I realized I didn’t see Star Trek the way every other Trek fan sees it a year or so after the release of 1979’s Star Trek – The Motion Picture, a movie that was one of the most crushing disappointments I ever experienced, despite containing the actors from my favorite TV series, (great) music by my favorite composer, and what I still think is the most beautiful version ever of the Starship Enterprise. I found the movie an ambitious bore and missed the fire and, yes, the conflict between the characters that I loved on the original show. I remember discussing this very disappointment with a fellow college student who immediately informed me in no uncertain terms that she did not want HER Enterprise bridge crew to have dramatic conflicts with one another. In her mind, they were family, and she wanted her family to get along.
I never saw her after college but she must have LOVED Star Trek – The Next Generation. I did too, after two years of mostly boring episodes in which everyone got along famously. I like to have a little dramatic conflict on MY Enterprise bridge. So I watched the opening moments of “Context Is For Kings,” the third episode of Discovery, with Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham onboard a shuttle full of ugly Federation convicts, eventually boarding the starship Discovery and meeting Rhika Sharma as Commander Ellen Landry, the Discovery’s no-nonsense security officer, who immediately refers to them as “garbage,” and I thought, “Man, are Trekkies gonna hate this!”
It’s clear that Discovery is asking the question, “Do you want utopia, or do you want to see how utopia is earned?” Discovery’s first two episodes set up (not entirely successfully) Burnham as a morally and psychologically compromised Starfleet officer, someone whose internal conflict between logic and emotion cost the life not only of her captain, friend, and mentor but of more than 8000 other Starfleet officers. We learn that Burnham basically started the war with the Klingons, and that Federation society itself. A place where want and need had all but been eliminated, has been set back on its heels by the war. Anger, bitterness, stealth and conspiracy are now, at least temporarily, part of life in the Federation, and Burnham is keenly aware of the fact that she is largely responsible for that. Burnham wants nothing more than to serve her time for her crime, but Discovery Captain Gabriel Lorca (the tremendous Jason Isaacs) has other ideas, and plucks her off her prison shuttle to test her mettle for a position on the ship.
Several of Burnham’s fellow officers from the destroyed Shenzou are now in positions on the Discovery—Saru (Doug Jones) is now Lorca’s first officer. In addition to Lorca and Landry, we’re introduced to fungus expert Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and tongue-tied ensign Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), who gets the unenviable task of being Burnham’s roommate.
Stamets’ expertise in fungal spores is more useful than you might think—there are energy-gobbling spores afoot in the galaxy, and the Discovery, ostensibly a science research vessel, is exploring the idea of using the spores as a miraculous, super-warp drive. Between the hate-talking space convicts, the hard-as-nails security officer, and Wiseman’s flibbertigibbet ensign, I was settling in for “Context Is For Kings” to be a textbook case of the trying-too-hards, but about 10 minutes into the episode I started getting absorbed—the kind of feeling I haven’t had watching a Star Trek episode in a long time. I fully expected Jason Isaac’s mysterious Captain Lorca to be great—Isaac is understated with just a hint of menace and a temper boiling underneath, and knowing what this great actor is capable of, it’s obvious he’s not showing us all his cards yet. But darned if he isn’t matched by Anthony Rapp, whose Stamets is both convincingly embittered at Burnham and wonderfully sarcastic and funny. And after a potentially unbearable opening minute or two, ensign Tilly manages to be both funny and touching.
The writing on the show’s two-part pilot was dodgy at best, with some moments of impossible to follow logic and motivation and other moments of just plain clunky dialogue. But here the dialogue, mostly rendered by Bryan Fuller’s show-runners Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts along with Craig Sweeny, is sharp and arresting. When Doug Jones’ Saru tells Burnham, “I intend to protect my captain better than you did yours,” you can see the pain the line inflicts on both Saru and Burnham. Sonequa Martin-Green continues to be superb, soulful and powerful as Burnham, even when she’s parroting lines from Alice in Wonderland during a chase scene and especially when she delivers a speech accepting the position that Lorca offers her on the Discovery.
Now the question is, what will the journey be, and are two characters who seem like they could be outright evil—Lorca and his security chief—really that? We’ve seen Starfleet officers seduced by power and survival and it never ends—or goes over—very well. Although it’s a daring conceit given Trek’s history, spending a season—or a series—with Michael Burnham uncovering conspiracies and evildoing on the Discovery isn’t going to make Star Trek fans happy. Let’s hope there’s a little bit more going on then that, but in terms of executing on the level of a modern, serialized drama, “Context Is For Kings” finally delivers and notches my hopes for this series WAY up. Whether Star Trek fans will be onboard for a series that charts a course from dystopia to utopia is another question.
GEEK Grade: A-
Context Is For Kings
Teleplay by Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts & Craig Sweeny
Directed by Akiva Goldsman