In the third episode of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, I WAS INCREDIBLY STRESSED OUT BY THIS ENTIRE EPISODE. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of body horror.
Let’s start out with what I said a couple times while doing the video for this episode: I am now beginning to understand why this series opened the way it did. Beginning, that is, because I of course don’t even remotely know the full context of the story that’s about to unfold on Discovery. But having the knowledge of the Battle at the Binary Stars allowed me to appreciate the intensity and complication of what unfolded here. The show established Michael Burnham’s presence in Starfleet, then showed us why she made a decision that started a war and destroyed her career. Here, however, because of the unknown machinations of Captain Gabriel Lorca, she’s brought back into Starfleet again.
And yet, almost every moment of “Context is for Kings” acts of a reminder of what came before, without us actually reliving anything. To riff off the title, I had the context to understand why Michael Burnham’s return was so highly charged. So there’s a part of me that understands why the Discovery writers basically gave us a flashback to open the show? I imagine we’re going to plow forward from this point on, and rather than sprinkle in flashbacks over the course of the first season (or beyond, I suppose), we got it all in one dose.
It also meant that I could just settle in to the story being told here. I have to initially admit to you all that while I definitely enjoyed the writing, the acting here is INCREDIBLE, and it’s what sold this show on me more than anything. Already, we have these remarkably well-defined characters from the opening episodes in Saru and Burnham. Joining them in “Context Is for Kings” are Captain Gabriel Lorca, Commander Landry, Cadet Tilly, and Lieutenant Stamets. (Though I’m curious if Keyla, who we glimpse here briefly with some sort of implant on her head, will become a part of the main focus of characters, since she also experienced the Battle at the Binary Stars along with Saru.) Each of these characters are played with precision and brilliance by a cast that feels like they were destined to be these people! What’s so fascinating to me above all else is that like Burnham, the audience has no clue what these people will be like or why they are the way they are. “Context” is a mystery-laden story, not just in terms of the plot, but in characterization. Why is Commander Landry so cold towards others? What is the root of Tilly’s nervousness? (She mentions something very early on about “special needs,” and I thought that phrasing revealed more than was actually revealed. Was that meant to speak to solely to her allergies, or is there something more to Tilly?) Particularly when it comes to both Stamets and Lorca, Discovery subverts any expectations the audience might have for a science officer or a captain.
And isn’t that interesting, too? I feel like you could watch Discovery without having seen a second of any other Star Trek property. It explains enough for a basic understanding of this fictional world. But there’s a clear value in being a Star Trek fan, too! We’ve certainly seen our fair share of captains over the four main shows, and some haven’t been likable. None of them really feel like one another. But for the Captain on Discovery to be described as a “warmonger” in the very first episode he appears in??? To have him be openly cunning, strategic, and manipulative to get what he wants? This isn’t even an issue of him being likable; I was just astounded that he’s so morally grey right from the start, especially within an organization that has been historically portrayed as something deeply moral and ethical. IT’S SO DIFFERENT. Yet at the same time, context is key, right? And in the midst of a war with the Klingon Empire, it does feel believable that Starfleet would basically give a blank check to someone like Lorca, who could achieve things other Starfleet captains would shy away from. Assuming he’s telling the truth, of course.
Lord, I don’t trust Lorca. I DON’T.
Anyway, there are SO VERY MANY little moments I want to talk about, so let’s take a (chronological) trip through this episode so I can YELL.
- That scene in the shuttlebay after the cold open… whew. What a way to set a tone and expectation for the episode. Seeing Burnham on a starship was weird enough, but it was very clear from how Commander Landry spoke to Burnham that no one was going to be shy about expressing their extreme distaste for “Starfleet’s first mutineer,” as Landry put it. This episode does an incredible job portraying that! In every corridor that Burnham walks down, there’s at least one person in the background staring at her, either in shock or disgust.
- And then the scene in the mess hall made that even MORE clear. Keyla can barely look at Burnham, and Burnham’s fellow prisoners try to kill her. Notice how no one intervened to stop the fight. It was only when Landry came to retrieve her for Lorca that the fight ended. ONLY THEN.
- I don’t know why, but it utterly unnerves me that Lorca eats fortune cookies.
- I don’t get him. YET, I should say. But Captain Lorca fascinates me. I think that it’s already bold of the show NOT to make the Captain the main character; it feels clear that Burnham is the focus. And beyond that, there’s still something odd and sinister to Lorca. Part of that comes from him being secretive, as is revealed at the end of the episode when we discover that he brought that THING aboard. But it’s also due to how charming he can seem at times, like when he reveals the purpose for the research that’s happening onboard the Discovery. He’s right that travel via spores (I know that’s a gross simplification) would utterly change life in the galaxy, and many wonderful things would come of it. Do I believe he’s telling Burnham everything? Oh, absolutely not. And part of the reason why is that I don’t believe that Stamets would have the opinions he does about Lorca unless there was some truth to them.
- CADET TILLY. HI. HELLO. Oh my god, do you want to know one of my first thoughts after her first scene? “Hey, it’s Reginald Barclay, but not nearly as uncomfortable!” It helped that we got to meet Tilly as she would define herself, and that whatever she happens to be dealing with, it’s not tied to something like… well, a holodeck addiction. Which is why I thought of Barclay when she appeared, since he might be the only recurring character on Star Trek with social anxiety. Now, Cadet Tilly is also coping with anxiety, but it’s not at all the same as Barclay, so I wanna make it clear that it was only a passing realization of mine in terms of comparing her to Barclay. She is very obviously a new character! Her depiction also never felt cruel, which was important to me. By the end of the episode, any of Tilly’s potentially annoying qualities—because Burnham was annoyed by her a few times—end up being part of what makes her so endearing. She’s someone who has high aspirations for herself, knows that she has room to grow, and moves through the world with this refreshing sense of intent. She is always trying to do the best, even when she isn’t sure what that is. Like when she apologizes to Burnham for lying about “assigned seating” in Engineering! That apology was probably one of the main things that helped Burnham warm up to her by the end of the episode.
- THE WHOLE BLACK ALERT THING WAS SO CREEPY.
- I am immensely, immensely impressed by the decision to write and portray the big confrontation scene between Burnham and Saru not as something highly charged and dramatic, but quiet. It felt so much more devastating that Saru plainly stated that he felt Burnham was someone to fear, or that line later on that Burnham was a great officer… until she wasn’t. To me, it speaks to how much time has passed. The events of the Battle at the Binary Stars are still fresh in some ways, but he’s also moved on partially. He’s processed his feelings. And so he delivers his thoughts with a muted sincerity and conviction, and it made them hit a MILLION times harder.
- OH WOW, I AM SUPER INTO THE THORNY, DISAGREEABLE SCIENCE OFFICER. I didn’t expect Lt. Stamets’s attitude at all, and I think that so far, it’s a brilliant choice. I mentioned on video that because of learning more about behind-the-scenes stuff due to comments from the community, I know that Roddenberry didn’t really want inter-crew conflict to be a focus of a lot of the earlier Trek shows. Here, though, that conflict is on FULL DISPLAY. Stamets is openly critical of his captain, and it’s made VERY clear why! The Discovery is supposed to be a scientific/explorer vessel, and now it’s been conscripted for war, led by a Captain who—again, I must remind you!!!—Stamets refers to as a warmonger. Later in the episode, as Lorca is ordering Stamets down to the Glenn, Stamets openly defies and argues with Lorca, which is something that was a rare occurrence in Trek, yet is displayed prominently in the very first episode with all the main characters. Because this is the first time we see Stamets and Lorca!!! So this also suggests a history, and it’s one we get a bit of later in “Context.”
- HI, HELLO, THIS EPISODE THEN TURNS INTO A BODY HORROR NIGHTMARE, AND EVERYTHING ABOARD THE GLENN IS TOO MUCH. This is very much a new Trek because I don’t think we ever saw this much gore on the original??? Oh my god, all those corpses in the corridors… hey. Bryan Fuller, I know this script was based off a story you wrote, SO I’M BLAMING YOU FOR THIS. The whole thing felt claustrophobic and terrifying, so bravo???
- Also what the fuck is happening? This show is also not falling into the “mission of the week” format at the start, because almost nothing is solved here? We know that whatever Straal and his team was working on aboard the Glenn is related to the same myceliar stuff that the Discovery is working on, but… what happened to them? Why did their bodies look like that? And what was that creature that chased them, ate one of the crew, and which Lorca now casually has on the ship?
- I’m also realizing how weird it is to call the first two episodes a “pilot” because technically… this episode is almost a pilot, too? It’s a set up for a larger story. By the time Lorca finally explains himself and why he brought Burnham to the Discovery, I got the sense that a whole new chapter had begun. So the previous two episodes were like an extended prologue, weren’t they? Regardless of how I refer to all this, I appreciate the structure. I know that Discovery appears to be about contrasts. How can a ship meant for scientific experimentation be put to use during a war? How does a ship full of mostly scientists deal with the presence of a heavily-militarized component in the officers with the black insignias? Lorca also expresses what I imagine will be another big theme of the show: If context is for kings, then in what ways will he seek to do anything to achieve the stated goals of his mission? Because I’ve kinda been dancing around it. Lorca manipulated events so that he would be able to “rescue” Burnham from “wasting” in prison. Which means that he directly or indirectly killed the pilot of the transport ship, right? That ship would not have been where it was if he’d not intervened.
- AHHHHHHH WHAT THE FUCK.
I’m ready for this journey, y’all. This is genuinely very fascinating, I’m super into the characters, GIVE ME MORE.
The video for “Context Is for Kings” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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