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Star Trek: Discovery, season 1, episode 3 review: Context is for Kings

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A return to more traditional Trek

Michael Burnham aboard the U.S.S. Discovery Michael Gibson/CBS

Star Trek: Discovery’s third episode dealt with new levels of moral ambiguity, shadowy characters and science as a weapon, incorporating past Trek tropes while managing to remain fresh.

[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery’s first three episodes.]

The recurring theme that made itself most present during the third episode regarded ethical duties and moral ambiguities following Michael Burnham’s mutinous actions aboard the U.S.S Shenzou last week. Her decision to engage with the Klingon ship Starfleet stumbled upon led to the death of more than 8,000 people — including the death of her former captain, Georgiou. Transported aboard another Starfleet ship, the U.S.S. Discovery, Burnham is tasked with aiding the engineering team in their top secret mission, for which she isn’t given any details.

(L to R): Captain Lorca and Michael Burnham aboard the U.S.S. Discovery
(L to R): Captain Lorca and Michael Burnham aboard the U.S.S. Discovery
Michael Gibson/CBS

Under the strict orders of the Discovery’s captain, Captain Lorca, Burnham complies, but she’s stuck with this unwavering sense of doubt about what the team is up to. Burnham can’t trust the team she has been assigned to and doesn’t want to disobey the rank of command, leaving her in a confusing and ambiguous position. She’s not the only one, either. Lieutenant Saru, who has been promoted to First Officer aboard the Discovery, wants to use Burnham’s intelligence to help his captain but considers her a dangerous weapon. Burnham’s new direct officer, Lieutenant Stamets, wants to work without interruption on his scientific research, but takes qualms with the co-opting of his team’s discoveries for the purpose of war.

Discovery doesn’t operate within blacks and whites; everything is clouded in a thick fog of inescapable grey. It’s an endearing aspect to the series. At the height of a new war with an unfriendly species, Discovery doesn’t just paint situations and people as good or evil. Lorca wants to protect his Starfleet crew and is a proponent for giving Burnham a second chance; he’s also described as a warmongering, power-craving man whose ideals juxtapose those of Stamets’.

Rather than present a solid, infallible version of good and evil that people can align with, Discovery deals with the actualities of Starfleet’s current situation. The show doesn’t try to hide from the atrocities of war — of friends lost because of unfortunate predicaments or controversial decisions. Discovery isn’t disillusioned by the importance placed on engineering and scientists at this exact moment in time. Unlike other sci-fi series, Discovery embraces the logical irrationalities that come with war instead of trying to pretend it exists within a vacuum, capable of changing the rules of war just because it’s fictional.

The debate over ethical responsibility and moral ambiguity prevalent in the episode hits all of the markings of a good Star Trek series. At some point in their different series, Kirk, Picard, Sisko and Janeway all had to wrestle with the puzzle placed before them; even choosing to make unethical and reckless decisions because they believed it to be the only option at the time.

Anthony Rapp as Lieutenant Paul Stamets
Anthony Rapp as Lieutenant Paul Stamets
Michael Gibson/CBS

One thing that always made Star Trek stand out from the plethora of sci-fi shows and movies was its ability to make its characters feel extraordinarily ordinary in the most eventful of times. They’re human, even if the world they exist in is so fantastical and absurd that we know it couldn’t possibly be real. The stories are grounded in human decisions and the complex emotions that come along with irrationality. It’s when Star Trek is in its most frenzied state that its characters feel like people we know or imagine we could become ourselves.

Discovery’s third episode feels the most akin to what we’ve grown accustomed to with Star Trek, but there’s an undeniable uniqueness to the series that is welcomed. It’s not just that Discovery feels modern or “new,” but there’s an identity to Discovery that feels self-realized even in its infancy. Discovery isn’t floundering trying to figure out what it wants to be or do; the show has already demonstrated both.

I was excited for what Discovery could accomplish following its first two extravagant episodes, but the third episode has reassured me that it has enough vision to carry it for an entire season. The addition of Lorca, played wonderfully by Jason Isaacs, provides an intriguing character who I’m still unsure of whether to cautiously embrace or prepare for an inevitable betrayal.

There’s enough in Discovery that continues to intrigue and tease, but the third episode reiterated that it could do what we needed it to do from the very beginning — be a Star Trek show.

Star Trek: Discovery airs Sundays at 8:30 p.m. ET on CBS’ streaming service, All Access.