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'Star Trek: Discovery' recap: 'Context is for Kings'

For The Baltimore Sun

After the two fast-paced, high-intensity opening episodes of “Star Trek: Discovery,” the show grinds to a halt in the third episode as we are finally taken aboard the ship where we will spend most of our time.

This episode felt like another set-up episode after the last two, but this one was much harder to sit through, with awkward character introductions and hardly anything driving the story forward.

The episode begins six months after the events of the first two episodes. Michael Burnham, the mutineer, is being transferred to a mining colony with other nasty criminals.

We are quickly introduced to the evil dust that will surely serve as the major threat in the episode. The dust feeds on electricity and has the capability to shut down a ship if around for long enough. With their pilot sucked into the vacuum of space, the criminals begin to panic, save for Michael, who seems content with her imminent doom.

However, the USS Discovery immediately appears above the doomed ship. Talk about great timing. The ship looks older than the Enterprise but it is still sleek, with a unique ringed formation at the head. It is good to finally see the titular ship, regardless.

Through the other criminals’ observations we learn that the ship is a science vessel, with all of the “silver shirts” aboard. There is also something off-kilter going on, as one criminal points out the gun-wielding, black-badge-adorned officers.

As Michael steps into the commissary she recognizes a crew member from the Shenzhou, Kayla, with some shiny new cybernetic face jewelry.

Obviously everyone aboard the ship is wary of the only mutineer in the history of Starfleet. When Michael sits down with her criminal friends they immediately attack her and just as quickly get their rears kicked. It’s nice to see Michael has some hand-to-hand combat skills, but her fighting style does not seem appropriate to her frame as she twirls a grown man at least 40 pounds heavier than her around with one hand like a basketball. It is a slight qualm but it is definitely a pet peeve of mine.

The captain calls for Michael after she dispatches the criminals, and she and the even smaller, less intimidating chief of security, Landry, have a conversation about that fighting style Michael used.

After leaving the elevator she runs into a sour Lieutenant Saru, as it seems every survivor from the Shenzhou destruction has turned up on the Discovery. Either way, we are then introduced to Jason Isaacs as Captain Gabriel Lorca. The fortune-cookie-eating captain is quick to tell Michael what a peculiar case she is. Michael questions what she’s doing on the ship.

“Maybe the universe hates waste,” Lorca says.

Lorca wants Michael to use her quantum physics education to sort out a problem on deck, but Michael affirms that she still needs to pay the debt for her crime. Lorca insists that it isn’t a choice and puts her to work.

As Michael lays down in her quarters and regrets her life decisions, her roommate, Sylvia Tilly, enters the room. Tilly is wildly off put when she learns who Michael is. Then the ship goes into an alert mode and gravity starts getting a little weird.

“What the hell is going on on this ship,” Michael says to an unresponsive Tilly.

Saru is assigned to escort Michael around the ship. Apparently her time in prison has made her oddly detached and reflective about everything going on around her. Saru tells her she is assigned to engineering under Lieutenant Stamets (“Rent” alum Anthony Rapp).

Michael delivers a heartfelt apology to Saru, but Saru rebukes her, saying that Michael is dangerous and he is afraid of her.

“Captain Lorca is not a man who fears the things normal people fear, but I do, and I know you are someone to fear, Michael Burnham,” Saru says.

So Michael continues her miserable experience on this ship and walks into the engineering bay. The engineers are short and disrespectful to the mutineer. Stamets questions who assigned her here before immediately acknowledging that he knows Lorca sent her.

The whole introduction is confusing and unnatural. I hope it is part of Stamets’s character and not just bad writing, but I am inclined to believe the latter.

Michael identifies an error in the code and Stamets identifies her as a “lurker” following a weird conversation with some dude. Stamets gives Michael her leave before entering his secret laboratory with his breath identification. And yes, breath identification looks exactly as stupid as it sounds — why not just go with a standard eye scan, or hand print scan?

Well the answer is, because Michael can figure out how to fake someone’s breath for the next scene. If you didn’t think Michael was the kind of person who puts her own priorities over common sense or anyone around her from the first episodes, it is affirmed here, as she immediately goes into a top-secret facility in her first day out of prison. She blatantly lied to Saru when she said she wouldn’t make trouble, and for what reason? Because she is curious? Really? Well the fake breath gets her into the ship’s green room, which has a purpose to be discovered later.

Lorca learns that the Discovery’s sister ship has had an accident and he needs Stamets to affirm that the super secret project materials get transferred onto the Discovery. That dude who Stamets was talking to earlier died in the accident, so he is on edge about the whole thing. This edge is not aided by the insistence by Lorca that Michael come along to investigate the ship.

On the journey, Tilly apologizes for being so harsh to Michael and she literally says her character flaw is she cares too much about what people think. I wish more characters said there character traits as soon as we meet him, it saves us all of that pesky character development that hounds other shows.

Meanwhile, Stamets and Michael continue to clash.

Stamets then dumps a lot of exposition on Michael. He and the dude he was talking to earlier were co-workers in a lab, discovering where physics meets biology. They were researching the veins that hold the universe together. Then the war happened and they split the two up so they could work twice as fast for the cause, and Stamets’ friend is now dead. It is also clear that Stamets has a distaste for the militaristic Lorca.

“If Lorca wants you to be here, I’m afraid your intentions are less than moot,” Stamets warns.

The squad investigates the creepy ship with impressively mangled bodies. For all of the show’s flaws, the effects continue to impress. We get a quick sighting of some beast aboard the ship, as well as evidence of Klingons. A door isn’t shutting because severed legs and skinned bodies litter the ground. The show has definitely taken a welcome tonal shift into the horrific.

From out of the shadows steps a Klingon who is alive just long enough to shush the crew before being devoured by a quadrupedal monster.

Following a foot chase and a classic red shirt death, the crew uploads and gathers their data and cuts through a door. Michael distracts the beast and takes off on her own. As Michael crawls through the air ducts she recites a quote from Alice in Wonderland. She drops from the vent into the shuttle and they speed off.

Michael attends a meeting with Lorca where he and a tribble invite her to be a part of the Discovery crew. Well, the tribble had nothing to do with it but it was definitely there, much to the delight of “Star Trek” fans everywhere.

Michael refuses the invitation and calls out Lorca on his underhanded behavior. They are making an illegal, spore-based weapon aboard the Discovery and Lorca wants Michael because she doesn’t play by the books. Michael is also brilliant and aggressive. Unfortunately for Lorca, she does play by the books and wants to fulfill her debt she owes to Starfleet.

Lorca takes Michael down to engineering and locks her in a box. Lorca introduces the spores he is cultivating into the box.

“We aren’t creating a new way to kill we are creating a new way to fly,” Lorca says.

Lorca reveals that they are designing a way to travel through space and time through organic material that holds the universe together — the organic material Stamets was talking about earlier in the episode. This travel network could take ships and people in and out of a place in an instant.

“Universal laws are for lackeys, context is for kings,” Lorca says, commenting on Michael’s ability to take all factors into consideration before making decisions.

Michael takes the fortune cookie, symbolically agreeing to join the crew, and the prelude to the show is officially over. Now the meat of the show can begin.

The episode ends with Lorca and Landry talking in what I like to call “The Room of Easter Eggs.” The big cliffhanger is that Lorca beamed the monster from the other ship aboard the Discovery. Maybe Lorca isn’t the most trustworthy captain in “Star Trek’s” history.

While the foray into the massacred ship was effectively disturbing and claustrophobic, reminiscent of certain episodes of “Firefly,” the rest of the episode did nothing to entice me to this new ship and its crew.

“Star Trek,” in its nature, is an ensemble show and this new show feels like it will be almost entirely focused on Michael’s journey of redemption. Even if it isn’t, none of the characters stood out to me as particularly likeable or exciting. Captain Lorca feels like a straightforward shady authority figure. Stamets was an unreadable and confusing character. Saru continued to be overly cautious and hesitant. Even the chief of security feels like she is being forced to act tough.

The first two episodes established Michael as a loyal friend first, then as a Vulcan-like leader that makes brash decisions that she thinks are best. This episode doubled down on the Vulcan thing as she walked around most of this episode with dead eyes and a blank expression. I get that she is a hardened criminal now, but I wish that didn’t mean she lost her passion and emotion.

On a side note, I hope they introduce a character for comic relief, because there has not been a smile to be found.

After the strong opening episodes, this third one proved to be a disappointment to me. However, the setup is officially over as Michael is now a part of the Discovery crew and we have been introduced to the major characters whom we will be following. This might just have to be chalked up to early-season shakiness, and I am optimistic the show will find its footing as we get into the thick of it.

I hope the show follows a more episodic formula with the grander story moving along in the background, like “Doctor Who” or some old “Star Trek” shows. If the show does move on with the Michael-centric singular story it has used so far, at the very least, I hope it doesn’t shy away from the fun aspects of “Star Trek” that have made past incarnations so watchable.

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