Star Trek: Discovery: Season 1 – Episode 3 ‘Context Is For Kings’ REVIEW

With most of its new characters now established, Star Trek: Discovery is starting to come into its own.


We rejoin convicted mutineer Michael Burnham – our hero, ladies and gentlemen – six months after being sentenced, on a prison transport off to some horrible space-version of Botany Bay. Her fellow prisoners don’t take too kindly to mutineers, but there’s no time for a shanking, because their flight – of course – runs into trouble. Space weevils start eating the hull, and they see the repairman get flung off into the void.

Michael accepts this with the same resignation she accepted the title of ‘mutineer’, and waits for death. But they’re not going to kill off the main character after two and a bit episodes, so what should turn up to save them but the USS Discovery (roll credits!). It sucks in the prison vessel, and Michael is taken to their leader – none other than Starfleet Captain Lucius Malfoy – excuse me, Gabriel Lorca.

In the previous review I talked about how much this series draws upon the film reboots aesthetically, but there’s plenty of the old series in there as well – specifically, the prequel series Enterprise, even though Discovery is supposed to be taking place alongside the original series. The uniforms in particular are very Enterprise, and Lorca here is very much in the mould of Enterprise’s Captain Archer, only without the cognitive dissonance that made people act like Archer was a moral exemplar while he tortured prisoners and gave slavers the nod because he got on with them really well.

(Also, Lorca has a pet tribble on his desk. Tribbles are a fairly iconic beastie from the original series – they usually reproduce like crazy until everyone drowns in fluff, which clearly hasn’t happened here, so it’s entirely possible he neutered the poor little devil with his teeth.)

Lorca, it quickly becomes clear, engineered Michael’s prison transport being picked up by Discovery (what about that repairman?). Yet confronted by this literal get-out-of-jail card, Michael still just wants to accept the consequences of her actions, do her time and keep her head down. Unfortunately for her, Lorca is the captain and gets to ride roughshod over such trifling concerns as what people want – she’s working for him now.

Lorca presents himself, fairly convincingly, as an ends-justify-the-means type, someone who’s interested in getting the war won and hang the consequences. So it’s not an absurd idea that he might specifically want a mutineer in his back pocket. Picture the scene: ‘oh dear, guys, those pencil-pushers back on Earth are saying we can’t use this horrifying superweapon, from behind their desks! I sure hope nobody taps me on the head and seizes command in order to commit an act of aggression!’

Now that we’ve landed on Discovery proper, we get to meet the rest of the gang – including everyone’s pal Saru, who survived Michael’s mutiny and the Battle of the Binary Stars, and probably thought all that nonsense was well behind him. There’s also the stuffy engineer Stamets, who wants Michael’s help in applied techno-babble without actually telling her what he’s working on, and chief of security Landry, who doesn’t like Michael much but then didn’t like any of the rescued convicts. They’re gonna get on fine.

Finally, we have the adorably awkward Tilly, who’s not about to let Michael being a convicted mutineer who resents this whole situation stop them from being best friends. She fumbles her way through every bit of social interaction she touches and it’s far too precious.

There’s no time for all this rough-and-tumble camaraderie though, because Discovery’s sister ship, the Glenn, has gotten messed up bad. The Glenn’s been working on the same top secret project as Discovery, so the possibility it’s gone terribly wrong doesn’t bode well. Stamets isn’t happy about Michael being part of the away team, but Lorca has Saru vouch for her, which somehow turns into sassing Stamets.

When they find the Glenn, it’s been torn up badly, and going aboard, they find some Klingons who have also been torn up badly by a rampaging hell-beast on loan from the Doom series. It backs them into the ruins of the bridge, but thanks to some quick thinking from Michael and some brute force from Landry, they manage to get out unscathed and beam the beast back to Discovery – where Lorca decides to keep it as another pet.

(This sequence involves Michael reciting Alice in Wonderland passages as she crawls through the Jeffries tubes – which seems like it’s meant to be meaningful but comes off far more like Bender from The Breakfast Club telling himself the joke about the naked blonde while he’s in the crawlspace.)

More importantly, Tilly proves herself to be more than just a dorky little button when she keeps her head as part of the away team, even being the first one to spot the dead Klingons. Forget any nonsense about good influences from above, particularly with Lorca at the helm, if anyone’s going to keep Michael tied to the light side of the force it’ll be Tilly.

Michael, still curious about what exactly’s going on on Discovery, and why they keep having black alerts that screw with the fabric of time and space, uses Tilly’s DNA to get into a restricted area (don’t get too excited, shippers, by ‘DNA’ I mean drool. Wait, that’s not really better). Inside she finds a sparkly forest, which looks awfully similar to the special effect that attacked her prison ship at the start of the episode.

It comes to a head when Lorca asks to see her again – and to his credit, he knows perfectly well she’s been poking around in the restricted section. She refuses to have anything to do with whatever bio-weapon Mr ‘win the war at any costs’ is putting together, only for it to turn out that it’s not a weapon at all, it’s a new and highly experimental propulsion system based entirely on mushrooms – ‘a new way to fly’, as Lorca puts it (and so, probably, would Terence McKenna). This does at least explain the Alice in Wonderland references.

It is a mushroom-borne vision of the potential of this new engine that finally convinces Michael to join up with Discovery – to Saru’s horror, since he was talking her up as a fine officer purely hypothetically. This is pushing the timescale a bit, really – they had a whole two-part special to make all the introductions, to have them still getting this wrapped up in episode 3 is a bit much. Still, she’s part of the crew now, we’ve got our team assembled – it’s time to discover.


The Trek fundamentals

‘to explore strange new worlds’: It’s early days yet, so no new planets to speak of – but Discovery obviously represents Michael’s own whole new world (shining, shimmering, splendid). There’s also the Aliens/Space Hulk-style desolation of the USS Glenn, which has been rendered, at the very least, no man’s land.

‘to seek out new life and new civilisations’: There’s probably a joke to be made here about fungal colonies, but nothing solid – again, though, we and Michael are meeting new people, so it kind of counts in this category.

‘to boldly go where no one has gone before’: If they can get the mushroom drive running, this is absolutely on the cards.

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