodes into the show, it’s time for the writers and showrunners to dig into the plot.
Context is for Kings
Context is for Kings, the title of episode 3 directed by Akiva Goldsman, takes place six months after Michael Burnham was stripped of rank and sentenced to life in prison for mutiny. En route to her ultimate penal destination and re-routed along the way, her shuttle transport comes under the influence of a space-faring anomalous species known only as Species GS54. GS54 is an energy-consuming species that threatens to suck all energy from the shuttle’s systems and strand the passengers. Fortunately for Burnham and the others aboard, the USS Discovery draws the transport vessel out of harm’s way and into it’s shuttle bay, where we finally get our first good view of the series-leading ship.
And with that the setting for the new show is established.
Introducing Star Trek’s new characters
Aboard the Discovery, Commander Landry (Rekha Sharma, Battlestar Galactica), ship’s chief security officer, establishes both her dominance and her disdain for the prisoners, and escorts them to the ship’s mess hall. Along the way, we learn Discovery is a science vessel – but it has a secret. A black badge on an armed guard eludes to the possible nefarious nature of the ship’s mission.
At the ship’s mess hall Burnham crosses paths with Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts), a familiar face from the USS Shenzhou, who simply ignores Burnham’s greeting. Detmer makes it clear to Burnham she’s not among friends, and the scene helps establish that fact for the viewer. To drive home the point, it’s further reiterated when two other prisoners pick a fight with Burnham in an unnecessary scene. It’s during their fight we learn Burnham is well versed in Vulcan martial arts, capable of defending herself.
The full extend of her unwelcomeness is revealed when Saru (Doug Jones), who holds the position of second in command aboard the USS Discovery, shows up in the episode. In the two-part premiere, Burnham and Saru had comedic interactions and an almost sibling rivalry. Now Saru’s reception of Burnham is cold and short. In fact the only person on the ship Burnham doesn’t get attitude from is her room mate, Cadet Sylvia Tilly, and that’s not until Tilly looks beyond Burnham’s notoriety to see who she is – beyond the crime she committed.
Episode 3 also finally introduces us to some of Discovery‘s primary characters. First up is the aforementioned Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman). In her final year of Starfleet Academy, Cadet Tilly is a theoretical engineer with aspirations of becoming captain some day. Tilly spends most of her time conducting experiments in Engineering. I found her character to be pleasant, surprisingly relate-able, and more than any other character in the show I’m looking forward to seeing more of her and watching her growth.
Next was Lieutenant Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), a somewhat snarky and pedantic scientist specializing in astromycology. As the episode progresses, we learn his experiments are what drive the plot of Star Trek Discovery‘s first season. Stamets clearly doesn’t like his work used to advance the war agenda; even if only for advancements in propulsion. In fact his distaste comes out in interactions with Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs).
How Stamets’ work is being used to invent a new way to fly isn’t exactly clear. Context is for Kings did attempt to explain in a rather forced scene. Apparently biology and physics are one, and are the “veins and muscles” that bind energy and space together. “At the quantum level, there is no difference between biology and physics” Stamets tells Burnham, who is attempting to formulate an hypothesis based on what she’s learned so far in order to get up to speed on their mission. And this all somehow has to do with instantaneous travel. But the actual science behind it seems to be missing or convoluted. At least so far. I found myself simply confused about this all and suspending some belief because of it. It detracted from the episode.
Captain Gabriel Lorca is a mysterious man who has clearly been written to keep viewers guessing about his intentions. While such characters are a dime a dozen these days, Isaacs plays it wonderfully and there’s a scene towards the end of the episode that really redeems Lorca in my opinion. Though why the writers decided to include the seemingly-irrelevant Lorca family history of being fortune cookie manufacturers is beyond me. Also, while I had no problems understanding Lorca, my wife pointed out how much he mumbles throughout the episode, and as I’ve since found out a large part of the populace online seems to agree. It seems a good half of his dialogue was missed by a lot of people.
Anomalies and secrets
Context is for Kings does feel like a real Star Trek episode in some places. Take, for example, the previously-mentioned species GS54. The life forms could easily be straight from an episode of just about any previous Star Trek series. Whereas GS54 would have been the sole focus of any past Star Trek‘s entire episode, in Discovery it’s already a known entity (discovered by the Enterprise under Captain Christopher Pike?) and so there are known ways of defeat it. I really liked the way Discovery handled this and would like to see more like it in future episodes. As well as these types of species and anomalies.
The episode is also abound with secrets, be it Burnham’s lack of access to details, Lorca’s strange lair at the end of the episode, or the black badge on the armed guard mentioned earlier.
Monsters and other problems
Unfortunately Context is for Kings has its problems. One is that it takes on a “monster of the week” persona with what literally appears to be a monster chasing some of the USS Discovery, and Michael Burnham, through the corridors of the USS Glenn. The USS Glenn, by the way, is a ship identical to the Discovery. Presumably that ship was launched or built just before the Discovery as its registration number is NCC-1030. In fact the entire purpose of the USS Glenn seemed to be so that viewers could watch a monster killing a Klingon and chasing people around the corridors.
Our mystery monster, who roars and squeals like every big monster in every movie since 1980, unfortunately may be a major plot point for the season. Commander Landry and Captain Lorca make sure it’s safely, and secretly, imprisoned aboard the Discovery before they destroy what remains of the Glenn.
But it’s not just the monster scenes; Discovery suffers in other ways too.
The lighting is terrible, making it not only difficult to watch, but sometimes even annoying as you squint and adjust your TV settings. Sure, it can be argued that the dark mood lighting, which is rather cheaply explained away by some condition Lorca has with his eyes, is to set tone for the questionable goings-on of the ship. But it fails at that and instead makes the show feel like it’s trying to hard to be, well, every other TV show or movie that’s dark and gritty. And the show is secretive.
My suspicion, though I sincerely hope I’m wrong here, is that Section 31 is somehow involved in the experiments and objectives put forward for the Discovery. There are far too many secrets for the Starfleet I’ve come to know and love, making this episode problematic for me as a fan.
Finally, the episode also suffered from bad scripting – in some places. While most of the writing is okay, there’s a few really bad scenes that frankly hurt the show in its entirety and make it feel a bit like amateur hour. No visual effects, attention to detail, or sets will fix that, so I certainly hope to see improvements in future episodes.
My takeaway on Context is for Kings is that Star Trek Discovery is heading more towards what feels like something that can be considered Star Trek. Even more-so than the premiere episodes.
However there are still some shortcomings and sequences that take more than a page from the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot films playbook. Plays that made me dislike those films. Monsters and the seemingly-obligatory ensuing and gratuitous chase scene. Distracting over-use of lens flares. Dark lighting. And as already mentioned, some of the writing was… not good. But don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot to the episode that makes up for these things.
If the future of Star Trek Discovery is more of these things and less J.J-esque, I think it has a real future ahead and it will rightly take its place among the greats in Star Trek legacy.
I give this episode 3 stars out of 5.