The third episode of Star Trek: Discovery continues to set new higher standards for excellence in Trek series design and story-telling. Especially considering we are only in the first season, this is something no other ST series was able to achieve with the possible exception of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”
Anyway, let’s get to it.
“Context Is for Kings” is set six months after Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) has been sentenced to life in prison for mutiny. She’s on a prison transport ship with a few criminal types. We know they are criminals because they are trading “What I did to get here” stories. Do prisoners really do this? Don’t they know about jailhouse snitches? On the other hand, it feels more like it is like that scene in “Trading Places” when Eddie Murphy is in jail, and he’s making up stories about being tough so that the tougher inmates won’t kill him.
Even though Burnham is probably the most famous prisoner in the Federation, a couple of inmates don’t know who she is. One prisoner helpfully fills in the other two and of course (incoming cliché) one of them snarls that she had a cousin who was on the doomed Europa and died in the first battle with the Klingons. Burnham corrects the prisoner’s estimate of 8000 Europa casualties to the more precise number of 8186.
This exchange shows one of the complexities written into Burnham’s character. I mean, why would she say something that would most certainly provoke a negative response? Vulcan obsession with precision? Masochistic desire to keep track of all the lives lost because she feels responsible? Tired of having this convo because you know it isn’t the first time? Who knows? Burnham is a mystery in so many ways.
In the middle of all the prisoner animosity, something goes wrong with the shuttle. The pilot has to a spacewalk to effect repairs and stay on schedule, but the routine repair goes wrong. The pilot doesn’t come back in, and her tether breaks and she floats past the ship. There follow a (not very) tense five or so seconds during which the prisoners, except Burnham, struggle with their space handcuffs. Hard to know if her calm is Vulcan training or something else. Suddenly, light pours over the ship, and we see the USS Discovery, which grabs the shuttle in a tractor beam, saving the day. How…convenient (rolls eyes).
I can’t help but wonder, what about the pilot? Am I the only one concerned about her welfare? I assume the Discovery got her, too, and beamed her aboard, but they never mention it. Plot devices just don’t get any respect.
Once on board the Discovery, Burnham and her fellow inmates are greeted with disdain by the security Chief Landry (Rekha Sharma). She tosses off a couple of insults their way before marching them to the mess hall for dinner. That’s right. The mess hall. She takes four dangerous criminals, including one whose presence could easily result in a brawl, to sit down with the crew in the mess hall.
Burnham wanders past dozens of hostile stares trying to find a seat. She gets a guilty snub from a former crewmate from the Shenzhou. With no other choice, she winds up at the table with the criminals who, instead of moving to another table, decide to jump her.
Burnham demonstrates why you don’t f**k with Vulcans, even adopted ones. Forget the Vulcan neck pinch. She lays them out with some Suus Mahna, a form of ancient Vulcan martial arts. Fortunately for the criminals, the fight is cut short by Landry with a phaser, before Burnham kills someone, then escorts her to see the captain.
Even though the set up for the fight is silly, this is the first truly satisfying moment of the episode for me. Seriously, the combat choreography for this show is fantastic and presented with minimal editing, so you see the power in every move.
So far, Rekha Sharma isn’t wow-ing me as Landry. I liked her in “Battlestar: Galactica.” She is a good actress, but the writing and direction of the character aren’t giving her a lot to work with. Although, there is a moment at the end of the episode that makes you think she has a thing for Lorca that’s promising.
Landry drops Burnham off and we see Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) for the first time. His office is darkened because his eyes are sensitive due to a recent battle injury. This is just one of the little digs he gets in during the interview to let Burnham know that he is in the group that blames her for war and all that follows. Still, he’s less of a fan of waste and press gangs her into working on a quantum physics problem he has.
Burnham lets him know that she’s not stupid. She knows that she’s not on the Discovery by accident and refuses his offer. She wants to go back to jail and pay her debt to society. Lorca reminds her what she wants no longer matters.
Lorca is…interesting. He isn’t the typical Star Trek captain we are used to. Uhura says what we expect in a captain in the Star Trek episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” right before she’s forced to kiss Captain Kirk.
“I’m thinking of all the times on the Enterprise when I was scared to death, and I would see you so busy at your commands. And I would hear your voice from all the parts of the ship, and my fears would fade.”
Sure it’s hokey, but aren’t we all Uhura? We look to our leaders for stability, strength, and integrity (I could use a little of that right now in Washington, but I digress).
Lorca gives off more of a Commodore Matthew Decker vibe. Like he’s one light shift away from ordering the Discovery into the maw of the Doomsday Machine (Star Trek: The Original Series, “The Doomsday Machine”). Or an Admiral Quinn type: seems okay until he starts chomping down on a bowl of worms and trying to kill Will Riker (Star Trek: Next Generation, “Conspiracy”). In other words, there’s something a little off about him, and Landry for that matter.
After leaving the Captain and being pressed into service, Burnham, and we, are introduced to some of the other crewmembers, including Lt. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), and Burnham’s roommate, fresh-faced Cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman).
She also has a brief, bittersweet reunion with, now First Officer Saru while he’s walking her to Engineering and they share a bowl of blueberries. She says she’s sorry. He says he believes her but admits that he thinks she’s dangerous and that he’ll protect his captain better than she protected hers. Ouch.
The rocky encounter with her new team members in engineering leaves Burnham with questions no one wants to answer. Later that night, Burnham uses her wily ways (involving her roommates drool and canned air – Yuck!) to trick the not-too-bright computers to reveal some top-secret experiment that looks like a Christmas tree lot. Mmmmk.
Wiseman’s character takes “perky” to new heights. There is only a brief respite from her “Up with People’ good cheer, and that is when she discovers she is now bunkmates with a traitor. I’m not keen on the character so far. She’s too much like Marissa Tomei’s character from the first season of “A Different World,” the innocent white girl roommate of Denise Huxtable at Hillman.
Stamets, whose team Burnham is assigned to, isn’t thrilled to have her either, but then he’s not thrilled about anything. He resents the captain and Star Fleet for co-opting he and his partner’s research to make a weapon. I assume there’s more to the character than snark and anger. Hopefully, we’ll see this soon. Otherwise, this is going to be a long season.
The next day, Discovery receives orders to board the ship where Stamets former research partner and crew died in what was probably an incident related to the experiments they’ve been running. Landry and Stamets lead the boarding party, which includes a delighted Tilly, to recover all project-related materials from the ship.
When they get there, the bodies look like transporter accidents, but those aren’t the only corpses. Klingons, who probably boarded the ship to raid tech and information are also dead, having been attacked by something…else.
The team finds out what “something else“ is when the one remaining Klingon tries to warn them right before he is killed by the…um…WTF is it?
It moves like a lion but looks like a big silver bug. Whatever it is, the creature chases them until they are safely behind a big, strong door. Most of them. Redshirt number two gets munched.
A quick-thinking Burnham manages to distract the creature just as it breaks through the door and she leads it through the vents quoting “Alice in Wonderland” as she goes, presumably as a kind of calming mantra. She manages to drop down a Jeffries tube into the waiting shuttle before it gets her, and the boarding party makes it back to the ship.
As the episode winds down, Saru and Burnham have a nicer talk, and you think they might just be okay. You can tell he genuinely likes her.
Tilly now knows that Burnham is not only brilliant, but also a team player and this melts any reservations she has about her new roomie. You just know they will be BFFs from now on. She also tells Burnham a secret: that she will be a captain someday. Important to note that she doesn’t say she wants to be or hopes to be a captain. Burnham, in turn, shows Tilly a treasure of her own: a real book. “The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland,” given to her by, who else, her foster mother, Amanda. Yeah, I got a little teary-eyed.
In the end, Lorca offers Burnham a position on the ship, which she initially declines, not wanting to be a part of what she suspects is the development of a biological weapon. But he wows her by showing her that it isn’t a weapon, but a new method of space transport that they are developing. Burnham’s natural curiosity gets the best of her, and down the rabbit-hole, our Alice goes.
Before the episode wraps we get one more peek into Lorca’s somewhat twisted way of looking at things. It seems like he had Landry transport the “WTF” creature to a holding area off his ready room. He taps the force field and says, “Here kitty, kitty,” and it launches itself at him, in vain, growling. He is unfazed.
Yep, it’s the bowl of worms all over again.
Directed by Akiva Goldsman; Teleplay by Gretchen J. Berg, Aaron Harberts, Craig Sweeny; Story by Bryan Fuller, Aaron Harberts, Gretchen J. Berg
Written by DaVette See
DaVette See lives in Inglewood, CA with her husband, Rob, her mother, and her seven (yikes) kitties. She has a BA in English and Theater and a Law degree. When not writing, reporting and video editing for BGN, she operates Running Lady Studios and produces animated shorts. She was a geek before geek was chic. She loves books, plays, movies, and more than anything, she loves telling stories.
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Originally from the Midwest, DaVette lives in Inglewood, CA and can’t name a single sports team. She’s a sci-fi fan, a movie geek, a drama freak, a Trekkie, and a Browncoat. She has a BA in English and Theater, as well as a Law degree, but don’t hold that against her. She acted and directed for the stage for many years, but really loves filmmaking and writing. She owns Running Lady Studios and she is the producer/star of the web-based talk show, Afro Bites! She is wife to Rob, daughter to Martha, and mom to seven (yes seven) cats. When not covered in fur, she’s a West Coast correspondent and occasional movie reviewer for BGN. Follow DaVette on Twitter and IG @mariavah.