[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Star Trek: Discovery” Season 2, Episode 1, “Brother.”]
The Season 2 premiere of “Star Trek: Discovery” definitely feels like the beginning of something. “Brother,” launching Thursday on CBS All Access, is all about establishing a new status quo, a new chain of command, and most importantly a new mission focused on exploration over conflict. Where that mission will take this ambitious yet flawed series, however, is as yet a mystery.
Picking up moments after Season 1 ended, Captain Pike (Anson Mount) of the U.S.S. Enterprise (you may have heard of it) comes on board Discovery with news from Starfleet — the Enterprise has been disabled by massive systems failure, so he’s taking command of the good ship Discovery to investigate some odd signals that “have the Federation’s hackles up.” That quest leads the Discovery to a rescue mission on a crumbling asteroid, but no real answers as yet to what those signals might be, or what Spock (a heard but not seen Ethan Peck) might be out investigating.
Lest we forget that Spock is Commander Michael Burnham’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) foster brother, “Brother” lays in flashbacks to their meeting as children, following the death of Burnham’s parents. Those who maybe spent Season 1 wondering what their relationship was like get some clues as a result, as Burnham admits that they were never really able to connect, for reasons that remain unknown but she clearly regrets. It’s never been exactly clear why, from the very beginning of the series, the show’s writers had integrated this connection between Burnham and Spock (beyond making it possible to feature Sarek as much as he was in Season 1). Thus, this may be the most important mystery for Season 2 to solve, and the end of the premiere sets up this potential.
Directed by Alex Kurtzman, who is now officially running the show on his own following the mid-production firing of Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts (who had previously taken over for Bryan Fuller when he left the series prior to its premiere), “Brother” isn’t as rocky a ride as the descent down to the asteroid, but it’s also not exactly easy going. The introduction and quick demise of cocky science officer Connolly (literally smashed by an asteroid while mansplaining his navigational prowess to Burnham) is a joke that feels awfully mean for “Trek”; it’s one thing for viewers to make jokes about the red shirt phenomenon, but another for us to laugh at the death of a Starfleet officer.
Also, there are some dense scenes of dialogue in the first half of the episode, dropping enough quickly-spoken details to justify turning on the subtitles, as Captain Pike is on a mission, gosh darn it, and he wants to get to it as quickly as possible — so quickly, in fact, that it might be hard to actually understand what that mission is, on first viewing.
Pike isn’t the only TOS-era character who will be appearing in Season 2, as casting news has revealed, and the biggest worry one might have with integrating these new-to-“Discovery” faces is that the new characters developed for the series would go underserved.
In comparison to other “Trek” series, “Discovery” has a very small ensemble, with only six series regulars listed in the opening credits: Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, Wilson Cruz, and Mount. One of those people is new to the series and one of them is playing a character who is technically dead, yet despite the size of the cast some characters struggle to feel fully present. Tilly (Wiseman), for example, deserves a chance to evolve beyond the moments of comic relief she provides, and the grieving process of Stametz (Rapp) after the death of his husband (Cruz) is clearly ongoing, but feels somewhat brushed aside in the premiere.
Burnham gets her moments, especially thanks to the always great Martin-Green, who shines when she gets a chance to unleash Burnham’s inner adrenaline junkie. However, it’s a pretty Pike-driven hour, for better and for worse. Christopher Pike was always an underdefined character in “Trek” history, known primarily as Kirk’s predecessor aboard the Enterprise — beyond Jeffrey Hunter and Sean Kenney in the “Original Series” episode “The Menagerie,” the most definitive take on the character was Bruce Greenwood’s portrayal in the first two J.J. Abrams “Trek” films (which, as a reminder, take place in a different timeline from “Discovery”).
Here, Mount finds his own path, attempting rakish charm, good-natured humor, and a solid moral core, and the combination on balance works. But he still has yet to establish what makes Pike distinct from other captains we’ve seen with similar qualities. (Captain Lorca might have turned out to be evil, but Jason Isaacs’ take on the character did not lack wit.)
However, Pike asking the supporting bridge crew — characters who were technically a part of Season 1, but barely got any attention — to introduce themselves feels like a step towards making the crew of the Discovery feel larger, which would be a welcome shift for the series. After all, “Trek” series have traditionally found the heart of the show in the family unit represented by a united crew.
While she won’t be a series regular, the addition of Tig Notaro as Commander Jet Reno is a lot of fun — Notaro’s dry delivery may not sell the urgency necessary in certain life-or-death scenarios, but in the right amount should be a welcome addition to the crew (especially if she gets paired up with Tilly)
“Discovery” is a show that launched with a ton of big ideas and promise, but occasionally floundered in its attempts to bring a new approach to a well-established franchise. Perhaps that was due to behind-the-scenes turmoil, because when Sarek advises Burnham to “focus on the problem in front of you rather than what is behind,” it feels like advice the show itself is trying to take. There’s a lot of set-up packed into this premiere, and for now the direction set is worth traveling.