Star Trek: Discovery Episode 3 Drops A Lot Of Bodies

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Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman) first appears in Star Trek: Discovery's third episode, "Context is for Kings."
Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman) first appears in Star Trek: Discovery's third episode, "Context is for Kings." CBS All Access

Freed of episodic storytelling, Star Trek: Discovery ’s third episode, “Context is for Kings,” drapes itself over a derivative shipboard action sequence, but is otherwise primarily busy setting up lil’ plot danglies from which to hang later season events. Unlike Deep Space Nine, which formatted its serial storytelling into self-contained, episodic narratives, “Context is for Kings” settles Discovery into a zone of true seriality different than the miniature movie vibe of the first two episodes. While narratively unsatisfying on its own, possibly even our first indication we’re dealing with Bad Serial TV, the third episode of Star Trek: Discovery sets up enough new characters and plot threads to keep its intrigue from sputtering.

Six months have passed since Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) mutinied in a failed attempt to head off war between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingons. En route to some sort of mining camp (it seems the Federation is still into prison slave labor), Burnham and several other cons are swept up by the USS Discovery, a research vessel Burnham soon learns is crewed by several survivors of the Battle at the Binary Stars, including newly minted First Officer Saru. While the crew snubs the notorious Burnham, Captain Gabriel Lorca enlists her to help with the Discovery’s classified research.

The Discovery is one foreboding ship. Dim and steely, subject to constant, mysterious “Black Alerts,” our introduction to the Discovery positions it more as a site of anxiety, danger and fear than Starfleet hopefulness. Much of this, we’re told, can be attributed to the pressures of war, which have bent otherwise exploratory and scientific missions toward violence. It’s a dark scene, made darker by secrecy and the fearful silence surrounding Burnham as she’s introduced to her station in Engineering under the command of Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), an astromycologist conducting some sort of radical experiment with Straal, a scientist running parallel research on a sister ship.

But then Straal gets himself and his entire ship killed, the corpses twisted and bent in “helical” patterns by the experimental technology he was developing with Stamets and the Discovery crew. Stamets, head of security Commander Landry (Rekha Sharma), Burnham and her new roommate, Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman) go over to investigate. This landing party is the nearest “Context is for Kings” comes to a plot beyond establishing Burnham aboard Discovery. With corpses of Starfleet personnel twisted all over the floor, it’s like something out of Event Horizon. It’s a familiar kind of horror-flavored ship boarding sci-fi, with an alien beastie chasing Burnham through jefferies tubes. There are some fun moments, including a surreal encounter with a Klingon stowaway, but the scene feels largely beside the point.

Instead, “Context is for Kings” is all about establishing the Discovery’s mission, seeding mysteries and introducing us to the obscure motives of its alien-collecting, “warmonger” captain. After Burnham delivers a remarkably cynical read — essentially accusing Lorca of making her a patsy in his mission to build an illegal biological weapon — Lorca finally reveals the mysterious technology: a biological warp that could allow instant travel over vast distances, teleporting ships across networks of cosmic spores. Like the Genesis Device of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, it’s only benign so long as its users don’t use it for domination. And after what happened aboard Straal’s ship, both Lorca and Burnham are amply aware they’re messing with dangerous forces in their efforts to gain an edge against the Klingons.

Since the actual events of Discovery’s third episode don’t cohere into a complete narrative, its pleasures depend upon the characters and what they add to the emerging Discovery ensemble.

Saru, with his gangly walk and alien abductor silhouette, remains a highlight. His mixture of respect and caution — “I believe you feel regret, but in my mind you are dangerous,” he tells Burnham — makes him simultaneously oily and explicable. We’re left uncomfortable by someone absent any tact, straightforward in his distancing and so openly motivated by caution, even if it’s justified. After three episodes Saru is well-established enough that I felt a chill of foreboding when his threat ganglia popped out, joining with Discovery’s first officer in the certainty that danger is ahead.

Troubled by Starfleet’s rush to weaponize his radical spore tech, Stamets gets ample cause to spend his intro episode being a complete dick to everyone. Still, his exasperation with Burnham might have had more edge if he had more wit. Instead, Stamets’ standoffishness comes down to weird, clunky insults. Even more perpetually aggrieved than Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, it will be interesting to see if Stamets’ character will deepen in subsequent episodes.

But the best addition to the Star Trek: Discovery ensemble has to be Cadet Sylvia Tilly, who represents a type of person woefully underrepresented on TV: a genuine geek. We’re not talking bazinga nerd or Sherlock TV Asperger’s genius — Tilly is socially awkward, well-intentioned and prone to second-guessing. She doesn’t feel like a dutiful Star Trek hero, but like a real person, with real anxieties.

This is going to be a controversial character. Many will call her annoying. And she is, a little, though Wiseman walks a perfect line between too-geeky-to-live and charmingly awkward (and not TV awkward, but genuinely). Already sites like io9 are dismissing her as a “prototypical nerd” and a “cliché” unworthy of Star Trek, but why shouldn’t the future have its ill-socialized dorks too? Tilly isn’t some nerd who’s going to bust out an equation ex machina or push up her glasses and snort, she’s someone that anyone with any experience in nerd communities would recognize. As a character, she has the potential to be our best-yet portal into imagining ourselves in Starfleet’s far-off utopia.

While Discovery is doing a great job with its ensemble, “Context is for Kings” struggles with its lead, Burnham. Haunted by her choices, she spends most of the episode in stoic silence. It works fine for now, but the writers couldn’t just leave well enough alone and throw in some insanely hackneyed references to Alice in Wonderland. The expansive list of “Alice Allusions” at TV Tropes should indicate just how stretched and tired this analogy has become. Burnham’s story, of Amanda Grayson reading Wonderland to her and Spock back on Vulcan, is a perfect demonstration of now not to enrich a character. Burnham’s ill-fit among the crew and hyper-competence in combat situations carry the character just fine, so let’s just pretend this Alice in Wonderland shit never happened. It’s stupid.

“Context is for Kings” may not be a great episode of television, but the care going into its characters and worldbuilding continue to imbue Star Trek: Discovery with a peculiar, “nearly there” feel. Exceptional work in production design, acting and a deepening narrative complexity continue to promise a Star Trek: Discovery ready to soar. Like Lorca and his peculiar bestiary, Discovery is loaded with interesting specimens just waiting for a profound purpose.

Star Trek: Discovery
Star Trek: Discovery Counters Powerful Klingons With Starfleet Tedium
The two-part premiere of Star Trek: Discovery has powerful components, especially the Klingons, but is overwhelmed by poor storytelling choices.
  • Richly redesigned Klingons
  • Complex and explicable motives
  • Great new Starfleet characters
  • Incredible production design
  • Generic space combat and action
  • Too many flashbacks
  • Eschews subtext, doesn't put enough faith in the audience
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