by Eric Renner Brown | via Entertainment Weekly
Star Trek: Discovery‘s eventful, two-part debut last week suggested the show would explore the moral dilemmas of war, and the third episode of the sci-fi franchise’s latest reboot continued to probe those age-old philosophical questions. Though “Context Is for Kings” introduced a slew of new characters and a fresh starship to boot, the show zipped along with well-paced drama, snappy action, and plenty of way-too-complicated science — in other words, all the makings of an excellent Star Trek episode.
“Context Is for Kings” picks up six months after the court-martial that concluded “Battle at the Binary Stars.” Michael Burnham, sentenced to life imprisonment for staging a mutiny aboard the U.S.S. Shenzhou, is being transported along with other prisoners to a new detainment facility. That is, until a cloud of an organism — GS54, we learn, which feeds ruthlessly on electricity — envelops the shuttle, threatening to drain it of its power and life-support capabilities. The pilot exits the ship to investigate, but her safety tether is broken; things appear headed downhill in a hurry for the still-cuffed prisoners, but the U.S.S. Discovery swoops in to rescue them.
One of Burnham’s fellow prisoners raises the question viewers don’t know to ask: What’s a brand-new starship like the Discovery doing so far from the front line during wartime? (Burnham’s mutiny, of course, was a consequential one: She played a pivotal role in the Shenzhou’s skirmish with Klingon forces, which has blossomed into a full-blown conflict by the time of “Context Is for Kings.”) Commander Landry (Rekha Sharma), the Discovery’s chief of security, escorts the rescued prisoners through the ship’s halls and to the mess hall, where Burnham senses both universal recognition and disdain; when her fellow detainees attempt to murder her, none of the Starfleet officers raise a finger. Luckily, Burnham knows suus mahna, a form of Vulcan martial arts, and neutralizes the threat. Landry whisks her away again — this time, to meet Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs).
Outside Burnham, herself and Saru — her Shenzhou comrade who’s now also stationed aboard the Discovery — Lorca is one of the most compelling characters Discovery has offered up yet. “It was the family business a century ago,” he tells Burnham as he extends a tray of fortune cookies. “That was before the future came and hunger and need and want disappeared. Course, they’re making a comeback now — thanks to you.” The concise colorfulness of his dialogue is entertaining for a Discovery viewer — but less so for Burnham, who suspects Lorca somehow staged the circumstances that brought her aboard the ship. His decision to utilize her high-level quantum physics training and put her to work — “I’m not a chauffeur,” he explains — only heightens her skepticism.
Uneasy mystery dominates “Context Is for Kings,” and the episode’s writing, directing, and acting effectively capture the ambiguity that any outsider senses when integrating with new people in a new place. Whenever Burnham tries to determine exactly what is going on aboard the Discovery, she’s rebuffed; when Saru escorts her to engineering to begin her work, she asks him if the ship is really a science vessel, and he balks.
At engineering, Burnham crunches code for Lieutenant Stamets (Anthony Rapp), who refuses to contextualize the data. Stamets is shown speaking with another Starfleet officer, Straal, who’s aboard the U.S.S. Glenn, but in confusing terminology. (Stamets, it’s worth noting, is another worthy addition to Discovery‘s cast; his joke comparing Burnham’s Vulcanism to the John Lennonism of a member of a Beatles tribute band was the funniest line in “Context Is for Kings” by a mile.) In totality, the disorienting scenes articulate the disorientation Burnham must feel. And while many of her suspicions are warranted — more on that in a moment — some of them aren’t. For instance, her annoying new roomie Cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) tells Burnham not to stand next to her in engineering because of “assigned seating”; later, Tilly confesses that she just didn’t want her own career tarnished by association with a convict like Burnham.
The facade begins to deteriorate when the Discovery finds the Glenn adrift, with its entire crew dead. Lorca orders Stamets and Landry to form a boarding party and commands them to take Burnham along. As they approach the Glenn, Stamets categorizes the etchings on the ship’s exterior as consequences of a “catastrophic basidiosac rupture,” and Burnham presses him on the phrase, suggesting that it indicates something related to spores. Stamets begins to expound about the relationship between physics and biology — at the atomic level, he explains, they’re the same — but shows too much of his hand, divulging that he and Straal had performed extensive research prior to the Klingon conflict that Starfleet had subsequently co-opted. He specifically labels Lorca a “warmonger.”
Click HERE to read the rest of the recap, “Context Is for Kings (S1 E3)”