The key scene in "Context Is for Kings" is the one where Burnham explains herself to Captain Lorca, after having come to the conclusion that he has orchestrated her release from prison so he could recruit her onto his crew to do dirty work on his behalf. She explains the reason she mutinied against her captain — her mentor — was because she thought she was taking the only course of action that would protect the Federation and, by extension, its values. That she had to break the Starfleet chain of command — one of those key values — is the paradox she must answer for. Her prison sentence was the cost of her actions and one she intends to pay. But she sees herself not as a renegade but as someone who made an extreme choice in an extreme moment that she thought was for the greater good.
This is important because it stakes out Burnham's moral compass in contrast to what will forever be her original sin as Starfleet's First Mutineer. The choice she made in "The Vulcan Hello" came across as impulsive and reckless (and I would still argue seemed forced under the somewhat contrived circumstances of how it was written), but "Context Is for Kings" puts that choice in full view and shows the personal consequences of what it meant as well as why she made it.
This explanation also indicates to me that Discovery is not throwing the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to 50-plus years of Star Trek. This is the franchise reinvented for a new TV era and has a darker tone, yes, but it still retains a central morality about individuals doing the right thing governed by a value system. Those values are likely to be challenged and bent, as they were in DS9's war. And perhaps even more so here. But they exist.
Burnham is more than once referred to as the One Who Started the War, which is not really fair or accurate. The war would've started if Burnham had done nothing. Her mutiny, which failed, had no outcome on the battle or its genesis. Her killing of the Klingon on the artifact was self-defense. The Klingons were going to attack. But everyone seems to lack that context. Maybe they are just looking for a scapegoat for their misery.
That misery speaks to the pall that hangs over a lot of the characters in this episode, which picks up six months after "Battle at the Binary Stars." Burnham's seemingly chance arrival on the USS Discovery is one met with cold shoulders and murmurs and gasps about her infamy. If anything, the opening two episodes, which were an extended prologue to the series proper, serve to show the marked contrast between Then and Now. Back then, Starfleet operated at a recognizable peaceful Trekkian status quo with Burnham in a place of admiration and respect. Now, all of that has been laid to waste, Starfleet is at war, and Burnham occupies a rock-bottom place where she has been destroyed and humbled. It is a different central place to be for a Star Trek series, to be certain. I'm convinced even more here than before that Martin-Green's performance will be a big piece to carrying this series; here she plays scenes of withdrawn, sullen silence effectively but always seems to be contemplating what's unfolding around her.
What's going on around here I would describe as "intriguing" and also "ominous." The Discovery is a new and experimental science vessel — a good choice to keep options open for exploration and study — that has been appropriated for the war effort under Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs, in a mysterious performance that holds the cards close and makes an immediate impression). There are black Starfleet badges, "black alerts," and bizarre science-y things going on aboard the ship that don't have an immediate explanation.
In addition to introducing us to the new starship and setting, this episode is about introducing some of the key players. As mentioned, there's the stern and mysterious captain (who keeps a Tribble on his desk), and we also meet the surly science officer Lt. Stamets (Anthony Rapp), who is pretty bitter up about Starfleet co-opting the Discovery's science mission for the war; security chief Landry (Rekha Sharma, aka Tory from BSG); and green cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman), a nervous/awkward but chipper character who talks about her unspecified "special needs" and hints at the possibility of this show's lighter side.
Also, there's Burnham's former Shenzhou colleague Saru, who is the first officer here. Consider me a fan of Saru; his sensibility (which strikes me as Odo-like) really keeps one foot of this show firmly grounded in the Star Trek tradition, even as Discovery aims to be its own thing. He has a couple conversations with Burnham — one brutally honest ("you're dangerous"), another more supportive — that suggest this will be a key relationship built on their past knowledge of each other.
Given her background, Lorca sees Burnham as an asset and assigns her to assist in the investigation and recovery aboard the Discovery's doomed sister ship, the Glenn, which suffered a catastrophic accident while working with experimental technology — killing the entire crew. Upon boarding the Glenn, the primary action borrows heavily from Alien crossed with vibes from Battlestar Galactica and The X-Files, featuring darkened corridors, visible flashlight beams, dissolved and twisted corpses that were victims of unspecified sci-fi happenings, and a monster of unknown origin running around the ship and apparently eating people (including members of a Klingon boarding party that is also on a salvage mission). This plays like an amalgam of sci-fi concepts and familiar genres, but it's a pretty entertaining one that highlights the possibilities here, if they can bring it all together into a coherent whole. This is reasonably solid, but functions here as more of a side than main course.
It all leads to that key conversation between Burnham and Lorca, where she gets a choice for possible redemption. He assures her he isn't offering her a role in a corrupt enterprise simply because she has no choice, but rather a role on a starship that he feels needs capable people willing to make bold moves. I said earlier that Burnham is wrongly but widely seen as the person who "started the war," but Lorca seems able to see through that narrative.
Or does he have other motives? In the final scene we see he has the creature from the Glenn beamed aboard the Discovery and placed in captivity. It's an ominous note that raises a lot of questions. What is it? Where did it come from? Why did Lorca bring it aboard in secret? What is his plan? Is he trustworthy or shady? Isaac's multifaceted performance includes a concealment that keeps us on our toes. "Context Is for Kings" sets up a lot of pieces and establishes this as a long game, but it does so with a narrative episodic enough that it works in its own right. This is solid but not groundbreaking, intriguing but not conclusive.
Some other brief takes:
- I thought Landry, as security chief, was written as too needlessly hard-assed for the sake of itself (calling the cons "animals," letting the fight in the mess play out, etc.). She feels more like a cynical prison warden than a Starfleet professional.
- On the other hand, Stamets, while an arrogant ass and undeniably a complete jerk to Burnham throughout much of the episode — and even insubordinate to Lorca, until Lorca rightly shuts him down — mostly worked for me. This is a scientist whose mission has been taken over for military reasons, who is not happy, and is vocal about it.
- Even though there are dissolved bodies and one (very fleeting) four-letter word in this episode, this still seems pretty firmly in the TV-14 realm. Nothing too boundary-pushing here, which seems pretty consistent with the producers saying this might push a little further than previous Treks, but not much more so. I approve.
- Given this is a prequel, are we to assume the scientific breakthroughs hinted at by Lorca's elaborate demonstration of the teleportation bio-technology will fail before all is said and done? Or that he's simply not telling the truth?
- "Did I just get shushed by a Klingon?"
- The production values continue to impress. The production design is pretty amazing, and even though I've never been totally sold on the exterior design of the Discovery itself, the angles they show off here make it look pretty cool.
- The "breathalyzer" security system seems pretty weak, especially considering how easily Burnham defeats it.
- "She's a badass. A beautiful badass. You can use that." — My wife granting me on-the-record status to her quote, following Burnham saving the crew from the monster and landing in a three-point stance.