Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Black Alert: S1 E3 Context is for Kings

When is a pilot not a pilot?

When it’s episode three of Star Trek Discovery and we’re only just getting aboard the synonymous ship.

Taking up the story six months after the events of The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars, Context is the King finds Michael Burnham clapped in irons and on a prison transfer. A cosmic storm later and she and her fellow prisoners are stepping out onto the deck of the USS Discovery with its array of weirdness, secrecy and diverse personalities on view right from the second the bay doors open and Commander Landry walks in.

Context is for Kings feels like we’ve been watching this story evolve. The transition from Shenzhou to Discovery feels natural although the actual transfer of Burnham might have been intentional. 

This episode is just as dark as the previous two and begins to take the series in very different direction to anything you have experienced with Star Trek before. The atmosphere in this show tingles with energy and intrigue from the first moment but there’s also a palpable sense that this is fundamentally NOT the Star Trek of Picard, Janeway or even Sisko in his more brooding episodes. As with The Vulcan Hello, this feels real and the interactions between the characters feels real because they are allowed to experience conflict.

That allowance creates both the most opportunity and yet goes drastically against Gene Roddenberry, almost as much as Burnham ZIPPING up her jacket. Oh my, you can hear the keyboards tapping away now.

Discovery, while stated in observation, is a new ship, there’s already a lot going on and very little is explained here. We see guards around the ship armed with phaser rifles and bearing a black Starfleet badge as well as delving into the mysteries of the engineering labs and their work on spore-type life.

Context is for Kings is almost devoid of Klingon intrusion as an opposite from the previous days, focusing purely on this new crew and starship. 

Cadet Sylvia Tilly is the big kid in all of us. The wide eyed excited newbie out there for the first time. Probably a huge allegory for the viewer experiencing Discovery but such a great inclusion and one that does add a lighter touch to a show that at times is very dark. Her phobias aside, Tilly is looking to Burnham as a chance to further her knowledge and career while everyone else has cast her aside. These two are a classic Trek odd pairing with one being the emotional hub and Burnham the voice of logic and calm. Might Tilly's character also betray a hint of autistic tendancies? Could this be the first role in Star Trek to address those kinds of personal challenges? 

Then there’s Saru. The character has come on in new ways during the six months since the battle at the binary stars with the Kelpien moving to command and being Lorca’s first officer. His relationship with Burnham is nothing short of uncomfortable and even here the conflict we have never seen in the franchise before is bubbling at the surface. His comment about protecting his captain is sharply barbed almost putting his former superior officer in her place yet he is more than willing to speak in her defence when asked by his new captain if she is suitable for an away mission. I think this is a survival instinct that Saru knows which side to fall on to stay safe. 

Everybody seems to treat Burnham with some sort of disdain in Context is for Kings because of her dubious recent past and it’s both out of place and refreshing for Star Trek to do this. It feels more honest and respectful to the viewer that life isn’t always as perfect and utopian as The Next Generation might have portrayed it for example. In fact the last time I recall some kind of human/human conflict or edge in that show was when the Starfleet officer who defected to the Romulans returned in Face of the Enemy

Lieutenant Paul Stamets carries a lot of that negativity around. While Saru is slightly aloof, Stamets is a more abrasive officer who demands performance and the best from his team. He clearly doesn’t take any s**t and nor is he afraid to stand his ground when he (pretty much always) thinks he’s right. His relationship with the captain is strained for very good reason and will continue to be due to his history with Starfleet.

Stamets doesn’t hold back either and while it’s not a case of his mouth overrunning his mind as with Tilly, he seems almost vindictive or bullish in his approach to Burnham in particular.  The key to all this seems to be that Stamets and Straal (he’s on the USS Glenn were co-opted into ‘your (Lorca’s) Starfleet” to divert their research for the war effort which suggests he’s not originally one of the fold. It also worryingly paints Starfleet in a darker light than ever before and lays a strong case for the show that it is promoting the organisation as a rather shady military group rather than one more dedicated to seeking out new life.

Then there’s Commander Landry played by Rekha Sharma. Sadly only guest cast which doesn’t bode too well for her survival(!) but I could be wrong. She makes Worf look like a pussy cat within seconds, even allowing a fight to break out in the mess hall and later appearing to have darker loyalties to Lorca than might be healthy. Landry might not get a lot of screen time but her character traits are very well defined by the time she is on screen. 

Finally let’s talk about Lorca. Jeez, this guy is like no other Star Trek captain ever and I don’t just mean because he’s not the main character in the show or because of his fondness for fortune cookies. Lorca starts off mysterious, travels into authoritarian realms, steps by warlord and then surprises us all at the end with a few twists to the plot. Lorca is portrayed as the stern disciplinarian in the way he has a standing desk in his ready room to the way in which he heads off opposition head on in every situation. 

He's a military commander running a science vessel in a war so you know there's going to be more in the background. a taste of Encounter at Farpoint Picard. There'll never be any kids on this guy's starship. Certainly Lorca is the most multifacted captain in Star Trek history although by the end of the episode you might be questioning your own opinions of him too.In some respects you can see echoes of the In the Pale Moonlight Sisko breaking through with all that under the radar activity but Ben doesn't give you the chill this guy does.

Context is for Kings is a bit of a sleeper start but by the closing credits you know full well that everything you've seen is going to be significant be it the amazing spore drive through to Landry's unquestioning loyalty or Lorca's menagerie. Anyone else wondering what the significance of the lone - and you would hope - neutered Tribble might be? 

We don't get to see a ton of shots of the new USS Discovery although I feel conflicted between why it has such a low registry of NCC-1031 and yet is clearly a brand spanking new ship. What other secrets are lurking behind its guarded doors? Is it Section 31? The opening shot as it saves the shuttle from destruction is very grandiose with the ship bathed in a glowing blue light from the tractor beam. Yep, she's arrived and we get to have a good walk round from the shuttle bay to crew quarters and the bridge.

Going over to the very cheap to replicate (and more advanced) sister ship of the USS Glenn offers an away mission and some surprises in Klingon and animal form but you get the sense that Stamets work and that of his counterpart on the doomed starship are going to have a massive effect on the show. Watch out for some nifty Easter Eggs when Lorca introduces Burnham to the effect of the spores as we view familiar alien worlds, some named and some not in a room that reminded me a whole lot of the reactor chamber from The Wrath of Khan.

The Discovery sets are pretty cool and techie with flashy touchscreen and heads up displays all round. It is of course not dissimilar to the Shenzhou since that was converted into the Crossfield Class starship that would be the series mainstay. Also nice to see - as we did in the pilot and I didn’t mention - that ships aren’t all shown flying on or meeting on the same plain of flight. The crippled Glenn is approached from below with the ship seemingly listing (all dependant on the perspective of course). This is superb thinking from the CG team and adds yet another layer to the show. 

In some respects the story isn't quite up to last week's epic opener but it's purpose is dramatically different. Instead of setting up Burnham's backstory it's designed to introduce us to a whole new set of characters who are immediately more developed than the "background" crew we encountered in The Vulcan Hello. Quick note of the inclusion of Emily Coutts as the battle-injured Keyla Detmer from the helm of the Shenzhou who snubs Burnham during her walk through the mess hall.

It's also here to start up a lot of plot threads - the intrigue of Lorca, the mystery of what precisely is going on aboard Discovery, what other elements of Burnham’s past are going to turn up (well, we know Amanda will be)...and probably more. I think everything we are seeing has a purpose in the show in some way. 

Context is for Kings is an effective welcome mat to Discovery but I still think that this show has more to come. I enjoyed the episode and the greater chance to explore the people as well as ramp up the interpersonal conflicts to 11. The acting was notably better with Martin-Green really playing a wide range of emotions from apparently withdrawn and defeated when death looks inevitable to selflessly proactive in helping her away team colleagues escape the Glenn’s only remaining living inhabitant.

Final note - the mention of Amanda and her son... who didn’t get a slight chill when Burnham mentioned that?!! Sure to be another point for some negative feedback! 

Don’t get me wrong, Discovery has got lots of little bits that aren’t quite Star Trek that was but we have to be realistic that it has to fit this decade and will take on learnings from the Kelvin Timeline. Can we really judge from three episodes? In some respects yes because it hasn’t yet attempted much beyond a war story and that’s disappointing but we only have 48 mins of the ‘proper’ ship and crew - let’s hold on judgement a little longer but it does need to be careful just how militaristic it is intending to be.

Are you happy with the direction of Context is for Kings? Is it staying true to Star Trek?

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