Star Trek: Discovery’s second season premiere doesn’t waste much time. Within ten minutes, we’ve got our portentous opening narration; a flashback establishing Michael Burnham’s difficult relationship with her brother; and, in the present day, Christopher Pike beaming over to the Discovery from a severely damaged Enterprise, to take over the ship and investigate one of seven red bursts that appeared simultaneously in the galaxy. So, we’ve got tone, we’ve got the emotional linchpin of the season, and we’ve got the first big arc. It’s efficient, if nothing else.
This is not a new approach for the series. Last season rocketed through multiple arcs that most shows would’ve spent half a dozen episodes teasing along; it result in a narrative that was energetic, passionate, and occasionally hard to keep hold of. Any time you found yourself settling into some new status quo, any time you had a chance to breathe and start getting attached to the characters, something new came along and flipped over the table. Any other show, I’d guess that the sudden swerves were the result of a lot of behind-the-scenes upheaval, but while Discovery has had its woes, it’s also possible to believe that this is just how the folks running things think a TV show ought to be.
And who knows? Maybe they’re right; or at any rate, maybe they can make it work in the long run. “Brother” hits the ground running a little too fast to my taste, barely giving us a chance to breathe before throwing another action set-piece in our faces. But it gets better as it goes along, to the point where I found myself actually won over by the second half. Maybe I was settling into the rhythms, maybe I just didn’t have the strength to resist anymore; maybe it was having Tig Notaro show up when I’d completely forgotten she was slated to do a guest run this season. Whatever the reason, I came away positive on “Brother”—with, of course, caveats.
The biggest caveat isn’t going to surprise anyone, but I’m going to get it out of my system now: the show’s existence as a prequel continues to both make damnably little sense in terms of continuity and encourage the writers’ hackiest impulses. For the former, there’s a brief effort made to wave away Discovery’s pretty astonishing tech as just a function of resources—Pike’s team is impressed by the ship and Pike claims it’s just evidence of what Starfleet can do when it throws a lot of money at something. Which… sure. It’s dumb, and the fact that no one involved was apparently willing to even pretend to use the limitations of a prequel story as a way to raise stakes and make for more interesting storytelling is annoying, but fine, you want your shiny CGI, enjoy your shiny CGI.
The other problem is more complicated, because it’s less of a matter of aesthetics. I cringed when the Enterprise showed up at the end of last season, and this premiere (in case you’d missed the casting notices) makes it clear that it’s not going to be a fluke. The show isn’t just dabbling with classic Trek characters, it’s rubbing your face in them, and while adult Spock doesn’t appear in this episode, it’s clear he’s going to be a very important figure going forward. Burnham has a difficult relationship with her brother, and Spock, who has taken an indefinite leave of absence, apparently had nightmares about the red bursts before they arrived.
That’s a big deal, which means Spock is definitely going to show up, and, well. I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, I don’t think they should keep bringing back Spock. Zachary Quinto was all right as the character, but Leonard Nimoy is really the only person who could do the role justice, and every time they try and bring him back, we’re just reminded of what we lost. Spock is my favorite character from the original series—and my favorite character from the entire franchise—and it’s disappointing to see him dragged back out here for what is, at least on one level, a pretty obvious attempt to play off pre-existing audience investment in a much loved figure.
But on the other hand (mind?), viewed purely in the context of the show itself, I think this storyline could be a good one. Viewed as something entirely separate, Burnham’s relationship with her brother could yield some interesting results, and the mystery surrounding this Spock is interesting in a way that could prove fun down the line. Pike is a little too close to Lorca to my tastes, but given that we already know Pike from regular continuity, unless they throw a curveball down the line, it’s nice to have someone around who Burnham can bounce off of. Basically, unlike the wildly uneven Klingon storyline last season, all of the “classic” Trek in “Brother” is quite good, provided you ignore it has anything to do with classic Trek.
That’s what I’m going to try to do going forward. There are still problems here—the show’s reliance on emotionally manipulative scoring and people constantly talking about how wonderful the Discovery is can be hard to swallow at times; and, while it’s clearly not a complaint that’s going to last past this episode, introducing a science officer from the Enterprise who’s a complete asshole to Burnham solely for the purpose of red-shirting him during an action scene is hacky as hell. We already know Burnham is smart and capable, we don’t need people to underestimate her (or to be repeatedly impressed by her abilities) to make her interesting.
Apart from that, though, this thrilling stuff, and Notaro’s dry-as-dust genius engineer shows signs of the series pushing harder on its sense of humor. Some of my favorite moments in “Brother” were the jokes, and nearly all of them worked without breaking the mood. The only real downer was Tilly, who spent far too much time in the first half just being obnoxiously nervous about everything (she’s essentially a female version of Barclay, who was fascinating but only in limited doses; the fact that Tilly is a member of the central ensemble could get rough fast). Thankfully once Tilly found a project, she could a lot more interesting, and the resolution of her short storyline was one of the hour’s high points.
The show still looks great; a little too reliant on the blue-gold thing, but still, slick and thrilling, with some striking moments (I particularly liked Pike coming to Burnham’s rescue and looking like some weird glowing tentacle thing—although if that turns out to be foreshadowing about Pike’s real identity or something, I’m going to be annoyed) throughout. And the premiere doesn’t feel like a prologue in the way that the two-part season one opener did. There’s a sense, however temporary, that the show we’re seeing here is the one we’re going to get for a while. Here’s hoping.
- I appreciate that Pike makes a point of getting everyone’s name on the bridge. I didn’t catch them all, but taken as a statement of purpose (in that maybe we’ll actually get to know some of these people now?), it’s nice.
- “I’m not Lorca,” says Pike, in case someone with face blindness saw a charismatic white guy who doesn’t play by the rules and was worried they were watching season one again.
- “Detmer… fly good.” -Pike (I like Pike. Anson Mount has a different energy than Jason Isaacs, and it works.)
- It bothers me a little when Burnham gives a big speech about what the Discovery will and won’t do, because it really doesn’t feel like we’ve had enough time to get any sense of this crew beyond vague, optimistic platitudes. The show loves throwing out grand pronouncements but has no interest in doing the work necessary to back those pronouncements up.
- “Body’s just a machine. And I read.” -I forgot to mention that Tig Notaro’s character is named Jet Reno, which is amazing.
- Literally no one mourns Connelly. Be honest: you forgot who he was until I mentioned him again.