Season 1, Episode 3
Written by Gretchen J. Berg, Aaron Harberts, and Craig Sweeny
Directed by Akiva Goldsman
““Universal law is for lackeys. Context is for Kings.””
Warning: the following entry contains extreme fangeek gushing. Star Trek: Discovery creates the most nuanced set of main characters of any Star Trek series. Far from the almost laughably noble captains piloting former entries in the franchise, Discovery relies on a morally murky leader and Starfleet’s only mutineer to navigate this latest incarnation. We know we are traveling in new territory when Michael Burnham, sentenced to life in prison after her desperate actions in the two hour premiere, just happens to be transported aboard a brand-new flagship with a lot of secret and shady projects going on. Ostensibly a science vessel, this ship undergoes something called a “Black Alert” when the hush-hush science experiments go freaky sideways and create sparkly space critters where there should be no sparkly space critters.
Called to report to the ship’s captain for duty, Burnham encounters her former science officer as well as unveiled hostility from every fellow inmate or Starfleet crew member that she meets along the way. The universally antagonistic reunions suggest that Burnham will have to fight the attitudes of her crewmates as well as the usual villains this season. The show gets inclusivity points for positioning a special-needs cadet as Burnham’s new roommate. As a foil to Burnham’s stoic demeanor, Sylvia talks nonstop when she’s nervous, and she’s always nervous. Except when she snoring.
Immediately upon being given an assignment to make herself useful before continuing on to her new prison location, Burnham notices lots of hinky goings-on around the ship. Armed guards stand watch in front of locked doors; some of the crew members wear ominous looking black badges; and the crew won’t even tell her about the projects Burnham is actually working on because they require special clearance. Burnham eavesdrops as the head of engineering discusses one of his secret projects with a colleague/competitor on another ship. Some nefarious project is clearly afoot when the ship the colleague was on suffers a huge accident which wipes out the entire crew.
Jason Isaacs plays Captain Gabriel Lorca. Isaacs usually plays a heavy, and is best known for playing Draco Malfoy’s snaky father in the Harry Potter movies. He brings the smoky qualities that make him an excellent villain to this role. He manages to suggest a certain darkness in his character. That darkness dances front and center when Lorca uses the ultimate dictator justification for what he does – he is above the law. Lorca assigns Burnham to an away team, not to investigate the cause of the accident, but to bring back all of the classified tech the sister ship was working on. During the mission, the chief engineer explains to Burnham that some of the secret projects involve spores, which in a biological sense constitute the energetic building blocks of the universe. When the away team arrives at the ship, they find lots of mangled bodies. In the tradition of the Alien branch of the space-odyssey tree, the away team also discovers a creature. It seems that the scientists on the destroyed ship were experimenting with something quite a bit bigger than mushroom spores. That something eats Klingons and resembles a cross between a giant beetle and a Triceratops, and it chases them around.
Burnham manages to piss off the Triceratops beetle enough to lead it away from the other crew members. While quoting from Alice in Wonderland, she devises a plan to get herself and the other team members into the shuttle and away from the doomed ship. Her decisive and successful actions with the away team win her another meeting with Captain Lorca. He brought her on board the ship on purpose and put her on the away team as a form of double secret probation, to see how she might help him with the mysterious tasks of the ship. Burnham assumes that he is developing illegal bioweapons, and he needs an outlaw to help him with his plans. He repudiates that, and tells her that what he is really trying to develop is an organic propulsion system. The spores, he hopes, will someday form a web of living wormholes throughout the universe. The web will allow the Federation to move their ships around instantaneously. This will give them the edge they need to win the war with the Klingons.
The Federation granted Captain Lorca carte blanche in pursuing these aims. As we all know, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Though his explanation sounds perfectly plausible, Capt. Lorca’s personal study holds various alien specimens, like a kind of intergalactic taxidermy collection. Nothing says “creep” like a collection of corpses adorning the decor. Captain Lorca definitely seems like the kind of guy who loves the smell of napalm in the morning. Suspicions that he may not possess the greatest ethical guidance system persist when he scuttles the doomed science vessel. Those suspicions flare into full alarm level when the close of the episode reveals that Captain Lorca has captured the Klingon-munching Triceratops beetle and brought it on board his own ship and imprisoned it in his own quarters. In an aside, one crew member tells Burnham that the Discovery can conduct hundreds of science experiments at the same time. Though the mushroom spore highways may well constitute an important project, the giant bug seems much more likely to be the focus of Lorca’s work.
The Star Trek universe multiverse contains forerunners to Michael Burnham’s fish-out-of-water character on Discovery, Ensign Ro on NextGen, and B’elanna Torres on Voyager to name a couple. Those characters, however, were never in a position in which they held the moral high ground against a captain with very shaky ethics. Burnham, despite her mutinous history, is a do-gooder at heart. We don’t yet know what Lorca is, but do-gooder does not appear on the list of possibilities. In this way, Discovery sets up not only the external enemies in the Klingon war, but also the possibility that the greatest enemies to Burnham and her beliefs may be serving on the same ship. When Lorca invites her to join his crew, Burnham speaks about how even though it appears that she flouted everything the Federation stands for, she was actually trying to uphold those ideals when she mutinied. Lorca understands that about her. He wants her precisely because of her facility with lateral thinking. The possibility of what someone like Lorca could try to accomplish using a person of Burnham’s talents poses quite the thrilling scenario. How these two will clash and/or work together leads Star Trek: Discovery down a path where no Star Trek series has gone before. In the intervening years since the last Star Trek TV series closed up shop, the Star Trek multiverse has grown up.