Star Trek: Discovery’s third episode, “Context Is for Kings,” is a somewhat uneven hour of television, but it ultimately holds many pleasures. It finally introduces the crew of USS Discovery, whose journey will provide the backbone of the series, including the vaguely sinister Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs sporting a Southern drawl). Most intriguingly, one of the plotlines hews toward horror — full of mangled bodies that wouldn’t be out of place in an early David Cronenberg film and a monster stalking the corridors of a dead Federation ship — enough so that it easily could have been its own episode. But for all the gains made since the first two episodes, which are more a prologue than anything else, it has yet to feel like Star Trek at its heart.
As a lifelong Star Trek aficionado, Discovery has a strange relationship with the storied history that came before it. Sure, its latest episode looks a bit more like Star Trek since the captain and crew have finally been introduced. The various nods to The Original Series meant to tantalize fans — including the sound design, the Gorn skeleton, the Tribble on Lorca’s desk, and Michael mentioning Spock (albeit not by name) — add to this. But these are surface-level touches. In episode three, there remains a distinct lack of the qualities that define Star Trek — its radical empathy, keen sense of community, the complexity of its approach toward the nature of war and the delicate balance of peace. Despite all this, Michael Burnham is a fascinating, contradictory addition to the franchise, and actress Sonequa Martin-Green has hit her stride with the character.
Never has a central character begun Star Trek so desperately alone and isolated. Michael is seen as a mutineer and responsible for a terrifying war in the eyes of nearly everyone on the USS Discovery (even though the truth is more complicated). Saru (Doug Jones), now a lieutenant commander, sees her as a danger to the stability of the crew. Science officer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) undermines her so much, he comes off as cruel. Cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) sees her as an obstacle for her goals and naïvely sunny worldview, although she softens by the end of the episode. Captain Lorca sees her as an opportunity.
In “Context Is for Kings,” Michael holds her own against the cutting remarks and insults of Starfleet officers. There’s a tender thread of grief to her performance, whether she’s effortlessly blocking blows from fellow prisoners hellbent on killing her or the more emotional ones from Saru. Martin-Green’s performance is at its best in the quietest moments — just look at the tension in her jaw listening to Tilly prattle on, or her downcast gaze after Saru’s comments communicate her history of trauma in ways the writing has yet to grapple with as eloquently. Michael’s mutiny — and how Martin-Green channels the emotional trauma of this decision — can’t be properly understood, however, without looking at the ways these topics have threaded through Star Trek in the 1990s.
While Michael’s characterization has been positioned as a dramatic step forward for Star Trek, there is a history of characters with a tense, even outright mutinous, relationship with the Federation. Perhaps that’s why this excerpt from an io9 review left me so puzzled: “Even Deep Space Nine, which also featured a war that tested the limits of Starfleet and the Federation, never delved that much into the fundamental tension of Starfleet’s stated mission of exploration and its military side.”
It’s true that there has always been a tension between Starfleet’s belief in peace and intellectual curiosity with the reality of their militaristic underpinnings. But Michael and Discovery as a whole aren’t necessarily in unexplored territory. In Michael, I see shadings of Tom Paris, who languished in prison for 18 months before the events of Voyager; Bajoran Starfleet officer Ro Laren, who defects, betraying her captain’s trust in the process; and my personal favorite, Kira Nerys, a Bajoran militia member who is openly bitter about the Federation’s impact on her culture, but grows into an impressive first officer on Deep Space Nine. Each of these characters illustrate the issues that come with Starfleet being a defense and military force even more than the peacekeeping neutral party they market themselves as.
Kira in particular is a useful juxtaposition to Michael’s place within the franchise and what we can expect of her going forward. Both are women who have dealt with immense trauma since childhood. For Michael, it’s the loss of her parents and upbringing within a foreign culture. For Kira, it’s a war and brutal occupation of her homelands that led her to make decisions that have branded her a terrorist by some, and a hero by others. They’re both navigating a hierarchy they aren’t sure they fit into anymore. For all the shakiness of the first season of Deep Space Nine, after three episodes I had a better handle on who Kira is beyond the metaphorical underpinnings and symbolism of her characterization. In Discovery, I worry that Michael is burdened with so many expectations as the first black female lead in the franchise that the writers are afraid to consider what that means beyond marketing purposes and diversity kudos.
Ultimately, the most instructive figure from Star Trek’s past when it comes to Michael’s mutiny is one who shares her first name from Deep Space Nine: Michael Eddington (Kenneth Marshall). Eddington was a security officer who opened his eyes to the issues of the Federation and Starfleet to join the Maquis. The Maquis were a group of Starfleet officers and Federation colonists who originally came together to protest the Cardassian occupation of their homes in the Demilitarized Zone, which were eventually traded by the Federation under a treaty. The Maquis found the Federation’s tactics to represent the perils of war, critiquing how they hid behind the Prime Directive, even as communities suffered great loss. After Eddington’s subterfuge and eventual defection, he has two pivotal arguments with Captain Benjamin Sisko about the perils of Starfleet’s military influence.
Eddington is doing more than just accusing Starfleet and his former commanding officer of making what he sees as the wrong decision in a time of warfare. He’s accusing the institution of colonialism. The Federation’s righteousness is easy to maintain in a time of peace. But Sisko’s decision to poison a planet in order to force Eddington out of hiding — and make an example of him to the rest of the Maquis — demonstrates that, for this peace to be maintained on Earth, there have to be officers willing to kill to protect it. This of course brings to mind Discovery’s Captain Lorca, whose shady experiments suggest he’s capable of just about anything to win this war. Near the end of the episode he asks Michael, “You helped me start a war, don’t you want to help me end it?” That he sees in Michael a similar quality to exploit — the ability to go beyond Starfleet protocol to do what is necessary — opens up many thorny, fascinating avenues for the series to explore, especially since I believe there is much more going on than just efforts to figure out organic fuel for starships.
By the end of “Context Is for Kings,” it’s clear what everyone thinks of Michael. Mutineer. Criminal. Murderer. But what does Michael think of herself? Her past trauma, dedication to Starfleet, and Discovery’s efforts to push the franchise into a new direction won’t have any weight unless Michael’s characterization gains more dimension.