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Star Trek: Discovery meets a new starship — and its ominous mission

Commander Lorca likes to toy with fate; plus, our hero gets an assist from a bunch of fungi.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Overwhelmingly the main criticism launched at J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek film series (via movies released in 2009 and 2013, with a non-Abrams directed chapter in 2016) is that it ventured too far, well, into darkness. Critics groused that these new films had strayed from the innate optimism and humanitarian idealism of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision for the series.

Star Trek: Discovery isn’t tied to the Abrams films, but three episodes into its run, it’s clear that the series will be asking difficult ethical questions of itself and its starship crew. And they’re questions that challenge our expectations of the franchise.

This is not to say that Star Trek has always laid out simple, easy paths to truth and justice. But even in the series’ most complicated explorations of the difficulty of forging peace throughout the galaxy — for example, when Deep Space Nine dealt with the inherent violence of colonialism, most notably through the character of Kira — the series rarely threw its basic underlying assumptions of good and evil into question. The inherent wisdom of the Federation was always inviolable; the innate goodness of commanding officers was never in doubt.

But now, thanks mainly to Discovery’s compelling main character, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), all moral bets are off. As my colleague Todd VanDerWerff pointed out, the first two episodes of the series showed just how unconventional Michael is as a focal character for Star Trek. Not only does she do stuff, but she occasionally does stuff that would be unthinkable for another starship first officer in Starfleet — notably, attacking her commanding officer, a mutinous act which has gotten her sentenced to life in prison at the start of “Context Is for Kings,” the third episode.

Of course, she ends up in a far different place by the end of that episode.

So far, Discovery has a lot of explaining to do — but that’s not a bad thing

“Context” opens with Burnham in a prison transport ship with a handful of other inmates who’ve been abruptly transferred. Just as the transport ship’s pilot is unfortunately lost in a random accident, however, the USS Discovery appears for the first time, complete with the usual majestic spaceship flyover, rescuing the prisoners and beaming them aboard.

Burnham is right to be suspicious of this convenient starship ex machina, given how notorious she is — as the first mutineer in Starfleet history, the public has largely held her responsible for the deaths of the 8,000 people who died in the Klingon battle we witnessed in episode two. On board, she meets up once again with Lt. Saru (the fantastic Doug Jones), who conveys to her just how the rest of Starfleet feels about her, though he’s willing to grant she was also a fantastic officer before she was a mutineer — the smartest officer he ever served with, he claims.

Her suspicions about her journey to the Discovery only increase when the ship’s captain, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), summons her, gives her a private welcome, and commands her to report to the engineering room. There, she will help the science officers with some seriously vague, highly classified biochemical science.

Burnham quickly figures out what’s going on, mainly because she breaks into a locked containment unit full of gorgeous fungi. What she realizes is that the starship is experimenting on some sort of biological technology. Its purpose, as Lorca eventually reveals, is to enable almost instantaneous individual transportation across the galaxy — no more energizing to various places within a limited range.

This seems to be a somewhat freewheeling bastardization of string theory based on the idea that plant spores can be broken down into energy particles that somehow connect the universe. But the real point of note is that we’ve seen nothing like this from any of the other series that we know happen later in the franchise. (Chronologically, Discovery fits between Enterprise and original Trek.)

Evidently this is a technology that doesn’t pan out, though we’re not sure how it ultimately fails yet. Our chief science officer, Lt. Stamets (Anthony Rapp, who is just great), is full of vague misgivings about the research, and the technology apparently causes a grisly accident that wipes out an entire ship’s crew of scientists. Still, this experiment is apparently Discovery’s main purpose in the war effort, so for now, ominous spores it is.

While Burnham is trying to figure out what’s up with the plants, she’s drafted into joining Stamets for an expedition to the other doomed research ship. They discover the ship has been attacked by Klingons, and that a huge, somewhat metallic bison-like creature that can rip through steel like paper has wreaked havoc on board. Thanks to Michael’s heroism, everyone manages to escape safely — but the creature gets beamed back aboard the Discovery, where Lorca seems to have interesting plans for it.

This episode raises multiple lingering questions, starting with what the hell is up with Lorca’s interest in Burnham. He seems fine with Burnham being given free and unsupervised access to the Discovery, even allowing her to commit identity theft and break into the spore room without punishment, which makes him simultaneously the most Captain Kirk-y and least Captain Kirk-y of all the starship captains. That is to say, he shares Kirk’s maverick tendency to break rules, but he seems to fall short of Kirk’s inherent code of honor and his prioritization of the safety of his crew.

When Lorca eventually reveals the secret of spore-flight, he tells Burnham he can essentially singlehandedly commute her life sentence if she agrees to work with him — even though she seems to be one of the Federation’s most notorious prisoners. Wouldn’t this be a PR disaster? Or at least raise eyebrows at Starfleet Command? For that matter, why are all the crew members so chill about her having weapons, fighting other prisoners, and hanging out around highly classified material? Lorca says wartime means getting every available Starfleet member in a position where they can help the most, but c’mon.

It’s a fair speculation as to whether these logical holes are due to a gap in Discovery’s storytelling or due to the odd nature of this story we’re being told, organic propulsion and all. For now, my money’s on continuity. But I really want to know what’s up with those spores.

The best part of Discovery continues to be its characters and their contentious relationships

Discovery has done well at giving its characters a host of complex relationships to one another from the moment of their introductions. Jones plays Saru with such a compelling mix of empathy and wariness toward Burnham that I wanted to hug him every time he was on screen.

Rapp’s testy Stamets, who will become a fan favorite if there is any justice, is outright resentful of Lorca and Starfleet for co-opting his spore research for military purposes. He flatly declares Lorca to be a warmonger. Lorca’s words to Burnham later seem to make Stamets’s point for him. “Universal law is for lackeys,” he tells her, letting her know that he approves of the decision she made in the pilot episode to attack her commander in order to attempt to fire first on the warmongering Klingons. “Context is for kings.”

Though this speech is apparently enough to convince Burnham to choose to stay aboard the ship, the rest of us have the luxury of being weirded out — and Jason Isaacs, in true Isaacs fashion, does a great job of playing his character’s motives as ambiguous. He’s friendly and approachable, but also seems to think Starfleet ships are expendable, biotechnology is for winning war, and monsters are to be played with. If this is the context he’s dealing with, it’s not context we’re used to seeing from our Trek commanding officers.

But then this isn’t the usual Trek. Still satisfying us with gorgeous visual effects and lush imagery, Discovery continues to play on our love of familiar starship tropes. But the show is also alerting us to get ready for the unexpected. After all, there are multiple references in this episode to Alice in Wonderland, and to Michael falling through rabbit holes (or wormholes, if you will).

Given that she starts the episode in a prison jumpsuit for life and ends it working aboard one of the most highly classified vessels in Starfleet, she’s already traveled far. And with her as our tour guide, we may find ourselves further from our Star Trek comfort zone than we yet realize.

Yet for fans worried that this series might be headed towards the Abrams darkfest no one wanted, fear not. There’s a reason Discovery has firmly established the late great Commander Georgiou, who fought violence at every turn, as its conscience. And while the Klingons may laugh, the series has taken great pains to remind us: Above all, Starfleet comes in peace.

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