Nov. 17, 2020

014: DIS: Context Is For Kings

How many time can YOU say "enroll" in a podcast? Plus 360 reviews and change management!

On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek Discovery, Context Is For Kings (Season 1, Episode 3). He will examine the leadership approaches of Captain Lorca and Commander Saru.

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Hello, everyone! Thank you for joining me. If you didn’t listen all the way to the very end of the last episode, you’re expecting to hear about Discovery, Despite Yourself. But, as I started taking notes to prepare for that episode I realized the random episode format of this podcast just isn’t going to work for Discovery. If you haven’t seen it, each season is an arc that tells a single story. To jump around would be far too unnerving. So, whenever the random episode generator comes up with a Discovery episode, I’ll just take the next one in order. So, let’s get started with episode 3 of the first season, Context is For Kings.


It’s been 6 months since we last joined Michael Burnham. The Federation is at war with the Klingons and it is not going well. Burnham, the prisoner, is on a transfer shuttle. The last episode ended with her being stripped of rank and imprisoned for life. 

She and three other prisoners are headed to a dilithium mining job and they’re giving her a hard time. “The mutineer.” “She and 8,000 other are dead because of you.” Michael corrects her, 8,186. To put that into context, 110 years later, in the Battle of Wolf 359, the Borg were responsible for some 11,000 deaths. Losses of this level, in 2256 would have been absolutely devastating. 

There’s an issue with the shuttle and the pilot heads out, into space, to deal with it. We see the pilot spin out into space and hear that tether was disconnected. The prisoners begin panicking when a bright light descends upon them; a tractor beam, and the USS Discovery is there to bring them in. 

We fade into the opening credits, and, get ready. This is one of the last chances we’ll have to breathe in this episode. It moves fast and packs a ton in! 

Commander Landry, the Chief of Security takes custody of the prisoners and explains they’ll just be here long enough for them to repair their shuttle and get them back on their way. She is short, curt and to the point. Stereotypical military through and through. 

Cool production here as they walk through the corridors. There are lots of people milling about, PA announcements going on; it feels very lived in and active. 

We learn Discovery is a science vessel, but there is a lot of security. They spot some unidentified badges on some of the crew; all of this to show that strange things are afoot on Discovery.

They enter the mess hall and Burnham sees Kayla Detmer; a shipmate from the Shenzou. She now has some cybernetic implants presumably as a result of injuries since they last saw each other. Detmer ignores her, and Burnham reluctantly sits with the other prisoners. They start right on her, and BAM - Star Trek fight!! Oh, but this is not the Star Trek fighting we’ve seen before. Burnham busts out some Suus Mahna; Vulcan martial arts. Pretty sweet. Landry breaks it up and takes Burnham to see the captain. 

She steps out of the turbolift and onto the bridge; and there’s Saru, looking right at her. Landry moves her past Saru and dumps her into the captain’s Ready Room. It’s very dark in here, and the captain has a standing work station; a set up that many in the ergonomic community would applaud him for. Sounds like there’s a tribble in there too. 

The captain explains he keeps it dark in his room due to an injury from a recent battle. “I like to think it makes me mysterious.” He introduces himself as Captain Gabriel Lorca. He starts talking her up, saying his read her file, reviewed the court martial transcripts and he’s a fan. Burnham starts connecting some dots and postulates that her being there is not an accident. Lorca deflects the question and proceeds to recruit her. He says it’ll take 3 days to get the shuttle back up and running and he plans on utilizing her skills and talents during that time. She refuses. She wants to serve her sentence. He blows her off, “You think I care what your preferences are?” “There are no free rides on my ship.” He says his mission is to win the war. Period. And then he dismisses her. 

Oof. This is rough. This is a very different Starfleet, and a very different work culture than we’ve seen in Star Trek before. On one hand, they’re at war, and losing; that will impact a leader’s approach, but in the later seasons of Deep Space 9 they’re also losing a war; and they don’t resort to this authoritative style we’ve seen so far. That is, of course, more than a century in the future from here, but even this episode is more than 2 centuries ahead of where we are now. 

In an earlier episode of the Starfleet Leadership Academy, when we looked at Enterprise’s Strange New World, I talked about how often we hear that Starfleet is not a military organization. So far, at least on Discovery, this feels like it is absolutely a military organization, and an old-school one at that! 

That being said, let’s look at Lorca’s position and how he handled, based on what we know so far. He apparently has an extreme need and requires the brightest minds; he references Burnham expertise with quantum physics, for example. He has a very limited amount of time, just 3 days. He needs Burnham and he needs her now. I’m sure, as leaders, we’ve all faced something, at least somewhat similar to this. You have an urgent need with limited time and you need to make some assignments based on skill and strength instead of maybe position and desire. But do you do it like this? Do you just tell the person how it’s going to be and then expect it all to go great? In my opinion, you can take an extra 10 minutes and work to enroll that person in the idea; help paint a picture that makes them want to help. Even just knowing the little bit about the ship that we do now, I think we can walk through a better way to have handled this: “Michael, we are facing a threat that is destroying our very way of life. We’re experiencing hunger, poverty and social unrest again; all things we believed we had resolved. You are an expert in quantum physics, and while you’re only here for 3 days, you can contribute to this fight. You can help solve complex problems that could give us the upper hand we desperately need.” 

Something like that. Small spoiler alert - Lorca continues to want Burnham as an active member of his team, if not his crew, and he does a better job with this later on.

In the meantime, Landry escorts Burnham to her quarters, which she will be confined to when not working. There are two racks in the room, both clean and made up. She lies down on one and starts to breathe, when, suddenly the door opens and Cadet Sylvia Tilly barges in. Tilly isn’t really like anyone we’ve met on Star Trek before, at least as far as Starfleet goes. She talks about her special needs, specifically allergies necessitating special bedding. 

As they talk, well, as Tilly talks nervously and Burnham curtly responds, it comes out that Burnham is the infamous mutineer. This kind of shuts Tilly up as the lighting changes and the ship goes to Black Alert. Burnham asks what’s going on, “you haven’t been briefed?” And then Tilly turns her back to Michael and ignores her. 

Despite her awkwardness here, Tilly shows some of what brought her to the game; she keeps her mouth shut. Loose lips sinks ships, and that’s not going to be Tilly!

Burnham, heading out, runs into Saru - first officer Saru. They’re friendly but there is some serious tension between them. He leads her to Engineering and advises her to report to Lt. Stamets. Before she goes in, though, she attempts to apologize but struggles. Saru hears her, but does not accept it. He says she is someone to fear and he politely threatens her - I intend to do a better job protecting my captain. She spends a moment absorbing the interaction as he walks away before heading into Engineering.

We’re still getting to know Saru in this series. We know there has long been a professional rivalry between these two. Captain Georgiou knew how to leverage that rivalry and get the best out of each of them. Now, six months later, Saru finds himself in a leadership position and Burnham is no longer even in Starfleet, The tables have certainly turned. What he does in this moment, though, is very instructive. He is polite and cordial, even friendly with Burnham here. In fact, his openness with her, I believe, encourages her to attempt her apology. He made it safe for her to open up. But she faltered; she couldn’t say the words. She couldn’t say, “I’m sorry.” He pounces immediately, but not in a negative, aggressive or hostile manner. He even goes so far as to acknowledge her attempt. But then he is crystal clear in his language and his expectations. He does not respect her and thinks she is dangerous. He offers her the respect of telling her this. He then outlines what will happen if his expectations aren’t met. This is leadership with a problematic individual at its finest. As XO, he has to carry out Lorca’s orders and allow Burnham to work with the crew, but he can draw boundaries around that to ensure the safety of the ship and the crew while carrying out the captain’s orders. 

Ok, on you. Think about that problematic team member you’ve worked with in the past, or that you’re working with right now. I’m not going to ask if you’ve ever worked with one, because you have; we all have! Did you handle that situation like Saru did - honestly, respectfully, with clear expectations and clear consequences if those expectations weren’t met? Or did you do what, in my experience, most managers and leaders do? Nothing. Complain and talk about the person behind their back, or passive-aggressively change their assignments and projects? 

Either way, take a page from Saru here!

She heads into Engineering; there’s a group of people working at various stations; it’s very quiet and the music is ominous. As she’s looking around, Lt Stamets comes out and starts grilling Burnham. Says he was expecting a Vulcan; she explains she grew up on Vulcan and attended the Vulcan Science Academy to which he responds  - my uncle was in the Beatles. He hands her a data disk and assigns her to reconcile some code. She gets right to work. 

Quite some time passes, we see a shift change while she continues working. Stamets takes a call from Straal, his counterpart on the USS Glenn; a ship conducting the same type of experiments as Discovery. Straal explains they’ve hit a breakthrough and are going to conduct an aggressive experiment later in the day. 

Burnham interrupts and tries to get more context on her assignment; she’s struggling with the various sciences involved. He brushes her off and heads into a secure chamber; he uses a breath scan to enter.

Burnham, so clever, gathers some drool from Tilly as she sleeps, because, of course she drools while she sleeps. She uses that to mimc a breath into the scanner and gets into the chamber. She finds a lush forest full of different fungi. 

Lorca gets a classified transmission. He announces there was an incident on the Glenn and that the entire crew was lost. They’re going to investigate. He assigns Landry and Stamets to head an away team. Lorca insists Burnham goes along. Stamets protests but Lorca isn’t hearing it. He’s very impatient and short, but pauses to sympathize with Stamets, acknowledging he lost a good friend, Straal, today. Hmm, seems Capt. Archer could take some notes from Lorca here (see the Strange New World episode of this podcast). To validate his order, he asks Saru’s opinion on Burnham has they served together. Saru, continuing his pattern of honesty states that, her mutiny aside, she is the smartest Starfleet officer he’s ever known. Lorca snaps at Stamets, “and he knows you.”

The shuttle is headed over to the Glenn. They’ve added a security officer and Tilly to the team. She lets everyone know this is her first boarding party. She and Michael talk; Tilly is sharing a lot about herself and Burnham is being a very good listener. 

As they approach the Glenn, Stamets is analyzing the hull. He and Burnham play some etymological back-and-forth and we learn a lot more about the experiments Stamets and Discovery are conducting. He sees biology and physics as the same thing, at the quantum level. He says spores are the building blocks of the universe - physics as biology. When the war started, Starfleet conscripted Straal and Stamets to weaponize their research. He closes by basically saying Lorca will get what he wants out of her and anyone because that’s what he does. 

On the Glenn, Landry leads the boarding party. They encounter levels of gore we’ve never seen on Star Trek before; bodies twisted and broken. Helical trauma. It’s horrifying. They see a bat’leth on the deck; Klingons are on board. They hear a sound, Tilly snaps her phaser up and takes charge. It’s one of them. It doesn’t attack but rather cautions them to be quiet. When, BAM. Some massive, terrifying creature attacks and kills it. It turns its attention to the boarding party and they beat feet to engineering. They make it and secure the doors but it won’t last long, the creature, that seems impervious to phaser fire, is about to bust through!

They start pulling logs and inspecting the area. They find a navigational device that was unexpected and alterations in a reaction cube so they stow them. 

Burnham takes charge of the situation as the creature busts through. She shoots it to get its attention and then takes off through the Jeffries Tubes. She’s leading it away from the boarding party while reciting lines from Alice in Wonderland. The creature’s size slows it down in the tubes giving Burnham the chance to rendezvous with the shuttle. She drops in safely and they take off!

This is such a cool moment! Her nearly subconscious knowledge of the ship’s layout allows her to use her size and speed to evade an absolute beast. This reminded me so much of the submarine service and what we went through to get qualified on there. Because everyone’s life depends on each other, everyone on the boat was required to have the most intimate knowledge of every aspect of it. This was a great example of how knowledge like that can save lives. 

Back on Discovery, Saru walks Burnham to Lorca’s office. He lets her know the prisoner’s shuttle is scheduled to leave within the hour. She assures him that she will be on it. She desperately wants to serve her sentence. He acknowledges her contributions to the ship during her time on board. “You were always a good officer, until you weren’t.” He wishes things had gone differently, but compliments her as she heads into the ready room.

Lorca invites Burnham to join Discovery as a member of the crew. He explains the war gives him the right to supersede the court-martial. She refuses. He suspects things aren’t what they seem, as she did in their first encounter. He asks open-ended questions of her, trying to see how much she knows. She believes the experiments have been to develop a spore-based, biological weapon. Lorca teases her a little bit and orders a site-to-site transport down to engineering. 

He asks her to enter the reaction cube, which she, for some reason, does. He releases spores, mycelial spores, into the cube. He explains they are creating an organic propulsion system, not a weapon. Black alerts happen when they are using this spore drive. The belief is the ship can travel anywhere in the entire universe in an instant. Lorca wants to use this for military purposes, to overwhelm the Klingons, but he also sees the exploratory possibilities. He speaks with hope, drive and passion. He is sharing everything with her to enroll her into this mission. The exact thing I thought he should have done at the beginning of the episode! “Universal law is for lackeys, context is for kings.” 

He then asks again for her to join the crew, as a chance to help end the war she started. She agrees!

The prisoner’s shuttle takes off and Saru’s threat ganglia pop out; he senses a threat - oh, is he in for a surprise when he finds out what Lorca did!

Burnham is unpacking in her quarters. Tilly is ecstatic she’s staying. She tells Michael “I’ll be a captain someday,” and hopes Burnham can help her learn what she needs to know. 

Discovery destroys the Glenn, can’t leave any evidence behind, and we join Landry and Lorca in a macabre laboratory of some kind. There’s what looks like a Gorn skeleton, various weapons and dissected creatures. He looks into a large, dark room in the lab with a forcefield over the entrance. The creature from the Glenn charges it and is stopped by the field. Lorca retrieved that monster from the Glenn and is saving it!!

<<Red Alert>>

Man, this was a great episode! Action packed, tons of world building and a feel to Star Trek we haven’t experienced before. Aaron Harberts, one of the executive producers of the first season of Discovery explained the first episodes, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars were like a prologue to the series and that this was the actual pilot, or first episode of the real story. 

Either way, be it the pilot or the 3rd episode, this is the first time we’ve met most of the characters. And in this one, single episode, I feel like we have a good handle on who most of them are. They packed a lot into this!

We see Michael Burnham in a very different situation than she was in the first episodes, but she’s very much the same person, minus her spark. Still, she inhabits her role and her lot in life. Through most of the episode she’s essentially a zombie, going through her life, but not just through the motions. She has intent in her actions, but her intent is to stay below the radar and pay her debt to the Federation. What’s fun is her interaction with Tilly at the end. She has a purpose again, and someone that looks up to her. This will be a very interesting character dynamic as the story continues.

I really appreciated the characters from the Shenzou - Detmer and Saru. Both, in their own ways, made Burnham come face to face with the consequences of her choice, and now she’s going to have to live with them. 

Lorca is, by far, the most unique captain we’ve encountered so far. I’ll talk more about him in the command codes section, but I was immediately drawn to his character; who is he, what’s his motivation, is he a warmonger or an explorer at heart? So much to explore with him. 

As much as the first 2 episodes of Discovery served to differentiate it from classic Trek, this episode did even more. We saw a militaristic side to the Federation we really haven’t seen before. Phasers shoot blasts instead of beams; honestly not sure how I feel about that. And a wild new technology that has the potential to change everything about this franchise.

A great episode that sets the tone for this season. If you’ve watched this before, there is a massive twist in a few episodes - in fact that twist was going to start unraveling in the episode we were originally going to watch…kind of explains why I’m handling Discovery the way I am! But, if you’ve watched it before, you know there is a HUGE difference between the first and second times you watch this season. It’s really masterfully done. It’s fun to see the little hints they drop, even this early in the story arc. 

To do the first season of this show right, in my opinion, you watch it the first time, one episode at a time. Then, go back and watch it again, and binge it; that really gives you the full genius of how they constructed everything. 

<<Command Codes>>

Where to start? We had some promising lessons from Saru, we talked about that a little bit already. Then there’s Lorca. What a complicated approach this guy takes. 

Well, let’s recap Saru first. So far, through the Starfleet Leadership Academy, I’d say Spock has given us the strongest example of a first officer. So far. When you look at the qualities that make Spock stand out: offering an alternative opinion to the captain, restating and reinforcing orders and regulations, supporting the captain’s direction and order…Saru demonstrated all of those in this episode. I think it’s clear he doesn’t agree with Lorca’s methods, but he understands it is his job to be sure they are carried out. 

On top of that, his soft skills are enviable. He is direct in his communication but not aggressive. He’s able to call an individual out, in this case, Burnham, but not in a threatening or accusatory manner. I appreciate his dry, direct honesty. I don’t know if you’ve ever been on uncertain ground with a boss before - I know I have - but it sure would be great of they just told you how it was instead of dancing around the issue. 

I also appreciate his fairness. He hasn’t just written Burnham off because he sees her as a danger; he is willing to, in somewhat controlled circumstances, giver her opportunities to lend her strengths to the greater cause. It comes out, for example, near the end of the episode that he recommended her involvement on the Glenn boarding party. He knows her strengths, and is willing to allow her the opportunity to use them. To be clear, though, he’s not trusting her; she still needs to earn that back. He has her under the supervision of a number of others, specifically Stamets and Landry; two people that will not put up with any problems. 

We can learn a lot from Saru here. At a high level, he shows how we should communicate with our teams - clearly and directly. But beyond that, and more specifically, he shows how to handle a problematic team member; especially one that you don’t have the authority to send on their way.

We learn quite a bit about Lorca in his 2 main interactions with Burnham. We talked about those earlier. The first time he was authoritative and made it clear he was going to get his way. The second time, though, when the beam into Engineering, he’s much more effective. 

He uses the idea of enrolling Burnham in his vision. This is a powerful tactic you can use in every aspect of your role as a leader. Day-to-day this is a great way to convince people to do the small things in their job that moves you towards achieving your goal. This falls along the lines of what we talked about in the Homestead episode - asking for help instead of telling someone what to do. But it takes it to a higher level. If you don’t share my vision and I ask you to help do something, you’re less likely to help than if we do share a vision.

As an example, we one person who’s vision is to serve their lifetime prison sentence and not cause any problems, and someone else who’s vision is to reinvent the way people travel, like radically change it, and in a way that is demonstrably and terrifyingly dangerous. That person asks the first person to contribute to a war effort without sharing their vision, well, we can likely agree that that person is probably going to tell them to take a hike. 

But, in this case, the second person, Lorca, takes the time to enroll the first person, Burnham, into his vision. He shows the power and potential of the spore drive. He appeals to her personal value set by speaking to both her desire to explore and seek out new civilizations, as well as her desire to end the Klingon war. 

He shares his vision and aligns it with her values. This is not always a simple task. In this case, early in the episode he shared that he had read and re-read her file as well as the court-martial record. He’s done his research. He understands who she is and is able to align his vision to her. And through this, he enrolls her in his vision; makes her a part of it. 

Now, when he asks her to contribute to the war effort, to “cause problems” as it were, at least compared to her initial intention, she is much more likely to agree. 

For you, or at least for me, this is a lesson that can be an absolute game-changer when it comes to change management. Now, I’m not talking the project side of change; the task oriented, waterfall, agile, water-tile, PMBOK whatever side of change, but the people side of change. You can have the best project, meet all your milestones. Even come in under budget, but if the people aren’t ready, it will fail. 

If you are leading a change effort, share the vision early and often. In fact, if it feels like you’re doing it too often, do it a little more! Show the power and the potential of the project and the change, just like Lorca does with the spore drive. If you want to go next level, align the vision for the change with your team’s values, possibly even each person’s values! Enroll them in the vision for the change and they will be much more likely, and possibly even eager to help be sure it is a success. 

Lorca takes time and spends resources to do this for Burnham. They are in Engineering for a good chunk of time, in fact, it takes up almost the entire last act of the episode. He spends that time because he knows he’s introducing wild and almost inconceivable concepts to her. 

Now in our world we, generally, aren’t creating propulsion systems based on mycelial spores, but the change from Skype to Teams, for example, or Office 2016 to Office 365 can be just as wild and inconceivable to your teams. I can remember when the organization I was working for upgraded to Office 2007. There was one group that was almost violently insistent they still needed to use Office 97 because of some reason that was ridiculous to a reasonable person, but the most important thing in the world to the people impacted by the change. Enrolling someone, or a team, into your vision takes time…a lot more than part of an act of a TV show.

Beyond that, he expended resources. He grabbed a cylinder of the spores used for the drive to demonstrate their ability. Now, these aren’t necessarily precious or rare, but they are of a high value; it’s stated in the episode that the grow their own; and that takes time. He knows, though, that by enrolling her in his vision, he will reap so much more than the value of a single cylinder of spores. 

And yes, this means that you too shouldn’t shy away from spending resources on your change effort - the people side of the change effort. This could be as simple as allowing people paid time to learn about the change, or investing time in user testing. It can be more elaborate, like bringing in experts on the change or others that have been through similar projects to speak to or spend time with your teams. The resources will be unique to the change effort, but the lesson is that your return on investment will be significant if you can share and align your vision and manage the people-side of change effectively. 

While we learned a lot about him, and from him, in these interactions, we learn a lot more about him from others. Saru and Stamets, Stamets especially, seem to have very little love for him; in fact I’d say Stamets has very little respect for him. I think Saru will always respect the rank and uniform to a point that Lorca will be a shining light for him, at some level, until he’s not, but in the meantime, Saru is going to fall in line. 

Landry, on the other hand, seems to be all about Gabriel Lorca. But it takes only a few minutes with her to see why. She’s authoritative, aggressive, disrespectful. She talks down to others and belittles their skills - we see this when she recognizes Burnham’s Vulcan martial arts training. 

So, we have three people: one and aspiring officer that clings tightly to the mission and values of Starfleet, one that is a brilliant scientist that resents the military, and one that thrives on aggressive conflict. 2 of the 3 have very little taste for him. 

In a recent episode, I believe the one where we watched Voyager Homestead, I talked about performance appraisals; so exciting, I know. But this is an example of the value of a 360 review - where you ask colleagues, customers, direct reports and others that interact with the person for feedback. You’re going to learn a lot more from a customer they interact with and, hopefully, deliver for, than you will from your observations. In this case, we learn from Saru that Lorca tends to always get his way; and not necessarily in a positive way; Stamets tells us that Lorca is interested in results and sees death and destruction as part of the process; while Landry shows us that he has a taste for violence, especially at the end of the episode when they’re interacting in his lab. 

So, while he may have scored an ok appraisal based on his interaction with Michael in Engineering, the 360 review reveals wildly concerning aspects to this complex individual.  

So, is Lorca going to be a captain that consistently impresses, like Janeway? Well…maybe…but so far, I really wouldn’t bet on it. I am confident, though, we will learn a tremendous amount from him during his time on Discovery. 

<<Hailing Frequencies>>

Do you have any examples of successful change management you’ve used or experienced? I’d love to hear about it! I’m on all the social media @jefftakin Jeff, t as in Tilly, a k i n. If you have enjoyed the Starfleet Leadership Academy, please leave a review and tell a friend or colleague about it.

Now let’s see what we’re going to watch next time…. 

Season 2 of Enterprise, the 6th episode, Marauders. Maybe Archer will get some redemption from us in this one! We’ll see, next time on the Starfleet Leadership Academy.  

Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!