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Josh Reviews Star Trek: Discovery Episode 3: “Context is for Kings”

I seem to be in the minority of the Star Trek fans I know in that I mostly liked the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery.  I hate all the continuity problems caused by the show’s prequel setting (ten years before Kirk/Spock/McCoy’s adventures on the Original Series) — I wish dearly the series was set 100 years AFTER Star Trek: The Next Generation, which would make all of these continuity problems vanish.  But putting those continuity problems aside (which is, admittedly, hard to do), I enjoyed Discovery. It looked great, and I was happy that the show seemed to embrace classic Star Trek themes and morality, portraying heroic Starfleet officers behaving (mostly) the way I believe Starfleet officers should (something that the last three rebooted Trek movies, and even the last two TV series Voyager and Enterprise, often failed to do).  I was interested in the new characters introduced and excited to see a Trek series made with modern-era production values and storytelling approaches (such as serialization).  I was intrigued that these first two episode were basically just a long prologue to whatever the main story of Discovery is going to be — it’s nice to see the time taken to explore this backstory — and I was interested to see what episode three would be like, since presumably this would now start to establish exactly what sort of show Discovery is actually going to be.  Unfortunately, I found episode three, “Context if for Kings,” to be very problematic.  If this is what Discovery is going to be, then we might be in trouble.

Six months after the events of the first two episodes, the Federation and the Klingons are at war and Michael Burnham is in prison.  But while being transferred, her shuttle gets into trouble and she is rescued by the U.S.S. Discovery, an enormous new starship.  Burnham is tasked with assisting with some sort of top-secret experiment that the officers on board Discovery are conducting, an experiment that led to the destruction of Discovery’s sister-ship and the loss of all hands.  Yadda yadda yadda, it’s no surprise that Burnham winds up a member of Discovery’s crew by the end of the episode, albeit reluctantly.

I have a lot of problems with this episode, primarily boiling down to these areas:

Number one (see what I did there?), there is a LOT of important information that is withheld from Michael, and therefore the audience, and so for much of the episode we have absolutely no idea what is going on.  I am not a fan of this Lost type of storytelling, in which the viewer is kept in the dark about the motivations of characters and the context (an important word, based on the episode title) of any of the events happening.  There are a lot of things that happen in this episode that I didn’t understand, and for the most part I think that the writers are purposely withholding this information.  What is the Discovery’s true mission?  There’s got to be more to it than that explanation we got at the end about the magic bugs leading to faster-than-light travel.  Is Captain Lorca — or anyone on board the Discovery — on the level?  Even the gregarious cadet seems to know things about Discovery’s mission that she doesn’t tell Burnham (or us).  To me this is a frustrating way to structure a TV show.  If I don’t know what is happening or why any characters are behaving the way they are, why do I care about any of it?  Answer: I don’t.

Second, even the aspects of this episode that I think were supposed to be clear didn’t make any sense at all.  I hardly know where to begin.  If Lorca wanted to transfer Burnham to his ship, why the whole ruse with arranging the prison transfer?  Why bring all those other prisoners along with Burnham?  (He doesn’t seem concerned at the end about what Starfleet will think about him restoring Burnham’s status as a starfleet officer, so why the ruse at the beginning?)  When Burnham’s shuttle runs into trouble, the pilot sounds like she’s dealt with the problem lots of times before — how could that be if the prison shuttle had been diverted to an area of space with the “bugs” Discovery is investigating, i.e. not their usual prison transfer route?  Was the prison shuttle pilot actually a member of the Discovery’s crew?  Did Lorca really let that shuttle pilot die?  After bringing the prisoners on board Discovery, why on earth were they allowed to mingle in the main crew mess hall, rather than being brought directly to the brig?  Even if the other inmates truly hated Burnham and actually thought they could kill her, why try to do so in the middle of a room FILLED with Starfleet officers?  Shall I go on?

The “monster movie” sequence as the Discovery team, including Burnham, investigates the abandoned starship, was fun.  But we’re really not going to be told what that monster was?  What was that, and how did it get on board the ship?  Maybe this will be answered in a future episode, but I felt I needed some info on what the heck was going on to be given here in this one.  Also, I’m unclear on how Burnham would know the layout of this ship when she seemed totally unfamiliar with any starship like the Discovery a few minutes earlier in the episode when she first boarded the Discovery.  (Still, it is great to hear the words “Jefferies tube” on a new Star Trek show…!)

So far, I am really wishing this whole series had been set aboard the Shenzhou rather than the Discovery.  I liked the look of that starship a lot more, and I liked all those characters a lot more.  At this point, Michelle Yeoh’s dearly-departed Captain Georgiou seems superior in every way to the Discovery’s Captain Lorca, played by Jason Isaacs.  Mr. Isaacs is a great actor and he does great work in this episode.  But boy does the episode go way over the top in establishing Captain Lorca as EVIL.  From that first scene in which we see he likes to hang out in his ready room in near-total darkness (no, that’s not ominous and weird at all, right?), to the last scene in which we see he has some sort of menagerie (see what I did there?) of dead creatures on the ship, this was all laid on a little bit thick for me.  Is this all just misdirection and Lorca is going to turn out to be OK?  Maybe a tough pragmatist willing to crack a few heads to defend the Federation, a la Benjamin Sisko?  OR is the show going in the predictable direction in which I’m afraid it’s going, in which Lorca is evil and Burnham is going to have to commit a second mutiny to stop him?

I did love the version of Captain Lorca we saw in that final scene with Burnham, in which he convinced her to stay onboard the Discovery.  I liked that guy, gruff and tough but smart and interested in finding a place for someone who he felt had value, despite everything the rest of Starfleet has to say.  This could be a very interesting version of a Starfleet captain.  Of course, the episode’s final scene shows him in his dark lair surrounded by skeletons, so I suspect, as I just wrote above, that he is going to turn out to be a villain, which is not a direction that I am at all excited about.

Across the board, the show’s production values are incredible.  It is a thrill to see a Star Trek adventure put together on the broad canvas allowed by the show’s sizeable budget.  The show’s visual effects continue to be spectacular.  The space-shots of the Discovery are amazing (that shot of the Discovery near a sun at the end was fantastic) and there were a lot of cool shots of the ship’s interior that emphasized the size of this enormous starship.  That was all very cool.  The Discovery looks great even though I chafe at how un-Starfleet it looks.  Yes, the Shenzhou looks nothing like starships of this era of Trek should look — but if I could ignore that, it a) looked cool and b) did look to me like a very Starfleet type of ship.  The Discovery on the other hand looks cool but doesn’t look Starfleet at all.  Yes, I am a Star Trek nerd and yes, I know this design is based on a rejected Ralph McQuarrie design for the refit Enterprise for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  But that design was rejected for a reason.  The ship’s awkward triangular secondary hull, its’ enormous nacelles that dwindle down to tiny points at the end, these don’t look like any Federation starship we have ever seen, and certainly nothing like the original Constitution class Enterprise which, remember, is supposed to already be in service when Discovery is taking place!  (Once again, if Discovery was set 100 years after Next Gen I would have no problem with this design!  But as a prequel show, this just doesn’t work for me.)

Which brings me to all the continuity errors that I am trying to ignore but, damn, the show is making it so hard for me.  That holographic screen in which Lt. Stamets was talking to his doomed colleague, and we see his colleague’s face coming out of the screen in 3-dimensions, was very cool and also, problematically, far more advanced than anything we saw on the Next Gen era Trek shows 100 years later.  The biggest continuity blunder was at the end, when Captain Lorca is demonstrating to Burnham all the places across the galaxy that the super-bugs could take them if their experiment (which I don’t at all understand at this point) works, and he includes Romulus.  No, no, no.  We know from the Original Series episode “Balance of Terror” that no Federation citizen had even SEEN a Romulan at this point in Trek history, let along knew what Romulus (their home world) looked like!!!  (This is not a minor super-nerdy point of continuity.  This is a major story-point in one of the very best and most well known Original Series episodes.)

So, was there ANYTHING I liked in this episode?  Well, I already mentioned the terrific production values, and they deserve another round of praise.  I did also enjoy the times the show put its nonsensical plot aside and focused back in on the characters.  Sonequa Martin-Green continues to be amazing as the main character, Michael Burnham.  I love this character and I love this performance.  I remain somewhat mystified by the choices Burnham made in the opening two-parter, but I like the idea of starting a Trek series with a character who has fallen from grace.  (It’s no coincidence that my favorite Trek series, Deep Space Nine, also opened by focusing on a lead character who was a former starship first officer who was broken by catastrophic events.)  (Also, while I object to the way the show is withholding critical information from the audience, I don’t object to the idea of showing us, for the first time, a lead of a Star Trek series who doesn’t sit atop the chain of command and who therefore isn’t privy to all of the information that those at the top have.)

It already feels like too much of a coincidence that two surviving Shenzhou crewmembers (plus Burnham) are onboard the Discovery, but I am glad Saru remains a main character on the show and I loved all of his scenes with Burnham.  (He’s going to be pissed when he loses his first officer position to her, am I right?)

I’m not sure what to make yet of Lt. Samets.  First of all, I’m not entirely clear of his role on the ship.  Is he the chief engineer?  Is that dark science-lab-looking place where they were working supposed to be the Discovery’s Main Engineering??  Samets speaks like he’s wandered in off of a Joss Whedon show, with a lot of snark and some 21st century colloquialisms and references.  It’s an out of place choice for a Star Trek show, but I sort of like it.  The main problem with his character right now is that the show has kept so much of who he is and what he’s doing a secret that I don’t really feel I have much to grab hold of in terms of this character.  I hope this improves in future episodes, as this feels like a character with potential.

I am intrigued to see a character with “special needs” on a Star Trek show, though I winced at the use of that term which is already considered somewhat out of fashion today, and I was pained by the annoying nature of that character, Cadet Tilly.  (Explain to me again why they let a convicted felon share a room with a Cadet?  And why is a Cadet on board this super-secret starship, anyway?)

I am thrilled to see Rekha Sharma (who played Tory on Battlestar Galactica and who also popped up recently in a terrific guest role on the Star Trek fan-made series Star Trek Continues) as the Discovery’s chief of security.  I am interested to see more of this character.  (I would have liked to have seen her in more of a leadership role when the mission to the Discovery’s abandoned sister-ship went sour.)

Other thoughts:

* Something about that shot of the Discovery shuttle shooting out of its shuttlebay, through the shield, really tickled me.  That was a cool fast beat and a beautiful visual effects shot.

* I like Burnham’s curly, messy hair better than the straight ‘do she sported in the first two episodes.

* Really?  A tribble on Lorca’s desk?  Really??  Forget the fact that no one in Starfleet should know what a tribble is at this point.  Forget the fact that, remember, tribbles multiple exponentially, so if Lorca has one tribble today, the Discovery should be FULL of them in less than a week.  But what I really object to is that it’s just such a dull, obvious Star Trek reference.

*I am very curious as to what is actually happening in the Klingon-Federation war, now that we are six months in.  Is there constant combat happening?  How is Starfleet doing?  Everyone seems to know that 8,000 people died at the Battle of the Binary Stars when the war commenced, but what has been happening for the past six months?  I assume future episodes will get into this.

* The episode’s title was nicely reminiscent of the Original Series episode “The Conscience of the King.”  As I noted above, I enjoyed that Lorca-Burnham scene at the end of the episode (in which Lorca spoke the line that explained the title).

* It was interesting to see a character remark on Michael Burnham’s unusual name.  I like the idea of playing with gender stereotypes to give the female Burnham a typically-male first name.  I’ve read online some suggestions that Michael took her dead father’s name.  I wonder if the show will choose to explore this further?

* Am I crazy or does Jason Isaac’s Captain Lorca not look and sound a LOT like Mad Men’s Jon Hamm??  (He certainly ACTS a lot like Don Draper!)

Well, I am not giving up, but this third episode was mostly a disappointment for me.  I hope next week’s installment steps up its game.

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