Oh, “Star Trek: Discovery”, you’re a cunning one. Here we are on our third date and you know what that means. Do we have a future together or was it just a brief fling? No wonder you kept the best of your new goodies until this episode. Because make no mistake, “Context Is For Kings” is the real “Star Trek: Discovery” pilot. The previous two episodes were effectively a prequel to this prequel. #Prequelception.
During a prison transfer, now notorious mutineer Michael Burnham’s transport shuttle runs into trouble only to be rescued by the starship Discovery. With no option but to remain on the ship while the shuttle is repaired, Burnham is pressed into working in engineering aboard this most secretive Starfleet vessel. When the Discovery’s sister ship suffers a catastrophic accident, Burnham joins the away team and must prove her value to her reluctant shipmates.
Where the previous two episodes gave us the beginning of the overall series arc, in terms of characters it told us a fairly self-contained story, jettisoning nearly all of the cast once its tale was told. “Context Is For Kings” offers us, the viewers, a royal banquet in terms of new characters, mysteries and intriguing plot threads to explore in the coming episodes.
Chief amongst these are Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs), a secretive, manipulative and authoritarian leader. Clearly focused on gathering the best and the brightest Starfleet has to offer, he’s vastly more morally flexible than any other Captain Trek has shown us before. He’s interested in talent and potential, not necessarily the social niceties and abilities to play well with others. He clearly cares little for crew morale, because the heads of department we meet in this episode (Chief Of Security Landry (Rekhta Sharma) and Astromycologist Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp))are borderline unpleasant and outright hostile at times.
Jason Isaacs makes an instant impression as Captain Lorca. Sardonic and stern, its nevertheless obvious that his directive nature is a result of his confidence and competence for the mission he’s been given, which is to win the war with the Klingons. He becomes one of the few Starfleet captains ever to actually say the name of the episode as dialogue and by the end, he’s piled up a number of secrets and hints of agendas, including having his own…ahem… menagerie (and an infertile Tribble). Lorca clearly likes to plot., scheme and manipulate events, which is a great aptitude in a galactic war, but if he plotted to get Burnham onto his ship, was the death of the prison shuttle’s [unexpectedly tiny] pilot a deliberate part of his plan or just some unfortunate collateral damage. So far, I could believe either interpretation. I’ve got the feeling that the “Star Trek: Discovery” writer’s room takes Chekov’s Gun very seriously so I’m interested to see how everything that’s being thrown on the table in this episode it picked up and pays off later.
Aside from Lorca, Landry and Stamets, the other major introduction this episode is Cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman). She’s a bright, excitable, almost cynically constructed audience proxy. She’s also instantly likeable, very different from nearly every other main Trek character we’ve ever seen and may be my new favourite character (although I reserve the right to find her annoying in a few episodes’’ time).She may start off as a prototypical ‘special snowflake’ with her allergies and ‘special needs’ but it will all depend on how she develops. She’s possibly the most intriguing character when you put her in the context of Lorca’s demanding and extremely selective approach to recruitment. What makes this fourth-year cadet so special that she merits a place on Lorca’s starship?
Speaking of the USS Discovery, she looks gorgeous. Tweaked and polished since the early reveal, the finished project looks tremendous both inside and out and I’m looking forward to exploring more of her as the series progresses. As to her origins, there’s a steely pragmatism and disregard for the conventions of Starfleet that hints at the involvement of Section 31 (if the black badges and registration number NCC-1031 weren’t clues enough). Just to underline how potentially unfriendly a place Discovery is, the mess hall apparently runs of the same rules and principles as High School cafeteria.
As is often the case with “Star Trek” series, the third episode (even if it is part of the pilot) is a money-saving ‘bottle show’, although it uses another favourite Trek trope of a ‘sister’ ship which gives the feeling of going elsewhere thanks to different lighting and Dutch angles. It’s a surprisingly horror-tinged visit to the Glenn, kind of “Star Trek” does “Event Horizon” in its execution, with a welcome return to the Jeffries tubes for some “Alien”-style escape work. The central MacGuffin of the episode is the USS Discovery’s experimental ‘spore drive’. Again, this rubs up against the constraints of being a prequel because unless there’s another bifurcation of the timeline ahead, we already know that this experiment will never work out as planned because, for the next hundred years or so at least, starships use dilithium crystal-powered warp drives. The way it’s portrayed, however, bears a striking resemblance to the extinct and ancient Iconian network which was touched on in all three ‘Next Generation’-era series, so I wonder if that will somehow cointo to play down the line.
It still feels like Trek to me, and actually is skewing closer to “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” at the moment, which is possibly the highest praise I can give it. With the pilot shenanigans hopefully now out of the way, let’s see where “Star Trek: Discovery” takes us now it’s freed up to boldly go.