Feb 12, 2020
Star Trek: Discovery “Context is for Kings”
Previously on Star Trek: Discovery: Michael Burnham, first officer of the USS Shenzhou, tried to save the ship by incapacitating Captain Georgiou and ordering a preemptive strike on a Klingon ship. It was too late, because dozens of other Klingon ships arrived and began a massive battle. The Klingons won that battle, but Georgiou and Burnham tried to avert an all-out war by capturing the lead Klingon T’Kuvma. Instead, T’Kuvma killed Georgiou, so Burnham killed T’Kuvma, and the episode ended with Burnham being court-martialed for mutiny and sentenced to life in prison.
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It’s 6 months later, and we see Burnham on a shuttlecraft, now sporting a more natural look and wearing a jumpsuit. The shuttle is taking her and three other convicts, two men and a woman, to do hard labor in a dilithium mine on “Tellun”. The female convict notes that most of the prisoners working on Tellun are “scumbag Andorians” and another convict chuckles that he killed three Andorians once. Damn, the Andorians can’t catch a break on this show.
And then Chuckles sizes up Burnham, and the third prisoner identifies her by name, and Chuckles even knows she’s “the mutineer”. The female prisoner angrily says she had a relative on the USS Europa and now she and 8,000 people are dead because of Burnham. But Burnham corrects her: “8,186.” But why is Burnham responsible, though? Granted, she took down her commanding officer, but that mutiny lasted all of 30 seconds before Georgiou came around and relieved her of duty. And the Shenzhou had numerous occasions to withdraw from the encounter with the Klingons, but Georgiou constantly said that wasn’t an option. So why is it Burnham’s fault that a war broke out? What am I missing here?
Just then, the windows of the shuttle are covered in glowing bugs that Burnham identifies as “species GS 54”, which feed on electricity, and will soon drain the shuttle’s power, meaning they’ll probably either end up freezing to death or running out of oxygen. And she seems mostly okay with this, which is a bit understandable given her current predicament. Though, the notion of insects that can not only survive in the vacuum of space but also latch onto a ship traveling at warp speed is a curious one.
The pilot of the shuttlecraft somehow instantly has a spacesuit on as she heads out through the bay doors to deal with the bugs. Chuckles starts to flip out, so the female prisoner tells him to relax, because “the pilot’s taking care of it!” Just then, the unconscious/lifeless body of the pilot hurtles past the windows and goes flying off into space. Yep, she’s totally on top of this.
Everybody panics except for Burnham, who seems resigned to her fate, but then the shuttle is caught in a starship’s tractor beam. A pan across the ship’s hull reveals that we are at long last seeing the ship of the show’s title: the USS Discovery, NCC-1031. The design is a definite improvement over what we saw in the initial teaser. There’s still some of the McQuarrie influence, but it’s slightly different in that the saucer is divided into three sections, with an inner sphere, a middle ring, and an outer ring, which is something different. At the very least, the design of the ship is not the instant disappointment that was the NX-01.
In the shuttle bay, the prisoners are greeted by Discovery’s chief of security, Commander Landry (Rekha Sharma), who calls them “garbage” and notes that Burnham is “Starfleet’s first mutineer”, which I find hard to believe. Hang on, wasn’t there an Enterprise episode where Archer gets weirdly obsessed with protecting some Xindi eggs and the rest of the crew have to take over the ship? If one little Vulcan neck pinch counts, than certainly that Enterprise episode does, too.
Also, it would appear Burnham’s prison jumpsuit has a Starfleet badge on it. Why would they feel the need to specifically identify which prisoners were once in Starfleet?
Landry leads them through the corridors and the prisoners chatter among themselves, noting by the uniforms that this is a science vessel. But they’re also puzzled by guys stationed all around with guns and black vests and black Starfleet badges. Landry shushes them and tells them she’s been ordered to “feed the animals”, so she takes them to same mess hall as the rest of the crew.
Burnham soon enters the mess hall with a tray of food, and it’s a recreation of my daily junior high experience where everyone just glares at her as she searches for a place to sit. Among the glarers is Keyla, an officer who we previously saw serving on the bridge of Shenzhou, and who now totally shuns Burnham.
With no other options, Burnham sits with the other prisoners, and two of them immediately decide to kick her ass. One of the security officers sees what’s about to go down and tries to step in, but Landry actually puts a hand on the guy to stop him. Well, she’s just full of rainbows and sunshine, isn’t she?
Of course, his intervention isn’t necessary, because Burnhman is more than capable of holding her own against the other two prisoners, and she uses martial arts moves to take them both down. Landry finally puts a stop to things, and the best part of this is how Chuckles, the guy who allegedly killed three Andorians, is just standing there with his tray of food the whole time looking like he wants no part of this.
As Landry holds a phaser on Burnham, she says, “Captain wants to see you.” Really? At what point between letting the other prisoners assault her and this moment did she learn the captain wanted to see her?
In the turbolift, Landry notes Burnham was using Vulcan martial arts, which Burnham calls the “Suus Manha”. Landry says the Vulcans should “stick to logic”. Huh? The Suus Manha looked pretty damn effective from what I just saw.
They get to the bridge, and the captain’s chair swivels around to reveal Saru, former science officer on the Shenzhou. I don’t know if this is a fakeout to make us think he’s Discovery’s captain, but he turns away and Landry directs Burnham to the ready room where she meets the actual captain, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs).
Lorca starts off by saying he endured some sort of “battle injury” to his eyes that requires the lights to be slowly raised, which he likes to think makes him “mysterious”. It seems the guy is a bit quirky, as he appears to have a live Tribble cooing away on his desk, along with a bowl of fortune cookies which he says was a “family business” a century ago.
Burnham wants to know why she’s on this ship, and despite the accident with the glowing bugs, she’s starting to suspect she was brought here intentionally. He ignores the question and says he’s going to put her to work, because they need all the “trained minds” they can find.
Landry then escorts Burnham to her quarters, saying she’ll be confined here when she’s not working. No sooner does Burnham lie down in bed, when things take a turn for the distinctly ridiculous when a smiling cadet walks in, saying she was told before that because of her “special needs”, they couldn’t give her a roommate, but now she’s been told she’s finally getting a roommate, and she’s ecstatic because a roommate is like having an “automatic, built-in friend”.
And the look on Burnham’s face is like she’s just stepped into the ninth circle of Hell. Which seems to be pretty accurate, because she’s enduring all the worst parts of the first day of junior high as well as the first day in the college dorms simultaneously.
The cadet introduces herself as Sylvia Tilly, and talks about how nervous she is, specifically because she doesn’t know how to tell Burnham that “you took my bed.” It seems she’s allergic to the materials in the other bed, which causes her “chronic snoring”, so Burnham quickly switches beds.
Burnham says her name is Michael, and Tilly says that’s a strange name for a woman, and the only other female Michael she’s ever heard of is Michael Burnham, the mutineer, and you can’t be her, right, hahaha? It takes a moment, but it finally sinks in that she’s not going to be hanging with her new roomie on the beaches in Cabo this coming spring break. Okay, call me crazy, but this scene might be the most genuinely hilarious thing I’ve ever seen on a Star Trek show.
Just then, the room goes dark and the computer announces it’s a “Black Alert”. Contrary to what you might be thinking, this is not the siren that goes off when a basic white girl gets a black roommate. Tilly refuses to tell Burnham what the Black Alert is all about, but it seems to cause water droplets to briefly form in midair for a second or two.
In the morning, Burnham is met by Saru, who informs her he’s the ship’s first officer. He’s also weirdly carrying around a bowl of blueberries, just so that Burnham can comment that the blueberries in prison never tasted this good.
Saru takes her to Engineering, and says Lt. Stamets will be assigning her tasks. Burnham takes this moment to attempt to deliver an apology for getting their previous captain killed, but can’t quite spit it out. Unfortunately, Saru still considers her “dangerous” and “someone to fear” and tells her in the classiest way possible that if she steps out of line again, he’ll have no problem taking her down.
She enters Engineering and tries to stand at the station next to Tilly. But Tilly tells her it’s already taken, because they have “assigned seats” here. Enter Lt. Stamets, presumably the Chief Engineer, who looks appropriately nerdy. Like most of the crew, he’s immediately dismissive of Burnham. He hands her a plastic card, telling her to “reconcile these two suites of code”, and then also tells her to find somewhere else to stand, adding, “It’s not like we have assigned seats!” Oh man, Tilly, you are so busted.
Burnham goes back to the station next to Tilly and begins examining code on a holographic heads-up display. For a moment, it looks like Tilly vanishes, but it turns out to be a directorial flourish where all other crew members fade out one by one to show that Burnham is the last one left in Engineering.
That is, except for Stamets, who’s talking to the Chief Engineer of the USS Glenn (named after John, I assume) via holographic Facetime. The guy on the Glenn says they’ve made a “breakthrough” in one of their experiments, and they’re about to achieve some technobabble-y accomplishment that Stamets thinks is “impossible”. In fact, Stamets is worried about the safety of the Glenn’s crew, but then his friend sees Burnham over his shoulder and says, “Lurker,” and blinks out.
Burnham is trying to understand her task better, but Stamets refuses to be more forthcoming. So Burnham points out a line of code that contains a mistake, and it would appear that the programs controlling starships in the 23rd Century, or at least their scientific experiments, will be written in C++. As a software developer, this makes me a bit optimistic, but you just know most of the coding jobs are going to get outsourced to those scumbag Andorians.
Stamets dismisses her and walks into a lab that can only be accessed via “breath print”. Yes, he actually leans down and breathes into a little hole so that the computer can identify him and let him in. So I’m guessing no one involved in this series saw Alien: Resurrection, then? Because there, the ship had the same breath print system and it was totally meant as a joke.
Cut to Burnham and Tilly’s quarters that night, and Tilly is snoring away. And I’d just like to say in advance that what I’m about to describe actually happens. Burnham uses a cloth to collect some of the drool coming out of Tilly’s mouth, and then goes back to Engineering and uses a compressed air canister and the saliva-soaked cloth to fool the computer into thinking she’s Tilly. And you thought that bit about “chronic snoring” was just a silly background detail, didn’t you?
Anyway, Burnham steps inside the lab and sees a big terrarium filled with glowing spores.
The next day, Captain Lorca and Saru enter Engineering to break the news that there was a catastrophic incident aboard their sister ship the USS Glenn, and the “entire crew was lost”. This hits Stamets hard, because his best friend was on that ship. Lorca tells Stamets he’ll lead an away party to the Glenn to recover what remains of “The Project”, and he also orders him to take Burnham along. When Stamets protests, Lorca turns to Saru, noting that he served with Burnham on the Shenzhou, and asks him to “assess her ability”. Saru calls her the “smartest Starfleet officer I have ever known.”
Lorca turns to Stamets to deliver a sly, “Huh. And he knows you.” Okay, I laughed.
Cut to the shuttle carrying them to the Glenn, and of course Tilly is with them, and of course she’s beside herself because this is her “first boarding party”. Burnham remains stoic, and I can assure you this is not due to her Vulcan upbringing.
Tilly apologizes for shunning Burnham earlier, explaining she’s trying to “make a good impression” on the ship and was afraid of being associated with Burnham. But she says she actually admires Burnham because, “You don’t care if everyone hates you,” then instantly realizes that was the wrong way to put things. Oh man, Tilly is great. We really need more of this character. She’s like the adorable, non-creepy version of Reg Barclay.
They reach the Glenn, and Stamets notes marks on the hull that are indicative of “catastrophic basidiosac rupture”, and Burnham tries to figure out what that means, wanting to know if their “problem base” is “biology or physics”. So Stamets goes on a long technobabble tear, claiming that at the “quantum level”, biology and physics are the same thing. “Physics and biology? No. Physics has biology.” Sure, I’ll take his word for it.
He starts talking about his friend on the Glenn, and how they were working together to understand the “veins and muscles that hold our galaxy together”, but then the war with the Klingons started, and they were broken up and asked to take posts on separate ships just so they could work twice as fast. Eventually, he too implies that Burnham is partly responsible for his friend being dead.
They reach the Glenn and walk through dark corridors and come across the remains of the crew, and their bodies are all twisted up and mangled. As they head to Engineering, they catch glimpses of something running around behind them. Then they come upon the corpses of disemboweled Klingons.
Burnham wonders what could do this to the Klingons, and they get their answer when a Klingon stumbles into view. He tells them to be quiet, and then a huge creature springs into view and devours him. The boarding party is soon running for their lives from an enormous creature. Sigh. Is this what we’ve been reduced to? Giant monsters? They might as well play the stock Filmation action music under this scene, because this is feeling a lot like an episode of the animated series.
They get to Engineering and lower a reinforced door. Stamets tells them to quickly gather up all the data, but it’s taking a long time, and the big creature is starting to break through the door. Burnham asks for a phaser, saying she may not be able to kill the creature, but she should be able to “piss it off”. As the creature breaks through the door, Burnham fires on it, causing the creature to come after her, and Burnham exclaims a totally hilarious, “Shit, that worked!” and runs away. I’m glad to see this show is taking full advantage of its TV-MA rating, because it’s been a good long time since we got any swearing in Trek (is Data’s “Oh, shit,” from Generations the last time we heard the S word in Star Trek?). It’s not quite McCoy calling Spock a green-blooded son of a bitch, but I’ll take it.
Burnham leads the creature up into the Jeffries tubes and away from the rest of the boarding party. And bizarrely, she’s reciting passages from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as she crawls through the tubes. This becomes relevant later, but it’s still pretty stupid. She gets word on her communicator that the others made it back to the shuttle, and she tells them exactly where to go to find her. As she recites Lewis Carroll’s prose about Alice shrinking and now being “the right size to go through the little door”, she jumps through a hatch and drops directly down into the shuttle. Yes, totally believable.
They return to the Discovery, and Burnham is soon in Lorca’s ready room, and Lorca says he wants Burnham to join the crew. She refuses, saying she’d prefer to go back to prison. She guesses that Lorca brought her here deliberately, because the Discovery is developing a “spore-based biological weapon”, which is in violation of the “Geneva Protocols of 1928 and 2155” (as if an Earth-based treaty would somehow still apply to the United Federation of Planets), and he needed someone who would be willing to help build such a weapon, specifically a trained Starfleet officer who happens to be a “mutineer” and would do anything to get out of a life sentence of hard labor. But she informs him that despite her current status, she would never do anything to betray the principles of the Federation.
Alas, Lorca tells her she’s got it all wrong. He has the computer transport them over to Engineering, and then has her step inside a chamber as he releases the spores, presumably to prove they aren’t a bio-weapon. In fact, they’re the basis of an “organic propulsion system”, which ties into all that nonsense Stamets was spewing about biology and physics. Also, he says sometimes the system has leaks, thus explaining the “Black Alert” earlier.
He teller her the Discovery hasn’t been able to travel very far on spore power, but the Glenn, prior to the disaster, was visiting the Beta Quadrant “90 light years away… in 1.3 seconds.” He babbles about an “intergalactic ecosystem” and Burnham recalls the thing Stamets said about the “veins and muscles that hold our galaxies together”. Lorca says the ability for starships to instantaneously traverse the galaxy would allow them to easily beat the Klingons and win the war. Which is an interesting development, but it of course reveals one of the biggest problems with the prequel setting, in that no subsequent show ever references this technology, meaning it’s pretty much guaranteed to fail spectacularly.
But Lorca says this organic propulsion system would mean much more than just victory in the war. He then punches buttons on a console, causing Burnham to instantly be transported to “Ilari” (a Delta Quadrant planet mentioned in a pretty obscure episode of Voyager), and then to the “moons of Andoria”, and then to “Romulus”, and then she returns to the Discovery and he says “you’re home like it never happened.” Uh, he’s pretty cavalier with all the cross-galaxy beaming here, presuming this is what turned the crew of the Glenn into shredded beef.
He admits he did deliberately bring Burnham to his ship, but it’s because he believes that when she decided to strike first against the Klingons back on the Shenzhou, she was actually doing the right thing, even though Starfleet eventually ruled against her. And to finally explain the title, he says that “Universal laws are for lackeys. Context is for kings.”
He then asks how she sees her future unfolding, and even holds up a fortune cookie as a visual aid. He’s certain that she wants to make sure Captain Georgiou didn’t die in vain. He says she helped start a war, so she should help him end it, and she grabs the fortune cookie.
The shuttlecraft with the prisoners departs. But of course, Burnham is not among them, and she goes back to her quarters. Tilly is surprised to see her, but also “glad”. She also decides to reveal an incredible secret about herself. Are you ready? She’s going to make captain someday. To that end, she’s even diligently studied all the missions of Burnham and Georgiou aboard the Shenzhou.
Then she suddenly exclaims, “Wow, is that a book?” It turns out Burnham has a hard copy of Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on her, and she explains that when she was a kid on Vulcan, her “foster mother” used to read it to her “and her son” (guess who?), and this book is how she learned that the world doesn’t always adhere to logic. And she reveals her foster mother’s name, which to no one’s surprise is Amanda.
Cut to photon torpedoes as they destroy the wreck of the Glenn, which for a minute made me think the Discovery suddenly just blew up. Now that would have been a hell of a cliffhanger!
Captain Lorca watches the destruction of the Glenn from the Discovery, and thanks Commander Landry for beaming aboard “our new guest”. He then steps over to a force field and says, “Here, kitty kitty,” and of course, it turns out he’s beamed aboard that giant creature. I’m sure this will end well.
Yeah, not sure what to make of this one. It had some genuinely funny moments, but also some moments that just made me roll my eyes (giant monsters, reciting Lewis Carroll, suggesting the universe is some sort of biological entity). Also, it’s a bit hard to judge the show so far, in that it seems like the first three episodes were more of a prelude, setting up the premise and explaining how Burnham comes to serve on the Discovery. So it’s somewhat difficult to get a grasp on what this show is going to be like week to week. Still, I’m going to continue with my general assessment that it’s better for a Star Trek show to take some risks and fall on its face then to settle for being safe, bland, and boring (cough, Voyager).