Star Trek: Discovery S1E3: Context is for Kings
Sonequa Martin-Green, Jason Isaacs, Doug Jones
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The third time’s the charm: this feels like Star Trek, albeit in a much darker and more combative context.
Six months after her mutiny sparked a Federation-Klingon war and got her captain killed, former Starfleet officer turned convict Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) finds her prison shuttle redirected to the USS Discovery, under the command of the ominous Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs). What is the secret project being implemented on the ship’s engineering deck, and what is Lorca’s plan for winning the war against the Klingons?
After a fairly shaky opening prologue, Star Trek: Discovery dives into the main narrative of the series. We finally get to meet the series’ titular starship, and begin to grow acquainted with its crew. It feels more self-assured, as the various kinks and difficulties of the initial episodes get ironed out and the writers discover the rhythms of the characters. For those who enjoyed Discovery from the get-go, this is likely more of the same entertainment. For those who, like me, found the first two episodes a little ragged around the edges, it seems a great reward for sticking with the series. For those who abandoned the series at episode one, there’s no real point dwelling; they have moved on and, by this third episode, are definitely missing out.
Michael Burnham is a visibly changed woman here, with a healthy dose of cynicism and self-hatred now overlaid on top of her initial personality. It rounds her off brilliantly, and Martin-Green takes full advantage of the additional complexity to really make the character sing. Her performance has been exemplary from the get-go, but now the writing has finally risen up to match the character’s potential. Commander Saru (Doug Jones), now first officer of the Discovery, also demonstrates enormous improvement. The jittery fears he was expressing back in “The Vulcan Hello” now seem long past, replaced by a weary authority and a deeply held sorrow over Burnham’s presence onboard his ship.
The new ship brings new characters, including chief of engineering Lt Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and hopeful young Ensign Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman). Both feel slightly grating in their first episode – Stamets is aggressively unlikable and Tilly feels overwhelmingly twee, like a refugee from a Joss Whedon series – but given the improvements seen with Burnham and Saru I am more than happy to give the characters another episode to settle down and find their feet.
Much more successful is Jason Isaacs as Captain Lorca, a slightly unsettling and intimidating captain who is clearly working to a secret agenda. One imagines the nature of his plans will play out over subsequent episodes, but the foreshadowing being presented here is enough for me to predict a second mutiny by Burnham by season’s end. It still stings to have lost Michelle Yeoh from the cast, and it’s interesting to speculate how Discovery might have changed had Yeoh and Isaacs swapped roles: Isaac as the ill-fated mentor and diplomat, and Yeoh as the uncompromising and secretive warrior. This is no disrespect to Isaacs, who delivers a typically strong and watchable performance.
Asides from introducing the new characters and context, “Context is for Kings” also makes time for a very old-fashioned Star Trek away mission to a severely damaged Starfleet vessel. It’s got creepy dark corridors, a dangerous alien in the shadows, science fiction technobabble, and even a security officer with a target on his back from the first shot of his face. The production values are excellent, and it is really becoming apparent how much contemporary visual effects and camera work is helping to make Discovery feel like a fresh take on the Star Trek universe. This episode marks the TV directorial debut of screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, whose work as a writer has not often impressed me. He appears to be a much stronger director, giving “Context is for Kings” a fast pace and a nice visual energy.
I thought the first episode of this series was a complete mess. I thought the second was quite flawed but enjoyable. The third time’s the charm: this feels like Star Trek, albeit in a much darker and more combative context, and more than that it actually feels like good television.