The first season of “Star Trek: Discovery” offered feature-film production values, some interesting characters, and a Klingon-Federation war, yet it was still a bit wanting overall. The story arc of that first year felt a bit clumsily put together (too many cooks?). The final episode of season one felt as if the series was more than ready to put the angsty war arc behind and embrace some good old fashioned Star Trek optimism. Season two of Discovery opens with an episode simply titled “Brother.”
**** RED ALERT! STARSHIP-SIZED SPOILERS!! ****
The story begins with a narration of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green) relating an ancient African myth of a young girl who scattered ashes across the sky and created our Milky Way galaxy. Afterward, we flash back to her childhood, when the orphaned Michael was taken into the home of ambassador Sarek (James Frain) and his human wife Amanda (Mia Kirshner) on the planet Vulcan. She also recalls her initially tense meeting with their young son Spock, who shuns the human girl coming into his home.
The story then jumps to the last seconds of the end of season one, when the USS Discovery intercepts a disabled USS Enterprise, under the command of Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), a character who has literally been in Star Trek since its very beginning, as formerly played by the late Jeffrey Hunter in the original series first pilot, “The Cage.”
After some initial comm difficulty, Pike is beamed aboard the Discovery, along with an alien crew member and a rather arrogant Enterprise science officer who is not Spock, much to Burnham’s surprise. Pike then delicately informs acting captain Saru (the ever-talented Doug Jones) that he is assuming temporary command for a special mission (a scene that reminded me of Kirk breaking similar news to young Captain Decker in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”).
In engineering, there is a nice scene between newly minted Ensign Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman, wielding her character’s new authority as an officer) and Lt. Commander Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), the father of the ship’s unique Spore Drive. A grieving Stamets tells Tilly he is leaving the ship to accept an offer to teach at the Vulcan Science Academy. Stamets is still in mourning following the tragic loss of his lover, Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz). Tilly asks him not to leave, but Stamets is adamant.
Pike does a quick meet-and-greet with the bridge officers as Discovery leaves the disabled Enterprise (currently under repair) and gets underway to discover the source of red, pulsar like signals that are of vital importance to the Federation.
The investigation takes the ship into a natural debris field surrounding a pulsar of very unusual gravitational properties; which make navigation, or use of the transporter, extremely problematic. Using Discovery’s telescopic array, Burnham discovers a crashed Starfleet medical frigate, the USS Hiawatha, on the surface. With possible survivors, Burnham suggests to Pike that they take personal EVA pods down to the surface of an asteroid, since a shuttlecraft would face the same navigational difficulties as any other ship. Before they disembark, Tilly asks if Burnham can bring back a sample of the asteroid, since it has previously unseen gravitational properties. Burnham vows to try.
The sequence that follows is a white-knuckled, dizzying ride through the debris field to the surface of the asteroid. The snobbish Enterprise science officer is killed when he arrogantly rebuffs Michael’s suggestion to switch his pod to manual control. Pike’s pod is also compromised after a minor impact, and his EVA thruster suit malfunctions. Reiterating a conversation between she and Pike earlier, Burnham tells her new captain that Discovery doesn’t leave any of its own behind. With that, she ejects and rescues Pike in the nick of time, hitting the thrusters on her own suit for a soft landing.
On the surface, they find the crashed USS Hiawatha, and encounter several tiny drones which lead them to the survivors, who are being kept alive by sardonic chief engineer (turned-emergency surgeon), Commander Jett Reno (comedian Tig Notaro).
Reno’s ship crashed during the Klingon war, and she is surprised to hear that that war is over and that an armistice has been declared. With Burnham’s valuable aid & assistance, Reno helps prepare her remaining crew for transport up to Discovery. Signal boosters are hastily rigged to the Hiawatha’s transporter room and most of the crew are safely evacuated back to Discovery… except, of course, for Burnham.
During her attempt to outrun the rapidly disintegrating shipwreck (the Hiawatha is being torn apart by the unstable gravity of the region), Burnham catches a piece of white-hot shrapnel in her leg and sees a vision of what appears to be a ‘red angel’ standing before her. The ‘angel’ dissolves into Pike, who has returned to rescue her. They’re beamed back to the Discovery in the nick of time.
In sickbay, Burnham tells Tilly she had the sample in her hand but it didn’t beam up with her, which confirms its physics-defying properties. While recuperating, Burnham comes up with a plan to capture a larger piece of the disintegrating asteroid (which broke up in proximity to the pulsar). The Discovery’s main shuttle bay will open its forcefield, envelop the drifting debris and ensnare it. It works, to the delight of Tilly and Stamets, who high-five each other over this amazing specimen of incalculable value.
Once her leg recovers and the ship returns to assist Enterprise, Burnham asks Pike why her brother isn’t aboard. Pike tells her that Spock had months of leave time accumulated and he has taken it, but Pike isn’t sure exactly where he’s gone. Michael then asks for permission to see Spock’s quarters. There, she listens to her foster brother’s personal logs, which confirm that he took this personal leave to investigate a mysterious ‘red angel.’ The plot thickens…
The overall tone of this season opener is very different from the rather grim melancholy of Season One. Even the color palette is brighter, and the action/adventure quotient is raised as well (the pod flight through the asteroid field rivaled any action sequence seen in the last three Bad Robot Star Trek movies). Rest assured, the series’ feature film quality production values are very much intact. Even the aspect ratio of the series is widened into a more theatrical 2.40 to 1. This would play like gangbusters on a large movie screen…
With a more traditional Star Trek feeling to it, as well as more humor (and less sturm und drang), this first episode of season two is almost like a soft reboot of Discovery, much as Deep Space Nine’s “Way of the Warrior” kind of re-sold that series when it added the character of Worf to the ensemble.
While the regular cast each have their moments in “Brother”, a lion’s share of the episode’s energy and charisma belongs to Anson Mount’s “Captain Pike”; Mount’s performance not only recalls Jeffrey Hunter’s, but also fits in very easily with his (temporary) new crew. He has an effortless charm that brightens the entire show. It’s almost a shame that the series is making an attempt to fit this timeline in with the original series, because we then know Pike’s assignment will only be a temporary one (not to mention the horrible fate awaiting Pike a few years later in “The Menagerie”).
Sonequa Martin Green gives it her all (as usual), but once again, her melancholy Michael is often outshone by her lighthearted costars, particularly the aforementioned Anson Mount (now the fourth actor to play Pike in Trek’s history), the ridiculously talented Doug Jones (whom I had the pleasure of running into last weekend at a trade show in Pasadena), and the charming, babbling Mary Wiseman as Ensign Tilly. The ever-nervous and awkward Tilly jokes with Stamets that she is “drunk with power” as a newly minted officer, and the actress has a lot of fun playing that new aspect of her character.
If I have any nagging nits, they’re with the story. I’m not quite sure if this second “Search For Spock” has the legs to carry a season. The ‘red angel’ arc could also be very easily mishandled, since Star Trek has traditionally been leery of religion, and has embraced a long history of secular humanism. As Spock himself once stated in the Original Series episode, “The Galileo Seven”, “I, for one, do not believe in angels.” Since TOS takes place several years after the events of Discovery, that admission kind of takes the surprise out of this new angel arc. We know the crew won’t be encountering a ‘real’ angel, otherwise older Spock wouldn’t doubt their existence in his own ‘future’.
If the red angel is just another godlike alien, it also runs the risk of history repeating itself since godlike aliens are something of a cliche in Star Trek (Apollo, Q, Trelane, the Metrons, the Prophets, etc.). Star Trek has debunked far too many would-be gods…
Nits aside, this first episode of the second season felt fresh, had some stunningly theatrical action-adventure scenes, and best of all, there were nice helpings of subtle, character-driven humor. Anson Mount’s charismatic interpretation of Captain Pike will be very much missed when his tour of duty aboard Discovery is over, though I’m also looking forward to when Captain Saru is ready to take the center seat someday.