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I’m going to start these reviews out with a spoiler-free section, for those who aren’t sure if it’s worth the financial plunge to buy CBS All-Access, but are curious how the show is shaping up. And, for those people, I would say that the series is off to a strong start, but I still wouldn’t shell out the money for it yet. While last week’s Star Trek: Discovery double feature was billed as the show’s pilot (and second episode), “Context is for Kings” was the real pilot for the actual series. Last week was two hours of exposition, introducing us to Michael Burnham (and the delightful Saru), along with a number of characters who aren’t on the show anymore (there was one other familiar face from the USS Shenzhou, but she doesn’t look to be a major character moving forward). The real action of the series (and the introduction to the other major characters in the show) happened this week.
If you weren’t particularly taken with the crew of the USS Shenzhou, I don’t blame you. Let me assure you that the main cast of characters, particularly Jason Isaacs’s Captain Gabriel Lorca, are much more complex and much better drawn characters than you were introduced to in the show’s pilot. Doug Jone’s Saru remains the series’s most interesting character (it’s never easy to create emotional depth when covered in latex make-up, yet Jones is hitting it out of the park), but Lorca, Cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman, crafting a bubbly character who is just this side of annoying), and Security Chief Landry (the wonderful Rehka Sharma, who has the perfect sardonic edge) make a fine support crew to Burnham’s hero’s journey. I’m not ready to recommend people shell out money to snag All Access yet, but if the series continues on this upward trajectory, that might change. Watch this space. Now, onto the spoiler side of things.
While I’m intrigued by the majority of the show’s supporting cast (we have yet to meet the final main character, the ship’s doctor), I have to say I’m disappointed with Anthony Rapp’s Lieutenant Paul Stamets. Frankly, he’s a dick with very little character shading at this point. Considering he’s making history as Star Trek’s first officially gay character (aside from Sulu in the new film universe, which I don’t consider real cannon), I had hopes for a better intro than the one he got. I think it’s a combination of stilted writing (bogging a character down with too much Trek jargon often leads to characters getting lost in the shuffle) and Rapp not really offering much of a performance beyond reciting technobabble. Oh, and the juvenile habit of giving Burnham silly nicknames didn’t help matters. I suspect Stamets will be fleshed out in the coming weeks, but after the show’s other characters were given shockingly rich characterizations right off the bat, I was hoping for a bit more here.
The other element of “Context is for Kings” that I’m a bit wary of is Stamets’s science research. We know that this particular technology isn’t used in the future, so that means everything his team is working toward fails (or, it succeeds but is just too unstable/dangerous to use). So, we know it’s a losing battle. I guess there’s mystery in how this failure will impact the team and ship (I think we can assume that it won’t kill them all, yet outside of that, who knows), but it’s a bit of a downer to have some cool technological research plan where we all know the final outcome.
Outside of those two disappointing points, I really enjoyed “Context is for Kings.” Burnham remains an interesting character, although I find Sonequa Martin-Green’s performance more engaging when she drops the Vulcan mannerisms and lets Burnham’s humanity shine through. I particularly loved the Alien-style escape from the creepy giant bug (more on that at the end of the review). It’s not easy to build an ensemble cast (which, despite Burnham being the de facto lead, is what Star Trek: Discovery is), and having a group of characters (and actors) who work this well together this quickly is pretty rare. I’m intrigued to see what’s next for the intrepid crew of Discovery.
— So Captain Lorca has a thing for keeping creepy animals around. I thought the Tribble was a strange touch (and the fact no one commented on it was a bit odd). But keeping the killer bug thing? Yeah, that’s only going to be trouble going forward. It shows he’s not the smartest Captain in the fleet.
— I find it strange that Starfleet is ok with Burnham being allowed to remain on Discovery. If the reasoning was that they are short soldiers with the war, alright, I’ll let that go. But they are letting her stay because Lorca gets to do what he wants? Something is super fishy about that. Couple it with his creepy animal fixation, and I’m worried what Lorca is really about.
— One of the best things Star Trek does is link characters to our past, from quoting Shakespeare, to having Kirk get reading glasses and a copy of A Tale of Two Cities. Having Burnham carry around a copy of Alice in Wonderland is another lovely touch that grounds the show in our personal reality.