WARNING: This article contains spoilers for this week’s episode of Star Trek: Discovery, “Context Is For Kings.”
In this week’s episode, Star Trek: Discovery opened another window into Michael Burnham’s past, and in the process that of beloved franchise icon Spock.
The television revival centers on Burnham (played by Sonequa Martin-Green of The Walking Dead), who was adopted as a child by Ambassador Sarek after her parents were killed, becoming the first human to attend the Vulcan Learning Center and the Vulcan Science Academy. As an adult, Burnham joined Starfleet and served as first officer aboard the USS Shenzhou, until she committed mutiny in an incident that ignited a war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire.
The two-part series premiere featured appearances by Sarek, played by Michael Frain, and flashed back to Burnham’s childhood at the Vulcan Learning Center. But this week’s episode, “Context Is For Kings,” expanded the audience’s understanding of the character’s upbringing, as well as her connection to Spock and his human mother.
Picking up six months after Burnham’s court martial and sentencing to life in prison, the episode finds her on a transport with three other inmates being transferred to an unknown destination. When the diverted flight goes wrong, and they seem doomed to slowly die in space, the USS Discovery conveniently appears out of nowhere to rescue them. Brought on board, Burnham is introduced to the mysterious Captain Lorcca (Jason Isaacs) and the equally mysterious mission of his science ship conscripted into the escalating war with the Klingons. When a terrible accident befalls Discovery‘s sister vessel as it conducts a top-secret experiment, Burnham is enlisted as part of the away team sent to investigate.
On the dead ship, they find horribly mangled bodies, of both the crew and the Klingons who later boarded it, seemingly inexplicable structural damage, and a f0ur-legged monster who now stalks them, Alien-like. Trying to buy time for the rest of the away team to escape, Burnham lures the creature through a Jefferies tube, all the while reciting a passage from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, almost like a mantra. It might be easy to dismiss the reference as particular to Burnham’s predicament — she’s crawling through a “rabbit hole,” looking for a way out — but it’s soon revealed to have a much deeper meaning.
While settling into her quarters on Discovery, Burnham pulls out a physical copy of the book, a rarity in the 23rd century. Questioned about it by her eager roommate, Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman), she explains, “When I 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. It’s how I learned that the real world doesn’t always adhere to logic. Sometimes down is up, sometimes up is down. Sometimes when you’re lost, you’re found.”
Asked her foster mother’s name, Burnham responds simply, “Amanda.” That’s of course Amanda Grayson, human wife of Sarek, a role originated on Star Trek: The Original Series by Jane Wyatt, and portrayed most recently, in 2009’s Star Trek, by Winona Ryder. (The development comes even as news surfaces that Discovery has cast The L Word actress Mia Kirshner in the role.)
On the Discovery after-show, fittingly titled After Trek, executive producer Aaron Harberts offered insight into the choice of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and its role in the upbringing of both Burnham and Spock.
“The most interesting thing for us is to imagine what it would have been like in the Sarek household,” he said, “and thinking about Amanda and how she raised both of these children. So, thinking about Amanda, and trying to not only imbue this human daughter with an understanding that logic doesn’t always apply, but also, what would she read to her son? And the expectations for her son were very different, and so I think again, wanting to expend Spock’s world as well, and try to show that logic doesn’t dictate everything, and I think this was a way this human mother was trying to get through to both of those children.”
Noting that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland fit in with all of the mushrooms aboard Discovery, Harberts said the novel had become a “talisman” for Burnham, “almost like a prayer she uses to center herself.”
Starring Sonequa Martin-Green as Lt. Commander Michael Burnham, Star Trek: Discovery airs Sundays at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT in the United States on CBS All Access, in Canada on Space and in most other countries on Netflix.
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