Friday, January 18, 2019

REVIEW: 'Star Trek: Discovery' - The Discovery Is Given a New Mission by Captain Pike in 'Brother'

CBS All Access' Star Trek: Discovery - Episode 2.01 "Brother"

After answering a distress signal from the USS Enterprise, the USS Discovery welcomes aboard Captain Christopher Pike and begins a new mission to investigate the meaning behind seven mysterious red signals. Michael Burnham grapples with her past growing up on Vulcan with her foster parents and brother Spock.

Star Trek: Discovery opens its second season with an action-focused premiere. That was the mode the show was always comfortable operating within during its first season. In fact, it can often be cited as a consistent critique of the show. Yes, the special effects are absolutely dazzling for a television series. However, it felt like everything was built around whatever stunning action sequence or plot twist could occur. As such, many of the characters ultimately felt very thin. It was basically up to the actors to make the audience care about what happened to them. That succeeded in a number of instances thanks to strong performances from Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Michelle Yeoh and Jason Isaacs. However, that wasn't enough to build a successful and consistent show. As such, it's clear a little bit that the show is trying to offer a few more character-based moments in "Brother." That is successful when it comes to the writers injecting some humor into the proceedings. There are some really amusing moments here - like Saru saying he has no last name, the officers on the bridge reacting to Michael saying they can plot out her trajectory to catch Captain Pike and everything having to do with Tig Notaro's introduction as engineer Jet Reno. There is also the sense that the show wants to give Stamets the time to mourn Hugh's death in a way that it simply didn't have time to do in the first season. But even that feels empty because that relationship was ultimately nothing more than a tragic plot twist that embraced a very unflattering stereotype. Of course, Wilson Cruz being a series regular this season would suggest that there is about to be some new twist when it comes to that relationship. However, that's not hinted at in this premiere at all. That basically means that things will continue to twist and turn on numerous occasions throughout the season. That was the way the show operated in its first season. It may even be more awkward and problematic this season because of continued drama behind-the-scenes with showrunner changes. That really should only make the audience cautiously optimistic after a somewhat promising premiere.

"Brother" actually does a number of things extremely well. It flaunts the impressive budget considerably here. Sure, it may just be repeating the same formula that worked so well in dazzling the audience at the start of the first season. That includes a perilous space walk where some of the major characters run the risk of dying. Of course, none of them actually do because they are too important to the overall story. In fact, the episode truly comes alive during its second half. Basically from the moment the science engineer from the Enterprise is killed as Michael and Pike are making the descent onto the asteroid to rescue the potentially trapped StarFleet officers down below. That character was marked for death the moment that he was beamed onto the Discovery. He clashed with Michael believing that he knew best and she wanted to simplify things too much. And yet, he was really annoying as well. His death was inevitable. It made the audience aware that a character besides a red shirt would be dying here. The show is actively avoiding that trend even though it's a classic from the original series. More importantly though, there is just no use for a character to be constantly questioning Michael's brilliance. The show spent the entire first season proving to the audience just how smart and capable she is. Sure, she may have ignited a war between StarFleet and the Klingons. But she also navigated the dangerous politics of two parallel worlds while ensuring that the values of StarFleet endured no matter what. She is a powerful representation for this space organization. She values both logic and emotion. She was always presented as an incredible lead character. And now, doubts are forced onto her once more for no reason. That guy dies. And then, Michael makes a daring catch in space and puts all of her trust in her team to survive the fall. That's very impressive and again proves to the audience that she is the person we should understand and embrace completely. It's just a little repetitive.

Meanwhile, the Discovery doesn't get a new captain here. Instead, Captain Pike from the Enterprise takes over command in order to continue on with his own mission for StarFleet. That was the tease at the conclusion of the first season. As such, speculation quickly began as to which familiar characters would be making appearances this year. That list includes Captain Pike and Spock. Anson Mount is essentially filling the same role as Jason Isaacs did in the first season. That means the first few episodes of the new season could spend a lot of time with Pike trying to prove to the Discovery crew that he is nothing like Lorca. Of course, that already seems obvious after this first episode. He actually shows a desire in being a co-captain alongside Saru. He wants to share those responsibilities and recognize that the Discovery crew is just as excited about and intrigued by the science of the new mystery this season. Moreover, he hopes to create a welcoming atmosphere on the bridge where any of his officers can talk to him about anything. He hates the design of the captain's office because he sees it as so cold and impersonal. He doesn't see a place for two people to sit down and talk. When Michael makes the discovery of the crashed StarFleet ship, Pike is the one who suggests a daring rescue mission despite the considerable risk. It's something that has Saru freaking out every step of the way. There is even a brief moment of suspense as it seems like Michael may be left behind. The ship may only have enough power to get so many people back onboard the Discovery. The officers rightfully prioritize the sick whom Jet has kept alive for the past ten months. This is such an impressive debut for her as well because she immediately presents as someone with the capability of learning quickly and adjusting to her new surroundings. Moreover, Michael's life isn't in any danger. It just means she is left behind and impaled. That leads to her seeing a vision of a red angel right before Pike rescues her. That could be a foreboding sign given everything the crew experienced with their captain last season. However, the show should really make the audience and crew believe in the chain of command once more as well.

And finally, the show is really striving to better flesh out the dynamic between Michael and Spock. He was the only member of that family not to appear in the first season. Those episodes showed the audience what kind of relationship Michael has with Sarek and Amanda. Spock was always mysteriously somewhere else even though he was frequently on their minds. And now, he actually appears. Sure, his presence just continues to loom throughout the story. He appears as a child when Michael first moves in with the Vulcan family. He wants nothing to do with her while proving just how smart and capable he already is. Michael and Sarek were never expecting to see him again. That changed the moment they encountered the Enterprise. However, Spock is no longer aboard the ship. He has taken a leave because he couldn't just sit on the sidelines during the war. The war with the Klingons is over though. There was something else bothering him. It's something that apparently only Michael could discover in his private quarters. He left behind a message detailing the monsters he has been seeing in his dreams. When he drew them, they resembled the same mysterious signals that have suddenly appeared throughout the universe. So, Spock is going to remain at the center of the ongoing narrative this season. That provides a way for Discovery itself to feel more connected to the Star Trek universe at large. However, it may just be an easy way to play on the audience's understanding of what has already happened instead of putting in the work itself. That too is a very tricky line that the show has to navigate. It hasn't always done a great job at proving its worth to the overall Star Trek world. But this season will absolutely present Spock in a different light which is intriguing even though he shouldn't distract from what's going on with Michael, Saru and company.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Brother" was written by Ted Sullivan, Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts and directed by Alex Kurtzman.
  • Anson Mount is credited as a series regular this season but Tig Notaro is not. That's slightly disappointing simply because this show absolutely needs that jolt of laughter that her comedic sensibility can provide. However, Mount is a welcome addition as well. He may be another middle-aged white captain on the Discovery. But his style is different enough to produce different dynamics with the crew.
  • Even though Pike asks the crew on the bridge to go around and introduce themselves so he knows who he is working with, I still don't associate any of them with names. Hopefully, the show will expand the world of the Discovery a little bit more this season to make it seem like a fully operational StarFleet ship and not just something where only a few people are actually important with everyone else along for the crazy ride.
  • There was no way that Stamets was going to leave the Discovery to go teach on Vulcan. Sure, it's understandable that he would see that as a smart move because everything on this ship reminds him of Hugh. He still needs to mourn. However, the show has always insisted that he is brilliant when it comes to understanding the new science of the world. And so, he is still needed despite Michael and Tilly also carrying that baton of scientific wonder.
  • CBS All Access still doesn't release any viewing numbers for its shows. So, it's still unclear how many people are actually subscribing and watching this drama. However, we should expect that it's a lot because the streamer is actively expanding this universe by developing more Star Trek shows. Of course, only one of them is an actual spinoff of Discovery - focused on Georgiou working for Section 31. Additional shows in the expanding franchise include an animated comedy as well as a Next Generation follow-up starring Patrick Stewart. It will remain interesting to see how quickly these shows come to fruition and if CBS All Access can become more than just the home for new Star Trek content.