The Good: Doug Jones and Jason Isaacs are fine with what they are given
The Bad: Terrible characterization, Abysmal continuity errors, Boring, Prioritizes style and merchandising over substance and storytelling, Derivative
The Basics: "Context Is For Kings" meanders into a Star Trek: Discovery rip-off of Alien before just collapsing into something that will only confound Star Trek fans.
As a reviewer and a life long fan of the Star Trek franchise, it is tough not to begin each review of new Star Trek: Discovery episodes with a laundry list of things that are wrong with the new television series. This is especially hard at the outset of "Context Is For Kings," the first episode of Star Trek: Discovery that features the titular U.S.S. Discovery. The reason it is tough for a Trekker to even approach "Context Is For Kings" with anything resembling an open mind is where the episode begins. Following immediately on the heels of "Battle At The Binary Stars" (reviewed here!), "Context Is For Kings" opens after one of the most glaring continuity errors of the series thus far and it is impossible to discuss without some references as to where the prior episode ended.
"Battle At The Binary Stars" ended with Michael Burnham pleading guilty and being convicted of multiple crimes, including mutiny. People who recall the length and breadth of the Star Trek franchise will see fairly quickly the problem with this. In "The Tholian Web" (reviewed here!) when the Away Team explores the adrift U.S.S. Defiant and it appears the crew killed one another, Chekov asks is there has ever been a crew mutiny on a starship. Spock responds that there is no record of one and that - given Michael Burnham's relationship with Sarek - is just the insult to injury. Not only would Spock know that there have been mutineers in StarFleet, he would have intimate knowledge of one of them. And even if there were no record of the actual mutiny, there is now in the Star Trek universe a retconned conviction for mutiny. Yes, the "continuity experts" on Star Trek: Discovery suck at their jobs.
Six months after Burnham was convicted of her crimes, she is transferred to a dilithium mine. En route, the shuttle she is on is covered in energy-eating bugs. The shuttle is picked up by the U.S.S. Discovery and the prisoners are picked up by Security Chief Landry. After fighting in the mess hall, Burnham is sent to meet Captain Gabriel Lorca. Lorca wants Burnham's help in cleaning off the parasites that are now on Discovery's hull and Burnham is confined to quarters with her new roommate Tilly. After a black alert is declared, Burnham witnesses a strange phenomenon in her quarters.
The next morning, Burnham is reunited with Saru, who is the first officer on the U.S.S. Discovery. Saru brushes aside Burnham's apology for their former Captain's death and he warns her that he will protect Captain Lorca. After Burnham breaks into one of the Discovery's labs, she is in a meeting when the U.S.S. Glen is reported lost. Burnham is assigned to a mission to explore what happened to the Glen, which may have been overrun by spores. Exploring the Glen, the Discovery crew finds the StarFleet crew dead and evidence that Klingons were on board the ship. Burnham and the Away Team are chased off the Glen by an alien and upon returning to the Discovery, Captain Lorca reveals to Burnham just what the mission of the crew is.
"Context Is For Kings" is a boring "meet the new crew" episode coupled with a cheap horror story. The Star Trek franchise has done horror episodes before, but "Context Is For Kings" is a particularly lame rendition of Alien for Star Trek: Discovery.
In "Context Is For Kings" the emphasis on style over substance for the show. In one of her first scenes on the U.S.S. Discovery, Burnham encounters one of her former crewmates from the Shenzhou. Detmer now has a bionic implant on the side of her head, something no other StarFleet officer has ever had . . . and a technological distraction that undermines the surprise of the Borg in the universe a hundred years later. And the viewer has to ask, what the hell is the point?! Why throw something so irrelevant and distracting into a prequel show? Detmer's head appliance is as distracting as the Tribble in the captain's ready room.
Star Trek: Discovery is all about merchandising so far and "Context Is For Kings" is no exception. While viewers wait for an explanation as to what a "black alert" is and they marvel at the idea that the writers felt the need to include a reference to a "breath scan" when this era of the Star Trek featured retinal scans for security locks, they are treated to "Discovery" branded pillowcases. And Sylvia Tully claims to have an allergy?! Whether she does or not is irrelevant: by the time of the original Star Trek no one seems to have allergies and it is cringeworthy to consider that two hundred years from now - when allergies can mostly be controlled - allergies are still a problem.
Stamets is a terrible stereotype of a gay person. Hearing a StarFleet officer talk down to everyone and lisp out "I hate you!" to a friend is flat-out nauseating. Anthony Rapp's character is written like a Will & Grace stereotype as opposed to just an officer who happens to be homosexual. No, Stamets is the unfortunate melodramatic stereotype of a gay person in "Context Is For Kings."
Star Trek used to be fun escapism. Unfortunately, Star Trek: Discovery is a journey into miserable. Everyone Michael Burnham encounters in "Context Is For Kings" is a jerk to her. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was a dark show with a number of angst-filled characters, but even in that people managed to treat one another fairly well from the outset. In "Context Is For Kings" everyone is a dick. Yeah, that's not very professional: Star Trek: Discovery is filled with ass holes and xenomorph rip-offs. The problem with this is that none of the characters feel like they are worth watching (save, perhaps, the underused Saru). Watching "Context Is For Kings," I felt myself feeling much like I did a few seasons into Game Of Thrones; I didn't care who sat on the Iron Throne because everyone was so compromised, unlikable or boring. Star Trek: Discovery has contrived a Klingon war that manages to retroactively make idiots out of most of the prior crews of later StarFleet ships (Chekov, formerly a pretty bright boy, asks if there has ever been a mutiny on a starship when thirteen years prior it was pretty public knowledge that a mutineer started a war with the Klingons!) and by the end of the third episode, the viewer doesn't care who lives or dies in the show - we just want it to be over.
"Context Is For Kings" is just awful. Tully's exclamation of "is that a book?!" is mind-numbing given how books (physical books) appear in Star Trek with no one being at all amazed. There's another robot on the bridge and the science experiment on the Discovery is yet another head-slapper that makes viewers wonder why the hell the executive producers insisted on making Star Trek: Discovery a prequel. Regardless of whether or not the Discovery's experiments are successful or become known outside the ship at all, it seems absolutely baffling that an instantaneous teleporter - much like the Iconian gateways - not only could be developed effectively in this time period, but remain secret for the rest of the franchise timeline.
Doug Jones is good as Saru but even his very brief time on screen is not enough to save "Context Is For Kings." The third episode of Star Trek: Discovery is an absolute dud that phones in the character, dumbs down the exposition (wait, is Michael Burnham a mutineer?!) and tries to confound viewers with spectacle and chases to cover up the lack of deep performances or interesting characters. Even the credits for "Context Is For Kings" are sloppy; there is a person credited as the "Shenzhous computer" . . . when the Shenzhou does not appear at all in the episode!
But hey, there's another robot on the bridge and . . . I've got to go to the bathroom now to do what Star Trek: Discovery is doing to the Star Trek franchise.
For other works with Jason Isaacs, please visit my reviews of:
The OA - Season 1
The Harry Potter Saga
Friends With Money
For other Star Trek episode, movie, and season reviews, please visit my Star Trek Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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