Star Trek Discovery: Context is for Kings

"We are creating a new way to fly."

After last week's extended prologue, this was our first glimpse of what an actual episode of Star Trek: Discovery will look like.

Welcome aboard the USS Discovery, a mysterious ship full of mysterious people doing mysterious things mysteriously. Thrown into this, under suitably mysterious circumstances, is Michael Burnham, six months into her life sentence for mutiny and sporting a new curly prison hairdo. Now something of a Ro Laren/Tom Paris-ish figure, Michael's not interested in getting involved in whatever mysterious shit the crew of Discovery are up to. She just wants to keep her head down, go back to prison and serve her time. That's what she says, but that isn't what she does. She wasn't even on Discovery a day before she decided to break into the secret labs and have a nose around, which was exactly what Captain Lucius Malfoy expected her to do.

It is clear from these first three episodes that Discovery is not going to strictly adhere to the pure Utopian view of the future that Gene Roddenberry envisioned and nothing seems to encapsulate that more than the character of Captain Gabriel Lorca (played by the always wonderful Jason Isaacs). In previous Star Trek shows the captain was always a reassuring presence, the emotional and moral centre of the show, and the one person we could always rely on to do the right thing (or in Sisko's case the wrong thing for the right reason). But in Lorca we have a captain who is untrustworthy, manipulative, militaristic, probably a dark wizard, maybe has his own personal torture chamber, and could potentially end up being the real villain of this entire series. In short, he is everything that Roddenberry would not want a Starfleet captain to be. And that is by no means a bad thing.


One of the many reasons Star Trek shriveled and died as a television franchise more than a decade ago is because the people making it became unwilling to embrace change or innovation, allowing the franchise to slip into stagnation. To add insult to injury, much of the former talent went away and made the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, which made Star Trek: Enterprise look practically archaic.  It also didn't help that the idiots in charge (Rick Berman and Brannon Braga) thought the only way to keep people interested was to treat their female characters as nothing more than scantily clad figures of lust for horny fanboys. Under Berman and Braga's odious leadership, Star Trek went from being groundbreaking and thought provoking to lazy and embarrassing. It is fair to say that no one misses them.

Which brings us to Discovery, our latest hope for the second coming of Star Trek. We thought it would be the new movies but they really do not stand up well to repeated viewing and after the muted critical and box office reaction to Beyond I doubt we'll be seeing another Star Trek movie anytime soon. Which I really think is for the best because, for me at least, Star Trek has already worked better on the small screen. Television allows for more scope, more variety, and more chances for the secondary characters to shine. Can anyone think of anything memorable Geordi or Crusher did in any of the Next Gen movies? 

When Discovery was first announced I hoped that it would be a show that combined the character drama and strong storytelling of DS9 with the clever sci-fi ideas of TOS and TNG. I wanted a show that would be faithful to Roddenberry's vision in spirit, but at the same time unafraid to question or even outright challenge it. I wanted a show that understood that Star Trek needs to change and evolve if it is to survive and thrive in the current TV landscape. 'Context is for Kings' is an episode that does exactly that. I'm not saying it is up there with the very best of those shows, but this is exactly what I was looking for from a modern Star Trek series.

One thing I really liked about this episode is how it explored the inherent contradiction of Starfleet itself. This is a military organisation with a military hierarchy that's stated mission is one of peace and exploration. Starfleet officers are meant to be explorers first and soldiers only when necessary, but we see how quickly that gets switched around when the existence of the Federation is threatened. In peace time the Discovery (and its late sister ship) would've been a ship of pure research, but in war time it becomes a mobile Manhattan Project, pushing scientific boundaries to give the Federation the edge in the war with the Klingons.

One thing I didn't like was how quickly they rushed through the mission on the Glenn. They could've done a whole episode about Michael, Stamets, Tilly, Commander Cylon and the red shirt Mulder and Scullying their way around the dark, blood splattered corridors of Discovery's sister ship. Instead, the the whole thing was over and done with in barely 10 minutes. Because of this, the entire mission felt shoehorned in just so Michael could have a selfless hero moment and slip in some Fringe style body horror. Mind you, I did find that shushing Klingon a lot funnier than I should've.


Where Were They Then

Seeing as Discovery is set ten years before 'Where No Man has Gone Before' I decided to skim through Memory Alpha and put together this handy little guide of what all the major Star Trek characters alive at the time were up to.

--James T. Kirk was 23 and an ensign in his last year of a five-year officer training program at Starfleet Academy. After graduating Lt. Kirk would be assigned to the phaser station aboard the USS Farragut.

--Spock was 26 and serving as science officer aboard the USS Enterprise under Captain Christopher Pike.

--Dr. Leonard McCoy was 29 and had recently ended his relationship with Nancy Carter ('The Man Trap').

--Montgomery Scott was 34 and serving as an engineer in Starfleet.

--Pavel Chekov was 11 and no doubt learning about how everything ever made was Russian.

--It is unknown how old Hikaru Sulu and Nyota Uhura are during this period or what they were doing, but it is likely they were both in high school.

--The Dax symbiont's current host was either Emony or Audrid.

--I haven't got the foggiest idea how old Guinan was or what she was doing, but I imagine it involved the buying of lots and lots of really big hats.

--And Q was no doubt off annoying some species somewhere.


Notes and Quotes

--The design of the Discovery has been tweaked since the first teaser trailer was released. The ship's look was based on Ralph McQuarrie's redesign for the Enterprise for the unmade Star Trek: Planet of the Titans.


--For those of you interested, the Discovery is a Crossfield class ship.

--Amanda's fondness for Lewis Carroll comes from the animated series episode 'Once Upon a Planet.'

--As well as Captain Lorca, this episode introduced us to two other members of the main cast: Paul Stamets, an astromycologist and your typical asshole genius who is not at all happy about being press ganged into the Federation's war effort, and cadet Sylvia Tilly, the offspring of a rainbow and sunshine. Because she's so adorable, and her friendship with Michael shows a lot of promise, I'm willing to overlook the fact she is a walking collection of nerd cliches.

--Loved Saru showing Michael around while munching blueberries.

--One of the things that has always bugged me about every Star Trek series is how the crew always beamed into hazardous situations in their regular uniforms. I am happy to see that this show is dispensing with that.

--Tilly with her hair down made me think of T'Pau and I don't mean the Vulcan.

--I'm assuming the reason the ship isn't swarming with them is because Lorca had his Tribble neutered.

--The uniforms have pockets. Pockets!!! Now that truly is revolutionary.

--I don't trust Commander Cylon.

--Anyone else think the black badge dudes are connected to the ones from Wynonna Earp? I know they are probably Section 31, but what if back badge and Section 31 are one and the same? Then when can have a crossover and see if even the universal translator can make sense of what Doc Holliday is saying.

Lorca: "No matter how deep in space you are, always feels like you can see home. Don't you think? Maybe it's just me. Forgive the lighting. The lack thereof. A recent battle injury. There's nothing they can do if I want to keep my own eyes, and I do. I have to suffer light change slowly. I like to think it makes me mysterious. No?"

Tilly: "Wow, is that a book?"
--Somewhere the ghost of Rupert Giles is weeping.

Three out of four Beatle's cover bands.
--
Mark Greig won't be turned around, and he'll keep this world from draggin' him down. Gonna stand his ground, and he won't back down. More Mark Greig

3 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Thanks for a terrific review, Mark. I was also wildly encouraged by the non-Trek-iness of this episode, the weirdness and ambiguity of Captain Lorca, the fact that there were no long scenes with subtitled Klingons, which turned me off in a great big way in the first two episodes.

I really loved your rundown of where the original series people would be at the time, because I was doing that in my head. I knew Spock would be serving under Christopher Pike, but I thought he was a bit older than that? But I'm no authority, and Memory Alpha is. What's interesting, of course, is that Michael is sort of Spock's step-sister.

Spores? Instant transport spores?

Heather1 said...

I loved this episode! I heartily agree that Star Trek must evolve and if Discovery serves that purpose... fantastic! That being said, it bugs me that Jason Isaacs uses an American accent. Why? To distance fans' perception of him as a Death Eater? Every time I hear him talk, it takes me out of things for a little. But that is a quibble. And Billie, I thought the same thing about the (probably) neutered tribble!

Henrik Bennetter said...

Heather - me too on the accent! It'd be fun to know why they decided Lorca should sound american and not british!

Mark! Great review. So great, in fact, that it made me like the episode more than when I watched it.
I'm a big fan of TNG and VOY and am having...difficulties adjusting to this shade of Trek, or "Dark Trek" which I've decided on to call it.
I agree that the series needs to evolve, I'm just not convinced yet that this is the way to go. Maybe because that I'm so curious how this prequel series will or shall fit into the canon of TOS.
And, yes, I've watched enough prequels and reboots and so on to know that you sometimes just have to go with it and just raise your suspension-of-disbelief-bar but still. Star Trek is very dear to me and I would hate to see it ruined.

Don't get me wrong. So far I really like this show. I'm just not sure it's Star Trek yet.

And I'm not quite sure what's up with Michael. It just seems odd to me that for someone although human that's been raised by Vulcans - doesn't she display an awful lot of emotions? Sometimes even snarkiness?
I really like Sonequa and think she's doing a very good job here, I'm just not sure about the direction for her character. Perhaps they'll iron out the wrinkles in coming episodes.
If nothing else, I thought it was a huge missed opportunity to hear a "Fascinating" in the growth bay.