TV TV Recaps

Recap – Star Trek: Discovery S1E3 “Context is for Kings”

Well, allow me to wipe the egg from my face. In last week’s recap of Star Trek: Discovery’s first two episodes, I bragged quite openly about how privileged I was to be able to watch the show on Netflix, without having to clamber over the CBS All-Access paywall with the rest of the peasants. Oh, how convenient, I thought. What a doddle this’ll be. And yet suddenly I find myself sat here, at 00:15am, on a school night no less, staring at a mostly-blank Word document after just having watching the third episode, “Context is for Kings.” Throughout the entirety of last week, Netflix assured me in their infinite wisdom that a new episode of this show would air on October 9th. I’m sure it will. But they forgot to fucking tell me that one would also air today, on October 2nd, which is technically yesterday, as it’s after midnight, and now my eyes feel like they’ve had sea salt thrown in them, and I have to be up bright and early to cook my daughter’s breakfast and take her to the thieves’ den where she learns through play for £200 a week.

You’ll excuse me, then, if I’m crankier than usual. It certainly doesn’t help that I’m a little bit confused as to what, exactly, is going on with this show, as what I’ve just watched was basically another pilot. That’s three now! Rarely does a series hit the soft-reboot button so soon, yet here we are – a different ship, a different crew, and our nominal hero, Michael Burnham, suddenly in a powerless position. At least this ship really is the USS Discovery, and blimey, here’s Jason Isaacs, playing the mysterious (he calls himself that) Captain Gabriel Lorca. He’s in charge of the Discovery, and if you look very closely at his Starfleet insignia, you can see the words “I’m up to no good” scraped into the metal.

It was a convoluted hour, this, and also an oddly morose and hostile one. It occurs to me that nobody in this show seems to like anyone else, which makes it difficult for the audience to like anyone either, least of all Burnham, who thus far has done nothing but disobey orders, make rash judgements, get her former captain killed, and kick off an interspecies war. Everyone in this episode knows her as a mutineer, which makes her assignment to the Discovery after her prisoner transport ship is diverted something of a challenge. She’s casually insulted, attacked by her fellow prisoners, and her dorky bunkmate won’t even share an engineering station with her. Thing is, though, she hasn’t yet given us any reason not to side with them.

This is, I suppose, the kind of teething trouble you can expect when a show attempts to frame a no-nonsense, any-means-necessary rebel as the protagonist, and it’s probably something we’ll grow into. And none of this is to say that Burnham is any less interesting as a character, just that she’s tough to root for as a hero. But she’s getting there. In this episode especially, her snooping and general lack of discipline seems fairly justified. The Discovery is a deeply suspicious place. Captain Lorca is described as a power-hungry warmonger; the engineering team is on a top-secret mission that nobody will share any details about; and Burnham’s new minder, Lieutenant Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), is mean-spirited and patronising and constantly berates Burnham for asking what seemed to me to be quite reasonable questions.

This is all in service, of course, of a pervading moral ambiguity. Lorca’s ideals might be looked upon unfavourably by some, but he’s trying to protect his crew and he’s willing to give Burnham a second chance. Unethical and reckless decisions are considered in the broader context of an impromptu war fraught with atrocities, misinformation and irrationalities; can one do the right thing, the show asks, by doing the wrong thing? These characters feel ordinary in the face of the extraordinary. No matter how absurd and fantastical the show’s world might become, it’s still governed by human instincts to protect, to avenge, to seek, to discover. Each decision is grounded by fallible logic and the complex emotions of desperate people in a situation they don’t understand. Burnham only stands out because wartime suits her.

I’m starting to think that the character we should be paying attention to here is First Officer Saru, fresh off promotion. He tells Burnham to her face that he considers her to be dangerous, but he also respects her intelligence, and recommends her to Captain Lorca for an away mission when the USS Glenn is beset by some interstellar trauma. His frank admission that she’s antiheroic is precisely the jolt of knowingness that this show needs; it’s easy to believe it’s tripping over its own characterisation at times, but that kind of acknowledgement reminds you that it probably knows what it’s doing. So too does that whole boarding sequence aboard the Glenn, which employs a horror film’s sensibilities in staging, cinematography and editing to craft a tight and tidy bit of suspense within the ship’s gloomy, ravaged interior.

And that’s just it, really. Whatever the show is now, whatever it’s becoming, one can’t say that it’s boring. It has action and ideas and an identity that, even in its infancy, you get the sense can carry an entire season. I guess we’ll see. In the meantime, I’m off to bed.

See you next week.

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