****** SPOILERS AHEAD!! ******
Having just seen the latest Star Trek Discovery episode “Context is for Kings” I thought to throw this quick assessment out while it’s all still fresh in my ailing old brain…
Former USS Shenzhou first officer and last episode’s famed mutineer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is rescued by the USS Discovery (yes, we finally see the titular ship three episodes in!) when her prison transport shuttle is damaged in space by energy-draining space spores. Once aboard, Burnham is tapped by the stern, somewhat less-than-affable Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) to help out with a top secret war effort-project in engineering. Burnham sees a few familiar faces from the Shenzhou now serving on Discovery, including a promoted Lt. Commander Saru (Doug Jones), the newly minted first officer. She is also assigned quarters with a nervous young cadet named Tilly (Mary Wiseman). And of course, Burnham immediately clashes with one of the science officers leading the project, a somewhat obnoxious-but-brilliant Lt. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp). Stamets was part of a science team that created this energy-spore project that is afforded a very high priority aboard the Discovery. Stamets’ project co-creator and best friend was assigned to Discovery’s sister ship, the USS Glenn, which is found adrift (crew dead) after what appeared to be both a battle with the Klingons and a mysterious space-warping disaster related to their own work on the top-secret project. During their search of the ship, the crew is attacked by a large vicious monster with incredible strength. Burnham instinctively springs into action and saves her new crew-mates and risks her own life to do so. Back aboard Discovery, Lorca takes Burnham (via intraship beaming) down to engineering and spills the beans about Discovery’s secret; turns out the mysterious, all-consuming, top-secret project involves using an organic ‘spore-based’ warp drive that has the potential to transport anyone anywhere in the universe instantaneously (not too unlike the Iconian gateway seen in The Next Generation S2 episode, “Contagion”).
Okay, so now onto the nerdy analysis part…
THINGS I ENJOYED ABOUT “CONTEXT IS FOR KINGS”:
* The USS Discovery.
Rather than address any (somewhat justified) quibbles that she looks too ‘modern’ to be a mid-23rd century starship, I just want to say that she looks gorgeous. Once again, more in keeping with the Kelvin universe ST movies, but sleek enough to somewhat pass for a ship of the same general lineage as what we’ve seen before. In fact, her design is loosely based upon the late conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie’s illustrations for an abandoned, mid-1970s Star Trek feature film that would’ve been known as “Planet of the Titans.” The movie was abandoned in favor for what eventually became The Motion Picture, but a smaller concept model of this version of the Enterprise was actually built and later used as one of the ‘destroyed’ ships from The Next Generation’s battle with the Borg at Wolf 359 in “The Best of Both Worlds part 2” (1990).
At any rate, the revamped design works far better onscreen than it has any right to. The late McQuarrie would be proud.
* Sonequa Martin-Green’s “Michael Burnham.”
Burnham is already showing glints of her eventual redemption through her competence and her knee-jerk reflexive protectiveness of her shipmates (even though she’s not a part of this crew just yet). Despite lots of negative responses I’ve read online, I’m still very much Team Michael. I enjoy the idea of ST having an antihero (working towards redemption) for a lead character. It’s new ground for the franchise. Personally I believe Burnham’s going to have a lot of naysayers eating crow by S2 (just as the once-unpopular Ben Sisko did after a few years of “Deep Space Nine”). However, the new show’s serialized format makes it tough to gauge the character’s full potential at once, because it’s like watching one still frame at the opening of a horse race and trying to guess which one will win. Unlike its predecessors, this Star Trek’s characters aren’t fully formed and set after the pilot episode. In fact, the whole first season may best be seen as one lengthy, extended 13-part pilot. Patience is required…
* Mary Wiseman’s “Cadet Tilly.”
I like the idea of following a raw cadet on her maiden voyage; her enthusiasm makes her a nice audience avatar. Pairing her with with the rock-bottomed Burnham (on her own road-to-redemption) is an interesting idea as well. One roommate has already reached her apex and crashed hard; the other hasn’t even begun to find herself as an officer yet.
Wiseman also infuses Tilly with a ‘college freshman’ attitude that gives this series a much needed dose of humor and earthiness. Loved her confession/apology to Burnham aboard the shuttle en route to the USS Glenn. Nice moment.
* Doug Jones’ “Saru.”
Once again, Doug Jones makes this alien character truly come alive with his terrific physical acting (his body language for the character is very well done; humanoid, but not quite human, as seen in his hooved walking stance). And despite fears that he would become the series’ ‘fraidy cat’ (given that his species is his planet’s natural prey) he easily avoids that potential cliche. And his promotion to Discovery’s first officer position has imparted a bit more maturity to him than we saw in last week’s outing, where he was still a squabbling, nervous science officer.
* Amazing production value.
Although tonight’s episode was what would’ve been known as a ‘bottle show’ in previous Star Treks (a ship-based show designed to use existing shipboard sets to save money), it still looked every bit like a feature film. Televised Star Trek has NEVER looked this good. Even the recent big-budgeted Bad Robot movies barely match this show’s overall quality. And seeing the Discovery’s dazzling exterior and luxe interior sets for the first time was a nice treat in what was otherwise a dark and somewhat murky installment.
AND NOW FOR SOME STUFF I’M NOT QUITE IN LOVE WITH (YET?)…
* Jason Isaacs’ Captain Gabriel Lorca.
Jason Isaacs is a fine actor, no question of that. But the character strikes me as somewhat ‘evil-ish’ and more than a bit unlikable. He’s not the obvious moral center we’ve seen before on previous ST series, and maybe I’m just a wee-bit spoiled by previous Treks’ sugary sweetness. I realize that the show IS about Burnham, but the captain seems more shady opportunist than stalwart commanding officer (especially his seeming delight in taunting the ravaging ‘space beast’ captured from the USS Glenn in the episode’s final moments). He may take a while to warm up to, but at this point? I’m very much missing the warmer, more maternal Captain Philippa Georgiou, so memorably played by the legendary Michelle Yeoh. But it’s WAAAAY too early to just write off Lorca as a sinister prick. Once again, the serialized format makes such a write-off very shortsighted; like judging a 1,200 page book from one paragraph.
* Anthony Rapp’s Lt. Stamets.
Anthony Rapp is a solid actor, and I liked his scene aboard the USS Glenn-bound shuttle where the bitterness over the loss of his friend and his views on the universe’s nature are revealed. Nice character moments that were well-acted, but the character is not terribly lovable. Think “Big Bang Theory”’s Dr. Sheldon Cooper as a Starfleet officer. Lt. Stamets may be an acquired taste, so we’ll see. I’m willingly giving him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe when we see him with his husband, ship’s doctor Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz), some of that edge will soften a bit (?). Hope so.
* The overall tone of this week’s installment.
“Hello Darkness, My Old Friend” could’ve been this episode’s alternate title. There were times when I would’ve sworn I was watching a glossier version of “The Expanse” rather than an episode of Star Trek. And the search of the USS Glenn, with its space warped bodies and raging, snarling monster felt very ALIENS as well. Now, in fairness, I love James Cameron’s ALIENS, and I liked S1 of “The Expanse” (haven’t seen S2 yet), but when I watch Star Trek? It’s to sate a different craving. Sometimes you prefer bitter and sometimes you prefer sweet. Star Trek is usually the light at the end of the tunnel, not just the tunnel.
Once again, I’m vowing to be patient with the show’s serialized format and this war arc, as I’ve heard the writers say (two months ago, at the Star Trek convention in Las Vegas) that the show WILL eventually assume the more optimistic tone and exploratory theme we normally associate with Star Trek.
^ As far as the main characters go, we still have yet to meet ship’s chief medical officer (and Lt. Stamets’ lover), Dr. Hugh Culber (played by “My So-Called Life” veteran Wilson Cruz). I remember the moving talk Cruz gave in Vegas two months ago, when he related his pride in bringing both his Latino heritage and his own identity as a gay man to this character. He was also glad to be reunited with his longtime friend Anthony Rapp. Cruz’ heartfelt passion for his own addition to the Star Trek legacy was inspiring.
And hopefully, other characters such as Cadet Tilly and Saru will continue to provide a bit of lightness and humor to this otherwise somber first season’s war arc with the Klingons.
At any rate, I’m still entertained and intrigued enough to stick around for more…
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