Star Trek Goes Darkside
Warning: Contains SPOILERS for every episode of every Star Trek ever aired, including Star Trek: Discovery
Star Trek: Discovery finally introduces the titular ship in the third episode of the season, ‘The Context of the King’ and we learn that this show is not at all what we expected. From the first two episodes, we thought we saw the series premise laid out; this was the beginning of war with the Klingons. But it’s far different journey than expected. We’ve left behind our comfortable Starfleet ideals and principles, we’re on a ship conducting unsanctioned operations. We’ve landed inside Section 31, the black-ops side of Starfleet that few know about and none of the previous Trek captains would condone. But let’s have a recap first.
The former Commander Michael Burnham is no longer the with Starfleet. We join her mid-transport from one penal colony to another as she continues to serve out her sentence as a mutineer. Gone is the Vulcan-conforming calm and straight hair. In it’s place is a face that looks dead inside and Michael is sporting the “hair of despair”.
It’s a riot of natural curls with random bits sticking out. As a metaphor for her mental state, it works pretty well. When her transport is infected with space bugs eating up the electrical systems, the transport ship pilot is killed and it looks like the end for our hero. But, what luck, a powerful Starfleet vessel is there to tractor the ship to safety. The prisoners are to be housed on-board until the crew can repair their transport. It’s the USS Discovery and as we walk through her hallways, one of the prisoners conveniently points out the black Starfleet comm badge a guard is wearing. That’s definitely not standard-issue Federation gear. Just when it looks like the episode is going to follow a paint-by-numbers redemption arc for Michael Burnham, going from ostracized to badass, she is called to the Captain’s office. Well that was easy. And Burnham immediately questions the circumstances of her transfer and the surprise rescue, making it clear that she also suspects things are not what they appear.
But of course she’s trying to get a straight answer out of Lucius Malfoy (aka Capt Gabriel Lorca), so that’s not going to happen. However he does have a Tribble cooing on his desk so maybe he IS a good guy. At this point, it’s not clear. He continues to pretend that he was surprised to have her wind up on his ship, then he tells her that she has to earn her keep by working on a science problem he has. When she tries to demur, he shows his teeth; ‘Do you think I care what your preferences are?’ She’s not given a choice and Burnham is smart enough to keep quiet.
Once taken to her quarters she meets Cadet Tilly who is wonderfully awkward and bubbly until she learns her roommate is ‘the mutineer Michael Burnham’. This is about the 10th mention of her crime in the first 20 minutes of the episode. Tilly wisely agrees to foregone calling her new roommate “Mickey”, but we can already tell that Burnham is going to be kind to her.
The next morning, her former crewmate. now First Officer Saru, reminds Michael that he intends to protect his Captain better than she did hers. Ouch. But Burnham is anxious to extend her appreciation of Saru’s words at Captain Georgiou’s memorial. Burnham is still deeply wounded by Captain Georgiou’s death but she’s also starting to show some signs of coming out of her deep depression. Her next stop is Engineering where Tilly is less friendly, security is abnormally high, and she meets the annoying Lt Stamets. He’s petty, ambitious, and less than thrilled that she is as smart as the Captain suspected. Burnham successfully solved his mathematical problem and recognizes it’s biologically based. Later, when Tilly is asleep, Burnham takes a dab of the Cadet’s sleep-drool and uses it to bypass the security ‘breathalyzer’ test, which is used to keep activities compartmented. Michael clearly suspects all is not what it seems and is determined to find out what is going on. What Burnham discovers is an arboretum with thousands of light-emitting spores flying around thicker than gnats. They kind of look like the bugs that took out the transport in the first place. Go figure.
That discovery is pre-empted by the USS Dicovery’s sister ship, the USS Glenn, having a massive accident. Lorca naturally insists that Burnham join the away team to investigate what went wrong. Following behind Stamets, Tilly, head of security Commander Landry, and a red shirt (okay, it was black tactical gear, but we know what his role is on this mission), Burnham enters the USS Glenn. And now we’ve entered into a mix between Star Trek: The Original Series’ ‘The Naked Time’ and Aliens. It’s dark, the walls are torn up by claws, the dead people look like a transporter accident happened to everyone simultaneously, and there’s a creature running around. They come upon a scavenging Klingon who is conveniently dragged off by the creature. Running at full speed, the away team makes it just in time to Engineering to allow nameless red shirt to also be killed and the rest of the crew are safely behind a reinforced door. Stamets is clearly out of his league, just wanting to get the technical information off the computer, salvage some parts and get back to the ship. He has already surmised that the experiments that he and his counterpart on the Glenn were working is the basis of the ship’s disaster. Landry tries to get the team out the backdoor but when that is taking too long, Burnham goes into badass mode and lures the creature to her.
And then it gets weird. While rapidly crawling through the Jefferies tubes, being chased by an ugly rodent of unusual size, Michael starts quoting from Alice in Wonderland. She’s using her knowledge of Starfleet ship design to get her back to the shuttle bay via the tubes. The recitation of Alice’s journey from falling down the rabbit hole and changing sizes seems to be a method of calming her nerves. Of course she safely drops into the shuttle and they escape just as the beast closes in on her.
Back on board the ship, Lorca congratulates her on her success and offers her an opportunity to stay on-board. But by now Burnham has put the pieces together. Lorca set up the whole prison transfer, and shuttle accident, in order to get Burnham on his ship. She speculates that he is creating illegal biological weapons and presumes that she is so desperate for redemption, she’ll sign on to help him. Lorca claims she’s wrong, but it’s only about what he’s creating. He doesn’t acknowledge that she’s right about the rest of the game he’s been playing. Instead Lucius Lorca takes Burnham to Engineering to show his hand. Confessing that he did come after her because she violated protocol. Lorca puts her in chamber with harmless spores and explains that the spores are the secret to a faster-than-warp transportation technique that allows them to travel to the Beta Quadrant and back in seconds. The Captain’s plan is to win the war by developing a better version of space travel. With a push of a button, he sends her on a seemingly impossible journey, right inside that chamber, to multiple planets in the blink of an eye. She recalls the engineer’s earlier allusion that he could build a system that allows the ships to travel using the same natural ‘arteries and veins’ of the universe with which the spores travel. This, is Lorca’s strategic plan for the war. To get to a battle and get out quickly. Then, with well honed manipulation skills in place, Lorca admits he came after her because he believes she did the right thing at the ‘Battle of the Binary Stars’. She recognized what the Klingons were doing and took an unsanctioned act to try and prevent war, regardless of the personal costs. He respects that and wants her by his side. So really, he’s a good guy, or so he would have you think. He goes on to say, “Universal law is for lackeys. Context is for kings.” He lays further bait, pointing out that she has a chance to end the war that she personally started and to possibly avenge the death of her Captain. It’s that last tasty bit of bait, avenging the death of Captain Georgiou, that appears to motivate Burnham. She signs up.
Back in her quarters with her roomie, she announces she’s staying. And she hands Tilly a copy of Alice In Wonderland. She explains to Tilly that her foster mother, Amanda, used to read it to Burnham and Amanda’s son (presumably Spock) when she was young. The point of the book being that not everything adheres to logic. “Sometimes up is down, sometimes down is up, and sometimes when you’re lost, you’re found.” Which seems to be where Burnham thinks she’s at.
Next we see Lorca and Landry watch the USS Glenn be destroyed by Dicovery. Presumably to get rid of the evidence and avoid any technology from falling into the wrong hands. Landry bemoans the loss of the vessel but Lorca dismisses it as “just a ship”. Gasp! A Captain who does not anthropomorphize his ship? Who IS this guy? Landry offers, unsubtly, to help him with anything he needs but Lorca isn’t interested in romance. He wants to play with his new “kitty.”
Yes, after panning past a room full of other dead looking alien creatures, Lorca teases the rodent of unusual size that destroyed the USS Glenn.
Still not convinced we are dealing with a Section 31 ship? Take a look at the ship’s tail number as it ‘rescues’ Burnham’s shuttle.
That’s NCC-1031 over the docking bay door. And that cannot be a coincidence.
Well that went dark quickly. We’ve got a Star Fleet Captain who apparently had no qualms whatsoever about killing a prison transport pilot just to get Michael Burnham onto his ship. He also appears to torture creatures. What happened to that Tribble? Of course it helps that Jason Isaacs is playing the Captain. We immediately mistrust him. Sort of like any Sean Bean character before he played Ned Stark. Looks fair, feels foul (as Frodo Baggins would put it). But Isaacs is in the “and” spot in the credits. He’s not the series’ protagonist. Our hero in the story is the mutineer Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green. And Burnham IS the kind of Starfleet officer we expect. She may have made a mistake in trying to fire on the Klingons in ‘The Vulcan Hello’ but she’s loyal to the principals of both the Federation and Starfleet. So, is Lorca her foil on the show? Will Burnham turn him around? This is a fascinating dynamic. Just when you think you’ve figured out what a character is going to do, they surprise you.
This episode also had to introduce the rest of the permanent cast. We had already met the First Officer Saru but now we get the rest of the crew. And the unifying feature appears to be the size of both their intellect and their ego. These people were all hand-picked to be on the ship. I suspect Saru has no idea what the Captain is up to. And the Captain is not interested in being in charge of flying the ship. He’s interested in his ‘science’ mission. Again, a Captain not in love with his ship is a red flag in the Star Trek universe. And essentially stating everyone else in Starfleet is a lackey? No. Captain Lorca is not an ethical man. Commander Landry has an evil smirk going and Lt Stamets is there to win a prize at the Daystrom Institute. Even Cadet Tilly shows the dark underbelly of ambition. Despite all the necessary exposition, the episode made these introductions without belaboring the point. It’s a fairly tight script in this regard.
The return to Star Trek’s Twilight Zone horror roots for the sequence on the USS Glenn was a nice continuity nod to the Star Trek Universe. Walking the hallways of a ship full of dead crewman was eerily reminiscent of both ‘The Naked Time’ (Star Trek: The Original Series) and ‘The Naked Now (Star Trek: The Next Generation) but without all the extreme lack of inhibitions. But then again, the USS Discovery crew really don’t have that many inhibitions to start out with. The action sequences on the USS Glenn were legitimately frightening and gorgeous from a SFX perspective. And the body horror looked better suited to cable TV than broadcast. This episode again showed that CSB has put a fair amount of investment in sets and production and it shows on the screen.
Martin-Green continues to inspire as our hero, Isaac keeps us on our toes. Isaac could fall into chewing the scenary pretty easily, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. I’m warming up to Saru as well so at least Burnham may have an ally besides the Cadet. I was a bit surprised by Burnham seeming much more relatable than her previous stoic Vulcan mimicking. We knew that calm was partially a veneer over a woman who had learned to embrace humanity under Captain Georgiou’s tutelage, but she seems to have abandoned her devotion to logic in this episode. Burnham seemed truly broken at the start. And there is definitely a bond with Captain Georgiou that warrants flashback scenes in future episodes. However later, during the action scene, her “Shit, that worked.” was funny but somewhat unexpected for the character. For me the jury is out as to whether this is a element of character journey or a retooling between the two-part pilot and this first regular episode. Still, Burnham is very likeable and she’s got the Starfleet ideals running through her veins. We’ll follow her lead.
Finally, the mythology twist of this being a Section 31 story is pretty bold. This is NOT your usual Star Trek. We’ve got the war with the Klingons to keep the space battles coming, but it seems to be more of a mystery series than pure action adventure. For example, we know that the travelling technology is not going to pan out. Otherwise the USS Voyager would not have been looking at 75 years to get home. No, something goes wrong. And part of this series is going to be figuring out precisely how does Michael Burnham save us from both the Klingons and the evil machinations of an out-of-control Section 31. We’re off to a good start with this episode.