In many ways, the third episode of Star Trek: Discovery, "Context Is For Kings," felt like the first actual episode of the series, setting up the larger themes and conflicts for the rest of the season. It was an episode centered on science; at least, as much as science can be the main focus of a show that is, at its core, about war. That's going to be one of the main tensions with Discovery as it moves forward. How does it reconcile the science focus of Trek with an action-oriented war storyline? So far Discovery has been navigating this fraught boundary reasonably well.
Good and bad:
One of Gene Roddenberry’s main rules for Trek was that the main characters could not have interpersonal conflict. The major antagonism should come from without, rather than being from relationships between the main characters. We've known for a while that Discovery was going to throw that rule out the window; antagonism is everywhere and it's clear the Discovery crew doesn't have the same priorities, motives, or goals. However, constant conflict isn't necessarily fun to watch, so it will be interesting to see how they play this out.
Jason Isaacs, in his first appearance as Captain Lorca, is a conundrum, to say the least. We know very little about him, besides that he absorbed certain members of the Shenzhou crew and he has some sort of eye injury. (Also, he has the equivalent of a secret Dr. Frankenstein lab?) He certainly is intriguing; it's not clear if he's the hero, the villain, or (most likely) some nebulous area in-between. What is certain is that Anthony Rapp's Lt. Stamets stands in opposition to Gabriel Lorca, the scientist to the captain's warmongering. I'm eager to see Rapp develop his character, especially as he's Star Trek's first openly gay character, but I like the prickly glimpses we've gotten thus far.
The episode centers around a strange experiment happening aboard the Discovery and Michael's involvement in it. Martin-Green's character motivations are clearer in this episode than they were previously; she is guilty of a terrible crime and needs to atone for it. Her emotions play out beautifully when confronted with Saru (played by Doug Jones), now the first officer of the Discovery. Their scenes are some of the most emotional of the episode. Jones may have been ill-served by the first two episodes, but he's in fine form on the Discovery.
This episode is full of new characters, which is to be expected when you're meeting an entire ship full of people. Michael's roommate, Cadet Tilly, is wonderfully green, while Commander Landry (played by Rekha Sharma of Battlestar Galactica fame) is all too world-weary. Michael's relationship with Tilly in particular will be one to watch.
The format of this show so far has been a bit clunky, but it's worked well. The first episode established Michael's character motivations, how she struggles between emotion and logic and, in the end, utilizes both (sometimes to disastrous effect). By necessity, the previous episodes focused on Michael and Captain Georgiou, to the exclusion of every other character. Now, in this third episode, it's a wider playing field. Michael isn't at the center of this world; she has an important part to play, but so do many others. This episode gave the viewer a chance to meet and understand new people and their motivations.
Things to Ponder:
There are quite a few questions, and not many answers, at the close of this episode. The first two episodes played like a TV movie. Now we're at the meat of the series, setting up season-long conflicts and storylines. At the end of the episode, Lorca revealed that the Discovery wasn't working on a weapon, but a plant-based form of transportation and asked Michael to join the crew to help. (She, of course, agreed.)
Now, this is where being a prequel series stifles the show a bit. As far as I know, there is no spore-based transportation system in the future of Star Trek. That gives us some inkling that this experiment is going to go terribly wrong — or perhaps have some unforeseen consequences.
Martin-Green is more at ease in this third episode of the show, and viewers will warm to her quickly. An unestablished sense of identity coupled with clunky dialogue made her a bit distant in the first episode (though those issues began to resolve themselves in the second). Now we're seeing her come into her own and seeing just how strong of a protagonist Michael can be.
My main questions for the series still center on the war storyline and the interpersonal conflict — how long can the series exploit these two and still feel like Trek? It's excelled at the balance so far, and the choice to return to a science storyline for the third episode (even if it was war-driven science) was a solid one. Here's hoping they take the example of the excellent Deep Space Nine and continue to incorporate both as they move forward with the series.