Previously, on the drama surrounding Star Trek: Discovery …
CBS decided to air a single episode of a two-part premiere on its network, then insisted anyone who wanted to watch the second half had to sign up for $6-a-month streaming service CBS All Access.
The US audience, including hardcore Trekkies, tore itself apart in angst over whether to pay yet another subscription fee for yet more online content. The international audience, which had the show delivered via Netflix, pointed and laughed like Nelson Muntz.
The first two episodes of Discovery could be described as backstory. It was the tale of how fast-rising, Vulcan-schooled Starfleet First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) became a mutineer trying to prevent war with the Klingons. It was not indicative of where the show was going, and CBS really should have screened a couple more episodes for free before persuading us to part with our cash.
That much was clear after episode 3, “Context is for Kings”, dropped Sunday night on CBS All Access. A transcendent, intelligent, ground-breaking episode of Trek, it gave this series a number of necessary shots in the arm — and made it clear why it was so important to give us Burnham’s backstory and get us fully on her side first.
It successfully introduced the secret Federation ship Discovery, which appeared like a Deus Ex Machina to scoop Burnham out of a space fungus-covered prison shuttle six months after her sentencing (and some 8,000 deaths into the Klingon War). It gave us the Machiavellian presence of captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), who decided that Burnham’s strategic mutiny demonstrated the kind of quality he needed for his ship’s unconventional top-secret science mission.
Wisely, the show layered on three more foils for the weary Burnham on this black-badged Discovery crew. There was her old frenemy from the Klingon incident, Saru, now First Officer of the Discovery and unable to trust her. The prissy science officer Lt. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) doesn’t trust the “warmonger” Captain Lorca, so he doesn’t trust Burnham either.
And then there was the best thing about the show: delightfully nerdy cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman). Not just a for-the-laughs, Etta Candy-style sidekick, Tilly has depth and dimension; she went from crushed-out roommate to mean girl to quietly determined would-be captain in the space of an episode.
“Context is for Kings” breathed new life into a few traditional movie tropes, and had a lot of fun doing so. In its second half the episode played like Alien, if the crew of the Nostromo had thought to avoid freaking themselves out by quoting Alice in Wonderland the way Burnham did.
But in its first half, with Burnham effectively in detention aboard the mystery science vessel Discovery, having a fight in the cafeteria, shunned by crew members nervous about a mutineer, the episode had a “Breakfast Club in space” kind of vibe. The best science fiction is large and contains multitudes of styles, and Discovery seems to have been built to prove that fact.
And then at the end, all of a sudden Stamet’s incredibly geeky, science-y, borderline New Age chatter about space fungus and panspermia and the “muscle tissue of the universe” resolved itself with sudden awe-inspiring force. To prove to Burnham that he’s not building a biological weapon (in contravention of the Geneva Conventions of 1928 and 2155), Lorca showed how the magic space spores could transport her to multiple locations across the galaxy in seconds.
It was a breathtaking sequence, and an entirely fresh direction for Star Trek. We’ve had warp drive and wormholes before — Deep Space Nine in particular was all about the wormholes. But this notion of mushroom-based teleportation between stars is something new in the universe — and Discovery saved just enough of its CGI budget to make us believe it, even if the rest of Trek history suggests this tech will never come to fruition.
Captain Lorca is on the side of the angels after all, we were left to conclude — until it emerged that he’d had a nasty alien creature transported over from the USS Glenn, a ship where the space spore experiment had gone horribly wrong. “Here, kitty,” Isaacs purred, and what looked like a baby sandworm out of Dune threw itself against the electric fence of its private brig.
This is a show that refuses to let its monster of the week be a mere monster of the week; a show that can successfully probe the grey area between scientific exploration and military conquest.
Was it a perfect episode? Not entirely. Isaacs kind of flubbed his introduction scene, mumbling in an unfamiliar Southern accent with a mouth full of fortune cookie, practically demanding subtitles.
But we got lots of neat little world-building moments — fortune cookies were the Lorca family business, apparently, until high-tech replicators did away with the need for any kind of business. (Trek has rarely even hinted at a downside to its currency-free, hunger-free utopian future.)
We also got moments that will make STEM teachers jump up and down with glee — not just the dense dialogue on mycology, but also the fact that Burnham took Stamets down a peg or two by quietly discovering flaws in his computer code. She’s the hero 21st century America desperately needs.
But the question remains: are enough people paying attention? Has CBS’ All-Access gamble paid off, or will the network be brought up on charges of smothering a great show with a dodgy distribution strategy? Join us next week to find out!