Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Discovery, Season 1: Context is for Kings

http://www.treknobabble.net/p/rating-system.htmlDiscovery, Season 1
"Context is for Kings"
Airdate: October 1, 2017

3of 15 produced
3of 15 aired


Six months after her ignoble performance at the preliminary battle  of the now raging Klingon war, Michael Burnham has been effectively kidnapped and pressed into service on a new ship, USS Discovery, by its enigmatic captain.

IS this the point right before he gets impaled by a space harpoon?


Matthew: This is a very odd third episode to have, because it is essentially a second pilot. It establishes the basic parameters of the show in a way that the prior two did not - Michael Burnham is an outcast, and she has been spirited onto a mysterious new vessel in order to both win a war and perhaps shepherd a shadowy new technology into existence. She is distrusted by the vast majority of her crewmates and at least claims she has no wish to mingle socially. On the whole, I think this is a pretty fertile setup for at least a good dozen shows. Will it persist beyond that? Tough to say. Will it allow for more "traditional" non-serial tales with heady sci-fi themes? I hope.

Kevin:  I actually think the three part pilot helps the story. Seeing Burnham's story through flashback or implication would have gutted her impact, to the point that her speech about the Federation would have felt clunky and unearned. It helps anchor her as the main focus and make her journey more textured.

Matthew: Michael Burnham's character journey is pretty well rendered here. Clearly she is depressed and wants to punish herself. Yet, she is still curious and still breaks rules with abandon (e.g. stealing her roomie's spit and breaking into the top secret lab).  Now, I have never been a big fan of "this character is a genius" storytelling. But this episode at least has the virtue of not one but two main characters calling her out on her shit (Saru and Stamets). Burnham's interactions with both were organic and felt like the kinds of things real people might have to say to someone who had transgressed so. Saru's interaction gives his character a somewhat compassionate, but ultimately truth-telling gloss. I enjoyed the Stamets character, because he was sharply drawn, and given a coherent motivation from the outset - he is a scientist and feels his work has been co-opted by the war, and has a fair amount of blame for Burnham.

Kevin: The web of interactions with the other crew were all really well achieved and a highlight of the episode. Stamets doesn't trust Burnham, but also doesn't trust Lorca. Saru has affection for, but doesn't trust Burnham, and appears very loyal to Lorca. Landry appears to have some clandestine bond with Lorca. It gives everyone interesting and varied agendas whos interactions are dictated by their characters not the demands of the script. Whatever my ongoing concerns about the prequel issues are, the core character work is strong enough to keep me feeling eager to come back.

Matthew: Captain Lorca. Hmm. The eye injury thing is pointless. As were the fortune cookies. But I enjoyed his sort of hard-ass thing, and the differing reactions he gets from Saru (loyalty and protectiveness) and Stamets (irritation and dislike for "warmongering"). When he presents the mushroom transporter, I bought the character's desire for exploration and science, and when he brought the monster on board, I could see that he is able to compartmentalize that pacifistic urge in a complex way.   His desire to "use" Burnham for her talents was interesting as well. I thought the writing was really tight int he scene that he argued for more nuance and less moralizing, and incorporated the episode title really well.

Kevin: He has portray enough traits credibly to make any number of outcomes credible and I think this episode does that. He tries to sell himself as closer to Burnham than she would admit, committed to the Federation but willing to bend the rules in the name of the greater good. As far as that, I think the nuts and bolts of the character are there. Remember when Picard was a cranky Frenchman rather than the erudite poet explorer? I'm happy to give the character some room to grow.

Matthew: So hey, there is a science fiction story. Some sort of... mushroom drive? This mushroom drive allows people to traverse practically unlimited distances instantaneously, and promises to completely change the human experience. OK. So this raises lots of questions. Will this mushroom innovation bet completely forgotten by TOS (ten years hence in continuity)? Because it never shows up again. Is this fungal finagling what allowed the Iconians to become demons of air and darkness? That would actually tickle me, and it would perhaps allow for secrecy. Why was this series not just set after Voyager in continuity? Why why why?!?!? Because that would allow us to completely dismiss such questions and simply enjoy the earthy, peaty goodness of the story. On the other hand, there is also the most Abrams-y thing that ever Abramsed - a pointless, loud monster chase that did nothing to serve the story and ate up time that would have been better used on, you know, ideas and stuff.

Kevin: I agree overall. They seem to have needlessly created the problems that being a prequel raises. I am not encouraged by the final scene that introduces Amanda's name. Who responds to a story about someone's parent by asking their first name? It was inorganic and only there to get the name out as some zombie version of fan service.


Matthew: Sonequa Martin-Green was excellent. She conveyed the shell-shocked resignation of a convicted mutineer really nicely, and there were tons of emotional layers to it. But when she was drawn out by meeting up with someone old or someone new, I totally bought her journey. She also did the physical acting really well - I believed she could kick ass and take names.

Kevin: She has really impressed the hell out of me, top to bottom. I don't think there's been a bum line delivery yet. He statement about her devotion to Federation ideals made me believe in the show. Even as clunky as the Alice in Wonderland stuff was from a writing perspective, her line reading, even while scurrying through a Jeffries tube was really compelling.

Matthew: I imagine Anthony Rapp's Paul Stamets character will be divisive. I like him. I like someone who is so finely drawn and prickly, and I think the performance was really vital and believable. Doug Jones was again exceptional as Saru, really acting through the makeup and giving an alien character interesting depth.

Kevin: Saru is really the standout. He really infuses his position with compassion and it makes for a very complex character and interaction. He is correct in his assessment of Burnham, but the concern for her is touching. It also keeps the sass from being painful comic relief, but instead a fun, real being that I want to see more of. Rapp actually kind of turned me off with his character, but that may be my fatigue at all intelligent people, especially scientists being depicted as fatally inept at social interactions.

Matthew: Jason Isaacs had a mush mouth problem with his line deliveries. But outside of that, I enjoyed his Gabriel Lorca quite a bit. I found his complexity interesting and was curious to know more, to see if he goes off the rails or maintains that level of control and compartmentalization over the long haul.

Kevin: I like that they have Burnham as the anchor and not Lorca. It makes the show focus on her Starfleet ideals rather than have her as the foil to his cavalier attitude and I, too, am curious to see how it goes. He definitely has presence and a comfort with command, so I'm interested in seeing how he develops.

Production Values

The Discovery ship seems to be an iteration of the Ralph McQuarrie concept art done for Phase II and TMP.

Which I'm OK with. I don't need this ship to look like TOS as long as they don't go and redesign actual TOS ships. The CGI is certainly top notch yet again, and I enjoyed looking at it. I also felt the interior sets were pretty well realized - the ship felt more like a real place than any of the Abrams movies. No breweries or particle accelerators, just real workplaces that seemed cohesive.

Kevin: I actually really liked the fact that dug so deep in the attic for design inspiration. With the additional polish from the original teaser photos, I really like it. It's kind of like a more substantial version of the NX or Akira class ships. I also liked the interiors. The shuttle bay felt appropriately big. Engineering felt like a mix of Enterprise and TOS and even a little TOS-movie layout with that clear box design. My only critique in the cutouts in the saucer seem to just add more fragile failure points without increasing the ships utility. It's the kind of design choice that looks cool without doing anything.

Matthew: I really enjoyed the visual of the mushroom drive montage scene. It was really cool to see tantalizing snippets of different cultures. The fungus room was also a nice effect, as were the floating water (for some reason) and the sparkly bugs around the shuttle. I disliked the monster chase. It veered into that lazy "strobe effect" sort of cheap thriller design language, and just annoyed me after the first minute.

Kevin: The monster didn't bother me per se. They earned the monster movie feel. It was pretty much Star Trek goes to the Event Horizon, but you can't deny the atmosphere was well done. The effects on the crew corpses was grisly but not overly so and kind of intriguing and terrifying in its implications. It was the right level of horror for the tone they are setting without feeling gratuitous.


Matthew: There was a lot to like here in terms of story setup and character development, but at the end of the day, we've got the Mushroom Drive that can't possibly make it to the end of the series, and a Stupid Monster Chase (tm) that would make JJ Abrams proud. So I'm stuck on a 3 for this one. I still want to know more, but my reservations are deepening.

Kevin: I feel like we've flipped our positions from Battle of the Binary Stars. I think the character work and production values push this just into a four. I share your reservations, but I enjoyed so much of the character work and acting that I am happy to call this above average. That makes for a total of 7.

In other happy news, we are transitioning our podcast hosting from a hodgepodge of cloud accounts to Podbean. I am working on moving all the old podcasts and updating the feed, but you can start listening to our Discovery podcasts as well as the last few Voyager and Deep Space Nine now. The RSS link is http://treknobabble.podbean.com/feed/. You can also find us on iTunes or Stitcher or wherever fine podcasts are sold. The upside of the transition among other things is the nifty HTML5 compatible player that lets you play it right here in the post as well. If anyone runs into trouble, give us a holler. Also, if you could, please give us a review on wherever you listen, as that helps gets new listeners and the more people discussing Star Trek, the better.


  1. I think there's definitely evidence that this was originally the pilot, and the Shenzhou two-parter was filmed afterwards. I noticed multiple points where there was audio-visual desync with Lorca's dialogue beyond just a misalignment/streaming glitch. I think Isaacs had to go back in post and dub in modified dialogue that better fit with the Shenzhou episodes.
    Some of the other exchanges make more sense as initial hints of backstory: the Amanda name-drop, the "I was expecting a Vulcan" Stamets/Burnham introduction. Though, I would agree that the Saru/Burnham scenes as well as Burnham's monologue to Lorca are strengthened by having the prologue material.

    As far as the scifi aspect goes, I really like the direction they are taking things, but agree so far the explanation has been too mushy. There's definitely a lot of promise in the premise of exobiology of non-sentient organisms evolved to exploit/inhabit subspace and/or higher dimensional space. But currently, yeah, they haven't done enough to clarify for people worried that they're just using pixie dust to fuel the warp core or something...
    Actually, thinking about it, Lorca could have made an analogy to penicillin: another mold that directly helped a war effort, but has other immense benefits. Plus, it's not literally the fungus itself that is important, but one of the mechanisms the fungus has evolved that is.

    1. Your explanation already makes more sense than what was in the episode. :)

    2. Yeah, Stamets needs to work on his job-talk explanation and not his TED talk version :P.