“Universal law is for lackeys. Context is for kings.”
– Captain Gabriel Lorca
The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea,
and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.
Context is for Kings is not only the title of this episode, but also THE line, THE moment, that myself and so many others were sold out for Star Trek: Discovery. That scene put us in the mindset for everything else thereafter.
The first two episodes of the series set up Michael Burnham’s backstory, before she actually reaches the ship the show is named for. Michael’s trip to prison for her crimes is interrupted and she is brought aboard the Discovery, where she recognizes a couple of faces from her old crew; particularly newly-promoted First Officer Saru, who remains especially hurt by Michael’s past actions and troubled by her presence on the ship.
There are many things I love about Discovery, but one of the chief things is that it is a very character-driven story. The lead character makes a huge mistake right off the bat, and her true journey begins in a very low place. Not only does this provide room to grow, but it also brings us into a lovely ethical dilemma and engages our thinking right away. There are no definite story beats in Discovery. Even if some things are predictable or sloppily handled at times, it truly marches to the beat of its own drum.
As Michael is brought aboard, we get a nice, slow reveal of the ship and the new characters we will grow to love and understand in unexpected ways. Along with Saru, we meet the quirky and candid cadet Sylvia Tilly, whose outward nature balances Michael’s internalized one, and vice versa. In engineering, we meet Lieutenant Paul Stamets, who initially comes across as the pretentious elitist and has a chemical reaction with Michael. Finally, there’s Captain Gabriel Lorca, who steals scenes without even trying simply because of the unpredictable, raw power Jason Isaacs brings in all his performances.
While we do get these fun introductions to the characters and the USS Discovery herself, it’s the game played between Lorca and Burnham that is the heart of the episode. Burnham discovers nearly right away that Lorca’s stumbling upon her stranded prison shuttle was not just a coincidence. Even Lt. Stamets tells her that if she’s here, it’s because Lorca intended it. Burnham and Lorca’s interactions in this episode are fantastic, giving off slight Sherlock/Moriarty vibes as they try to peel away each other’s outer layers. In many ways, Lorca and Burnham’s interpersonal discovery throughout the season is just as important as any they’ll have in the Final Frontier.
“Maybe the universe hates waste.”
-Lorca to Burnham
Burnham goes along with Lorca’s friendly captivity because of her curiosity of his motives, but she does not wish to stay because of her desire to be punished for what she’s done. Though her sin was one of good intentions, it nonetheless led to destruction. Season one has a few themes or arcs going for it, but the central arc is Michael’s redemption and forgiveness—particularly in forgiving herself.
The plot of the episode revolves around a “super top-secret project”—the Spore Drive. The Federation is in a race of sorts to find a way to keep it running long-term, with no success yet. Stamets and his friend Straal (who resides on the USS Glenn) are having their own friendly contest to see who can get the Spore Drive operational first. When they receive a distress call from the Glenn, a team from the Discovery (including Michael) set out to investigate.
This is a time for Michael to demonstrate her abilities to the others aboard the Discovery, but it’s also a glimpse into the darkness and terror that will continue on throughout the season. I love that this show doesn’t shy away from showing us just how horrifying and unpredictable space can be. This episode in particular was a lot gorier than I was expecting, similar to moments with The Reavers in Joss Whedon’s Firefly.
Probably the biggest metaphor not only for this episode, but for the entire show, is that of Alice in Wonderland. The story was read to Michael as a child by her foster mother, Amanda, the true mother of the one and only Spock (the reference to Amanda reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Spock is actually a callback to Star Trek: The Animated Series). Michael repeats lines from the story as she escapes the horrors on the USS Glenn through a crawlspace. It works like a mantra for her, bringing her to a place of stability.
At first, it seems odd that Michael would choose this story to refer to in times of distress, especially when she embodies more Vulcan qualities than human ones, and Vulcans adhere to logic. She explains her connection to Tilly at the end of the episode, and it brings a glimmer of hope regarding her future, as well as reminding us all what Star Trek is ultimately about:
“It’s how I learned that the real world doesn’t always adhere to logic. Sometimes down is up. Sometimes up is down. Sometimes when you’re lost, you’re found.”
-Michael, regarding Alice
The fact that Michael uses the Alice book and its passages like her own spiritual scripture is incredibly revealing. It demonstrates our human desire for the mysterious and profound, things logic alone can never satisfy. Alice’s curiosity led her to a realm of incalculable possibilities. We have that same hunger to understand the why, to seek beauty and possibility just for their own sake. We look to the stars, to the great beyond, both for answers and simply just to wonder.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
Like Alice, Michael is a curious girl at her core. She wants to see how far the rabbit hole goes, and so do we. Lorca’s promise of infinite discovery through the Spore Drive also promises us some of the craziest and most unique moments in any Star Trek series to come. After all, our human hunger for discovery is what leads us down the path to true context.
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Trektember is an annual series about Star Trek; this year, we’re examining the first seasons of Star Trek: Discovery and The Orville. For more information on this series, click here; or, to read every article from the beginning, click here!