If you were taken in by the blockbuster-sized premiere of CBS’ Star Trek: Discovery during its effects-driven, action-packed premiere last week, you might be surprised to see what the show has in store with ‘Context is For Kings’. Then again, for some long-time Trek fans, the third episode in the series might seem more in line with expectations of a Star Trek series on television in 2017. Either way, the third episode is a dramatic departure from ‘The Vulcan Hello’ and ‘Battle at the Binary Stars’ in that it is much less ambitious on a visual level. As far as generating intrigue and teasing out more of the overarching plot of this first season, however, the hour offers a great deal to interest those who’ve decided to stick with the new series.
By jumping ahead six months after Michael Burnham was sentenced to life in prison, following her ill-advised mutiny aboard the Shenzhou, Discovery effectively turns ‘Context is For Kings’ into the actual series premiere, one adapted for television from the decidedly more cinematic effort that was last week’s big-budget demonstration. Whatever you want to call them, the previous two-hours designed to act as an impressive spectacle – both to encourage fans to subscribe for CBS All Access and to establish just who Michael Burnham is – to provide a little… uh, context for what is a somewhat different show that’s just now introducing the titular ship and its mysterious Captain Lorca, played by Jason Isaacs.
Although the Discovery’s immense scale is awe inspiring, it isn’t accompanied with the same sort of optimism one might experience seeing the Enterprise for the first time. In that sense Discovery makes it clear this is very much a series that takes place during wartime. And the ship’s secretive captain, who apparently has the discretion to pull Michael from her prison sentence to serve aboard his vessel, doesn’t exactly inspire the same kind of confidence as James T. Kirk. To that end, Discovery further distinguishes itself from the long line of Trek TV series that have come before it by offering up a main character with a criminal record and a captain who is clearly up to no good.
‘Context is For Kings’ is primarily concerned with reestablishing Michael’s role within Discovery‘s narrative. The time jump between the end of the ‘Battle’ and the start of this week’s episode serves to give Michael infamy for her role in the Klingon conflict and the thousands of people who died in the war’s opening salvo. That level of notoriety makes for easy introductions with new characters, like Isaacs’ Lorca, but also Michael’s Discovery roommate Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and especially Anthony Rapp’s disagreeable Lt. Stamets. Moreover, the new circumstances present an opportunity for Sonequa Martin-Green to readjust her take on Michael, which leads to a series of interesting encounters with the abovementioned characters. But it’s her being reacquainted with Doug Jones’s Saru, who is now first officer aboard the Discovery.
Michael’s easy chemistry and sibling-like competitiveness with Saru was a welcome grace note in the premiere, and the hour makes good use of the pre-existing relationship and sense of fellowship the two shared. Other than Michael, Saru is the most complete character the series has in episode 3, and while Tilly and Stamets are essentially playing types – the slightly neurotic roommate and a variation on the character he played in School Ties – the lanky alien acts as a potent reminder of how far the former first officer has fallen, and just how much potential she still has.
It is something of a surprise to find out that Discovery is partly a redemption story for Michael, though Lorca’s particular point of view – in that he’s found a like-minded individual with regard to the war with the Klingons – presents and interesting curve in that road. Their shared perspective opens the door for potential conflict, as the more we learn about Lorca and whatever plans he has for the spores and especially the deadly creature he had placed on board the Discovery the more likely it seems that Michael’s story will be one of distancing herself from comparisons to this particular captain. As with the surprising function of the space spores, Michael and Captain Lorca’s scenario may well prove to be more complicated than it appears on the surface, which would suit the series just fine, as it seems clear Discovery is intent on exploring the sticky moral gray areas these characters find themselves in as a result of and reaction to being engaged in an active war.
Overall, ‘Context is For Kings’ reads like a different kind of introduction to the series, one that feels more typical in many ways. The action sequence onboard the doomed Starfleet vessel is much surprisingly bloody and gruesome, and finds time for an odd moment of levity when a Klingon shushes the Discovery’s boarding party, but it’s also noticeably smaller and more suited to the rhythms of a weekly television series than last week’s space battle. And that’s actually okay. Discovery needn’t be laden with spectacle week in and week out. The shift toward a more character-driven model feels more in keeping with the Star Trek model. Discovery is still unlike anything Trek has ever brought to television before. It is still learning how to walk the line between the theatrical experience of the films and the episodic nature of previous television series, but it’s getting there. It will be interesting to see what side of that line the show settles on in the weeks to come.
Star Trek: Discovery continues next Sunday with ‘The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry’ @8:30pm on CBS All Access.