Burnham boards the series' titular ship and meets a (mostly) new cast of characters
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 a organisms — 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.” (Recap continues on page 2)
Once aboard the ship, the Discovery’s boarding party discovers a dozen Klingon corpses. Stamets predicts that the Klingons actually arrived after the Glenn’s crew died and were seeking to pilfer the ship’s technology — and alludes to the conflict being lost if they’d discovered “the device.” Right on cue, a Klingon appears in the hallway. But instead of aggression, he shushes the Starfleet officers — and is promptly attacked and killed by a lion-sized alien beast. Stamets, Burnham, and the rest of the Discovery’s team flee to the Glenn’s engineering bay, where they barricade themselves in and discover the dead Straal, his face weirdly distorted and his ribs sticking through his sides. As a diversion, Burnham leads the beast through the Glenn’s Jeffries tubes — reciting Alice in Wonderland passages to herself along the way — until she arrives at an exit point directly above the landing vessel, where the rest of the team has already convened.
Once the boarding team returns to the Discovery, Lorca summons Burnham and extends an offer for her to remain aboard the Discovery, despite the fact that her fellow prisoners are to be taken to a new detention facility later that day. Burnham confronts him. Lorca, she alleges, is developing “some sort of spore-based biological weapon,” which would be banned by the Geneva Conventions of 1928 and 2155. (The former is historical fact in our society; the latter stemmed from the xenophobic Terra Prime movement explored in Star Trek: Enterprise.) Burnham deduces to Lorca that he desires her for her intellectual prowess and willingness to wage the sort of “unsanctioned war” that she attempted during her mutiny aboard the Shenzhou.
True and not true, it turns out. Lorca escorts Burnham to engineering to show her what the Discovery’s crew has been developing — it’s spore-based, yes, but not a weapon. Earlier in the episode, Burnham had stolen a swab of Tilly’s saliva and used it to gain entry to the ship’s cultivation bay, where she’d found a grove of flora. Lorca explains that the Discovery has produced mycelium spores and used them to develop revolutionary, organic propulsion transportation technology that allows nearly instantaneous travel throughout the universe. Stamets had discussed the spore-based transportation technology with Straal earlier in the episode, and the Glenn’s testing of the risky asset had gotten them all killed. Lorca draws Burnham in with the promise of the technology: Sure, it’ll prove invaluable for the Federation’s war effort, but afterward, it could revolutionize their scientific pursuits.
He also confronts the war’s knotty moral dilemmas. “You chose to do the right thing over and above what was sanctioned, even at great cost to yourself,” he says to Burnham when articulating why he admired her actions at the Battle of the Binary Stars. “That is the kind of thinking that wins wars.” He concludes with a goosebump-inducing flourish: “Universal law is for lackeys. Context is for kings.” It’s exhilarating to see these Trek characters so quickly occupying the grey spaces between good and evil. Discovery‘s pilot presented viewers with multiple valid sides to sympathize with — the Klingons, the Federation, Burnham’s mutiny — and in “Context Is for Kings” the show continues to suggest that the choice between right and wrong is rarely cut and dried.
And we can brace for more morally ambiguous scenarios to come: The episode concludes with Lorca and Landry observing the beast they’d found aboard the Glenn, which they’ve covertly transported to the Discovery.