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Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Star Trek: Discovery 1-03: Context is for Kings (Quick Review)

Episode:3|Writer:Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts & Craig Sweeny|Air Date:01-Oct-2017

Today on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm got another rushed Discovery review for you. I'm up to episode 3, Context is for Kings, which is a weird name. Very un-Star Trek. Though to be honest, I'm just happy we're actually getting new Star Trek episode titles again; it's been a long while.

The episode's written by showrunners Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts, who also wrote the last episode, but they're joined this time by Limitless creator Craig Sweeny. Lots of writers. They even got a writer to direct it: Batman & Robin's Akiva Goldsman. Funny that the third episode of The Orville was directed by a notorious writer as well; I hope Goldsman did as good a job as Brannon Braga did.

This is one of my quick reviews, meaning that I'm skipping the screencaps and in-depth scene-by-scene observations, and going straight for the SPOILERS. I'm considering all 51 years of Star Trek up to this point to be fair game for my spoilers, especially Where No Man Has Gone Before, plus Where No One Has Gone Before and other episodes with super space travel.



Context is for Kings doesn't start well.

It begins 6 months after the events of the epic two-parter season opener with Starfleet's first mutineer taking a ride on Starfleet's worst prison bus. These are not nice folks on this shuttle, but there's just one pilot and she's sitting utterly unguarded. Then she decides to go outside to clean off the energy draining bugs that have never bothered any shuttle before or since, and ends up getting flung off into space because... there was a storm outside? It can't be that she accidentally left the engines on because she fell towards the front of the shuttle.

Then the Discovery finally makes its grand entrance to rescue them and the prisoners are brought to the mess hall, where they immediately attempt to kill our hero in plain sight of the well-armed crewmembers sitting all around them! Burnham has to take two of them down before Commander Landry decides that it's the right time to get up and tell her that the captain wants to see her. It's kind of dumb. Though I did like how the prisoners were all actors who'd appeared in The Expanse, including Deus Ex star Elias Toufexis.

The episode started to pick up for me when we left the prisoners behind and got to meet some of the Discovery crew. They're really straying from the typical Star Trek character roles here, focusing more on the scientists down in engineering than the bridge crew. The episode introduces three new characters (well three and a bit if you include the security chief): the mysterious Captain Lorca, the irritable Lieutenant Stamets and the upbeat Ensign Tilly.

Stamets is potentially the second smartest Starfleet officer Saru's ever met and he ain't happy with his mushroom teleporter getting used for the war effort. That's what I'm getting from him so far. Tilly's basically the Harry Kim to Burnham's Tom Paris (with a hint of Reg Barclay), and is the only character to call her out on having a traditionally male name. It took 11 episodes before anyone called out Jayne for having a girl's name in Firefly, so Discovery's way ahead here. It seems like Tilly's going to be stuck working on the lower decks for the most part so I hope that means we get to hang out down there more. And Lorca is the sinister man with the plan.

It appears that Lorca's been assigned the task of coming up with outside the box ways to win and he seems to be enjoying the extra freedom the war's given him a little too much, thinking that "universal laws are for lackeys" and considering himself more of a king. Plus his closest friend on board seems to be the asshole head of security, so that's a bit of a red flag too. Other things we've learned about him so far include: he deliberately keeps the lights dimmed because of an eye injury, he likes to make you strain to hear what he's saying, and he never ever sits down. Also, he's eager to get the most notorious criminal in Starfleet onto his crew, partly because he collects dangerous and unusual creatures, partly because he believes she was right. He's a charismatic and confident leader, but personally I think I'd rather serve under Captain Ed Mercer from The Orville. The guy at least knows how to project his voice, and he has Kermit the Frog on his desk instead of a Bond villain cat tribble.

The Discovery herself is just as sinister, mysterious and unusual as her captain, with its black badges, black alerts and black projects. I'm less bothered by its appearance now that I know it ain't supposed to look right, inside or out, with the cutouts on the saucer, boxy nacelles and darker hull giving a bit of that USS Vengeance feel. Plus those gaps they've added fit the idea of it being filled with isolated research teams instead of a friendly unified crew. The bridge is cut off by another gap and for the first time in Star Trek we feel like we're not authorised to go in there, at least for this episode. We only see glimpses of the place on the way to Lorca's spartan ready room.

I can see why we needed those prologue episodes set on a typical Starfleet ship; they gave us the baseline for this era, so now we can tell how far the Discovery's straying from it. Shame all the corridors look exactly the same as on the older ship, but then that can't be helped. They're very chunky, metallic, video game hallways, which works well when the crew fly over to the Discovery's identical sister ship and end up inside Doom 3. The USS Glenn's got the spooky lighting, the dangerous portal experiments that got everyone killed, the demon creature roaming the hallways... all they were missing was the super shotgun, though Landry actually fired a phaser beam this episode, so I'm happy. Weirdly the inexplicably phaser-proof 'demon' seems unrelated to the gross distorted corpses lining the corridors. They looked like they'd all been through a horrific transporter accident or a Brannon Braga episode.

But it's Bryan Fuller's episodes I should be comparing this to, as despite his departure as showrunner this is dripping with the dark horror tone he demonstrated a fondness for in stories like The Darkness and the Light, Empok Nor, The Raven and Alice. His is not a friendly comfortable Star Trek. Then again The Original Series wasn't particularly upbeat when it started either, as its third episode (coincidentally a second pilot itself) ended with Kirk murdering his best friend with a rock because he'd gone mad. Funny how this story is also about the captain learning about a horrible disaster that killed another crew, and then deciding to do the exact same thing they did. Lorca doesn't even seem to care what happened over on their sister ship, he just wants his portal tech and his xenomorph.

It seems like the season may turn out to be about Lorca's gleeful pragmatism versus Burnham's principles. I can see her struggling to make the right choices to redeem herself, while he tempts her into falling back on the instincts that got her into this mess in the first place. We've seen how much of an influence Georgiou Captain Georgiou was on her, now we get to see her with a new mentor. Not that he'll have to push her too hard to make bad decisions, as she's only on the ship a day before breaking into engineering and potentially getting her roommate into trouble just to satisfy her curiosity about what the hell is going on aboard the Discovery. She's still got that need to learn, explore and jump down every rabbit hole. Especially the ones with magic mushrooms on the other side.

And it turns out that the secret project Stamets has been working on is... a new way to fly, which was spoiled by the trailers weeks ago. I also knew in advance that it was going to be an FTL drive powered by mushrooms, which has to be the stupidest thing to happen in Star Trek since Tom Paris turned into a lizard after going fast enough to be at every point in the universe simultaneously. Or since Voyager met an evil Starfleet ship powered by shovelling aliens into the warp furnace. Or since the Enterprise D discovered that time, space and thought are connected and managed to end up in a galaxy where imagination becomes reality. Star Trek really hasn't got the best track record when it comes to these kinds of stories.

I was all set to go on a rant about how ridiculous it is, but then they blindsided me with a discussion about how biology is the same thing as physics and now I don't even know what I'd be ranting about anymore. The best response I can manage is 'Wait, what?' It seems like they started with 'the universe resembles a living organism in some way' and then leapt straight to 'therefore we can teleport anywhere with glowing mushroom spores that are in no way related to the glowing energy bugs you saw on the window at the start despite looking like the same thing'. Though I did like how Lorca then teleported Burnham to a bunch of famous Original Series locations (or close enough) to win the audience over. Makes me wonder if the Iconians (from Next Gen's Contagion and DS9's To the Death) were mushroom users too. I'm also wondering how they're going to sweep this technology under the rug to never be mentioned again in later (earlier) series.

In conclusion, I want to go back to the Shenzhou! Everyone was happy there and they did Star Trek things like exploration and banter. Somehow getting the main cast together on the hero ship has only made the series feel less like Star Trek, and closer to Battlestar Galactica or The Expanse... except with less fun and camaraderie. Plus the less theatrical acting in this modern Trek makes the slightly stilted dialogue more off-putting. It was a decent episode though I thought, and even though I wouldn't want to live in this world, I have to admit that it sure is pretty at times. I'm just hoping the next story isn't another claustrophobic bottle episode and we get to see some planets.



COMING SOON
Discovery will return with The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry. Seriously, that's what the next episode's called. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures, I can finally say with absolute certainty that I will be watching Babylon 5's GROPOS.

Thanks for reading, I always appreciate comments.

7 comments:

  1. I just watched a video guessing that Discovery (the ship) is a Section 31 black op, which they seemed pumped about, but I find depressing.

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    1. I'm not keen on that either, for a couple of reasons: I don't want the crew of the ship to be villains and the alternative is that Section 31 are the heroes, and I don't want that either. Also the idea that it's a Section 31 ship because it has a 31 in the registry number is just daft.

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    2. The thing that makes me doubt that this has anything to do with Section 31 is that Section 31 is continuity and Discovery doesn't really do continuity. We've got Mushroom Drives and Wrong Klingons, so I can't see them holding on to something that appeared in a few episodes of DS9 twenty years ago.

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    3. Discovery does lots of continuity! Just not always the kind that you'd want. Also Section 31 have shown up a couple of times since DS9, and their most recent story was co-written by the co-creator of this series.

      One story gave the Klingons a good reason to hide their faces for a century, the other hinted that they may have wanted to start a war around this time period. I hate to say it, but there are really good reasons to involve Section 31 in this series.

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    4. Oh, I agree that there are good reasons for Section 31 to be involved in Discovery, but I'm just not convinced that the creators are interested enough in what's gone before to dig out the reference.

      (Which is not necessarily a bad thing.)

      I could be wrong, and I probably am!

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  2. At this point, I think i'm going to miss seeing the little "GROPOS" thumbnail at the end of each article.

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    Replies
    1. Nothing lasts forever I'm afraid, not even GROPOS.

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