Star Trek: Discovery – 1.03 “Context is for Kings”

 

It’s just Liz this time, as we settle in for an episode of Orange is the New Trek.

Post-TOS Star Trek has a sketchy history with second episodes, which is the shorthand I’m using for the first episode to air after the two-part premieres. TNG gave us “The Naked Now”, an ill-conceived remake of a mediore TOS episode. DS9 also looked to the past with “Past Prologue”, which relied too heavily on the Duras sisters, recurring villains from TNG.

Voyager’s “Parallax”, by contrast, looks forward, establishing B’Elanna as the ship’s chief engineer and letting her interact with Janeway for the first time. Unfortunately, it’s also a pretty dull episode, heavy with technobabble, and it wraps up the Starfleet v Maquis conflict in a nice bow, rarely to be spoken of again.

(As for Enterprise, I know I’ve seen its second episode, and I even reviewed it on my Geocities website, but I can’t remember a single thing about it, except that I thought it was shite.)

Okay, I was curious, so I went and dug up my old ENT reviews — all three of them, which is how long I lasted before I noped the hell out — on the WayBack Machine. Here you go, and apologies for my pseudo-feminist slutshaming and bodyshaming of Jolene Blalock, and all the other gross things I said when I was 19. Turns out I’ve been repeating myself; back in 2001, I said:

Trek’s second episodes rarely go down well — “The Naked Now,” some DS9 story (don’t give me that look, it was either “Past Prologue” or “A Man Alone”. And judging by the titles, I’d put my money on “Past Prologue”.) Voyager’s second episode, “Parallax”, featured some good Janeway-Torres interaction, but was stilted and technobabble heavy.

“Fight or Flight” is probably the best second episode so far. That’s partially due to the canny character-focus — Hoshi was irritating enough in “Broken Bow” that, of all the characters, she was most in need of a story to herself. She gets that here, although not to the exclusion of the other characters.

The important thing, I guess, is that the modern second episodes are always improving. (Reminder: we did start with “The Naked Now”. That’s a low bar to clear.)

“Context…” reminded me a lot of “Parallax” — mostly in terms of what it didn’t do. Yes, the alienated but talented ex-Starfleet officer is welcomed back into the fold, but it’s pretty clear that the ongoing divisions and conflict aren’t disappearing overnight. And it’s light enough on technobabble that the science at the heart of it all basically boils down to “magic fungus”.

Selena had the same thought:

1.) One of the primary complaints voiced re: Voyager back in the day and since was that it squandered the inherent drama in its premise by letting the Starfleet and Maquis crews integrate too quickly, something which some of the writing staff also seem to have thought, given that when Seven of Nine joined the crew in s4, she remained an outsider far longer, and what she’d done as a Borg intermittendly was brought up. Now we’ll see how quickly Michael Burnham is universally accepted on board Discovery, but this episode went out of its way to establish the obstacles, so I’m assuming not as quickly.

2.) Starfleet vs Maquis was one set up in the Voy pilot that got resolved faster rather than slower, but another outsider to both parties was one Tom Paris, with a powerful Starfleet figure for a parent, who started out as a brilliant young promising Starfleet officer, then had a fall from grace ending up in a penal colony, then was recruited by a Captain for her mission. Oh, and he also befriended a talkative and endearing young cadet.

3.) Michael/Silvia = femslash version of Tom Paris/Harry Kim is what I thought, and also: now we know what kind of Voyager AU Bryan Fuller would have written, and whom he shipped. 🙂

A word about Sylvia Tilly

I’m working on a zine about Mary Sues, and recently reread the chapter about them in Camille Bacon-Smith’s Enterprising Women. So it was kind of a delight to have exactly that type of character turn up — a young woman, so clever that she’s fast-tracked through the Academy and onto a starship, incredibly perky and optimistic — but writes her like an actual character.

(Zine spoilers: my thesis is that the “Mary Sue” — whether that character is a self-insert or an idealised heroine — is not intrinsically bad. Self-indulgent, yes, and therefore less appealing to people who aren’t the author, but that problem can be solved with practice and experience. Likewise the idealised heroine type — and the bar for “good enough writing to support an idealised male hero” is a lot lower than for female characters.)

Now, Trek has had wide-eyed, clever, young, naive and optimistic characters before, and I will see Selena’s Tom ‘n’ Harry comparison and raise her an O’Brien ‘n’ Bashir.

What I like about Sylvia is that she can be a jerk, with that whole Mean Girls “assigned seating” stunt. Much as we’re meant to love wholesome, pure cinnamon roll characters, I find them dull — give me a girl whose instinct is for exclusion and self-preservation, but who’s aware of it and trying to do better.

(Related: how amazing is The Good PlaceSo amazing.)

Discovery seems to be a ship of jerks so far, but Sylvia’s trying to improve, and I love her.

Jerkovery

People on the USS Discovery who don’t seem to be jerks:

  • Saru – we know his motivations, he’s a walking masterclass in “how to be polite and considerate to someone while also setting hard boundaries and expectations”, and as much as I wanted him to find common ground with Michael right away, there are good reasons for that not happening.
  • (He’s also the only castmember wearing impractical shoes, there is not a corset or high heeled catsuit to be seen!).
  • Sylvia – has tendencies towards being a jerk, is trying to do better.

The following people are jerks:

  • Lieutenant Stamets – I’m torn between being really happy we finally have an openly gay character on Trek, and my profound disinterest in Clever White Men Who Think Being Smart Gives Them A Licence To Be Assholes. I’m into the science v military conflict he brings, I just find this character type unspeakably boring.
  • Commander Landry – I approve of unfriendly female characters in general, and unfriendly female characters played by Rekha Sharma in particular, but I also have strong feelings about (a) how prisoners should be treated now, and (b) how they should be treated in the semi-utopia of the 23rd century. So, while I like Landry in theory, I’m as yet undecided whether she’s an asshole I will love, or just an asshole.
  • Captain Lorca.

Captain Lorca gets his own subheading

I finished the episode going, “Wow, Captain Lorca’s totes shady! I bet Michael will have to lead another mutiny by season’s end.” I mean, that whole “context is for kings” speech is the sort of thing you hear from the kind of person who unironically uses the word “sheeple”.

But then I reconsidered — what if he’s actually a xenobiologist, and his collection of alien body parts and homicidal fungus monsters is legitimately scientific?

Fortunately, here’s Jason Isaacs to clear it all up:

Why does Lorca have a room full of animals?

We’re losing this war and I’ve been given license to do whatever the hell is necessary to try and see if I can in any way shift the odds. And so I have in my private study area, anything I want including weapons, gasses, poisons, creatures… Anything that, if examined correctly, might give us an edge because we need something to turn the tide in the war. And that’s why someone like me has been given this ship and given license to go off and — not under the glare of anyone else’s spotlight — see if I can come up with a solution, any kind of creative solutions to this problem of imminent destruction.

So the tardigrade might be one, some of the Klingon weapons I’ve got might be it… The spores might be it. I just need something and I need it fast and I need people to help me, and hence, one of the reasons why I get Michael Burnham to be on my team. She is someone who’s prepared to break the rules… Someone who’s really smart strategically and someone who I think will ultimately be loyal to me since I’ve given her a second chance at life.

(source)

So:

  1. “Fortunately, here’s Jason Isaacs” is a sentence which really ought to be applicable to all situations.
  2. Lorca is indeed shady, or, at least, ruthlessly militaristic and maybe a bit too focused on ensuring that Michael is personally loyal to him.
  3. The fungus monster is called a tardigrade.
  4. Lorca’s part of Section 31, right? Or, at least, Section 31 is involved with his mission. The blank insignia, the way he arranges for the prison shuttle to be disabled — at the cost of its pilot’s life. Just how much is Section 31 pulling the strings here?

The interview also covers Lorca’s bowl of fortune cookies, the reason for which boils down to “He likes the taste.” I, too, love the taste of fortune cookies, so I get that.

I did wonder if there was something, hmmmmm, hinky about replacing a captain of Chinese heritage with a white guy who’s into fortune cookies? Or is it a nod to the fact that fortune cookies are an American invention, loosely based on a Japanese confection, and mostly consumed by white people? I don’t know. I’m going to eat a whole box of fortune cookies and think about it some more.

(Stephanie says: It’s hinky.)

And here’s another interview with Isaacs where he says his tribute to Shatner is that Lorca is inappropriately sexual with all the women under his command.

Have a list of my thoughts:

  • Look, it’s Jason Isaacs, he can be inappropriately sexual just by turning up.
  • I’m so glad I wasn’t imagining the sexual tension between Lorca and Landry.
  • One of my pet peeves is the, hmm, contemporary embrace of Kirk as a great feminist character. “Oh, it’s feminist because the women pursued him.” Wow. Yes. A man so ‘magnetic’ that women cannot resist him. How groundbreaking. I’m delighted that Isaacs, who seems like a genuinely lovely guy, also sees that tension between the progressive storytelling and sexism of the 60s, so this seems to be another way he’s making Lorca ambiguous.
  • Or maybe he’s just being kind of gross, and I’m too biased in favour of Jason Isaacs to see it. Time will tell.

But I do think that Lorca is morally and ethically ambiguous at best. “Universal law is for lackeys” is … like, technically it’s true that there are situations where standard rules do not apply, and morality is not black and white, blah, blah, blah. But I’m pretty confident that a guy who divides the world into “lackeys” and “kings” is not going to be remembered as a great person.

I was going to talk more about this, and about Michael’s ethical path, but actually, you should just read this meta from mswyrr on Tumblr. A key quote:

It’s early days yet, but I think, thematically, Michael’s moral journey is about wrestling with the position she’s in, between how she understands the choice she made and the future choices she’s going to make, and dealing with the danger/temptation of the twisted version of her own moral position re: when and how and in what way to break rules.

And this is why I don’t think Discovery is grimdark — terrible things happen, difficult choices are made, and some characters are going to do the wrong thing — but Michael, the hero, is a fundamentally moral person. “Complicated” does not always mean “grimdark”.

I still miss Captain Georgiou

I wonder if Burnham spotted that “universal law is for lackeys” is a statement which effectively throws Georgiou under the bus?

I saw a bunch of people wishing that Jason Isaacs and Michelle Yeoh’s roles were swapped, and to that I say … sure. Make the kind, decent captain a white guy, and the sinister, untrustworthy captain an Asian woman. That wouldn’t be incredibly and profoundly racist, right?

Bring me my flashbacks, my AUs where Georgiou lived but Michael still ends up in prison and then under Lorca’s command, and my Philippa Georgiou, Klingon Winter Soldier fic.

Constructing a meta narrative

I’m fascinated to see a narrative of “Discovery is a bit shite” is being created in fandom. Trade reviews are mostly positive, but nerd reviews are, allegedly, universally bad. Here’s a File770 post, for example, whose author claims to have gone in search of positive reviews, and found none.

It’s notable that that post claims to be looking “around the web”, but only cites YouTube reviews — YouTube being infamously toxic to female reviewers — and not only excludes the blogosphere, but female-dominated social media sites like Tumblr and Dreamwidth, where there are lots of positive reviews and essays.

Last week I snarked about male viewers writing it off too soon, and I’m intrigued yet disappointed to see that continuing in this way.

I’m reminded of Voyager, and the “consensus” that it sucked until season 4, when it started pandering more openly to the male audience — but I’ve watched Voyager many times, and while there’s no defending the first two seasons, the actual leap in quality takes place in season 3 — same as TNG. And lately we saw shock that Voyager is the most-streamed Star Trek series on Netflix, because the predominantly female audience has been overlooked ever since UPN went, “Well, it’s the highest rated show on the network … but the viewers are mostly women, and that’s not the demographic we want.”

Which is not to say I’m uncritical of Discovery, and nor are the other female and non-binary reviewers I’ve seen. For example, I’m increasingly unsure as to why this needed to be a prequel, beyond the fact that Viacom would commission an episode-by-episode remake of TOS if they thought they would get away with it. And I’m unconvinced by magic fungus as both a plot device and a means of interstellar travel. But I’m enjoying it enough to wait and see how it plays out, and I don’t pretend to be an objective reviewer, but a Trekkie of 25 years, reacting as a fan.

Final thoughts

  • As they explored the ruins of the USS Glenn, I said out loud, “I’ve played this level of Mass Effect.”
  • I would like to see a USS Katherine Johnson. (It has to use her full name, because a “USS Johnson” might be named after Lyndon B.)
  • I wouldn’t have picked Saru as a potential first officer, but the role seems to suit him. Not least because he listens to the fear that Lorca ignores.
  • This review discusses the value of fear as an underrated motivation.
  • I’m very much enjoying this Ship of Jerks, Conspiracies and Magic Fungus.
  • I appreciate how Discovery has stepped back from Trek’s stereotypical ensemble of captain, first officer, chief of security, CMO, engineer and misc others.
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