Star Trek Discovery: S1, E3 “Context is for Kings” / E4 “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry” review

Burnham is instructed to weaponise the monstrous creature they find — but is that really the answer? (image (c) CBS)

 

  • SPOILERS AHEAD … AND FUNGUS WITH SOME WARP SPEED GRUNT …

When most people reach rock bottom, the natural inclination is to immediately seize the first opportunity to get back up the slippery slope of life.

But then most people are not Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), most recently seen leading a one-person mutiny – the first in Starfleet’s then relatively short history so that’s a point of unwanted distinction right there – against her captain/surrogate mum/mentor/willer of telescopes, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), and in the process, and here’s the kicker, starting a war with the Klingons at the Battle of the Binary Stars.

It’s quite an achievement, though a dubious one, on many levels, given that no one had seen or heard from the galaxy’s most gung-ho warriors in a century, something everyone was pretty content to keep that way thank you.

To be fair, it wasn’t entirely Burnham’s fault that the great big fire of conflagration got lit (the Klingons were spoiling for a fight), but she didn’t help matters either, and so weighed down by guilt and a gnawing sense of responsibility for plunging the Federation into a messy war, she was determined to accept her punishment.

Oh, but she was determined to accept her punishment!

Even when Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), a man who wouldn’t know a smile if it jumped up and dazzled him with its pearly whites, rescued her from the crippled space shuttle she was sharing with three “delightful” fellow prisoners and gave her the chance to contribute to the war effort by working on some super secret squirrel stuff, she remained resolutely committed to not smiling, using monosyllabic responses and practising her rock crushing mallet swing.

Alas, all that passive-aggressive arm-folding got her precisely nowhere and so she found herself, much to her reluctance and pretty much everyone onboard the Discovery, including bubbly and over-talkative bunk mate Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and old crew mate First Officer Saru (Doug Jones), a member of the crew and on her way to possible redemption.

 

“Seriously burnt mustard suits you. It’s definitely your colour.”
“Yeah, no, no it’s not.”
(image (c) CBS)

 

And not surprisingly since this is Star Trek, and all that grittiness only goes so far in a franchise admirably committed to the idea that the better angels of our nature will triumph, and rather comprehensively, sometime in the future, she does manage to rehabilitate herself, playing a pivotal role in making a brand new piece of warp drive technology, that catapults a ship into and out of a point in space almost instantly, work just like nature intended.

Well maybe Mother Nature wasn’t entirely onboard with a warp drive that uses plant spores, which apparently suffuse the galaxy and can be ridden on like a sparkly microbial carpet, but it works a treat – although the alien tardigrade-like creature that helps navigate the warp drive and can speak to the spores isn’t a fan of all that success – and allows the Discovery, which has more secrets and unorthodoxy that the NSA, to go and rescue a bunch of miners at Corvan 2 from the attacking Klingons.

That’s a great thing from a humanitarian point of view, from a strategic point of view since the facility mines 40% of the dilithium uses by Federation ships – without it they’d be very shiny, inert galactic taxis – and for Burnham who went from mutinous pariah (oh the gossip from her fellow crew members!) to saviour in one two-episode mission.

Not bad for someone who had no desire to do anything but become besties with her prison shuttle companions Stone (Conrad Pla), Cold (Elias Toufaxis) and Psycho (Grace Lynn Kung) – haha kidding; she did not – and an example of the way Star Trek often winningly allows its characters to be both fallible and redeemable all at once.

In that respect, Star Trek: Discovery, which also contains some drama-pleasing intra-crew tension particularly between Lorca and Science Officer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and for obvious reasons between Burnham and well, almost everyone (at first, anyway), is more like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) than any of its other franchise siblings.

Sure there is still utopian idealism in evidence with Lorca remarking on the absence of hunger, need and want – although he also observes that the current war has brought them roaring back, thanks a bunch Burnham  – and the spaceships are fast and shiny bright and new, but just like DS9, the squeaky clean Federation sits in a galaxy where its ideals are often neither respected or practised, and it’s good to Discovery acknowledging that.

 

Ms. Warrior Klingon 2256 wondered once again whether the spiky accoutrements to her ensemble weren’t perhaps a bit too much (image (c) CBS)

 

There will, of course, be people , imbued with the appealing perfection of Star Trek who will see Discovery’s gritty fallibility as a betrayal of Roddenberry’s grandiose vision, but it is really an updating of it, recognising that while that kind of utopia is possible, it is neither absolute nor unassailable.

Short of humanity becoming the Borg, and that’s not appealing at all, humanity is stuck with a flawed idealistic future and that makes sense on a lot of levels, especially given that humanity is unlikely to suddenly neuter its less attractive qualities in the next three  centuries or so.

So all the argy-bargy between Burnham and everyone, which quickly becomes grudging respect, and in Tilly’s case, glowing cordiality, and the menacing Klingons and the war they precipitate is completely compatible with an idealistic Federation.

Idealism never exists in an existential vacuum and Discovery takes that idea and runs with it, taking care to soften things with narrative steps forward like Burnham’s rehabilitation, her rapprochement with Saru, and a number of other things such as the delightful Tilly who is, quite possibly, the most lovely part of the new Trek iteration.

Star Trek Discovery may not be your grandmother’s idealistic vision of the future, but it is gritty, real and possessed of a nuanced dramatic soul that suggests that along with mainstays of the franchise such as away missions, Ensign Fodders and cutting-edge technology and its attendant technobabble, we will be seeing more of a galaxy where perfection is intermittent and everyone’s utopian sensibilities will have to bend to fit.

I have a feeling that Burnham, and most certainly Lorca, are already there; the rest of us just have to catch up.

  • And in our next episode, “Choose Your Pain” Lorca comes face to face with some Klingons who are every bit as brutally pragmatic as he is while meeting someone whose name is, quite literally Mudd (remember him?) …

 

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