*This post contains spoilers for episode 3 of Star Trek: Discovery, and for the 5th-season Next Generation episode, “Ensign Ro”.
Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Ensign Ro” (season 5, episode 3)
Teleplay by Michael Piller; story by Rick Berman and Michael Piller; directed by Les Landau; first aired in 1991
When a Bajoran terrorist group is blamed for the destruction of a Federation outpost, Admiral Kennelly sends Captain Picard in search of the group’s leader. He also orders Picard to bring along a Bajoran Starfleet officer to assist on the mission: Ro Laren, a disgraced and court-martialed Ensign who agreed to the assignment because “it’s better than prison”. Her reputation, and her lone wolf approach to the mission, puts her at odds with the rest of the crew – except Guinan, who convinces Ro that she can trust Picard with some painful memories from her past … and with the truth about the covert mission Kennelly actually sent her on.
Star Trek: Discovery – “Context is for Kings” (season 1, episode 3)
Teleplay by Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts & Craig Sweeny; story by Bryan Fuller & Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts; directed by Akiva Goldsman; first aired in 2017
Six months after being court-martialed for her mutiny on the Shenzhou, Michael Burnham finds herself on a prison shuttle that’s about to be destroyed by space-bugs … until she, and her fellow prisoners, are rescued by the starship Discovery. Onboard Discovery, she is shunned by much of the crew, has an awkward reunion with a couple of her fellow officers from the Shenzhou, and meets Captain Gabriel Lorca, who puts her to work while she’s there. Burnham works with Lieutenant Stamets on some mysterious new technology; accompanies him on a boarding party to Discovery’s sister ship, the Glenn, whose crew were killed in an even more mysterious accident; and tries to find out what, exactly, Captain Lorca is up to, and why.
Last time, we looked back to the very beginnings of Star Trek, and examined two different pilot episodes of the Original Series. We saw how the second of those two pilots set forth the vision for what Trek would become. But what is it about that vision that has so appealed to so many people, across different casts and settings and generations of fans? The show’s appeal is often attributed to a utopian vision of the future; to the hopeful idea that humankind will eventually put an end to scarcity and injustice and conflict, and will devote itself to, well, discovery. An interesting variation on this is the view of Trek as modeling the ideal workplace, one where a unified team of consummate professionals, from diverse backgrounds and with different points of view, collaborate to solve problems. This is maybe most obvious in The Next Generation, a show which, when watched or re-watched in 2017, is shocking for how much of its forty-some minutes per episode is unapologetically devoted to calm, civil discussion between thoughtful adults. But this is a thread that runs through all of TV Trek, to one extent or another, and is perhaps one reason why many Trek fans tend to favor whichever incarnation of the franchise they grew up with: watching Trek when you’re young, I think, leaves you with a pretty specific template against which to judge the realities of adult life.
Of course, actual adult life doesn’t measure up so well to that standard, and Trek has acknowledged that at times by allowing for the possibility that Starfleet may not, in fact, be the perfect workplace, or the Federation the perfect society. One way for Trek to offer that kind of critical look at its universe is to introduce an outside perspective, a character of a kind we’re not used to seeing on Trek, so that we, the audience, can see that fictional universe through a different set of eyes, and maybe see a side of it that we haven’t seen before. Star Trek: Discovery takes that approach, starting in its third episode, “Context is for Kings”, by putting its protagonist, Michael Burnham, on the starship Discovery not as its first officer, as she was on the Shenzhou, but as a court-martialed Starfleet officer in the midst of a prison sentence. This is a rare perspective for Trek to take, but not a unique one: the parallels that come to mind immediately are Ro Laren on TNG and Tom Paris on Voyager, both imprisoned Starfleet officers freed prematurely to help in the search for suspected terrorists.
Paris’ insider-turned-outsider-turned-insider-again status wouldn’t be dealt with much going forward, making it just one of the potentially daring ideas Voyager introduced, then backed away from. But Ensign Ro’s occasional appearances on TNG would almost always highlight, in small ways at least, her status as simultaneous insider and outsider, making her the character who sees things differently, who disagrees, who questions. Discovery seems, so far, to be putting Burnham in a similar position, and so I thought we’d compare the two characters’ introductions to their new, maybe-less-than-perfect workplaces, and to their coworkers … even if neither of them plan to stay long enough to make friends (something they each say in their respective episodes, in lines so similar I can’t help wondering if the writers of Discovery, detail-oriented as they are in their references to earlier Trek, had Burnham paraphrase Ro on purpose).
But while the two characters’ circumstances are similar, we see their stories (in these particular episodes, at least) from very different points of view. “Ensign Ro” arrives in TNG’s fifth season, assuming an audience that’s already on good terms with the existing crew of the Enterprise D. Ro is the unknown element for us here, a new character that we’re seeing for the first time through the eyes of Picard and Riker and Troi and LaForge. They don’t like her, some of them pretty intensely, and so it would be easy for us not to like Ro, either. Trying to rewatch familiar episodes with fresh, at-least-somewhat-objective eyes is always a challenge for me, and it’s particularly difficult in this episode, since Ro has always been one of my favorite characters on TNG, which makes it hard to imagine how I’d feel about her debut if I wasn’t already invested in the character. Having said that, I do think the writing here, and Michelle Forbes’ performance as Ro, are subtle and nuanced enough that we get a sense, early on, that there’s more to her than the insubordinate screw-up our main characters see.
It’s notable that Riker and LaForge’s reactions to Ro, in particular, are uncharacteristically harsh. Dress code or no, Riker immediately ordering Ro to remove her traditional earring seems unnecessarily cruel, especially given that we’ve seen Worf wearing his sash over his uniform for how many seasons now, and will see him wearing it in the same room as an earring-less Ro later this episode. And the way Geordi talks to Guinan about Ro – “she doesn’t deserve to wear the uniform” – seems almost out of character for him. These reactions are strong enough, I think, that we’re more likely to sympathize with Ro than to agree with Will or Geordi, and we’re prompted to question Ro’s reputation even further when Guinan decides to become her friend:
Ro: Have you heard anything interesting?
Guinan: Everyone’s talking about you.
R: [smirks] Heard anything interesting?
R: Well, it’s all true.
G: I believe truth is in the eye of the beholder.
R: Isn’t that supposed to be beauty?
G: Truth, beauty … it works for a lot of things.
In “Context is for Kings”, we’re made even more aware that truth is in the eye of the beholder. When we looked at the first and second episodes of Discovery, we discussed the dramatic irony inherent in Captain Georgiou’s standoff with the self-styled Klingon messiah, T’Kuvma. As viewers, we knew what Georgiou didn’t: that her strict adherence to Starfleet protocols – greeting the Klingons peacefully and refusing to fire first – was exactly what T’Kuvma needed to convince the other Klingon leaders to join his war against what he claimed was the sneaky, disingenuous Federation. We know that Burnham was right to suggest that Georgiou fire first, if not to mutiny against her; and we know that, Burnham’s mutiny aside, it was T’Kuvma who actually started the war. Granted, Burnham was undoubtedly wrong, by any measure, to kill T’Kuvma in retaliation for Georgiou’s death, and if she bears direct responsibility for the war, it’s because she made T’Kuvma a martyr, something she herself had explicitly cautioned against. But that’s not what her fellow prisoners hate her for. It’s not even what the crew of the Discovery hate her for, and you’d think they might have more detailed knowledge about what exactly happened at the Battle of the Binary Stars – some of them, after all, were there. No, it seems that Burnham is seen as the sole cause of the war, in the eyes of the general public as well as within Starfleet, and when she first sets foot onboard Discovery, that’s how she’s welcomed.
Unlike “Ensign Ro”, “Context is for Kings” isn’t introducing us to the court-martialed outcast. We’d already met her, pre-court-martial, in episodes 1 and 2 of Discovery. No, the job of “Context” is to introduce us to (almost) every other member of the main cast, and it does so from the point of view of the shunned insider-turned-outsider. The first time that we meet most of these characters, they’re being rude to the one character we’ve already spent the most time with, based on a version of history that differs, at least somewhat, from what we’ve seen. This immediately – and, I think, quite deliberately – casts the crew of the Discovery in a harsher light than any of the previous Trek crews (with the possible exception, I’d argue, of Enterprise, though in that case I don’t think it was intentional).
It’s interesting that, at least until the later parts of the episode, Saru is the most civil towards Burnham (aside from Tilly, but that’s only until she learns who Burnham actually is). He has a clearer, more personal reason to resent Burnham than anyone else on board, and he doesn’t pretend otherwise; his calmly-delivered vow to do a better job protecting Captain Lorca than Burnham did protecting Captain Georgiou is devastating, and is made all the more so by the fact that it’s actually a fair point, from the viewer’s perspective. After all, in episodes 1 and 2, we saw Saru lose his captain and colleagues at the Battle of the Binary Stars, and we saw Burnham’s decisions put Saru in the terrible position of trying to prevent a mutiny by a fellow officer; we know that Saru’s view of Burnham is justified, even if we don’t share it. But in spite of that justification, Saru is pointedly fair in his treatment of Burnham, starting when he offers her some of the blueberries he’s snacking on, and culminating with his description of Burnham, to Lorca and Stamets, as the “smartest Starfleet officer” he knows. Even when he’s harsh with her, he’s never needlessly cruel, which is more than can be said for other members of the crew (I strongly suspect that the security chief, Landry, would not have shared any blueberries with Burnham).
Which brings us to some fundamental differences between the crews of the Enterprise D and the Discovery, beyond the narrative point of view of these two episodes. While the reactions of Riker and LaForge in “Ensign Ro” are perhaps extreme, they’re ultimately understandable; the official record, which Ro never argues against (even if she perhaps could), is that she’s responsible for the deaths of eight other members of an away team, which does justify Laforge’s apprehension about going on any away missions with her. And, like Saru, the Enterprise crew are not, for the most part, needlessly cruel towards Ro. Riker’s order to remove her earring, without allowing her to explain its cultural significance, might be the exception to that, but it is worth noting that Crusher and Troi go out of their way to make Ro feel welcome in Ten Forward by offering to sit with her. This stands in stark contrast to the mess hall scene in “Context”, which begins with Burnham receiving very clear vibes that she’s not welcome to sit with any of the Discovery’s crew … and ends with Landry choosing not to prevent Burnham’s fellow prisoners from trying to kill her. To say that Landry’s behavior in this scene is extreme for a Starfleet officer is an understatement; as pissed off as Riker is to have Ro on his ship, I still can’t even imagine him just standing back and watching if, say, someone tried to kill her in Ten Forward.
And this, I think, is where we get a glimpse at Discovery’s reasons for giving us such a jarring introduction to most of its characters. Much audience discussion around Discovery has focused on two points of comparison with past TV incarnations of Trek: whether or not its crew feels like a Star Trek crew; and whether or not its portrayal of Starfleet feels like Starfleet. As much as Star Trek’s vision for a future of peaceful collaboration and thoughtful problem-solving has meant to me over the years – I literally grew up on it – I also find myself living in a world where gleefully crapping all over that vision is enough to get someone elected to public office. As comforting as some old-school utopian Trek might be right now (plenty of which still exists, of course, for us to rewatch when we need it), I just don’t think a new series in that vein would ring true in this moment … and at worst, it might encourage us to kid ourselves that there’s still a hope in hell of achieving a world like that without drastically changing the way our society is structured in the present. I think Discovery is aware of this, to some extent, and I think that’s at least one reason it gives us such a challenging introduction to its cast. I don’t think we’re meant to dislike the Discovery’s crew, necessarily, though we certainly might at first. I think the conflict between the crew and Burnham – and the conflict within the crew, most notably between Stamets and Lorca – is meant to prepare us for the idea that the Discovery crew at least, and maybe Starfleet as a whole, have gone astray from the ideals they claim to hold … the ideals Georgiou literally died for, just six months earlier.
In fact, I think “Ensign Ro” shows that TNG was already at least somewhat aware, back in 1991, that a perfect Starfleet might no longer ring as true with viewers as it once did (it’s interesting, if a little tangential, to remember that The X-Files, a series built on the trope of powerful people conspiring in secret against the public interest, would debut just a couple years after this). There’d already been examples throughout Trek of Starfleet admirals demonstrating less-than-stellar decision-making skills, but Admiral Kenelly deliberately conspiring with the Cardassians is craven on a level we’d rarely seen from a Starfleet officer up to that point. We’re given no indication that anyone else at Starfleet Command was in on Kennelly’s conspiracy, but nevertheless, the idea that anyone so high up in Starfleet would so blatantly work against the principles of the Federation – even to protect the safety of the Federation, as Kenelly believed he was doing – can’t help but cast Starfleet in a new light.
And beyond the spectre of outright corruption in Starfleet, “Ensign Ro” forces us to contemplate the idea that even the principles of the Federation may not be all they’re cracked up to be. The leader of a Bajoran refugee camp tells Picard that he doesn’t approve of terrorist attacks against the Federation for the same reason he doesn’t want to help the Federation track down any alleged Bajoran terrorists: because the Prime Directive has made the Federation “innocent bystanders” while the Bajorans suffered decades of Cardassian oppression. While the Prime Directive of non-interference is often used as a source of tension in Trek, that usually manifests itself in an episode in the form of very specific, situational dilemmas (whether or not to save a less advanced species from an impending disaster, for instance). The implication that the Prime Directive sometimes keeps the Federation from taking a stand against the ongoing, systemic oppression of other races (races at a similar level of technological advancement to themselves, no less) was, I think, an idea Trek had never seriously dealt with before this episode. Again, to question individual applications of the Prime Directive is one thing, but to question the very nature of it – to point out how deeply troubling it is that every Bajoran isn’t being provided with the kind of aid the Enterprise so easily provides to the Bajorans at that particular camp – is to question just how utopian the Federation actually is (a question the Bajorans would bring with them into Deep Space 9, a series better suited for asking such questions than either TOS or TNG had been).
If the Federation doesn’t always live up to its own ideals, then Captain Lorca’s words near the end of “Context” become all the more interesting: “Universal law is for lackeys, context is for kings.” He says this in an appeal to Burnham, to show that he understands why she did what she did onboard the Shenzhou: she saw that the spirit of Federation law – peaceful coexistence – would, in that particular situation, be better served by violating the letter of the law. This is the sort of thinking that drove Ro to accept Kenelly’s mission; arming the Bajorans (as she thinks Kenelly wants to do) is against the Federation’s principles, which she believes in … but she also sees how those principles have failed to bring peace to her people. To put too much stock in the idea of the Federation as a utopian society is to forget that principles like the Prime Directive, or “Starfleet doesn’t fire first”, noble and well-intentioned as they are, can’t be expected to produce the best outcome in every situation, and need to be continually re-evaluated. This is, perhaps, the role of outsiders (or insider-turned-outsiders) like Ro and Burnham: to see the limitations of their society in a way others can’t, to focus on context when others are focusing on universals (as when Ro steers the Enterprise crew away from standard procedure on their mission – from seeking out the “token Bajoran” diplomat, as she puts it – and instead uses her deeper understanding of the situation to assess who really has influence among the Bajorans).
But this doesn’t make Lorca unambiguously right. To reject the need for “universal law” entirely – to accept that the “kings” should be bound only by their own judgement – is to put too much faith in the kings. Kenelly violated Federation law to do what he deemed necessary … and was stupidly taken advantage of by the Cardassians, who actually committed the attack he was so determined to prevent from happening again. Lorca’s research, and his willingness to advance it by any means necessary, might end the war … but it definitely did cause the deaths of everyone on the Glenn. And Lorca’s surprisingly cold assessment of the need to destroy the shipwrecked Glenn – “It’s just a ship” – suggests that he is, perhaps, too willing to give up Starfleet’s identity in the process of ensuring that it simply continues to exist. As we discussed when we looked at TNG’s “The Drumhead” and DS9’s “Tribunal”, there are no shortage of leaders, in the real world, who tell us we have to violate our principles in order to uphold them. Discovery’s apparent willingness to critically examine a Federation driven, by war, to break its own rules may not make it traditional Trek … but maybe it’s the kind of Trek we need right now?
Next time, we’ll compare another episode of Discovery to the Trek that came before it, as we look at episode 4 of Discovery, “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry”, and an iconic episode of the Original Series: “The Devil in the Dark”!