Two-thirds of the way through “Context Is For Kings,” Michael Burnham is running away from a monster. Actually, it’s more than that: she’s running away from a monster in order to draw its attention and let others escape. High quality hero stuff in other words, made more impressive by the fact that the people whose lives she’s trying to save have not been all that enthusiastic about her presence.
Plot-wise, this is an expected moment in which an outcast proves her worth to a group with a good reason to mistrust her. We know that Michael’s actions on the Shenzhou, while questionable, were motivated by a desire to protect her crew; we also know that circumstances put her and everyone else aboard that ship in an impossible position. In killing T’Kuvma, Michael fulfilled her own prophecy and made the Klingon leader into a martyr, but it’s hard to blame her for pulling the trigger on the enemy who murdered her captain. Things got away from her. They tend to do that when the shooting starts.
Unfortunately, most of the crew of the USS Discovery only knows Michael by reputation. She’s not just the first mutineer in the history of Starfleet, she’s the woman who started the war. Even her fellow prisoners despise her. While that tension is sure to be an ongoing concern in the weeks to come, it’s structurally important to give Michael a chance to remind her new crewmates (and the audience) that, questionable decisions or no, she was promoted to First Officer for a reason.
All of which is solid writing and character building—”Context Is For Kings” does some very good work at establishing, well, context—but it’s also a scene I’ve seen in a hundred different genre shows and movies before. That’s not necessarily a problem, and I wouldn’t have dinged the episode for including the chase sequence just because it was vaguely familiar. But while she’s crawling for her life, Michael starts reciting a bit from Alice In Wonderland. It’s utterly unexpected, and it hooked me good. The first three episodes feel cut to the bone at times, a sort of no-frills attempt to establish a serialized narrative and keep everything moving forward. So far the show has maintained its momentum, but at some point, it’s going to need to slow down a bit. That’s what moments like the Alice speech are important; these people need to be more than just moving pieces.
One of the criticisms I’ve read about the first two episodes of Discovery’s first season is that they felt too much like a prologue. Given that the second episode ends with a dead captain and a blown up ship, that’s an easy criticism to understand. Trek shows (the three I’ve seen) settle in at the start, giving us a premise but also making sure we get a sense of the place we’re going to call home. Here, we’re brought aboard the Shenzhou and meet a handful of its crew, only for everything to go pear-shaped almost immediately.
It’s disorienting, to say the least. “Context Is For Kings” wastes little time in establishing a new, er, context. Jumping six months into the future, we find Michael on a prison transport that gets attacked by energy beings and rescued (minus the pilot) by the Discovery. Once on board, she’s introduced to Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), who orders her to help his engineering crew with some tricky quantum mechanics science. Michael demures, Lorca insists, and soon enough, our hero is in up to her eyeballs in awkward social interactions and hush hush super science.
The show makes little effort to ease us in gradually. There’s no long, languid shots of the Discovery’s exterior, and no one gives Michael a tour to help her (and us) get oriented. Which makes sense; no one but Lorca (and, again, us) expects Michael to be around for longer than it takes to get her prison transport ship fixed, and no one seems much interested in easing her transition to a new space.
As well, while I’m used to Trek technobabble, there’s something unsettling about hearing so much of it thrown out at once when you aren’t sure exactly what’s going on. Usually when a Chief Engineer starts throwing out semi-coherent terminology in a rush, we know the broad strokes of what’s going on that there’s no need to actually parse out individual words. Her, though, Michael spends most of the episode playing catch up, which leaves us just as much in the dark as she is when Chief Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) monologues about whatever highly confidential experiment he and the rest of the team is working on.
That’s a risky choice, but it pays off in a way that adds to the general feeling of barely restrained danger throughout the episode. There are lots of things that show needs to do at the start of its run to be successful, and one of the more important ones is to create a number of possibilities that can be exploited and paid off down the line. This isn’t really important in non-serialized shows (which build standalone plots out of external forces and character dynamics), but with something like this, we need the nervous feeling that everything is just a few steps shy of bursting, and the writers need lots of dangling threads that can be picked up again at their leisure.
So we get Captain Lorca, a guy with big plans and big ideas who might be a little out of his head and is almost certainly dangerous. (A nice change of pace from all those heroic moral center captain types of previous series, and something Jason Isaacs is well suited for.) We get Michael agreeing to sign on to a crew that is almost certainly not going to be thrilled to have a supposed traitor on board. We meet some new faces who don’t immediately get blown up, like the constant bundle of nervous energy that is Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) or the immediately hostile Stamets; and some old faces, like Saru (now First Officer himself), who have reason to be concerned about Michael’s presence.
We also get a potentially fascinating science project about using organic energy to power spaceships and win the war against the Klingons. This is a big concept that I’m not sure the episode completely sells; when the captain gives Michael a demonstration of what the spores can do, it feels more like a tech demo than something with actual stakes and consequences. As well, this is a prequel, and we know from the rest of the franchise that Lorca’s visions of the future aren’t going to come to fruition.
I doubt the people working behind the scenes on Discovery have forgotten this, though, and I assume they have some plan for what happens next. (GIven how unstable Lorca seems to be—the episode ends with him having beamed the monster from the Glenn aboard his own ship—I wouldn’t be surprised if he Ahabs the whole thing.) Right now the question is, have they earned the faith required to keep an audience watching through their doubts? For me, at least, they have. We only meet a handful of the new ship’s crew, but they are compelling enough to make me want to know more.
Taken as a whole, the first three episodes feel like a single unit, a set up and pitch for what the new series wants to achieve, and while that’s an unusual structural choice, it also pretty much works—there’s none of the drag or tedium that comes from a show repeating itself to fill out episode slots. Plus, I’d argue that it was important to see what drove Michael to make the decisions that put her on the Discovery, and not just have them revealed through flashback. We’ll have to see how the rest of the season plays out (if they keep to heavy serialization, it’s entirely possible things will start to drag in the mid-section), but for right now, this is the good stuff. It doesn’t hurt that Michael herself is an excellent lead: brilliant, determined, compassionate, and not completely predictable. Plus, she knows Alice. Curious and curiouser.
- I appreciate how immediately abrasive the new additions are. Captain Lorca is charming but untrustworthy; Tilly is dorky and too eager to please; and Stamets is just pissed off. That could be off-putting, but it helps to add to the sense of the Discovery as a ship where things aren’t quite right, and a crew under a lot of stress to produce. Tilly is especially interesting—I suspect her growing friendship with Michael is going to be important.
- “I like to think it makes me mysterious.” -Lorca
- “You were always a good officer. Until you weren’t.” Also glad to have Saru around. It’s always good to have someone who doesn’t trust your main character and is entirely justified in doing so.
- “Universal law is for lackeys. Context is for kings.” -Lorca (I feel like this is going to be a crucial thematic sticking point for the show. It relates to Michael’s actions in the pilot as well as Lorca’s more questionable decisions. Trying to decide how much principle can bend in times of crisis is something Trek has dealt with before, and I’m excited to see how they deal with it again.)