STAR TREK: DISCOVERY Review: 1.03 “Context Is For Kings”

DISCOVERY reveals what it really is: a lot better than the pilot.

Evan’s already written about a number of ways in which Star Trek: Discovery’s debut was disappointing. It immediately centred on mutiny and war; it was busily designed, clunkily written, and flatly acted; it seemed unsure what branch of continuity it wanted to be attached to. That two-part premiere left me, a lifelong Star Trek fan, feeling deflated and sad.

But I held out hope that subsequent episodes might pick up, mostly because of what really made the premiere(s) so clunky. In making those first two episodes a prologue of sorts, Discovery’s writers hamstrung themselves somewhat. Since only a couple of the characters would carry through into the main show, the majority were barely even introduced; since most of the actors in the opening titles don’t appear (and Michelle Yeoh is credited as a “special guest”), the stakes feel weirdly low. Surely it would have been more dramatically interesting to jump into the story at the point where “Battle at the Binary Stars” ended, with its main character a prisoner and pariah for having started a war with the Klingons, and flesh out the reasons some other way. There’d be more mystery, more immediacy, and less inevitability the proceedings, and protagonist Michael Burnham would still get an arc of reassessing her personal biases and instincts.

Well, that (written before I saw this episode, I want to point out) is exactly what the show’s third episode does. Opening with Burnham on a prisoner transport shuttle, the show quickly establishes her guilt as Starfleet’s first mutineer. One quick accident later, the shuttle’s passengers are rescued by the USS Discovery, which is given a solid introductory flyby, and draws its design from Ralph McQuarrie’s unused drawings from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. On board, Burnham’s former crewmates shun her, her captors judge her, and her fellow cons threaten her. Already, this is more dramatically compelling than anything in the first two episodes; when Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) asks a reluctant, penitent Burnham to join the Discovery crew, the drama only intensifies.

Now that Michael’s on board the Discovery - her home for, presumably, more than two episodes this time - there’s time to introduce some characters. Captain Lorca is the most intriguing and new to Star Trek - a gruff, judgemental military man who does not hold to morality, procedure, or the law one iota. Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman) is sure to be divisive, but her anxious, possibly on-the-spectrum attitude belies an enormous heart. Chief of security Commander Landry (Battlestar Galactica’s Rekha Sharma) doesn’t get much screen time this week, but seems destined to become an icy enforcer for Lorca. Lieutenant Stamets (Anthony Rapp), astromycologist, gets all the headlines as Star Trek’s first openly gay character, but his no-nonsense, lightly sarcastic manner would work regardless of sexual orientation. Blueberry-loving alien Saru (Doug Jones), now First Officer, was introduced earlier, but he’s now got the added dimension of struggling with his attitude to Burnham. Even Burnham herself feels like a wholly new character, her guilt and self-loathing driving a newfound attachment to Starfleet ideals that clashes with the actions she’s asked to perform.

And what are those actions in service of? The show sets up some intriguing mystery regarding Discovery’s exact mission. It’s nominally a science vessel, but crew members are hesitant to label it as such. Security and classification are much higher than on an ordinary Starfleet ship, with black uniforms and “Black Alerts” indicating some kind of covert ops protocols. The ship’s rendezvous with Burnham’s shuttle seems far more than coincidence. And the ship’s science labs are definitely hiding all manner of arcane experiments - largely biological in nature, which is highly worrying. I for one don’t believe Captain Lorca for a minute - on just about anything he says. Two things are certain: his “biological travel” tech isn’t the only thing the Discovery crew is working on, and whatever else happens on the show, that technology is doomed to spectacular failure, given its absence from the rest of Star Trek.

“Context Is For Kings” also has a surprisingly strong hand in horror. Investigating the ghost ship USS Glenn, Burnham and co discover a crew whose bodies and faces are twisted, The Thing-like, into horrific shapes, and Klingons mutilated by a rampaging beast (except one, who is left to shush the away team before being killed himself). There’s something almost eldritch in Stamets talking about quantum-level “physics as biology,” as scientifically shonky as that might be, and there are plenty of technologies mentioned - “reaction cubes,” “bloom,” Lorca’s captured creature - that indicate a deeper level of scientific malpractice. It’s all effectively creepy, right down to the video-gamey malfunctioning door.

Even putting aside the tonal shift, the filmmaking in “Context is for Kings” feels like it’s from a different show to the previous episodes altogether. Akiva Goldsman directs this week, and while that guy gets a lot of fully justified criticism, his handheld camera coverage this week is far more immediate than the over-smooth, canted-angle bullshit that was so distancing last week. The pacing holds back on the urgency and breathlessly ADRed exposition, while still getting through a fair chunk of story, while the dialogue actually illustrates character, as opposed to having actors say “as [my job title], I can [perform task].”

Star Trek: Discovery really is charting bold new territory for the franchise - not just in its fully serialised storytelling, but in its tone and its subject matter. This isn’t the utopian Star Trek of the 1960s or 1980s; it’s more morally grey - a show less like what Gene Roddenberry envisioned and more like the one suggested by Deep Space Nine’s Section 31. Hell, the captain is kind of the bad guy in this show. And despite the presence of Jefferies Tubes and the like, Discovery’s design still just doesn’t fit in the Prime universe.

I’m torn on all of that, but I think I’m going to come down on the side of liking it - especially if the tortured morality ends up reinforcing the franchise’s optimistic vision by the end of the season. Like the hamfistedly-quoted Alice in Wonderland, down is up and up is down in this incarnation of Star Trek - and after three episodes, it’s finally starting to take likeable shape. If only “Context” had been the pilot - and with a couple tweaks, it could totally have functioned as such - everyone would be a great deal more positive about this show.