This Star Trek: Discovery review contains spoilers.
Star Trek: Discovery Episode 3
Now that’s more like it. After a two-hour premiere that was engaging, but uneven and overly bombastic, Star Trek: Discovery doubles down with a follow-up episode that reveals what this show is really going to be about: the relationship between war and science, a slow-building mystery at the heart of Discovery’s mission, and getting to know the nerds who make up the crew of this brand spanking new starship.
You know, maybe. This show is playing a lot close to the vest, and I love it.
“Context is For Kings” picks up six months following the Battle at Binary Stars. Burnham seems committed to her life-long prison sentence, and is ready to let history have her. She may be known as the mutineer, but she knows in her heart, as she later tells Lorca, that she is a First Officer of Starfleet. Though almost no one seems to believe it, she lives by its code.
Part of that code is to help where you can and, while Burnham may start the episode believing that the best thing she can do, the way she can help, is to carry out her sentence, it is clear to both the viewer and Discovery Captain Lorca that Burnham’s intelligence, compassion, boldness, and bravery are not traits to be squandered. The universe doesn’t like waste, Lorca tells Burnham at one point. (This feels like the kind of catchy, throwaway line that is clever at this point, but will take on deeper meaning when Lorca reveals his true agenda at the mid-season finale.)
Before Burnham can begrudgingly join her new crew, she has to prove herself. This means pulling her weight as part of Discovery’s super secret mission. Much of this episode is set up as a mystery, and I’m guessing much of the rest of the season will be the same. Here, we have as much information as Burnham “temps” on the Discovery after her prison transport shuttle “accidentally” ends up there. (It’s implied that Lorca orchestrated Burnham’s arrival, but did he orchestrate that poor pilot becoming untethered, too?)
Burnham quickly starts gathering pieces of the puzzle. Discovery claims to be a scientific-based vessel, but there sure are a lot of dudes with guns around. We meet Lieutenant Stamets, the co-leader of a science experiment that Starfleet has thrown a lot of resources into because they think it can help them win the war against the Klingons.
After seeing a spores farm in the high security engineering bay, Burnham thinks this means some form of biological warfare, but, as Lorca later “explains” to her (and us), it’s actually some kind of organically-based, instantaneous individual transport run by spores. I have dubbed it transporetation. Given that, as my sister and Star Trek viewing partner puts it, “the Federation doesn’t run on magic mushrooms” in later series, it probably doesn’t work out.
Whatever purpose the spores might eventually serve, they are very dangerous in the here and now. Stamet’s friend and co-leader has his own starship to run simultaneous tests with the magic spores. These tests go terribly wrong, ending with a starship through of inside-out people and a destructive, homicidal space monster that kills a bunch of Klingons and one of Discovery’s away team members.
Are the spores and the space monster related? Did the Klingons bring the creature aboard? What does Lorca, who ordered the creature beamed onto the Discovery, plan to do with it? And what was the device Stamets and co. found in the ship’s reaction chamber? The Expanse has trained me not to trust blue, shimmery science stuff and, so far, Discovery is not doing much to reverse that conditioning.
Burnham helps the away team escape, and earns a spot on the Discovery with her actions. How will the other members of the Discovery feel about that? Saru, who is First Officer of the Discovery, was conflicted about seeing his former shipmate again. They are no longer bantering, and Saru partially blames Burnham for Georgiou’s death, but they still respect one another.
Stamets, who is the curmudgeon of the ship, doesn’t seem to like anyone, but may eventually find himself reluctantly aligned with Burnham as the show moves forward. Above all else, he seems to care about the pursuit of truth, and Burnham is smart enough to help him in that quest — and moral enough to make sure any discoveries are used in an ethical manner.
One of the standout characters of this new crew is Cadet Tilly, a nervous, sweet newbie who may be on the autistic spectrum. Tilly may be eager to prove herself, but she is also eager to genuinely learn, matter of factly telling Burnham that she will be a captain someday. And she seems to at least have the guts to back that up, acting like a total badass on what was her first away mission.
Tilly is desperate for a mentor and, while things may not have ended well for Burnham in her last mentor-mentee relationship, perhaps she is ready to take on the role of teacher and friend that Georgiou played for her. In one of the best scenes of the night, Burnham shows Tilly her copy of Alice in Wonderland, revealing that her foster mother Amanda Grayson used to read it to Michael and her son (Spock!) when Michael first came to live with them.
Amanda is one of the most fascinating characters in Star Trek canon — a human who married a Vulcan and moved to his homeworld — and one that has been relatively unexplored. Now that the role has been cast in Discovery, and Burnham has mentioned her as important to her life, it only seems a matter of time before we get to know Amanda… and perhaps a different incarnation of Spock?
In reflecting on this soft reboot of an episode, I couldn’t help but be amazed that Discovery chose to have a two-hour pilot completely devoted to Burnham’s backstory instead of starting here. I’m not ready to call it a bad decision, but it is an unusual one. Perhaps it has something to do with a CBS mandate demanding more action to lure in potential viewers. Or perhaps it really was a narrative decision, a choice aimed to ensure we sympathize with Burnham’s character.
“Universal law is for lackeys,” Lorca tells Burnham at one point. “Context is for kings.” I’m not sure if we can trust Lorca, nor do I agree with his perspective that some universal laws can and should be broken by those with the most power, but I do agree that context matters.
While most of Starfleet seems to blame Burnham completely for starting the war with the Klingons, we, as viewers, have the unique power of context. And I, for one, am ready to follow Burnham anywhere. She may be a mutineer, but she’s brave, and she’s clever, and she quotes Alice in Wonderland when she’s scared.
Vulcans are raised to be logical above all else, but what happens when logic fails you, when the rules of the world change? I think Star Trek: Discovery is about to explore that very question, and I am more than ready to go along for the ride.