If season 1 of Star Trek: Discovery taught us anything, it’s that, for the most part, each episode is only part of the story. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who has witnessed the evolution of storytelling on television over the last twenty years; episodic TV is a thing of the past, and in genres like science fiction especially, serialized storytelling is king. Last season, a lot of people were quick to dismiss what Discovery was trying to do because they only bothered with the first few episodes. But it was over the course of the entire 15 episode first season that the story of Michael Burnham and the war with the Klingons unfolded. It had an arc that didn’t even clearly convey its central thesis (the arrogance of the Federation’s expansionist idea of peace and enlightenment, among other things) until about halfway through.
On top of that, as a serialized show in the 21st century, it took time for it to find its footing. Even discounting the change in showrunners and the added pressure of existing within the framework of an over 50-year-old franchise, and no less as a prequel, that’s a normal thing for TV shows these days. And I really do think it wound up finding its footing. As the season wore in, it become more optimistic, more lighthearted, it featured more technology and exploration, and it made its points, all within the framework of a modern, serialized show, something I think Star Trek in 2019 needs to be.
In season 2, it’s going to have to do all of these things over again, because a subtle promise in the season’s build up and marketing is that this is sort of a soft-reboot of Disovery. The showrunners have changed again (during production, even), fully eliminating Bryan Fuller’s imprint on the show, other than his name as creator in the opening sequence, and making it Alex Kurtzman’s. Some of the pressure has been lifted off Discovery’s shoulders, with the promise of no less than half a dozen other Trek series in the works, including the highly anticipated return of Sir Patrick Stewart to the role of Captain Picard, but the pressure to make Discovery bigger and better persists, all while finding a way to channel that old school notion of what it means to be Star Trek.
I thoroughly enjoyed “Brother”, the season 2 premiere, but I must warn anyone watching or planning to watch that there’s no way that it can satisfy everyone’s desires of what they want Star Trek to be. Watching the episode it was clear to me that Kurtzman and the writers have abandoned the idea of boldly taking Trek into completely new places, instead focusing on balancing this new version of the franchise with a more familiar tone. In season 2, Discovery is funnier, lighter, more positive and brighter. There are times where it’s almost obnoxious, but they always find a way to reel it back.
It’s a premiere and the show is serialized, so it still sets up a story that will play out over multiple episodes if not the entire season, but there are missions within the episode that manage to get resolved, notably a rescue mission on a Starfleet medical freighter thought to have been lost during the Klingon war. The freighter is stuck in an asteroid field where the physics are wonky, due to a mysterious event that the ship is tasked with investigating, but the nature of that event is put on the back burner (since there are seven things they need to investigate) in favour of focusing on the rescue mission, as the crew is forced to take individual pods out to the asteroid where the ship has crashed.
As a result, like the season 1 premiere, it’s an episode with a lot of action. But a different kind of action, as no phasers are fired, and there is no confrontation with an alien species. It’s purely a rescue mission, and you can tell the writers specifically chose this path to differentiate season 2 from what came before.
The effort appears elsewhere as well. As already noted, this is a much funnier, light-hearted episode, and that’s displayed not only in what they find on the ship (where the surviving officer is a dry-witted engineer played by the driest of dry comedians, Tig Notaro), but also in how the crew copes with its new leader, Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount, joining the cast), who commandeers the Discovery in order to complete the mission of investigating the seven synchronized events after the Enterprise sustains heavy damage. The crew is apprehensive, because they don’t know much about Pike and he sort of steamrolls them, and they’re still reeling from not one, but two Mirror Universe evil captain reveals. Pike makes it a point to prove to them he’s not Gabriel Lorca. He jokes with them, he makes it a point to learn their names, he’s even a fan of furniture in ready rooms. And he understands that he’s encroaching on Saru’s territory, so he gives him the space he needs as the ship’s number one and, up to his arrival, acting captain. As much as this episode is about establishing this new threat and saving that freighter, it’s about establishing Pike as the new captain and starting to build new relationships.
I really like the Captain Pike portrayed in this episode. He’s different than the other iterations we’ve seen, but very much in line with what you’d expect the predecessor to Captain Kirk to be like. He’s funny, incredibly charming and a bit of a rogue or a maverick. He comes from a ship on a long-term deep-space mission, so he plays a little more fast and loose with the rules than a Saru, which puts him in a nice spot between Saru and Burnham, the latter of which has her own tendency to bend rules and do things her own way. Pike knows things are different on a ship that experienced the war, and he feels bad for being ordered to sit it out, so he respects and lionizes Saru, but he very quickly bonds with Burnham, between their similarities and their mutual acquaintance in Spock. That makes Pike the perfect addition to this show, even though some might continue to think this prequel/TOS stuff is shoehorned in, and Anson Mount is pitch perfect in his portrayal.
And, of course, it’s also about Burnham and her family problems, as the arrival of the Enterprise brings up the curious absence of one Mr. Spock, her foster brother, who has taken leave from his duties on the Enterprise and not spoken to Pike, Burnham, or his father Sarek in a long time. The episode starts with a lengthy flashback to Burnham’s first day in Sarek’s home, and Spock’s initial rejection of his new foster sister. Later on Burnham blames herself for their failed relationship as faux-siblings. But visiting his quarters on the Enterprise, she discovers that Spock had something to hide, and that it might play in this larger mission with Pike. We don’t see adult Spock just yet, but we know he’s coming, as Ethan Peck has been cast in the role and seen in some of the trailers.
All of this makes for a lot to set up for the premiere, and we haven’t even mentioned Stamets’ decision to leave the ship for a teaching gig, abandoning his research with the Mycellium network, or the dark matter asteroid that they bring on board. All of this, obviously, will play out over the course of the season, but it sets up a good base, and it balances all of these elements fairly well. That’s kind of the point of making a more action-oriented premiere. You have a lot to set up, it won’t pan out for a few episodes, so here’s an exciting space jump to tide you over (including a pitch-perfect redshirt death). “Brother” establishes a good pace for us to work with as Discovery launches into new territory this season. I’m excited about the Red Angel stuff, I’m curious to see how the Spock stuff plays out, I’m elated at how good Anson Mount is as Pike and the new dynamic with the crew, and I’m optimistic about the show’s promise to be more about science and exploration, between the seven missions they’ve already set up and the dark matter asteroid they have sitting in the shuttle bay. And that’s pretty much what you can expect out of a soft-reboot premiere like this.
“Brother” gets 8 snarky redshirt comments out of 10.