Star Trek: Discovery Review: “Context is for Kings”

Star Trek: Discovery premiered last week with “Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars.” With the captain dead and our chief protagonist serving a life sentence, the show takes an unexpected route to an expected destination: the U.S.S. Discovery.

Some spoilers follow.

Titles: “Context Is for Kings”

Directed by Akiva Goldsman
Written by Bryan Fuller, Gretchen J. Berg, Aaron Harberts, and Craig Sweeny

Cast
Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham1
Jason Isaacs as Captain Gabriel Lorca
Doug Jones as Saru2
Emily Coutts as Keyla Detmer
Wilson Cruz as Dr. Hugh Culber
Shazad Latif as Lieutenant Tyler
Clare McConnell as Dennas
Kenneth Mitchell as Kol
Maulik Pancholy as Dr. Nambue
Anthony Rapp as Lt. Stamets
Damon Runyan as Ujilli
Rekha Sharma as Commander Landry
Sam Vartholomeos as Ensign Connor
Mary Wiseman as Cadet Sylvia Tilly
Grace Lynn Kung as Prisoner

Premise:

A transfer of prisoners brings Michael Burnham to the Discovery, a science vessel with a crew that includes two of her former colleagues from the Shenzhou.

She quickly learns their war-related research may include illegal weapons— and stranger things.

High Points:

This episode felt more like Star Trek than the first two hours. We remain in a space war series, but we’re far from the front, and the plot includes some (highly) speculative science and alien life forms as key plot elements.

Michael Burnam seems a bit removed from the character we met last week, but Trek shows have always taken time to settle. I remain cautiously optimistic.

Low Points:

Yeah, I’m repeating what I said in the comments last week. I’ll come up with something different next week. It was either this or complain about how annoying Cadet Tilly is.

Why on earth does this take place ten years before Kirk’s time—an era already depicted in the original series? Even allowing for improved effects and design, it bears too little resemblance to what we’ve seen before. They’ve redesigned technology, uniforms, and (radically) the Klingons. The weapons look superficially like Kirk’s era, and not Pike’s. Only the Discovery‘s basic design fits with the established history.3

Why not just say they’ve retooled and rebooted Trek? The hardcore continuity fans aren’t buying it as pre-Kirk; it makes a hash of years of fan and official canon. The new fans don’t care if it fits into some existing timeline. Discovery is no prequel; it’s a wholly new Trek.

The show has needed a truly fresh start for years. Embrace it.

The Scores:

Originality: 2/6 One can only be so original with the umpteenth iteration of Star Trek, but the creators certainly try, with a story-arc-driven series and themes of redemption handled in ways that seem different than past incarnations of Trek.

A certain key plot element also seems new for the franchise, though not for SF.

Certain “space-monster” scenes were a little reminiscent of the original Alien.

Effects: 6/6 Even people who dismiss the show have to admit that Trek has never had better effects. I’m including here the recent Nu-Timeline action movies. The recent films have an impressive budget, true, but make some problematic choices, such as using a brewery for an engine room4 and adding artificial lens flare to multiple shots.

Acting: 4/6 Martin-Green and Jones remains strong, though the acting overall seems less impressive than in the first two episodes. The cast may gel with time. We’re really getting a whole new show at this point, with the first two episodes serving as prologue.

Production: 5/6 This episode had a lower budget than the pilot, but it looked good.

Story: 5/6 I have some questions, but I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt. We’re seeing a small part of a story arc, and some unlikely developments (like the ease with which Burnham violates security) receive explanations.

Emotional Response: 5/6

Overall: 5/6 Context is for kings.5

In total, “Context Is for Kings” receives 32/42

Tangential Notes

1. Cadet Tilly comments on Michael being a male name. Would that necessarily be so in Trek‘s time? Michael—not a variant, but Michael—is in limited use as a female name, and has been for some time. Emmy-winning TV actress Michael Learned was born in the late 1930s. Disney did a TV-movie with a female Michael in the early 1970s. I’ve met at least one female Michael. Granted, the name easily could remain principally male over the centuries, but the conversation felt unnecessary and out of place, or perhaps out of time.

2. Does the Discovery crew include another member of Saru’s race? The alien in the background on the rec deck had blue skin, but his/her/its head looked the same basic shape as Saru’s.

3. A revised Trek would still permit Mudd’s forthcoming appearance, or even a guest spot by Spock, which many people believe is inevitable.

We’ve seen Sarek, and they’ve already cast Amanda.

4. It would have been fine on TOS, which had minimal budget and had to make due with what was available. The first season, in particular, managed remarkably well with very limited resources. With the substantial budgets of the new films, the brewery seemed a strange choice: a new ship with a slightly battered, strangely contemporary industrial engine room that looks like no Trek tech we’ve seen before?

5. The original Star Trek showed us a diverse background crew in its first season; as time went on, the casting grew decidedly Caucasian, save for certain principal characters. Nevertheless, it was groundbreaking television and progressive casting for its time. Discovery tried to continue in this tradition, and drew online complaints from the Snowflake Wing of certain alt-right communities because its first two episodes had so many non-white and female characters in lead roles. Those viewers can step out of their safe spaces; the Discovery‘s crew, while diverse, has (thus far) the limited diversity that we saw on older Trek. It’s not a dealbreaker, but I can’t help but think that it’s 2017, and we still have never really seen earth’s future global society represented with any kind of accuracy.

6 replies on “Star Trek: Discovery Review: “Context is for Kings””

  1. pythor says:

    Wouldn’t the brewery make sense since they are breeding spores as part of transport system? Frankly, I didn’t notice it anyway, but since you brought it up, it seems to fit the story to me.

    • JD DeLuzio says:

      Actually, I was referring to the recent movies at that point, indicating that the series has better visuals, overall, than the big-budget films. The brewery would, in fact, make far more sense in this series.

      • pythor says:

        Ah, that makes more sense. Apparently I failed at reading comprehension. Thanks for keeping with the reviews!

  2. I am still enjoying the show. I do think they should have set it later on in Trek. Improved technology would make sense, including the new tech this episode was working on. I haven’t seen any reason that the Vulcan higher-up needed to be Sarek. The aliens don’t even need to be Klingons, they obviously wanted the new look, so why not new creatures?

    • zocalo says:

      Pretty much my feelings; I’m enjoying it, but some decisions seem very off on the visual style and setting, which is somewhat jarring at times.

      Saru didn’t bother me at all this week (not that he was on screen much) – that honour fell to Tilly – but I’m completely baffled by the decision to place it where it is in the timeline given that the tech and style seems so much more modern that ToS. Unless there’s a big payoff down the road for the Sarek/Vulcan tie-in, it would make just as much sense with a brand new race (which already they are visually) and placed somewhere beyond TNG/DS:9/Voyager in the timeline.

      I’m starting to wonder if this is fallout of the rumoured re-write and ship re-design, not having paid too much attention to it at the time to avoid too many spoilers. All that inconsistency would make a lot more sense from the production side if it initially *was* intended to be set later in the timeline, but for some reason they re-jigged it to be pre-ToS but didn’t have the time/budget to make all the props fit the new period.

      • Vulch says:

        Even setting it around the time of DS-9 would work, you’ve already got a war going on against the Dominion and biological warfare (if that’s what Discovery is working on) was used against the Founders. Memory says a Vulcan science vessel was one of the first through the wormhole so there’s a way of putting Burnham in the middle of the outbreak of hostilities.

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