In “Context Is For Kings,” we finally get to meet the namesake of Star Trek: Discovery. The starship Discovery is a brand-new ship on a mysterious mission. It’s a scientific vessel, but with locked lab doors and black alerts. And it may hold the secret to winning the war against the Klingons.
Meet the Crew
The USS Discovery is named after HMS Discovery, which accompanied British explorer Captain James Cook on his third and final voyage around the world. During Cook’s voyages, samples of flora and fauna from around the globe were collected. Helming the Discovery is Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs). The Captain also appears to be a collector of things, with a ready room that showcases a tribble and a museum-like space that includes a Gorn skeleton, Cardassian voles, and the rampaging creature found aboard the USS Glenn. He’s not your typical Starfleet officer.
Isaacs (best known for playing Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter series) underscores his portrayal of the captain with just enough menace to make us wonder if the misgivings of astromicrobiologist Lieutenant Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) are justified. Stamets resents the captain for commandeering his research and sending fellow researcher Straal to work on the USS Glenn. When the Glenn is lost after Straal’s experiment goes wrong, the anger between Stamets and Lorca flares. The introduction of both of these characters was probably the highlight of the episode, beyond the Alice in Wonderland-narrated chase through the Glenn.
Not only has Captain Lorca conscripted Lt. Stamets for the war effort, but he’s managed to get mutineer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) onboard by diverting her transport ship. Even if Captain Lorca’s intentions were good, the pilots of the prison transport ship are killed by an electricity-eating organism in the course of the redirect. Despite her desire to simply serve out her punishment, Burnham is ordered by Lorca to report to the engineering lab. Used to being the smartest person in the room, Stamets is not happy about working with the Vulcan-raised convict. He asks her to solve a coding problem, but refuses to provide any context. Though Stamets’ sarcastic derision feels out of place in the Star Trek universe, his sharp wit is a relief from the darkness of the series.
Once onboard the Discovery, Michael Burnham faces the scorn of the crew. She sees some old shipmates. Though Keyla Detma (Emily Coutts) just ignores Burnham, Saru, who now serves as First Officer on the Discovery, is more welcoming. He may be kinder, but he still thinks she’s a dangerous person and he’s eager to see her leave the ship. Suru warns Burnham that if she causes trouble on Discovery, “I intend to do a better job protecting my captain than you did yours.” Later, when Stamets questions the Captain’s decision to include Burnham on an expedition to the damaged ship, Suru acknowledges, “Her mutiny aside, she is the smartest Starfleet officer I have ever known.”
Burnham has become famous for being the first mutineer in Starfleet history, which seems to reflect more poorly on Starfleet than it does on Burnham. No wonder Captain Lorca wants someone around who isn’t a sheep. People don’t hesitate to confront Burnham for starting the war, which seems weird. Even if she tried to take the first shot at the Klingons, saying she started the war is a stretch.
Everyone seems to have an opinion about Burnham. Even friendly Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) manages to make a hilarious gaffe when she meets her new roommate: “The only female Michael I’ve ever heard of is Michael Burnham, the mutineer. You’re not her, are you? [worried pause] Are you?” The look Burnham gives Tilly tells the young woman all she needs to know. It’s a look that makes the viewer grateful that Martin-Green is playing the role of Michael Burnham. Her powerful gaze makes you realize Burnham isn’t someone to mess around with while also managing to heighten the humor of the scene. Later, Tilly creates another awkwardly comedic moment when she tells Burnham that their engineering stations are assigned to avoid sitting next to the class mutineer, only to be contradicted by Stamets.
Burnham turns out to be an asset to the crew, and Lorca invites her to stay on board. She refuses because she suspects the captain is working on spore-based biological weapons forbidden by the Geneva protocols. She tells Lorca, “It is by the principles of the United Federation of Planets that I live. And by them, I will most certainly die.” The captain takes her to the test bay to show her the Mycelium spores. They are being used to develop a new form of travel—an organic propulsion system. Lorca is looking for someone who can think differently, who can consider situations. He tells her, “Universal law is for lackeys; context is for kings.”
Burnham accepts a fortune cookie from Captain Lorca. “Context Is For Kings” is sprinkled with character idiosyncrasies like Lorca’s fortune cookies. There’s Tilly’s quirky awkwardness, Burnham’s love of Alice in Wonderland, Stamets’ burning resentment, and Commander Landry’s (Rekha Sharma) smoldering intensity around the Captain. It feels a little forced at times, but we appreciate the efforts to make the crew interesting and complex. Though she hasn’t had much screen time yet, we were pretty excited to see sci-fi regular Sharma as Chief of Security. She is known for her TV roles on Smallville, The 100, V, and Battlestar Galactica.
Star Trek Update
“Context Is For Kings” revealed the mission of the Discovery and introduced her crew. The characters so far all seem pretty engaging, which is more than we can say for most Star Trek series. The problem with Star Trek: Discovery is that it doesn’t feel like Star Trek. Yes, there’s talk about Federation values, classic villains like the Klingons, and we even got a mention of Spock’s mom, Amanda Grayson, who was Michael Burnham’s foster mother. Burnham may not exactly be an antihero, but she’s certainly not a conventional Star Trek character. Captain Lorca isn’t a traditional heroic figure either. The hostility between Lorca and Stamets feels very post-Gene Roddenberry, who believed in peace among the Starfleet crew.
The series is dark both in tone and in look, lacking the warmth and camaraderie of the previous series. Star Trek: Discovery feels and looks much more like The Expanse or Battlestar Galactica than it does Star Trek. Having said that, we love The Expanse and Battlestar Galactica and lots of other science fiction shows, so it’s not a dealbreaker. Star Trek: Discovery presents morally ambiguous characters and situations, reflecting more modern television writing. Discovery conveys the idea that good and evil are not mutually exclusive, and, “Sometimes down is up. Sometimes up is down.”
Star Trek: Discovery gives us another exciting episode with “Context Is For Kings.” The tone may be dark, but the characters are engaging and mysterious. We’re enjoying Star Trek: Discovery, even if it doesn’t feel quite like Star Trek. Watch new episodes of Star Trek: Discovery on Sundays at 8:30 ET/5:30 PT on CBS All Access.