When Star Trek: Discovery debuted last Sunday night, I published a review of the first three episodes where I went out of my way to avoid spoilers, given that one had aired on CBS, one was only on CBS All Access, and one hadn’t aired anywhere yet. Now that all three are out there — at least to All Access subscribers — I wanted to get more specific, with full spoilers for all three episodes — coming up just as soon as I steal your drool…
So, as alluded to in that initial review, the first two episodes turn out to be an extended prologue for what Discovery actually is: infamous convicted mutineer Michael Burnham working as a low-level crewmember aboard the eponymous starship under the command of Jason Isaacs’ Gabriel Lorca, who is simultaneously trying to win the war with the Klingons and perfect an organic propulsion system that would put warp drive to shame.
To anyone who looked at the opening credits of the first two hours and saw Michelle Yeoh listed as a Special Guest Star, or who wondered how Lorca factored into the story given all the publicity about Isaacs, or who couldn’t help noticing that the ship Michael served on at first was not called Discovery, this is perhaps not surprising. (One critic at the screening I attended a couple of weeks ago asked me what spoilers I thought CBS was worried about when they embargoed reviews until after airing, saying he thought it was obvious Captain Georgiou was going to die.) Still, even if this was exactly the plan Bryan Fuller had before he left, the shift in characters and status quo so early feels jarring, and raises the question of why two episodes needed to be devoted to setting it up.
Those introductory hours have some of the show’s best setpieces — Georgiou and Michael creating a giant Starfleet emblem in the sand to serve as an SOS, Michael using the thruster suit to approach the Klingon beacon — I was happy for every minute we got to spend watching Yeoh play a starship captain, and it’s important to get some sense of both who Michael was before her career ended in disgrace, and how and why this war with the Klingons started. But my goodness is every single scene on T’Kuvma’s ship at last twice as long as it needs to be. As a fan of The Americans, Jane the Virgin, and other recent shows that have extended sequences in foreign languages, I’m not opposed to reading subtitles, but those shows benefit from actors who are able — through both talent and not being buried under several pounds of immobile makeup — to convey tons of emotional nuance with each line even if you have to read along with them, and they don’t turn the subtitled scenes into pure info dumps. Almost all of the Klingon stuff was literally monotonous: every line delivered in the same growl, with the same limited facial expression, reiterating the same two or three points about how much better their culture used to be. It was a relief when most of the Klingons featured in the third episode were dead Klingons, and I’m someone who had a bottomless appetite for all of Worf’s family and political drama back on Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.
“Context Is for Kings” had other advantages over its predecessors, even without Yeoh or the huge VFX budget of those earlier hours. For starters, much as I liked Sonequa Martin-Green as the chipper first officer version of Michael, this quiet, suspicious version who has had to do without rank or creature comforts(*) seems to play even more to her strengths, and also feels unlike any character the franchise has had in a lead role before. The Michael who served under Georgiou was a softer version of Spock; she still has all of that Vulcan knowledge and reserve, but she’s also made huge mistakes for which she’s been justly punished, and it’s made her into someone very different.
(*) Are we meant to assume she’s wearing her hair natural because she doesn’t have access to the same styling products she did as a free person? If so, one might wonder how humanity made it to the 23rd century without developing more permanent haircare products. Then again, Jean-Luc Picard is bald bald bald in the 24th, so it just might not be a Federation priority.