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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.