The show returns for its second season with a very enjoyable premiere that nevertheless leans heavily on Star Trek’s history.
Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for January 13 through 19 is “Brother,” the season two premiere of CBS All Access’s Star Trek: Discovery.
From the first, Star Trek: Discovery has been trapped between the twin impulses of finding a way to modernize Star Trek by creating a darker, more serialized version of one of TV’s oldest standbys and leaning so hard into the series’ canon that it topples over.
In season one, for instance, it took a trip to the Mirror Universe — a famous “dark” parallel universe that’s recurred throughout Star Trek’s history; the move was clearly intended to draw on fans’ nostalgia, but it also served to underline the darkness of the Mirror Universe. (Cue Troy from Community GIF.) Such stories were a thoughtful examination of the old idea that sometimes we are our own worst enemies, and they helped ground a series that was occasionally too busy but always interested in how one lives up to utopian ideals when the going gets rough. (I wrote much more about this on the occasion of the season one finale.)
But Discovery’s first season was never close to universally acclaimed. To be fair, plenty of Star Trek fans loved it. But those who didn’t were loud. They didn’t like the series’ skew away from space-stalgic optimism, or the way the characters sometimes did the wrong thing. Nor did they like that Discovery is set 10 years before the original Star Trek but appears to have wildly more advanced technology because of how good and cheap computer effects are now. (Original Star Trek, from 1966, mostly relied on dudes in monster suits, and it was great.)
Well, “Brother,” the long-awaited season two premiere of the show, plots a course to slam directly into that tension — and that’s what makes it such a promising start.
“Brother” invites the franchise’s past over for some light verbal sparring and maybe a cup of tea
The end of Discovery’s first season could have made a pessimist fear that the series hadn’t established its own identity strongly enough.
After wrapping things up in slightly anti-climactic fashion (Discovery is one of the few shows on TV that want you to cheer when there are no explosions), the series seemed to jet off into the unknown reaches of space. With a new crew firmly established and a new mission of scientific research to undertake, the USS Discovery could finally get out of the Sturm und Drang of season one and let Star Trek be Star Trek again.
Then at the end of the season one finale, it answered a distress signal and ran smack-dab into the USS Enterprise. Yes, that USS Enterprise. The one that will shuttle around Kirk and Spock and McCoy, and later Picard and Riker and Data. The one that is the franchise’s single most iconic image — that big, circular starship cruising along through space as William Shatner dictates some purple prose into his captain’s log.
Now, part of the subtext of Discovery’s first season was that it centered on a group of people who traditionally wouldn’t be at the center of stories like this — in ways both literal, like series lead Michael (Sonequa Martin-Green), a black woman with a promising future in Starfleet, and more metaphorical, like the strange alien Saru (Doug Jones), who can sense death and eventually became Discovery’s captain. Michael, Saru, and their peers spent the season struggling under the yoke of a seemingly benevolent white dude who eventually revealed himself to be a sociopath with nobody’s best interests at heart. (As played by Jason Isaacs, that character, Lorca, was still fitfully fascinating.)
So on the surface, there’s something a little frustrating to the idea of a big, fun space adventure featuring the crew of the Discovery — the most diverse crew of a Star Trek show yet — finding its mission waylaid by Captain Pike, the guy who commanded the Enterprise before Kirk took over. At worst, it could end up being a baldfaced repeat of Discovery season one, with a different seemingly avuncular white guy captain turning out to have ulterior motives. At best, it could feel like raising a white flag to the show’s fan base — “Let us have our space fun and we’ll give you some hardcore fan service.”
But maybe I should amend that “at best,” because “Brother” lets Pike be something Lorca never was: fun. Vulture’s Devon Maloney, in her recap of the episode, described Pike as someone trying too hard to be a cool stepdad, and that is exactly his vibe.
As played by Anson Mount, he’s got the kind of energy that suggests he could just as easily be starring in a 1930s sci-fi serial named Captain Pike Among the Moonmen! as on this program. And then he’d leave a copy of the Moonmen! DVD out on his coffee table, so you might ask about it and he could gush about his exploits.
On one hand, “Brother” nearly throws out its back as it strains to incorporate lots of flashy action sequences. (A barely controlled descent through an asteroid field goes on at least a couple of minutes too long.) But on the other, it also introduces a fascinating mystery (a strange signal the Enterprise has been tracking without much success), some fun new characters (particularly Tig Notaro as an engineer who taught herself surgery to keep a bunch of critically injured crew members alive and is named “Jet Reno”), and a sure sense of how to blend episodic spacefaring adventures with a longer-term serialized arc.
And, oh yeah, it has Spock. Sort of.
The way Discovery uses Spock is the most worrisome part of “Brother.” But the way the show is trying to use him could pay dividends.
The opening of “Brother” features Michael offering a lengthy monologue in voiceover that touches on her relationship with her estranged foster brother — Spock. This is not a new development — Discovery’s first season established Michael as the ward of Sarek (James Frain), whom Star Trek fans know as Spock’s dad — but it did briefly make me worry that season two is planning to go all in on favorite Star Trek characters from the franchise’s past.
“Brother” doesn’t provide any conclusive proof that this season won’t do that — we hear an audio recording that Spock made at one point, and where there’s an actor hired to provide a famous character’s voice, there’s often an actor hired to provide his face as well — and I’d still rather not have Spock around at all, all things considered. But having Michael be related to Spock was always going to lead to this point; that much was inevitable. Too much money would be left on the table without another riff on Spock. (While we don’t see adult Spock, we do see his child self, so Spock also “appears” in the episode, technically.)
What keeps me from rolling my eyes at this choice (or rolling them too hard, at least) is the way the show approaches Spock, which is as a figure from Michael’s past who has unfinished business with her. There was some sort of falling-out between the two — the premiere teases this but never spells out what happened — but the real revelation Michael has in “Brother” is that when she came to live with Spock’s family, his parents perhaps didn’t think through just how having this human child around would affect him.
This is the right approach to bringing fan-favorite characters into a new work like this. Their relationships to the story have to be directly connected to their relationships to the new characters, or else the new work runs the risk of spiraling into an endless vortex of pointless fan service. I don’t know that I terribly need to see another story about Spock — much less watch a third actor play the guy after Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto both handled the role so well — but if Discovery uses Spock to teach me more about Michael, I’m marginally more interested.
And yet I know where this is headed. There will be more Spock and more Pike and more Pike and more Spock, and Discovery’s new characters will slowly become subordinate to the old ones. That doesn’t have to happen, but in this age of constantly expanding fanboy franchise universes, the temptation to just keep feeding the beast the meal it already likes eventually becomes too tempting.
And Discovery’s new showrunner, co-creator Alex Kurtzman (taking over for old showrunners Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts, who were removed from the show during production of season two after reports of misconduct), has never met a beast he couldn’t feed the same meal over and over again. (He did write two Transformers movies, the second Amazing Spider-Man movie, and that misbegotten Tom Cruise spin on The Mummy, after all.)
“Brother” was a much better episode of Discovery than I feared it might be, since I feared it might be all Enterprise, all the time. But I enjoyed it precisely because it was an episode of Star Trek: Discovery and not a slavish attempt to revisit old Trek favorites. We’ll see if I still feel this way at the end of season two, rather than the beginning.
Star Trek: Discovery streams exclusively on CBS All Access in the United States. It airs on the Space Channel in Canada, and on Netflix in every other country that isn’t the US or Canada and does have Netflix. So, uh, sorry, China?
Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by Fiveshoutsout.com staff and is published from a syndicated feed. The original article was published at Vox.com