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Star Trek: Discovery – Context is for Kings (Review)

Perhaps what is most surprising about Context is for Kings is just how conventional it is.

The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars were very much atypical episodes of Star Trek, an opening two-parter designed to demonstrate a lot of how Star Trek: Discovery would be different from the earlier series in the franchise. The two-parter introduced a new captain and a new ship, only to kill the captain and destroy the ship at the climax of the story. The primary character ended these opening two episodes as a disgraced mutineer, sentenced to life in prison.

In darkness dwells.

Although the two-parter was traditional in some respects, its structure was consciously designed to subvert a lot of the expectations of previous pilot episodes. Typically, Star Trek pilots find a new crew coming together in a way that sets the tone for the following series. In contrast, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars joined the Shenzhou at the end of its seven-year mission, and reduced it to floating wreckage. It was a subversive (if not entirely unpredictable) narrative decision, a clear attempt to contextualise Discovery as a modern television series.

All of this means, of course, that Context is for Kings finds itself cast in the role of a conventional Star Trek pilot. In many ways, Context is for Kings is clearly intended as reassurance that Discovery is still fundamentally Star Trek, in spite of the tweaks and alterations that have been made to the framework of the series.

Seeding the future.

Context is for Kings is hardly subtle about its position as a de facto pilot for Discovery. Most obviously, this is the first episode of Discovery in which the eponymous starship appears. The only reference to the Discovery in The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars was as a blueprint graphic in the opening credits. The bulk of the action in The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars unfolded on the U.S.S. Shenzhou, under the command of Captain Phillipa Georgiou.

In fact, the absence of the Discovery from The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars was a significant hint that the Shenzhou would not be sticking around as the central focus of the series. The naming conventions of the later franchise series, like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise, all made a point to include the name of the ship in their title. Indeed, the introductory teaser for Discovery made a point to feature on the eponymous starship rather than the Shenzhou.

A new Discovery.

There were other metatextual elements that signalled The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars would serve as an extended ninety-minute prologue to the fifteen-episode season that followed. Michelle Yeoh was a “special guest star.” Four members of the regular cast – Shazad Latif, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, and Jason Isaacs – were entirely absent from the two-parter. Even the season order count for Discovery seems to slyly wink at the reality; a standard prestige-television order of thirteen episodes, with two more tacked on for good measure.

Context is for Kings jumps ahead six months from the end of The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars and makes a point to introduce a host of elements that will likely continue across the bulk of the season. The episode introduces the Discovery itself with a sequence that evokes the traditional “shuttle fly-by” that featured in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Caretaker, Broken Bow and (retroactively in) All Good Things… The episode introduces three of the four series regulars absent from The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars. It also clarifies Michael Burnham’s status quo.

A captive audience.

The production team have acknowledged this function of Context is for Kings. Actor Jason Isaacs conceded that this distinct structure was a result of the creative freedoms that came with Discovery‘s unique position as the first Star Trek series of the prestige era:

Back when I was first offered the job there were only three scripts written and they sent those to me. They said, “Just a few things: one, the show is not about the captain. Two, you’re not in the first two scripts. And three, ignore the third script, they’re going to rewrite it.” I went, “OK…. That’s really not a lot to go by,” but then I met them and chatted a couple of times, and decided to go for it.

That’s one of the great benefits of being able to tell a story over 15 hours. You can have essentially what’s a two-hour prologue, Episode 1 and 2. So Episode 3 really feels like the pilot, [because] for the very first time you meet the family and the ship that Burnham’s going to be on for a long time, and the story really gets under way. You could never do that if you were doing weekly episodes that have to return to zero every week.

It is an interesting formalist experiment, one that demonstrates the potential to stretch the narrative boundaries that had long existed on television and which had served to fence in the earlier Star Trek series. Even Deep Space Nine would never have been able to be quite this bold.

“Oh, you’re laughing now. In ten years EVERYBODY will be wearing colours like this.”

One of the big recurring tensions within Discovery is the tug-of-war that exists between the expectations of a classic Star Trek series and the possibilities of a rapidly evolving medium. This tension is not unexpected. The Star Trek series that actually pushed the franchise forward often found themselves struggling to find the right balance between the expectations of the fan base and the shifting realities of contemporary televisual storytelling. This is inevitably a process of reinvention, and it is inevitably quite bumpy.

Star Trek: The Next Generation took a few years to strike that balance between the established template and the demands of contemporary audiences. The Next Generation hit its stride when it figured out how to carefully balance the broad allegorical storytelling of its predecessor with a more nuanced character-driven storytelling than would have been possible within the context of the sixties. Although the storytelling employed by The Next Generation has clearly aged since initial broadcast, it did represent a bold departure from the Star Trek template.

Life during wartime.

The same is certainly true of Deep Space Nine, which took the more character-focused narrative template of The Next Generation and wed it to a more serialised structure. Although this approach paid dividends in the final four seasons of the series, Deep Space Nine occasionally struggled to find the right balance between its large-scale storytelling and the expectations of a Star Trek series. These tensions were most obvious during the troubled third season, which was a conscious period of experimentation and reinvention.

That tension is quite apparent in Discovery, which spends its first three episodes trying to wed familiar Star Trek archetypes to modern television storytelling. Indeed, the two pilots seem to exist to split the difference between what Star Trek fans expect of the franchise, and what contemporary audiences demand of high-quality television. The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars offers Star Trek fans a very conventional ship and crew in a somewhat unconventional story, while Context is for Kings introduces a very unconventional crew in a very conventional Star Trek story.

Drifting into familiar territory.

In terms of plot, Context is for Kings is very much boilerplate Star Trek. The episode is populated with familiar ideas and concepts that are executed in a conventional manner. The basic plot of the episode involves a mysterious disaster on board another Federation ship, the Glenn. The Discovery is dispatched on a mission of investigation and recovery. Complications inevitably ensue, with the away team thrown into mortal peril as it gradually becomes clear what exactly happened to the ship and the crew.

Context is for Kings is stitched together like a Frankenstein’s monster of familiar Star Trek storytelling conventions, as if eager to prove that Discovery will still be driven by the same storytelling logic as the previous Star Trek series. In fact, Context is for Kings feels very specifically like the sort of generic stories that the other Star Trek shows would tell early in their runs. It is very much the kind of broad and simple narrative that affords the writing staff the opportunity to get a grasp of the regular characters while establishing tone.

“Would you like to see The Cage that I have set up in The Menagerie?”

Indeed, Context is for Kings owes a lot to the second pilot of the original Star Trek. At its core, Where No Man Has Gone Before was the story of an experiment gone horribly wrong; an example of the dangers awaiting Starfleet as they tried to push the boundaries of knowledge. This carried over to the spin-off series. The second episode of The Next Generation was The Naked Now, an episode built around the investigation of a derelict starship with a dead crew. The second episode of Enterprise was Fight or Flight, in which the crew encountered a gory murder scene.

In fact the final scene of the episode is arguably even an extended visual reference to The Cage, the first (unaired) Star Trek pilot. It is revealed that Lorca keeps an exotic laboratory at the bottom of the starship, a macabre alien zoo decorated with Gorn skeletons, dead voles and other galactic delights. Context is King closes with the reveal of the latest addition to that menagerie. The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s Cry heavily implies that Lorca is conducting illegal and immoral experiments in order to further the war against the Klingons.

Don’t force the issue.

(This is hardly subtle, but it is another strong suggestion that Lorca is very much an antagonistic figure. In the closing scene of Context is for Kings, Lorca is occupying the same narrative space as the Talosians in The Cage. The Talosians kept aliens in captivity for their own experiments and delight. Lorca is doing something similar. It is a very nice allusion back to the history of the franchise, an interesting piece of context that anchors Discovery very firmly in the history and iconography of Star Trek.)

Even beyond its rough adherence to the familiar “cautionary tale about the boundaries of knowledge” theme that tends to pop up early in any given Star Trek series, Context is for Kings recalls any number of other familiar Star Trek concepts. The idea of a propulsion experiment gone horribly wrong recalls stories like Where No One Has Gone Before, New Ground, Threshold. The story of a disaster unfolding on a “sister ship” in order to justify the use of standing sets evokes stories like The Tholian Web, Where Silence Has Lease, Empok Nor.

A berry bad idea.

(Context is for Kings owes quite a lot to Empok Nor, both in terms of its story elements and in terms of its tone. The visit to the Glenn is quite consciously framed as a horror story, with strobe lighting and grotesque bodies complete with a killer monster. This could be seen as a nod to Discovery creator Bryan Fuller; Empok Nor was Fuller’s second television credit. Fuller is credited on the story for Context is for Kings, but it seems quite clear that his influence over Discovery will slow ebb away over the course of the season.)

Indeed, Context is for Kings marks a conscious effort to contextualise Discovery in terms of the original iteration of the Star Trek franchise. Context is for Kings is quite consciously pitched as something of a horror story, a nightmarish reminder that space is not a welcoming (or even predictable) environment. Despite its focus on the politics of the Klingon Empire, Discovery does not unfold against the relatively stable political landscape explored in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Instead, there is a sense that space is inherently scary.

Feeding time.

In the teaser, the shuttle craft is attacked by “species GS54. An organism that feeds on electricity.” It is a strange organism, an alien species that is quite clearly not humanoid and which may not even be sentient. Instead, it seems to wander the cosmos and prey upon unsuspecting crews. Burnham helpfully warns her fellow passengers, “Unless the pilot can get rid of the infestation fast enough, they’ll drain us of all of our power. And we’ll drift until our oxygen runs out or we freeze to death.”

This is a reminder that space is dangerous in a very fundamental and existential manner. This point is reinforced when the away team discovers the corpses on board the Glenn. The bodies of the Starfleet crews seem to have been turned inside out, victims of a “helical trauma” that recalls the “spiral markings” on the ship’s hull that denote “evidence of catastrophic basidiosac rupture.” These officers were killed by the very act of flying, a plot point that evokes space horror stories like Event Horizon. However, their trip also brought something back, something that mangles Klingon bodies.

Watered down.

All of this is very much in keeping the tone and aesthetic of the original Star Trek series, albeit with a bit more graphic content. The original Star Trek suggested that the cosmos was populated by mysterious and horrific aliens; “GS54” recalls space-bound predators like the vampire cloud from Obsession or the eponymous light source in The Lights of Zetar. However, there are countless other examples; the all-powerful aliens in Charlie X and The Squire of Gothos, the salt vampire in The Man Trap, the parasites in Operation — Annihilate!, the space amoeba in The Immunity Syndrome.

As McCoy warned Kirk in the rebooted Star Trek, “Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.” Indeed, some of the later Star Trek series would try to emulate this approach with mixed results. Early episodes of The Next Generation like Encounter at Farpoint and Datalore tried to recapture that space-bound weirdness. Voyager would commit more thoroughly with episodes like The Cloud or Bliss. Indeed, Brannon Braga would work hard to bring retro horror to Star Trek in episodes like Genesis, Sub Rosa, Cathexis, Macrocosm, Darkling. The mangled bodies even evoke Scorpion, Part I.

Bent out of shape.

As such, this emphasis on space as something dark and mysterious is very much in keeping with the aesthetic of a Star Trek prequel series. Outside of the original Star Trek, this sense of space as home to Lovecraftian horrors was most strongly evoked through the nostalgia of Voyager and Enterprise. The attempt to reintroduce space-based horror to the franchise in episodes like Phage and Vox Sola represented a clear attempt to recapture something that the production team felt had been lost in portrayal of space exploration in series like The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.

By its nature, Discovery finds itself caught in the gravity of the same nostalgia that informed so much of Voyager, Enterprise and the JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot. It is a prequel series, yet another return to the iconography of the “classic” and “archetypal” iteration of the franchise that is populated with all manner of references and in-jokes. After all, Context is for Kings makes a point to name-drop Amanda Grayson and to remind audience members that Michael Burnham is the half-sister of the iconic character of Commander Spock.

“Be very quiet. We’re hunting tardigrades.”

As ever, there is something faintly disappointing in all of this; the acknowledgement that it seems impossible for modern film and television to imagine a bold new futures, popular culture seems confined to replaying nostalgic memories of futures past. Even in Context is for Kings, the acknowledgement of Amanda Grayson and the rather pointed attempt to avoid the name “Spock” feels a little too contrived and unnatural. It is a winking nod, an oh-so-clever fan in-joke that recalls the behind the scenes contortions to get the name “Spock” into Sarek during the third season of The Next Generation.

(After all, the dialogue is constructed in such a strange manner to avoid saying the word “Spock.” Burnham tells Tilly, “When I was a kid, after my parents were killed my foster mother on Vulcan used to read it to me and her son. She and I were the only humans in the house.” The production team has confirmed that the dialogue in the first season will not directly reference the original characters, but it does lead to a strange dissonance. What is Burnham’s evasion of the word “Spock” but awkward fanservice, a winking nod to those who “get” it? How many audience members will never know Burnham is related to Spock?)

Resting on continuity.

However, at the same time, there is an interesting dynamic at play. Discovery is not just exploring or exhuming the past. It is also reinventing it. It is almost impossible to reconcile the aesthetic of Discovery with that of the original Star Trek, a television series unfolding in a version of the same world that is supposedly a decade more technologically advanced. Of course, the original Star Trek is in many casual ways less advanced than the modern world. The twenty-first century may not have warp drive or transporters, but it does have holograms and touch screens.

One of the big arguments among fandom is the debate about what timeline into which Discovery might fit, whether it is “of a piece” with the continuity of the original Star Trek or whether it belongs to another alternate history. Fandom tends to label these alternate interpretations of the franchise; the “Prime” timeline that runs from The Cage to Star Trek: Nemesis, the “Kelvin” timeline that was created with the de facto time travel reboot in JJ Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek universe.

Continuity wars.

This argument over continuity is such an important part of the meta-text around Discovery that even the production team have had weigh in. One of the first things that Bryan Fuller confirmed about the series was that “it is in the prime timeline.” Akiva Goldsman confirmed, “This is the prime universe.” Inevitably, fandom has devoted a lot of time and energy to arguing whether it is really possible to integrate Discovery with the rest of the Star Trek canon, particularly with with the original series broadcast in the late sixties.

The answer is quite obvious. It is impossible to completely integrate Discovery with the original Star Trek, just as it is impossible to integrate the original Star Trek with The Motion Picture. The original Star Trek was never a documentary beamed back in time from the twenty-third century. It was a product of sixties television production. As a result, it is impossible for a piece of twenty-first century television to feel entirely “of a piece” with it, in the same way it is impossible to expect Andy Serkis’ Caesar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes to look like Cornelius from Planet of the Apes.

More like Starfleet (in)security, am I right?

Fans looking to make sense of these aesthetic differences in terms of canon and continuity have any number of possible justifications for this change within the shared universe. The original Star Trek could be treated as a Watsonian interpretation of this fictional history, filtered through the limitations of sixties television. (Gene Roddenberry himself suggested as much, insisting that Klingons always had ridges.) Beyond that, the timeline could have branched or forked at some point; after all, Kirk changed his employer and his middle initial over the course of the first season of Star Trek.

More overtly, Star Trek: First Contact provides a nice possible branching point. After all, Enterprise is as much a sequel to First Contact as a prequel to Star Trek, and it is tempting to look at Discovery as a sequel to Enterprise in terms of production design – and the characterisation of the Klingons. Even in terms of the larger meta-text, First Contact marks a turning point in the larger Star Trek franchise. Released during the franchise’s thirtieth anniversary season, First Contact effectively marked the point at which the franchise began to look backwards, a trend continued through Voyager and Enterprise.

Drawn in, mate.

Regardless of these niggling continuity questions, and this desire to fit everything together like a dusty fifty-year-old jigsaw puzzle, Discovery is as much about reinventing the past as reliving it. And that is important. After all, Star Trek fans looking for a perfectly-preserved recreation of the Berman era need look no further than The Orville, which panders so aggressively to nostalgia that it might as well be embalmed. More than that, The Orville serves as a perfect counterpoint to Discovery, a cautionary tale about the dangers of remaining stuck in the past as the future marches on.

Memory is a funny thing. After all, the very act of remembering something inevitably overwrites the original memory; every time that the human brain draws up an old memory, it places a new emphasis on certain parts of the record and then the narrative is written back into memory. Although people like to think of their own histories as solid and foundational, the truth is that memory is a much more elastic construct and identity is in many ways just as fungible. Discovery is a remembrance of Star Trek history, albeit one where the emphasis shifts in the recollection.

Playing bridge.

Discovery suggests an aesthetic of a Star Trek that never was, capturing the look and feel of what sixties Star Trek might look like were it reimagined today. Bryan Fuller candidly acknowledged as much in discussing his approach to Discovery, describing the series as a “reimagining” of the franchise:

“One of the touchstones for the inspiration is we were looking at what is going to be the feel and aesthetic of a new Star Trek series?” said Fuller. “I think J.J. Abrams, in the 2009 movie, really launched a fantastic reimagining of what Star Trek could be in that Kelvin timeline. And so as we were looking to have something distinct about what our Star Trek was going to look [like], we looked back at — there was an abandoned Star Trek series in the ’70s. It was actually for a movie. And Ralph McQuarrie had done some wonderful illustrations, and we saw those and saw sort of harder lines of a ship and started talking about race cars and Lamborghinis in the ’70s and James Bond cars and started working on the designs, taking those inspirations and coming up with something completely unique to us.”

Even the design of the Discovery itself evokes this sense of reimagining and reinventing history. The design is drawn from a hazy memory of the franchise’s past. Even casual fans might recognise the design from sketches and web links. There’s just one complication; it is a memory of something that never was.

Titan.

The Discovery looks like Ralph McQuarrie’s never-used design for a new version of the Enterprise for the aborted Star Trek film Planet of the Titans. Indeed, Planet of the Titans was just one of several attempts to resurrect the Star Trek franchise during the late seventies, attempts that would culminate in the release of The Motion Picture at the end of the decade. In some ways, the seventies could be seen as the Star Trek franchise’s “lost decade”, a period of failed relaunches and squandered potential. It is an interregnum in the meta-text of Star Trek franchise.

Tellingly, the only Star Trek spin-off produced during the seventies still lingers in relative obscurity. Star Trek: The Animated Series has always existed with an asterisks next to it. According to Richard Arnold, Gene Roddenberry did not think of The Animated Series as part of the shared continuity. D.C. Fontana has ruminated on the absurdity that a large portion of her contributions to the franchise are deemed not to be part of its continuity. Star Trek fans still argue about whether the series belongs as part of the “canon” or exists outside it.

Bringing it back.

Of course, there has been a conscious effort to rehabilitate The Animated Series, to coax it gently back into continuity. In particular, Deep Space Nine did a lot of work to drag the series back into the “canon”; Garak referenced Edosian orchids in Broken Link, Worf made reference to Vulcan’s Forge in Change of Heart, the Vulcan city of Shikara was used as a ship name in Tears of the Prophets, Kor mentioned the Klothos by name in Once More Unto the Breach. Later releases, whether Enterprise, the remastered Star Trek or the rebooted Star Trek, have made similar references to The Animated Series.

In fact, Discovery draws quite heavily on The Animated Series. Bryan Fuller acknowledged a fondness for the character of M’Ress, even teasing the possibility of resurrecting her for Discovery. At the climax of Context is for Kings, Michael begins quoting Alice in Wonderland while being chased by the tardigrade. At the end of the episode, she explains to Cadet Tilly that her mother (“Amanda”) would read the book to her as a child. This is a nod to the animated episode Once Upon a Planet, in which Spock similarly recalled his mother’s affection for Lewis Carroll.

In a strange Landry.

Although the seventies was a rather complicated time for the Star Trek franchise, it cast a long shadow over the iterations that followed. As Don Kaye notes, the aborted Phase II television series became part of the fabric of the franchise, even though none of it ever actually made it to screen:

The DNA of Star Trek: Phase II could be found in succeeding iterations of the franchise through Star Trek: Voyager. The basic foundations of the Phase II sets were kept in place and used for the movies and portions of the next three TV series, with the underlying structures finally changed in 2001 for Star Trek: Enterprise. Aspects of the young Vulcan science officer Xon showed up in Lieutenant Saavik in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and even the android Data, while the one-time romantic partners Decker and Ilia transformed into The Next Generation’s Riker and Troi. Even certain elements of the Klingons that were first explored in a Phase II script called Kitumba found their way into the franchise later on. Of course, as we mentioned earlier, the idea of a Paramount TV network finally came to fruition in 1995 with UPN and Star Trek Voyager.

Even beyond the seventies, there is a sense that Discovery is actively trying to reconcile various Star Trek discontinuities. The production team have acknowledged the influence of writer John F. Ford on Fuller’s interpretation of the Klingons, despite the fact that Ford’s tie-in novels are out of continuity.

Doug in deep.

The result is that Discovery feels very much like a strange synthesis of Star Trek, a streamlined memory that incorporates and reconciles various aspects of the franchise, whether those aspects were ever technically part of the canon or not. Indeed, it is easy to see how this approach might integrate smoothly into Fuller’s original plans for an anthology television series. Unfolding across the length and breadth of the Star Trek canon, Discovery might offer the opportunity to build a synthesis of everything that Star Trek had been or ever could be.

In this context, with Discovery feeling more like a hazy memory of Star Trek never-weres more than like Star Trek itself. In keeping with this weird warped sixties and seventies revisionism, it feels entirely appropriate that Context is for Kings should reveal that the Discovery itself is powered by a mystical fungus. Context is for Kings introduces the character of Paul Stamets. In plot terms, Paul Stamets fills the role usually reserved for the Chief Engineer; he runs the engines, he is a little socially awkward, he provides technobabble. However, Stamets is not an engineer.

Engineering a solution.

Stamets is a mycologist. He is an expert in fungus. He is named in honour of a real-life astromycologist. The fictional Paul Stamets believes that it is possible to navigate the cosmos using fungal spores, using what might be described as “a somewhat freewheeling bastardization of string theory.” The logic behind the pseudo-science of Discovery is questionable at best, but the symbolism is clear as dayThe real-life Paul Stamets is a proponent of magic mushrooms. (Fuller also used his name as a mushroom-themed killer in Hannibal.) Asked to comment on the futuristic tech of Discovery, he cheekily replied, “Some magic mushrooms help you bend time and space.”

The original Star Trek and The Next Generation seemed to suggest that the final frontier lay ahead of mankind, in the infinite vastness of space. Voyager and Enterprise sadly insisted that the frontier lay behind mankind, in the retreat to the familiar. Deep Space Nine and Discovery make a different point, arguing that the final frontier exists within mankind. Like Deep Space Nine, Discovery seems to be suggesting that the path to true knowledge lies in an individual understanding and evaluating themselves. At the end of The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry, Georgiou advises Burnham, “My hope is that you will use it to continue to investigate the mysteries of the universe, both inside and out.”

Eye, eye sir.

Discovery returns time and time again to the image of the eye, to the idea of perception. The opening shot of The Vulcan Hello pulled back from a final frontier that seemed to be contained within T’Kuvma’s pupil. When Burnham first meets Captain Lorca in Context is for Kings, he stands with his back to her. The first shot of Lorca’s face focuses on his eyes. In a somewhat heavy-handed piece of symbolism, Lorca helpfully explains, “Forgive the lighting, or lack thereof. Recent battle injury. There’s nothing they can do if I wanna keep my own eyes, and I do. I have to suffer light change slowly.”

Perception and freedom are powerful recurring themes in Discovery. The continuity-breaking aspects of the fungus-drive aside, it is worth noting that the Discovery fundamentally shatters the concept of Star Trek. It is an engine that allows the Discovery to travel anywhere in an instant. In Context is for Kings, Lorca discusses how the drive allowed the Glenn to jump to the Beta Quadrant at regular intervals. In The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s Cry, Lorca explains that the engine could allow the ship to jump directly into orbit of the Klingon homeworld.

A healthy glow.

The fungus drive allows the ship to go anywhere at any time without any travel time. It puts the entire quadrant (if not the galaxy or the universe) at the fingertips of the crew, meaning that their journey does not follow an outward linear trajectory in the style of Star Trek or The Next Generation. Indeed, the spores even allow an individual to cross the cosmos in an instant. “Blink, you’re in Ilari. Blink, the moons of Andoria. Blink, you missed Romulus.” Even the way that the sequence is shoot – with bright colours, soft focus, lots of movement – evokes a different sort of trip.

The mushrooms suggest a trip inwards rather than outwards, a more existential voyage of discovery than a literal trek to the stars. One of Discovery‘s most frequently recurring motifs is the idea of freedom and captivity; the image of Burnham in her cell at Battle at the Binary Stars is mirrored in the sequence of Lorca approaching the tardigrade at the end of Context is for Kings. In Context is for Kings, Burnham is brought on to Discovery as a convict and Lorca’s menagerie suggests that he is a a man who likes to keep things in cages.

A tough cell.

Some of these traps are not literal, but metaphorical or symbolic. The Vulcan Hello is predicated on a trap set by the Klingons, the tragic irony of Burnham’s mutiny is that her betrayal of Georgiou did nothing to actually change the flow of events, although she could never know that. In Context is for Kings, Paul Stamets laments the fact that his research has been weaponised against his will. Even the reaction chamber looks like a prison cell, the kind of glass cell popularised by Silence of the Lambs. It too becomes a cage in The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s Cry.

Staring out into space, Lorca muses, “No matter how deep in space you are, I always feel like you can see home. Don’t you think? Maybe it’s just me.” As with the other Star Trek series, Discovery is hardly subtle in its imagery. After all, The Vulcan Hello introduced Burnham and Georgiou literally lost on the surface of an alien world, perhaps reflecting the franchise’s own perceived lack of direction. Discovery has repeatedly established that it is very much a series about trying to find a way “home” for Star Trek, where “home” is more a state of mind than a literal place.

Nothing is beneath him.

Preemptively engaging with criticisms of its tone or its perceived cynicism, the series rather consciously writes darkness into its scripts. Lorca acknowledges that his aversion to light establishes him as “mysterious”, although the adjective “sinister” is perhaps more applicable. In The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s Cry, Burnham correctly deduces that she can control the tardigrade by manipulating the light levels in the menagerie. Discovery finds strength in the light, but is wary of the monsters hiding in the darkness. Lorca seems like one of those monsters.

There is a clear sense that Discovery is a fundamentally broken ship. Indeed, one of the primary narrative functions of The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars was to portray a health dynamic among the senior staff, a baseline against which the dysfunction in Context is for Kings might be measured. “Tilly, what the hell is going on on this ship?” Burnham challenges Tilly. She is talking about the experiments and the “black alert”, but she may as well be talking about the ship’s core crew.

A bridge too far.

Lorca is a captain who describes himself as “mysterious” and who lurks in darkness. While other commanding officers tend to make their home in the ready room at the top of the ship, Lorca seems to spend almost as much time in his secret laboratory at the bottom of the ship. Saru has the capacity to detect danger. Stamets is confrontational and belligerent. Tilly seems to constantly be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. This is not a healthy ship. This is not a functional ship. That would seem to be the entire point.

Discovery is very much about a journey towards a more conventional form of Star Trek, even though that journey is not measured in lightyears or warp factors. Even with a ship that can go anywhere, there is a sense that it is still lost. This paradox is reflected in Burnham’s closing reflection, “Sometimes down is up. Sometimes up is down. Sometimes, when you’re lost, you’re found.” Burnham has obviously been “found” by Lorca, but there is a deeper sense that Lorca himself (and maybe the entire ship or the entire Federation) is fundamentally lost.

No code of conduct.

Like a lot of Star Trek before it, the militarisation of Starfleet hangs heavily over Discovery. In Battle at the Binary Stars, Connor lamented that he joined Starfleet to be an explorer rather than a soldier. This is a theme carried over from Star Trek Into Darkness just as surely as all those shots of dangerous creatures locked away behind transparent force fields. Star Trek has often wrestled with the question of whether Starfleet could be anything but a military, in spite of Picard’s vocal objections in Peak Performance.

That conflict is embodied in the character of Stamets. During the recovery mission to the Glenn, he confesses, “I became an astromycologist because of awe. Awe at the miracle of life. I met Straal, and we formed a partnership. We would get to the veins and muscles that hold our galaxies together. We would find truth. And we were happy in our lab, then your war started, and Starfleet co-opted our research. They split us up, put us in charge of different teams, so we could work twice as fast. Not for truth, or to further Starfleet’s mission statement of diplomacy and exploration, but for war.”

What a fun-gi!

There is a sense that something is fundamentally broken on board the Discovery and the Glenn, that something rotten has taken root in the dark corridors and behind the black comm badge. Stamets articulates the same anxieties expressed by Scotty in Into Darkness and by Connor in Battle at the Binary Stars. He continues, “Now my friend and his colleagues are dead because of our research. And I have to live with that, but if you think I’m okay handing my life’s work over to that warmonger Lorca, you’re wrong.”

All of this overlap with Into Darkness cannot help but raise another spectre. Is it possible that Lorca is working for Section 31? “You ever seen a black badge before?” one of the prisoners asks early in Context is for Kings, suggesting that there is something strange about the ship’s hierarchy. However, any reveal about Lorca and Section 31 would inevitably be disappointing, using Section 31 as a convenient scapegoat to avoid implicating Starfleet in anything too untoward.

Back in black.

This is been a problem with the very concept of Section 31 since Inquisition revealed that Sloan wasn’t working for Starfleet Intelligence and answered (or reported) to nobody in the Starfleet chain of command. To be fair, later episodes like Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges and The Dogs of War pointed out the hypocrisy of this conceptual divide, although stories like Affliction and Divergence (and Into Darkness) tended to breeze past it. If Discovery wants to be a story about the dark side of Starfleet, it needs to commit sincerely to that core premise.

Context is for Kings introduces the character of Gabrial Lorca, who is a fascinating creation. Lorca is an intriguing character on a purely conceptual level, a void at the heart of Discovery. He is captain of the eponymous starship, but is not the main character. In fact, Jason Isaacs is conspicuously credited with an “… and …” credit that places him squarely outside the regular cast. More than that, Lorca is the commanding officer of the eponymous ship, but is only introduced in the third episode of the series.

A whole Lorca lovin’ goin’ on.

Lorca is quite explicitly a military man, a character very much in the tradition of Admiral Layton from Homefront and Paradise Lost or Admiral Marcus from Into Darkness or Captain Balthazar Edison from Star Trek Beyond. Indeed, Isaacs even carefully chose his character’s accent based on that assumption:

I had no interest in being English and being a very pale shadow of the brilliant Patrick Stewart [Capt. Jean-Luc Picard on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”]. I just wanted to do something that would make it interesting for the audience, and new and fresh. I hadn’t heard a captain who sounded like this. And he’s a military man, but he can be immensely charming. I’ve been privileged enough to work with the [U.S. Army] Rangers at Fort Benning, and no matter where you come from in America, if you train down South where most of the bases are, you pick up some form of a Southern accent. And I wanted something that had subliminal hints at the military.

Lorca is very clearly a different breed of commanding officer than the lead characters in the Berman era. He is not a diplomat like Picard, not a builder like Sisko, not a scientist like Janeway, not a pilot like Archer. Lorca is a soldier through and through, a man of strategy and tactics.

Once spore unto the breach…

Lorca is also, quite explicitly, a threat. Context is for Kings makes it perfectly clear that Lorca is not a good guy. He lurks in darkness. He shouts at his officers. He reminds the crew that his ship is “not a democracy.” (Reportedly, Isaacs’ rejected catch phrase was “git’r done.”) Landry is clearly devoted to Lorca. Saru describes Lorca as “a man who does not fear the things normal people fear.” In many ways, Lorca seems like a mirror to T’Kuvma from The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars, a trigger-happy leader with a cult of personality who seeks to impose his own will on the universe.

Conceptually, Lorca seems like a challenge to some of the core underlying assumptions of Star Trek, tying back into that core tension at the heart of Starfleet. Lorca is the living embodiment of Starfleet as a military body, and an explicit challenge to the idea of Starfleet as a scientific organisation. The Star Trek franchise has long fetishised military protocol and procedure, reflected in everything from the prefix “U.S.S.” to the fanbase’s obsession with insignia to the heavy emphasis on military officers in the primary cast of every series except Deep Space Nine.

Engines of destiny.

This fascination with military protocol and structures is in many ways an underacknowledged legacy of Gene Roddenberry, one that stands in stark contrast to his reputation as a utopian idealist. Roddenberry’s fascination with military procedure was undoubtedly inspired by his own service, and can be seen in many of his scripts: the court martial framing device of The Menagerie, Part I and The Menagerie, Part II; the attention to pomp and ceremony on welcoming space!Lincoln to the Enterprise in The Savage Curtain; the interminable inquiry scenes in Turnabout Intruder.

It should be noted, of course, that this military context is part of the fabric and texture of Star Trek. Many of the key creative personnel working on the original Star Trek had served during the Second World War, including Gene Roddenberry and Gene L. Coon. In a way, this enriched the subtext of the series. The original Star Trek was an optimistic glimpse of the future written by a generation that had endured the most brutal conflict in human history. Just like the in-universe utopia of the Federation was built from the ashes of the Eugenics Wars and the Third World War, so was Star Trek built from the Second World War.

All he can Stamets ’til he can’t Stamets no more.

This is an important aspect of Star Trek. It was a hopeful future built by people who had lived through horrific events. In some ways, Discovery uses its position as a prequel to build that outside context more explicitly into the fabric of the shared universe. Placing a horrific and destructive conflict within living memory of the original Star Trek is a way of narrativising this piece of franchise history. Indeed, a lot of the power of Discovery comes from the promise that a utopian future is waiting at the end of this prequel, but it involves bringing the military fetishism at the heart of the franchise to the fore.

Lorca is the logical extrapolation of this strand of Star Trek. Lorca is established as an existential dilemma for Star Trek, one that is very clearly framed in the context of Michael Burnham’s mutiny in The Vulcan Hello. Is it most important to follow orders and to preserve the chain of command and standard operating procedure? Or is it more important to do the right thing? Star Trek has largely avoided this issue by presenting its central characters as competent and well-intentioned; even in their darkest moments, Sisko and Janeway still try to do the right thing. Lorca challenges that assumption.

Love means never having to say that you’re Saru.

Indeed, Isaacs tends to see Lorca as a twisted reflection of the franchise’s very first commanding officer, as a very skewed interpretation of James Tiberius Kirk:

I think in this tradition of Star Trek captains and these alpha males who rise to the top, he’s got a taste for the good life and he’s got an eye for his female officers. I don’t know that that’s going to work with Burnham very well, frankly. She doesn’t look like she’s up for that kind of thing, but him and Landry certainly have a relationship that goes beyond, I would think, work. But that’s how I played my scenes with all the women on board, whether or not the writers were on board with that. By the way, that’s my tribute to Shatner. I always thought, as much as the original series was born out of the civil rights struggle and the birth of feminism, some of that was [infused with a feeling of] James Bond. It was clear Captain Kirk had his way with any member of the micro-skirted crew members he wanted, so that was my subtle tribute to him. I’m playing that, even if it’s inside my head.

To be fair, Isaacs is somewhat exaggerating Kirk’s womanising, Dagger of the Mind aside. However, he is engaging with the pop culture memory of Kirk.

A (cyber)net gain.

After all, the popular memory of Captain Kirk is that of a charming rogue who played by his own rules. That is not entirely accurate to the original series, in which Kirk was also consistently portrayed as level-headed and introspective, but it has bled out into the popular consciousness. This interpretation of Kirk informs all manner of tributes, from the character of Zapp Brannigan in Futurama to the character of Peter Quincy Taggart from Galaxy Quest. To be fair, part of this memory is rooted in a combination of Shatner’s performance style and the contrast with Picard.

Even if this memory of Kirk is not entirely accurate, it is still part of the larger meta-text of Star Trek. There is no escaping it. Much like Discovery draws upon a hazy memory of classic Star Trek, Lorca draws upon a vague recollection of Kirk. In many ways, it is similar to the struggle that Enterprise faced in portraying Vulcans that were at once entirely accurate to the characters featured in Amok Time and Journey to Babel, but also very much at odds with how the fandom had chosen to remember the species.

Captain’s Quirk.

Lorca serves as something of a broad deconstruction of the popular memory of James Tiberius Kirk, an alpha male who plays by his own rules with little regard for the consequences. (His opinion of himself is suggested in the episode’s title drop, when he assures Burnham that “context is for kings.”) Lorca is tactically brilliant, but also reckless. He exudes charm and confidence, moving with singular purpose. He is presented as a man of action, a man without fear, a man with the vision (and the resources) to shape the universe to his whim.

Lorca is the fantasy of James Kirk examined from a different angle, the brilliant tactician commander with the cold and rational alien first officer. However, while Star Trek unfolded from the perspective of Kirk and Spock, Discovery asks the audience to consider the story from a unique perspective. Discovery‘s central character is not the commanding officer, but instead an ex-convict and a new recruit. Burnham shares her quarters with a cadet fresh from Starfleet Academy. Discovery offers a differing view of a character who evokes the memory of Kirk.

Threat or treat?

Like Edison in Beyond, Lorca is consciously characterised as a relic of a by-gone era. Lorca is a man out of time, even in this Star Trek prequel series. Introducing himself to Burnham, he snacks on fortune cookies. “It was a family business, a century ago,” he tells Burnham. “That was before the future came, and hunger, need and want disappeared. Of course, they’re making a comeback now.” Lorca seems to suggest that existential conflict in Discovery is between the past and the future; between the world that the audience knows and the aspirational future of Star Trek.

Star Trek and The Next Generation unfold in a world where war and famine have been eliminated, where everybody gets along, and where anything is possible. That setting has its own value, as an assurance to viewers that things do get better. The underlying principle of the utopian Star Trek universe is that Martin Luther King was correct; the arc of the moral universe does bend towards justice. There is something comfortable in that reassurance, and it is impossible to overstate the importance of telling these kinds of stories.

Holo man.

However, while the setting itself has value, there is an interesting story to be told about how that future is built. In many ways, this is the core brief of a Star Trek prequel, to provide a contextual framework for the transition from the modern world towards a more hopeful future. How do people learn to better? How does humanity move past racism and hate? How do human beings create a world in which “there will be no hunger, there will be no greed and all the children will know how to read”? That is also a story that deserves to be told.

This was the core premise of Enterprise, the first attempt at a Star Trek prequel series. However, all of that potential was scuttled in a single line in Broken Bow, which revealed that mankind had already created paradise before the series even started. It was a massive cop-out, a betrayal of the core premise. In some ways, Discovery is pitched as a mulligan on that premise. The Klingon War provides an opportunity for the writing staff to push back a little bit against the utopian ideals of Star Trek, to suggest a slide backwards so that humanity might pull itself forwards.

It’ll grow on you.

Nicholas Meyer is credited as a producer on Discovery, and his influence is quite clear. Most obviously, the Klingon War at the heart of Discovery exists as a bookend to Meyer’s work on Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. However, there are also shades of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to the series. Most obviously, the engineering section on the Discovery is an update of the classic design from Star Trek, but the spore chamber owes a great deal to the chamber featured at the climax of The Wrath of Khan.

However, there is also a sense that the core themes of The Wrath of Khan have been carried over into Discovery. Most obviously, the tension that exists between fantastic new technology and how that technology is used. Once again, there is a sense that Discovery is deconstructing Star Trek. Broadly speaking, the Star Trek franchise believes in technological determinism. Watching the Star Trek spin-offs, it frequently seems that technology is the solution to all of mankind’s problems; warp drive solves war, the replicator solves hunger.

One in the chamber.

The Star Trek franchise has tended to avoid questions about how people have actually changed in the centuries between the present day and the twenty-third century. It often seems like humanity remains static into the distant future; genetic engineering is outlawed and cybernetic implants are very much the exception rather than the rule. The only thing that has really changed is the technology. Warp drive and transporters allow people to go anywhere; replicators can make anything; holodecks can simulate anything. These technological innovations are the foundation of the future.

It often seems like the characters in Star Trek and The Next Generation are so enlightened and idealised because they can afford to be, something that Deep Space Nine explored by putting those characters under pressure and stripping away their creature comforts. There is something comforting in that idea, in the belief that all mankind has to do to reach utopia is to survive long enough to invent warp drive or the replicator. It is a very optimistic idea, one build on the assumption that mankind is waiting for technology to catch up with their fundamental decency.

Oh, my(cologist).

However, it is also a very easy justification for the utopian future of Star Trek, one that avoids tough questions about humanity and one which sidesteps any sense that self-improvement is a journey that involves fundamental change. After all, history would seem to suggest that technological advancement is not an unequivocal good, that all scientific progress does not inevitably make the world a better place. In many cases, technology itself is value neutral; the technology itself is not inherently good or evil, its moral value determined by the way in which mankind chooses to use it.

This is true of most revolutionary technologies. Harnessing atomic power offered untold possibilities and incredibly discoveries, but was crudely fashioned into a weapon of almost unimaginable power. The internet allowed for people from all over the world to come together to create a truly global society free of geographic limitations, but also provided a nexus through which people’s worst impulses might spread fester. It frequently seems like technology is not the problem, people are. After all, people tend to design technology in their own image.

These guys could not Klingon to life.

Alexandra Samuel has argued that this intersection of technology and society is a core theme of the larger Star Trek franchise, contending that what might initially appear to be technological challenges are actually social issues:

That’s not where we need help today, though. Silicon Valley is stuffed to the brim with gadget-crazy entrepreneurs who are busy thinking of the next devices we need (and many we don’t). Where we really need help is in learning to live with the technologies we have. And there are lots of reasons to think Star Trek is positioned to help with that.

Just look at the biggest technology dilemmas we have today: How can we have the benefits of abundant, free information without the liabilities of fake news? How can we enable connection and community across difference without descending into flame wars and trolling? How can we harness data to make smarter decisions and offer better products and services without losing our privacy and autonomy?

These aren’t technology challenges; they’re social, political, and economic challenges that have been created, sharpened, or amplified by technology. And when it comes to engaging with the intersection between technology and social issues, there are few cultural institutions that have had as much influence as Star Trek.

Star Trek touched on this anxiety through renegade computers or rogue androids; Return of the Archons, What Are Little Girls Made Of?, I, MuddThe Apple, The Ultimate Computer, For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky. That said, many of these stories hinted at a more specific fear of automation.

Shadowy figures.

The Wrath of Khan build its central metaphor around the Genesis Device, a technology with untold creative and destructive power. The Genesis Device was very much intended as a metaphor for the atomic bomb. It was a bold scientific project intended for the betterment of mankind that would be coopted by Starfleet much to the chagrin of the scientists working on the research. (It was even positioned at the centre of the Cold War between the Klingons and the Federation in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.)

Discovery builds a similar metaphor around the fungal spores that power Discovery. In theory, the spores represent a scientific breakthrough with incredible potential for the future of Starfleet. In theory, the spores represent an ideal technology to further the exploration of “strange new worlds” in the pursuit of “new life forms and new civilisations.” On paper, Stamets is working on the single most Starfleet of innovations, a technology that allows the organisation access to all the wonder of the cosmos. However, this research is being coopted for military research.

Inside looking out.

Stamets’ anxieties about Lorca in Context is for Kings recall David Marcus’ anger towards Kirk in The Wrath of Khan, a justified fear about the military impulse to turn something potentially wondrous into something horrific. Indeed, Context is for Kings makes a point to contextualise this research in terms of the Klingon War. “It went down by Klingon territory,” Lorca reports of the Glenn. “Let’s get in and get out.” Stamets is unsettled by the implications. “Really? We’re running drills near Klingon space?”

Burnham recognises the destructive potential of the spores. Confronting Lorca at the end of the episode, Burnham observes, “You’re developing some kind of experimental technology. Some kind of spore-based biological weapon. The kind of weapon that is explicitly forbidden by the Geneva Protocols of 1928 and 2155.” Of course, Burnham fails to mention the booby trapping of the Klingon dead at the end of Battle of the Binary Stars, which would presumably also violate those same conventions and protocols.

(Incidentally, the idea of weaponised space transportation in Discovery underscores just how optimistic Star Trek is about technology’s capacity to elevate mankind’s best impulses. Any space craft travelling at warp speed is also a weapon capable of generating incredible destructive force. However, the franchise has never explored how warp drive could be weaponised to destroy entire planets, presumably because of some unspoken assumption that no human being in the future would ever even think about that possibility, no matter how angry or depressed.)

Of course, Lorca cleverly sidesteps Burnham’s concerns. Instead, he insists that the spore technology is truly wondrous. He presents the technology as inherently good. He takes Burnham on a whirlwind trip of the galaxy. “Imagine a microscopic web that spans the entire cosmos,” he teases. “An intergalactic ecosystem. An infinite number of roads, leading everywhere.” It sounds magical. It sounds like exactly how a Star Trek character should talk about a technological development like this.

However, Context is for Kings suggests Lorca is telling Burnham what she wants to hear. Most obviously, the character’s very next scene reveals that he ordered Landry to recover the tardigrade from the Glenn, in spite of the damage and destruction that it caused. However, Lorca is quite explicit about his desire to weaponise the advanced technology. “If the Discovery can be anywhere, and gone in an instant that’s how you beat the Klingons,” he tells Burnham. “That’s how you win the war.”

Lorca makes his thinking even clearer in The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s Cry. After a failed tactic drill, he warns the crew, “The Discovery is now the only Starfleet ship with a displacement-activated spore hub drive. Which means, when it’s up and running, we will be able to materialize anywhere in the known universe. Behind enemy lines, above the Klingon homeworld.” It is very clear that Lorca sees the spore drive not as a scientific breakthrough, but as a tactical advantage.

Indeed, Context is for Kings makes it clear that Burnham’s initial suspicions about Lorca are entirely correct, despite his best efforts to deflect them. When Lorca admits that he personally selected Burnham to work on the ship, Burnham immediately suspects sinister motivations. “Enter: me,” she states. “A mutineer who intended to wage unsanctioned war on the Klingons. A trained officer who’s been banished from Starfleet. And someone who would presumably do anything to get out of their life sentence in prison, including illicit weapons tests.”

More to the point, Burnham is an officer with a tangible and documented hatred of the Klingon Empire. Her family was murdered in a Klingon “terror raid”, while her captain was killed in the first battle of the Klingon War. More to the point, Burnham is so angry and so fearful of the Klingon Emprie that she actively mutinied against her commanding officer to commit an act of war. Burnham threw out all of the rules, violated the chain of command, in an attempt to launch a preemptive strike against the Klingon Empire.

It makes perfect sense that Lorca would want Burnham on his crew, because he believes that she will do whatever is necessary to win this war. Burnham is slightly wrong about the particular motivations of Lorca’s decision; it seems likely that Lorca doesn’t want her because he thinks she’s desperate, he wants her because he thinks she could be a true believer. Either way, Burnham seems to be correct in her assumption that Lorca wants a senior officer who is willing to step outside of Starfleet’s principles in pursuit of what he believes to be the greater good.

Lorca concedes as much during his demonstration of the spores. “That is the kind of thinking that wins wars,” he assures her. “The kind of thinking I need next to me. Universal law is for lackeys. Context is for kings.” Lorca is a character who has embraced the idea of moral relativism, who believes that “context” can make any action or decision justifiable. It goes without saying that this is an extreme form of situational ethics, and that Lorca is far more morally questionable than even Benjamin Sisko in In the Pale Moonlight. Lorca does not seem like a man who would regret his compromises.

Context is for Kings is effectively a second pilot for Discovery, an episode that is at once more conventional in its plotting and more alien in its tone than The Vulcan Hello or Battle at the Binary Stars. Still, it is very clear that Discovery is still in the process of setting out the stall, of introducing its characters and of raising its stakes.

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16 Responses

  1. Darren, I have a question for you – do you know some Star Trek episodes or films that take place directly on Mars?

  2. From your description, Lorca vaguely sounds like he could have been Garth of Izar. A concept I liked in TOS and kept wishing that they’d bring back in the Kelvinverse, instead of giving us two fairly bland new characters who were in the same vein (Admiral Marcus and Captain Edison).

    • Garth is weirdly popular. I remember hearing some rumblings on forums that Benedict Cumberbatch was going to be a young Captain Garth, if not Gary Mitchell. It was going to be one or the other.

      I like Garth, but hasn’t the storytelling market for rogue starfleet captains ‘crashed’? By which I mean, it’s been done so many times, and often with lackluster results. Garth himself was a reheated version of Ronald Tracy.

      • That’s fair. Although rogue captains went away for a while in the TNG era, barring the occasional Bob Gunton. There has been a definite revival in the Abrams films, though.

    • I think that was possibly an inspiration, though the nightmare with the fanfilm about Garth that forced CBS to step in to defend their IP means that (in my view) Garth is way too controversial for the show to use the character.

    • Yep, there were a lot of rumours that Lorca was going to be Garth before the series kicked off.

  3. “It often seems like the characters in Star Trek and The Next Generation are so enlightened and idealised because they can afford to be, something that Deep Space Nine explored by putting those characters under pressure ”

    it can’t be denied that putting the characters under pressure and removing them from their home base of operations is a near-guaranteed crowd pleaser. We need look no further than the strongest season of Enterprise, the Xindi season.

    However i you examine the old episodes of Voyager, or heck, even TNG, you begin to notice that the crewman aren’t so much idealized as….white bread. The dialogue isn’t so far removed from the forties. (“Why can’t you feel as rotten about this as we do!”, Tom admonishes Tuvok. A far cry from “green-blooded hobgoblin”.) I see very few minorities, and those that do appear are typically the weaker performers. Those haircuts are a sign of corporate reliability, as well.

    This above all else helps explain why deep Space Nine feels genuine, even if the show was ‘hit or miss’ in many respects. (Anything to do with the Bajorans is a miss in my book.)

    • That’s a fair point. Although I’d disagree with the relative strength of the minority performers. Garrett Wang is awful, but so is Robert Duncan MacNeill. Michael Dorn was much stronger than Jonathan Frakes, for example. Terry Farrell was the weakest cast member on Deep Space Nine by some distance.

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