If you thought the Star Trek Discovery premiere wasn’t traditional Trek, you’re in for a hell of a ride this week. It’s clear from the start that the showrunners weren’t just breaking all the rules in the opening episodes for the sake of it… they plan to continue on this path from here on out. For some, that’s going to be hard to swallow, but if you can accept Discovery on it’s own merits and stop looking at it through the haze of the original series and its sequels, there’s some incredible TV to be found here. As always, spoilers to follow...
Context is for Kings picks up six months after the events of the premiere with Burnham on a transport shuttle supposedly being moved from one prison to another. The show thankfully wastes no time in answering the question about how she gets onto the Discovery and the state of the art, brand new starship has her safely aboard before the credits roll. With the transport shuttle needing repairs, she and her fellow prisoners are forced to stay on the Discovery for a few days which leads to some fairly awkward moments between Burnham and the other Starfleet crewmembers.
It’s like her worst nightmare; not only do the crew members she doesn’t know hate her because she started the war, but she also conveniently bumps into some of the officers she served with on the Shenzhou (including Lieutenant Saru who’s a lot more enjoyable to watch in this episode mainly because of the sick burns he throws her way). To top it all off, the prisoners aren’t her biggest fans either which leads to the lunchroom brawl you’ve no doubt seen in the teasers. Although it’s a minor plot point, I can’t let it pass without comment because a) it’s so not Star Trek and b) it’s incredibly watchable. Seeing Burnham use a lunch tray to kick ass three-on-one reminds you just how much TV has changed since the original Star Trek. The scene is more in keeping with Daredevil’s corridor-fighting antics than Kirk’s, but that’s ok as long as you’re willing to accept the change.
Soon after the punch up we meet Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) for the first time, and he certainly makes an impression. Standing in the dark gloom of his ready room he reveals he has an eye condition which makes him sensitive to drastic changes in light and the whole exchange plays out like he’s some sort of Bond villain. The long and short of it is, Burnham will be on-board the Discovery for a while and Lorca is going to use her skills (under his command) whether she likes it or not. You get the impression that this is a man made for war, that he’s merely been pretending to be an explorer up until now, and now the conflict is here, he’ll do whatever is necessary to win. Instantly captivating, you’ve no idea whether to trust him or not, but that just makes you want to watch him even more. I get the impression Isaacs’ has got his hands on a role that is perfect for him and he’s not going to waste it.
After that, the new character introductions come thick and fast. Burnham is assigned a bunk with Cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) whose nervous and talkative disposition makes you feel like you’ve wandered into a teen movie. Soon after, Lieutenant Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) makes himself known as Burnham is assigned to his team to work on some mysterious ‘project’ that will help them win the war. He’s the sort of person that’s hard to like with his brisk mannerisms and inability to suffer anyone less intelligent than himself, and like most of Discovery's crew he takes an instant dislike to Burnham. However, it becomes clear that he clashes with most people including his Captain, which is something we learn as the Captain tells Stamets and his team about a tragedy that has befallen their sister ship the USS Glenn.
They were working on the same ‘project’ as the Discovery and so Stamets, Burnham, Tilly, and some modern-day red shirts head over to the Glenn to recover remaining scientific data. What they find there is more akin to a horror movie than Star Trek. Bodies mangled, the ship in darkness, and the remains of a Klingon raiding party who obviously befell the same fate as the crew… the whole sequence has a very Alien-esque feel to it. Especially considering there’s something moving in the darkness, just always outside of their eyeline. What is it? A massive slug-looking beast which makes short work of one remaining Klingon and quickly moves onto the boarding party. This is Burnham’s time to shine and she uses her lightning quick reflexes to distract the creature so that her team can get what they need and escape. As she jumps through a hatch in the shuttle’s roof and tells the pilot to “Go!” you can’t help but feel this is an action hero John McClane would be proud of.
The rest of the episode is pretty self-explanatory. Lorca wastes no time in convincing Burnham to stay aboard the Discovery to help them with their mission, which he reveals is about creating a new way to travel. We, and Burnham, know he’s not telling us everything (especially when it’s revealed that he’s secretly transported the creature aboard), but it’s a believable exchange which sees Burnham give a moving speech about living and dying by Starfleet’s principals and accepting her punishment. He obviously manages to talk her into serving Starfleet by staying and that’s wraps up everything rather nicely for the start of episode 4.
Despite the fact that there’s clearly many different cinematic influences on this episode, it uses them well - not to copy but to evolve the story of Star Trek. While it’s certainly unusual for a Trek series, it never feels out of place and instead leaves you feeling like you’re watching a truly brilliant new TV show - one which would work with or without the Trek name. At times the scientific terminology bogs it down a bit and is hard to follow, but its strength lies in its characters and the performances of its cast. Burnham especially, who felt a bit like an extreme caricature in the premiere, is given time to re-centre herself and become more believable and approachable, and no one we meet is forgettable or what they seem at first. If the premiere proved this isn’t your normal Star Trek TV show, episode 3 showed that it has the potential to be one of the best.