Redirected from her prison transfer under mysterious circumstances, Michael Burnham finally finds herself aboard the USS Discovery in Episode 3, "Context Is For Kings." It quickly becomes apparent that this isn't your standard Federation vessel, as the halls of the Discovery are populated by security officers with black badges, and ominous "black alert" warnings flash throughout the night. So what exactly has Burnham got herself sucked into? Well, even the USS Discovery is just a point in history, and it looks like this new show has plunged headfirst into one of the Federation's darkest secrets.
What Is Section 31?
Every major power in the Alpha Quadrant has a secret service running parallel with their respective militaries and conducting missions under the pretense of protection. The Romulans have the Tal Shiar, the Cardassians have the Obsidian Order, and for decades, the Federation prided itself on having no equivalent to the spy networks of their enemies. But, as we discovered in the later seasons of Deep Space Nine, there is indeed such a corrupt agency at the heart of the Starfleet charter — but most of the Federation is oblivious, making Section 31 even more powerful, and even more dangerous than its counterparts.
This organization was established when the Starfleet Charter was created in the 2120s, a few decades before the Federation was founded in 2151. Their name refers to the legislation that allows them to exist: Article 14, Section 31 of the Charter, which states that when the Federation (then the United Earth) faces extreme existential threat, extraordinary measures may be taken to destroy this threat. Naturally, the wording of this was so vague that Section 31 soon became a full-blown agency acting independently to the Federation — and frequently flouting Federation law. Section 31 even defied the Geneva Convention's prohibitions of biological weapons to end the vicious Dominion War, defeating the Founders using a morphogenic virus. Sound familiar?
In Star Trek: Discovery, Burnham suspects that Lorca is betraying Federation law in order to further the war effort. And although he isn't constructing a biological weapon, as she accused, Lorca definitely believes in bending the rules in times of extreme threat. As he says to Burnham: "universal laws are for lackeys, but context is for kings."
The USS Discovery May Be A Section 31 Ship
So here's the theory: Lorca could either be part of Section 31, or he may have been given a mission by the clandestine organization. As Jason Isaacs told TVLine, Lorca has been tasked with winning the war as soon as possible — and he's been given special permissions to achieve his goals.
"They’re losing, and the Federation has no idea what to do. He’s good at war so they go, 'Do something. Here’s some technology we think it might lead to something.' But the kid gloves are off. 'You have license here. We’re forgetting the Geneva Convention. All the normal rules of civil engagement are gone for you. Hire who you want, fire who you want, because if you lose this war with the Klingons, it’s the death of not just the crews, or the ships, but billions of people across many different planets'."
Isaacs' words parallel Section 31's very reason for existing — the permission to take extreme measures in times of extreme danger to the Federation. And this would answer a lot of questions we already have about the show.
We know that there are over 300 separate scientific missions being conducted aboard the USS Discovery, and that no department head knows exactly what their research is being used for. This aggravates Lt Stamets, who airs his grievances with Lorca to Burnham in Episode 3. With Lorca getting an "above top secret" message partway through the episode, it's clear that the USS Discovery is a ship of secrets, running mysterious tests in pursuit of an apparently noble goal.
If this mission was indeed set by Section 31, this could also explain why we've never heard of the spore-based instantaneous transportation that the Discovery is investigating. Of course, it could be that Stamets just never got panspermia to work, or that it causes so many horrific side-effects that the Federation cancelled the project. But maybe, just maybe, panspermia does work but Section 31 buried the evidence, choosing to keep this amazing method of flight to themselves.
And then there's the most obvious clue that the USS Discovery is a Section 31 ship, hiding in plain sight: Its numeral designation is the NCC-1031.
Of course, it could be that Lorca is just the "warmonger" that Stamets says he is, that he's breaking rules because he's set on achieving his goal. But with Isaacs' hints to TVLine, along with all the mysteries infesting the halls of the USS Discovery, it would be a shame if this interesting dimension to the story was lost — so keep your tricorders scanning for more clues about Section 31.
Tell us in the comments: Do you think the USS Discovery is a Section 31 ship?