Warning: This post contains spoilers for the “Context is for Kings” episode of Star Trek: Discovery.
Farewell, Philippa Georgiou — and welcome, Gabriel Lorca. The third episode of Star Trek: Discovery‘s freshman season finally introduced us to the show’s titular ship and its morally complex captain, played by Jason Isaacs. Fortunately, there are still a few familiar people aboard the Discovery — most notably disgraced first officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), whose actions aboard the good ship Shenzhou in the first two episodes cost Captain Georgiou her life and Burnham her freedom. It also led the nascent Federation into a devastating war with the Klingon Empire. Against this backdrop, Burnham is in the midst of a prison transfer when her ship is rerouted under mysterious circumstances and she winds up on the Discovery.
Make no mistake: Michael is still a prisoner of sorts. But instead being locked in a jail cell, her sentence is serving Lorca on his mission to find a way to defeat the Klingons by any means necessary. It’s new territory for Star Trek, which previously was known for offering a utopian vision of the future where war is waged honorably. As Isaacs tells Yahoo Entertainment, though, Lorca doesn’t have the freedom to be honorable. In a spirited back-and-forth, the British actor defended his character’s actions, poked holes in some of our Discovery theories, and enthusiastically endorsed his crewmates’ real-life decision to take a knee.
Yahoo Entertainment: Before Discovery aired, you teased that Lorca was going to be a very different Starfleet officer, and this episode definitely establishes that he’s a darker character.
Jason Isaacs: I don’t know about dark. This is pre-TOS and pre-Federation directives. Discovery is not on a peaceful mission to explore; they’re fighting for survival! It’s an existential battle against a superior enemy. And it’s people like Lorca that you need in times like this. He’s been given license, and the Federation is looking the other way, supposedly. They want to keep their hands clean. But when the war is not going well, we all know that the Geneva Convention gets shoved under the carpet. This is a guy who has been told, “Do whatever you need, hire whoever you want, and behave in whatever ways are necessary.” He’s going to do that because he sees his job as saving the Federation and everyone who lives in it.
I say “dark” in relation to previous Trek captains, who have been a bit more virtuous in their goals.
Well, the previous captains haven’t been at war! My captain, Captain Kirk, had a rather bellicose nature when necessary. Had he been at war, he was perfectly capable of firing on people and killing people. There was a macho swagger to a lot of the stuff he did. But he was in a very different situation. I wouldn’t send Lorca to be in charge of an exploratory vessel, but I would send him as part of the tip of the spear when you’re being shot at.
We learn about the nature of the Discovery in this episode, which seems to exist as a kind of “off the books” ship tasked with a clandestine mission.
Discovery is ostensibly a science vessel filled with people who signed up during peacetime to be explorers. So Lorca’s going to have to knock them back into shape at some point, because there’s a threat the scale of which no one has experienced before. And that’s frustrating for him. That’s one of the reasons to recruit Burnham, who has already shown her colors, in that she’s prepared to do what’s necessary and strategize out of the box. He needs people like that round him who will be loyal to him when push comes to shove.
That would explain why he stages that jailbreak…
Oh, you’re saying he orchestrated the jailbreak? Interesting theory. I’d love to see what the other fans think of that. [Laughs] He certainly takes advantage of it, and he may have brought her into the sector. But I’m not necessarily sure the evidence exists to convict in open court. But yeah, they’re panicking. Remember this is 10 years before the Prime Directives are in place, and alliances are still being formed and the Federation is still forming itself. By the time you meet Lorca, the war has been on for a while, and casualties are mounting. In fact, it looks like the Klingons are going to win! It’s such a different circumstance than any other series has ever been in.
As a science vessel, Discovery does seem to be developing new kinds of weapons for warfare. Burnham even suspects that Lorca is creating a biological weapon.
She thinks there’s a biological weapon, but it’s not a new way to kill — it’s a new way to journey. This spore-based network allows you to travel from anywhere to anywhere in an instant. That would make the Discovery completely invulnerable in any kind of attack situation and give [the Federation] the edge we need. It’s not a weapon, so he has no moral compunction against using it, and if it had been a weapon, he probably wouldn’t either. She thinks the worst of him, because unlike her previous captain — with whom she had a very maternal relationship — this guy is keeping to himself. She’s suspicious of why someone would choose her and give her a second shot, and what new moral minefield she might be asked to tiptoe through given what happened to her the last time.
Lorca may not be building a biological weapon, but keeping that creature they find on the dead ship suggests that he’s not adverse to expanding his arsenal beyond photon torpedoes and phasers.
He’s thinking of how to use anything. The Klingons are a warrior race and the Federation is soft. All the normal rules are suspended for him and his ship’s activities. So you’re damn right he’s going to take anything from anywhere and see if he can get something useful out of it.
Some fans have wondered whether Discovery should have been set later in the Star Trek timeline, as opposed to before The Original Series. For you, is there something specific about the series that makes this particular era the right time period?
There’s a billion people with great ideas, and any of them would have been free at any stage during the last 12 years to write their own TV series. One of the things [the producers] wanted to do, I think, was go before everything else because they didn’t have to engage in what was part of canon, and instead feel free to invent and have things happen that hadn’t happened yet. So the people going, “It would have been better if. …” — that’s an easy game to play, the Monday morning quarterback. What happened is that [CBS] got a bunch of people who love Trek and said, “We’ll give you an unimaginable amount of money to do the very best thing you can that makes it feel like it was a worthwhile venture to make another Star Trek series.” And they have, and continue to do so.
I do want to ask about two real-world incidents that crossed over with Star Trek a little bit. On Emmy night, you published a much-circulated Instagram post taking surprise guest Sean Spicer to task. Did you expect that to get as much coverage as it did?
I was standing with a bunch of people, and we were saying the same things to each other, so I have no doubt that they went home and tweeted it out as well. For some odd reason, the Andy Warhol “15 seconds of fame” spotlight landed on me that night. But there were many people who felt the same thing. To be fair — not to Sean Spicer, because I have no desire to be fair to him — the thing I was really frustrated about was that Trump had been at the U.N. threatening to wage war. So Spicer was there as a representative of something that I found morally repulsive and got the brunt of my frustration. I could care less about the minutiae of politics, but when someone is trying to foment hatred and threatening war and boasting of sexually assaulting women — those things I find shocking.
The Discovery cast also recently appeared in a photo which showed them joining the “take a knee” protest. You weren’t in the picture, but were you with them in spirit?
I posted something saying that, in the spirit of Gene Roddenberry, I wish I was on the set now, because I’d take a knee. I had no idea that all my friends were somewhere else with a photograph of them on their knee!
In the spirit of Gene Roddenberry – If I could take one knee on the bridge I would.#StarTrekDiscovery
— Jason Isaacs (@jasonsfolly) September 24, 2017
What’s hilarious, and also painful, is the number of people who misunderstand what Star Trek has always been about and why Gene Roddenberry created this radical, revolutionary, disruptive TV series. At a time of such unrest, there was a show where women, African-Americans, Russians, and Asians were all working together in a utopian vision of the future. He was all about equality and freedom of speech, so the number of people who have come out of the woodwork online and said it was a disgrace and that Roddenberry would be furious — I’m pretty sure that Gene Roddenberry was all about that kind of collective action and protest. The great privilege we enjoy in the free Western countries is that we can have those debates. When people attempt to shut debate down, I’m stunned. It’s the very part of what makes us great.
Star Trek: Discovery streams new episodes Sundays at 8:30 p.m. on CBS All Access.