The most powerful scene of Star Trek: Discovery’s third episode – and, after last week’s two-part prologue, its de facto premiere – comes in its final 10 minutes. Gabriel Lorca, the captain of the U.S.S. Discovery, tries to convince Michael Burnham to join his mission to end the war with the Klingons. He says he needs people like her, who was willing to launch a preemptive strike at the Battle at the Binary Stars.
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“You chose to do the right thing over and above what was sanctioned, even at great cost to yourself, and that is the kind of thinking that wins war,” Lorca tells Burnham. “Universal law is for lackeys. Context is for kings.”
It’s a mesmerizing monologue, early proof of how much Jason Isaacs will bring to the show as Lorca. But it’s also a direct challenge to the proud optimism that undergirds Star Trek, and the episode – which takes its title, “Context Is for Kings,” from that speech – leaves the viewer uncertain whether Discovery has come to reject that optimism or, ultimately, to champion it. On a fundamental level, does Discovery believe in Star Trek?
What Sunday’s episode demonstrates most effectively is that Discovery is a show of war. Consider one of the other debuting main characters, Anthony Rapp’s astromycologist Paul Stamets. He is a total jerk, already a contender for the least likable series regular in Star Trek history. Previous shows have spotlighted scoundrels and brats and general annoyances, but rarely has Star Trek presented us with someone this unpleasant, someone who so fundamentally doesn’t want to be where he is.
But there’s a reason for that, as Stamets explains to Burnham when they approach the downed U.S.S. Glenn. Before the war, he and his research partner hoped their study of space fungi might reveal the universe’s most fundamental mysteries. Now the war has come – a conflict Burnham more or less started – and he has been drafted to turn his life’s work into a tool to help the Federation prevail. His colleague has already died a gruesome death in service of that effort. What optimism is to be found there?
Star Trek’s pacifism has always been complicated. War has long existed on the fringes, as a part of the show’s backstory or as something barely avoided. At its most extreme, in “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” The Next Generation made itself almost unrecognizably dark just by imagining the same, otherwise unchanged characters in the context of war. Deep Space Nine and Enterprise both devoted considerable time to wartime arcs, but those seasons of conflict followed multiple years spent reaffirming Trek’s essential cornball optimism.
Not that tonight’s episode is pure cynicism. Characters like Saru, late of the Shenzhou and now Lorca’s first officer, fit more neatly into traditional expectations of Star Trek characters, as does Mary Wiseman’s Cadet Tilly. Neither is the bold explorer one might associate with any of the past Enterprise crews, but they at least read as committed Starfleet officers with some sense of mission beyond the narrow confines of the war with the Klingons. Yet, even here, there are nuances: Tilly, for instance, makes no secret of her goal to become a captain, and it’s hard to see that as an unambiguous positive when Lorca is her role model for command.
So perhaps it falls to Burnham herself to remain the show’s idealist. In initially turning down the captain’s offer to join Discovery, Burnham affirms the Federation’s principles she knows she betrayed with her mutiny aboard the Shenzhou. Lorca then claims his starship’s research is not to devise a weapon but rather “a new way to fly” – even if it’s technology born of war. What could be a more powerful way to keep pushing against the final frontier?
Nor is Lorca’s grim argument entirely convincing, which is by design – a show doesn’t cast Jason Isaacs for him not to be slippery and morally suspect. The monologue is some masterful manipulation, simultaneously telling Burnham what she wants to hear and forcing her to see Discovery’s mission in terms of her sense of duty. Lorca is the first Star Trek captain not to be the show’s lead, and “Context Is for Kings” leaves it entirely unclear whether he will prove hero, villain, or something in between.
For now, look to the episode’s titular line: By Lorca’s own reckoning, he is a king. This has always been true of Trek’s captains, but that never felt so dangerous until the audience was asked to take the perspective of a subordinate. Lorca tells Stamets the ship is not a democracy, and his conversation with Burnham lays plain his belief that his status and his temperament mean he is not beholden to some piffling universal law.
At first blush, such megalomania sounds like a total rejection of Star Trek. But is Lorca just more baldly stating what all his predecessors have always believed? James T. Kirk, Jean-Luc Picard, Benjamin Sisko, Kathryn Janeway, and Jonathan Archer all treated the prime directive as something honored more in the breach than in the observance. Sure, they tended to articulate their defiance of the Federation’s foremost principle in more high-minded terms, but that’s the thing about kings: There are good ones and there are bad ones. Either way, it’s all down to how good the individuals making the rules are, not the strength of the underlying system.
And Burnham doesn’t have the absolute power that her protagonist predecessors did. Indeed, her position as mutineer puts her in a more precarious and less certain position than just about any Starfleet officer in any of the five previous shows’ casts. By the episode’s end, she finds herself serving aboard a mysterious ship with a suspect captain and a crew that distrusts her at best and detests her at worst.
The possibility that does create, intriguingly, is for Discovery to ultimately prove its belief in Star Trek by putting it to its greatest test. If Burnham, who is vulnerable and compromised in a way no Trek hero has been before and serving in dangerous times with dangerous comrades in a way none have before, can still find her way in the end to Star Trek’s core ideals, then the show will absolutely have earned its place alongside its more nakedly optimistic predecessors. It’s just that. By jumping straight to the grim and cynical, Discovery leaves its viewers to guess whether it has come to bury Star Trek or to praise it.