But now, with episode 3, “Context Is for Kings,” which debuted on Sunday, all bets are off. The story leaps into a treacherous new landscape directed by what seems so far to be an unpredictable leader, Captain Gabriel Lorca.
Lorca is portrayed by Harry Potter franchise alum Jason Isaacs — that’s right, the guy who brought Draco Malfoy’s sinister dad, Lucius, to life is at the helm of this starship. And we couldn’t be happier.
In episode 3, lead character Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) eventually deduces that she’s been kidnapped out of her prison transport by Lorca, who, under the guise of “no free rides,” puts her to work. It’s all a test. Lorca has been in control since before she even stepped on that shuttle.
Rotten Tomatoes got an early look at the episode and spoke to Isaacs before it hit audiences to learn a bit more about what makes Lorca tick — and if that ticking we hear might just be a time bomb. While he couldn’t reveal story to come, of course, he did talk to us about the introduction of the Star Trek universe’s newest captain.
— Star Trek: Discovery (@startrekcbs) October 2, 2017
After an “accident” on the prison shuttle, the series engages in some starship porn, including the sexiest tractor-beam action in our Star Trek memory (feel free to disagree in the comments). It’s Fifty Shades of Star Trek, starring fresh–off–the–assembly line U.S.S. Discovery.
The shuttle rescued, introductions made, and a lunchroom dust-up diffused, the starship’s security chief, Commander Landry (Rekha Sharma), deposits Burnham in Lorca’s ready room.
Time to meet the captain.
In a fantastic touch of visual storytelling, stars scattered across a black field reflect in Lorca’s eyes as he apologizes, his back to Burnham, for the darkened room. A recent battle wound requires that he allow his eyes to slowly adjust to light.
“I wanted to think it makes me mysterious,” he says, turns, and pauses. “No?”
Lorca doesn’t care really. He’s not a guy who looks for approval, it strikes us. It’s another test maybe: Will Burnham be lured into a game of small talk and social pleasantries? No.
Over the course of the rest of the episode, we find out that this Captain Lorca isn’t playing by the standard rules of engagement — war, interpersonal, or otherwise. Wartime requires a strategist, and someone, we suspect from this initial glimpse of Lorca, who’s going to throw the rulebooks out of the window. But first he’s going to set them on fire and lay some explosives for good measure. That’s a guess. We’ll see as the season goes on.
But prepare yourself: If either James T. Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard were previously your favorite captain, with this enigmatic new commander, you may find yourself rethinking your allegiances.
Debbie Day for Rotten Tomatoes: I am so excited to talk to you after seeing episode 3. Oh. My. Goodness.
Isaacs: Well you have an advantage, because I haven’t seen it.
RT: Sorry, what? Really?
Isaacs: Yeah, I haven’t seen it. I’m just looking through the script as I’m talking to you to remind myself what’s in it since we have shot many, many, many hours. Just to remember. I know it’s when you first meet me. I remember that, for sure.
RT: Yes, it’s where we first meet you, and it’s such an epic moment — for, I think, any starship captain, the big introduction to the character. No pressure. So let’s just start at the beginning: How does it feel to take on that role?
Isaacs: You know, if I even began to think that I was taking on a starship captain I would collapse in a little pile of jelly. So, it’s just a part. It’s a guy who’s in charge of a spaceship trying to win a war. And I’ve got, you know, various agendas and various cracks in my makeup and stuff, and all the other stuff actually occasionally hits you in waves. You try not to think about it.
So when I stood there and I had the first scene in which I said, “Energize,” a little kind of out-of-body experience and thought, F— me, I just said, “Energize.” Why is nobody else paying attention to that? You know? Why isn’t anybody else kind of welling with tears? But most of the time, in order to stay loose and in order to, you know, do the job, which is to try to win the war, I forget about all of it. I try and — successfully, I think — cast from my mind anybody’s expectations and any of the legacy of it. Because you just couldn’t get out of bed.
RT: I get that. The “energize” — for me, as a fan of the franchise, it was a big moment.
RT: I had to re-watch it, because I thought, Wait, how did he say it?
Isaacs: I mean, you’ve just got to throw it away. Everything in life for me is a tennis metaphor because I’m a tennis player. And you see these people come on who are perfectly able to win, they come on the center court, and they freeze up. And they play like they’ve never held a racket before. And it’s always tension and it’s always expectation and stuff, and so my job is to — if you came to the set, you’d see me clowning around, making appalling jokes, playing bad music, singing in an annoying fashion, and it’s all just to keep myself completely in the moment and fresh and banish any thoughts of Bill Shatner and Leonard Nimoy hitting those dizzy heights.
RT: That brings up some other questions. You said in a CBS video —
Isaacs: Oh, if there’s actual video then I can’t pretend I didn’t say it. Damn, OK.
RT: You said that William Shatner was your captain.
Isaacs: Yeah. He wasn’t just my captain; he was my idea of what a man was.
Isaacs: I was a kid, clammed on the couch there, and that’s — in my family, I don’t mean to describe the cultural desert I lived in in any negative way, it was fantastic, but all we ever did was watch television — that was my entire cultural life. And so all of my pictures of what the world was, and who I might be, and what choices you had came from these characters on television. And he seared himself into my mind. He was a swaggering, macho, witty, fearless, loyal, tough, you know, starship captain. And I’m sure — I’m 100 percent sure I never lived up to any of those things in my head, but he became part of the thing that you model yourself on.
RT: I ask this in all sincerity: Which genius can we credit with you being cast in this role?
Isaacs: Oh, I have absolutely no idea. You know, here’s the thing: You can ask them, and they’ll say they never had anyone else in mind. That’s what people say all the time when they’ve gone through 12 other people who were too expensive or not available. I’ve no idea why I’m in this; I haven’t worked with any of the people before. I’ve worked with all the crew before, on a series called The State Within. I got there and recognized all of them.
But, who thought I was a good idea? I don’t know, and we actually had quite a lengthy chat. At first, I was quite reluctant to jump in, because it’s one long story — I wanted to know what the long story was. And there was a kind of little dance around each other, and on the second Skype call, with a whole bunch of them, at some point Akiva Goldsman stepped in and said, “Look, I’ll be honest with you, we’re not quite sure yet. We want you to be part of the discussion.” And that was what swung it for me, because, unlike the normal Star Trek weekly morality play, this is one rich, complex, single tale.
And I wanted to have some idea of where I was going and what was going to happen, and it was the moment they kind of went, “Come and join the party. These are our ideas at the moment. They may change, and we’d like to hear your ideas,” I thought they sounded like a bunch of people I wanted to work with.
RT: I thought, Brilliant! when I heard that you were cast.
Isaacs: Thank you so much. I mean, I am aware now, having shot most of it, and having engaged online, all the stuff I cast from my mind is very much front and center and making me walk into lampposts. The expectations from people, what they hope for and what they fear, and the very loud noise that people with three followers — which are Russian bots — can make online. I mean, you can’t avoid the kind of analysis that I would run in the other direction from. Everywhere I go, people are telling me what they think. So, I haven’t been on yet, but I have no doubt that every single device I have will be telling me either how well I’m doing or how crap I’m doing, and I know which ones I always believe.
RT: I will find out how people are reacting, and I will probably write about it.
Isaacs: No, I mean, really that’s the weird thing. It’s an amazing community of fans. I’ve started to meet some of them, and they’re just incredible. The kind of depth of both obsessive detail and also the love they have for it, it’s a different thing from the Potter world, because these adults who chose this as adults, they weren’t — A lot of the Potter fans, who are equally passionate, it feels like it was a kind of inner architecture of their youth, those seven books. But this is something people have chosen as adults and chosen to fill their life with. They feel incredibly protective.
So, I have no expectation that they’re all going to love it. Some people are not going to love it, some people are initially going to react against it, and then I’m sure, like all the other series, they’ll become a beloved part of canon. But there’ll be the moment of the bends, you know, where it comes to the surface and it no longer is ours. This thing we’ve been making behind closed doors belongs to everybody else in the Trek world.
RT: I think they’re going to find that your Captain Lorca is — at least my feeling was — a very different captain than they’re used to.
Isaacs: Oh, yeah.
RT: But that’s a great thing, because you don’t want to just see a rehash of something.
Isaacs: No, no. If I’d seen an echo anywhere of any of the other great captains I’ve admired, I would’ve said, “Thanks, I can’t wait to see it.” No, it’s because he was nothing like them at all and a kind of figure who kept himself to himself and didn’t, you know — the others were very accessible; that was the point of their stories. But since the focus of this is Michael Burnham, I’m more of the kind of leaders I’ve actually encountered in the police and the army and stuff when I’ve played those parts. They’re people who are of the mindset that to fraternize too much or to open yourself too much to your crew is to lose authority. So he carries a lot of the burden by himself.
RT: You described your character as a “messed-up guy.”
Isaacs: No, I said he’s a “f—ed-up guy.”
RT: Oh, did you? Because in the video you say “messed-up guy.”
Isaacs: That might be an edit. It might be take two.
RT: I believe you. And I think that was one of the things that differentiated this character from some of the previous captains. I thought, This guy’s a little bit unhinged.
Isaacs: Well, he’s seen a lot of war. He’s a wartime leader. Like in The Godfather, he’s a wartime consigliere, you know. This is a guy who should be in charge during war. May not be the right person to be in charge during an exploratory, you know, voyage and all, when you’re looking to sign peace treaties. But he’s certainly the guy to send in when people are shooting at you, and you want to shoot at them first. And that means, you know, he’s been through some things in the past that have shaped who he is, and he expects things from the people around him that they may not be qualified for, that he needs to push them towards, in his mind, in order to survive. And that makes for the kinds of dramas that hopefully will be engaging to watch.
RT: I think so, absolutely. That was one of my questions, actually, because in the episode — just to dive into the episode itself now — Lorca says that his mission is to “win the war and send everyone home safe and happy.”
RT: Which is such a departure from the Enterprise’s mission: “To explore strange new worlds, seek out new life —”
Isaacs: Well, of course, the Enterprise is 10 years later, so some of the people, the Federation’s directives, and the kind of atmosphere that you see on the ship in 10 years’ time are not the ones you’re going to have at this time. They haven’t fully been formed, and it may not be as united as it was. And there are wars — this war, at least — to get through. Maybe others. And you know, they will come to a point in 10 years’ time — if the series is on for 10 years or however long — they’ll come to a point where we meet, you know, where we present the world as we first met it, at the beginning of the original series. But it’s not that world. It’s not there yet.
RT: I was going to ask you about introductions, but since you haven’t seen the episode, I’m not sure if —
Isaacs: No I have, I’ve seen that scene, because you have to ADR a lot of these scenes. There’s a lot of door noises and creaking, so I have actually seen a couple of the scenes. And I’ve had a chance to look through the script as I was talking to you.
There’s a couple of things I felt told you a lot about Lorca, and one of them is that he’s always looking out, he’s looking out the window when you meet him. And he’s looking out at the screen when he fights. He doesn’t sit in the chair — I didn’t want to sit in the chair. He’s a man of action. He likes to be up and doing things, he doesn’t like to be sitting down, pressing buttons or giving orders. So he can’t keep himself sat down. He stands in front of the big screen on the bridge and conducts the war like an orchestra, and even in his little ready room, he feels trapped, he feels like an animal, trapped in there. And so he’s constantly looking out the window at where he thinks they ought to be, or he wants to be. And I thought that tells you something about his restless nature.
RT: I hadn’t actually thought about that, but come to think of it — thinking back on the episode, you are correct, sir.
RT: That definitely is something that comes across.
Isaacs: Well, unless they put a different edit in. You can’t embarrass yourself as an actor and talk about a scene and then, you see the thing and think, Oh sh–, it’s not there anymore. But anyway, I think that’s in there.
RT: It’s all in there. Exactly what you just described is definitely in there. I was just going to say that the introduction of the ship is so visually beautiful that it might actually upstage your introduction, I’m sorry to have to tell you.
Isaacs: Yeah, fair enough. I was in Hollywood last week where we had the premiere of the first two episodes, which I’m not in, and all of us were stunned by the stuff we didn’t see, because we just filmed on the set. And all of a sudden there’s space and there’s incredible effects and there’s the ship and a bunch of, you know, battle stuff, and none of us had seen it before.
It reminded me of some of the times — in Harry Potter, for instance, there’s a whole sequence where I have a mask on my face. And they sell that mask everywhere, and I sign lots of them. And I never saw a mask, there was nothing there when I shot, I just put my hand in front of my face, and they — it was created in some motherboard, months later. So, similarly, the scale, and beauty, and elegance and intimidating — otherworldliness of so much of these episodes wasn’t there when we shot, and we were all slightly slack-jawed the other day when we saw it.
RT: Well, I can’t wait for you to see all of episode 3 — it’s amazing.
Isaacs: Well, there’s some other stuff that happens, as you know, later on, to do with the — ah [clears throat] we’re not going to talk about, but the particularly unique science that is available on the Discovery and the reason it might be the ship that helps them win the war. And it read like they were going to do something extraordinary, but I had no idea what they would come up with. You know, the drive, and what when I give Sonequa a little sample of it. So I can’t wait to see what they did with that.
RT: Lorca seems to have this menagerie of wondrous and dangerous things, including the Tribble and his new kitty. Is he a casual collector, or is that part of the mission?
Isaacs: Oh, no, god no. This guy is gathering resources to work out how best to win this war against this superior enemy, who have superior technology everywhere. So, in the ready room is a Tribble, and that’s just enjoyable and relaxing, but in his study, in Lorca’s study — you know, menagerie, science lab, den, whatever you’d like to call it — there are all kinds of deadly and lethal things, and that’s why he puts the tardigrade there, you know. There are all kinds of things that may or may not be the key to some breakthrough that will help give him the edge.
If you don’t have superior firepower, or man power, people power, whatever it is, then you better find some edge, and this is technological war. And it’ll be won by the people that can kill the most the fastest.
And, so he’s got a bunch of stuff that is banned in there, technically banned, but the Federation have given this guy license because they’re panicked. Of course that’s what happens in war, you know? We have the Geneva Convention until, suddenly, you think you’re losing, and it goes out the window. So, you know, Britain was observing the international rules of engagement, until things didn’t go well, and then we carpet-bombed Dresden. So, he’s the guy that has been given license, you know, a kind of discretionary nod, to do whatever’s necessary.
And these are things that, you know, unfortunately we’re still engaged with in the world today. There was a period of time when almost all civil rights that we had come to think were fully enshrined in the Constitution and in British law, too, were suspended after 9/11. When the Patriot Act came in and various — The right to silence disappeared here [in Britain]; you know, you’re implicating yourself if you didn’t defend yourself, a bunch of other stuff, and redaction, waterboarding, all these things. All these things are part of what makes our show, set in the future, so relevant today.
RT: So the episode includes references to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Applying that as metaphor, is Lorca the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, or the Queen of Hearts — or something else?
Isaacs: I’m going to say something else. Lorca’s Lorca. And Lewis Carroll missed a trick by not putting him in the story.
Star Trek: Discovery streams Sundays at 8:30/5:30 p.m. ET/PT on CBS All-Access.
Watch more: Jason Isaacs spoke to Rotten Tomatoes in June about his role on Netflix surprise hit The OA, which has been renewed for a second season.