Star Trek Discovery is back… and it actually feels like Star Trek, for a change

It’s hard to imagine that two years ago, we didn’t have any new Star Trek on the screen at all beyond the vague promise of a fourth film in the J.J. Abrams reboot series (which has since been shelved). Two years on and there’s suddenly a lot of Star Trek on the screen and even more coming up. There’s Star Trek Discovery, there is the Short Treks spin-off series of mini episodes focussing on Discovery‘s characters, there is The Orville, which is basically Star Trek with the serial numbers filed off and even did its own version of Discovery‘s “the protagonist’s love interest is an undercover Klingon spy” plot from last season, there was “USS Callister”, Black Mirror‘s foray into Star Trek territory. And the CBS All Access streaming service has apparently figured out that Star Trek is the only thing that can get them subscribers, since not enough people give a flying fuck about The Good Wife/The Good Fight, and are milking that cash cow for all it’s worth, so there are also two animated and two live action Star Trek shows in development, respectively focussing on a post-Next Generation Jean-Luc Picard and Michelle Yeoh as the villainous Philippa Georgiou from the mirror universe. There even are fears that viewers might eventually start suffering from Star Trek overload. Honestly, these are the best times for Star Trek fans since the 1990s.

And now Star Trek Discovery, the show that kicked off the Star Trek resurgence, is back for its second season. Now I freely admit that I have been pretty harsh on Discovery at times (read my episode by episode reviews here), perhaps a little too harsh. Part of the reason was purely personal – Star Trek Discovery premiered on the night of the 2017 German general election, when I was really depressed by seeing my own country taking a step further towards dystopia, so a new Star Trek show featuring a dystopian Federation was about the last thing I needed. But a large part of the problem was that Star Trek Discovery‘s first season was wildly inconsistent (apparently due to behind the scenes drama and switching showrunners every other episode) and seemed to be about four very different TV shows of highly varying quality, only some of which actually feel like Star Trek, awkwardly stitched together. The result is very much Frankenstein’s Star Trek.

Of course, Star Trek shows are known for wildly uneven first seasons and Discovery did have its moments and some really good episodes. But it also had some infuriatingly bad ones. And when lending my DVD boxset to other German fans (it’s on Netflix here and hardly anybody has that), I’m always debating whether to say “The first two episodes are sort of okay until the last few minutes, then follow two really bad ones and then it gets better, so stick with it” or whether to just advise them to skip the bad early episodes, which is made difficult by Discovery‘s highly serialized structure, because even the bad episodes still contain information the viewer will need later on.

Fortunately, the powers that be seemed to recognize what the problem with Discovery was and fired yet another showrunner (the third or fourth in the show’s short history) and replaced them with Alex Kurtzman, the man behind enjoyable fluff like Scorpion and the new Hawaii Five-Oh, who also was involved with the J.J. Abrams reboot films. What is more, the season 1 finale pressed as big a reset button as they could get away with short of time travel and there were hints that the events of season 1 would be forgotten, never to be mentioned again. Besides, we were promised that season 2 would be lighter (hopefully in more ways than one, cause the permanently dim lighting was one of the many annoyances with Star Trek Discovery) and funnier and stick closer to established Star Trek canon. So now the first episode of season 2 has aired, how did they do?

Warning! Spoilers below the cut.

Pretty well, actually, it turns out. “Brother” (it seems the ridiculously long episode titles went out with Lorca), the first episode of season 2 of Star Trek Discovery actually feels like Star Trek for a change rather than like a grimdark new Battlestar Galactica wannabe, a Flash Gordon style adventure in the mirror universe, Klingon rape and torture porn or a weird psychedelic trip into the magic mushroom drive, all of which Discovery has been during its short first season.

Of course, the fact that this episode feels more like Star Trek than Discovery has felt in pretty much its entire brief history is largely due to the fact that it strongly hearkens back not just to the original series but also to the unaired original pilot “The Cage”. Because season 1 ended with the Discovery, en route to Vulcan to drop off Sarek and take a new captain aboard, responding to a distress call by none other than the Enterprise. However, this isn’t James T. Kirk’s Enterprise – Kirk is probably still a teenager at this point in time. Instead, the captain of the Enterprise is Kirk’s predecessor Christopher Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter in the original series, who was seen in “The Cage” and later in “The Menagerie”, mostly in flashbacks. Apparently, Captain Pike was also in the J.J. Abrams films, played by Bruce Greenwood, but then I’ve only see bits and pieces of those and have completely forgotten about him.

In many ways, Captain Pike is the perfect original series character to bring back in Discovery, because we know next to nothing about him beyond the fact that he was pretty much the epitome of the squarejawed heroic space captain with a hint of melancholic world weariness and that something very bad happened to him that left him paralysed, disfigured and unable to talk. In many ways, Pike is the perfect blank slate and can be whatever Discovery need him to be. Though so far, Captain Christopher Pike, as portrayed by Anson Mount, isn’t any more defined as a character than he was in the original series. If anything, he is defined mainly by what he is not – namely he’s not Lorca and deliberately distances himself from his predecessor. Pike tells an understandable sceptical Saru that they’ll have joint custody of the Discovery, he remodels Lorca’s ready room and adds some much needed chairs (and eats one of Lorca’s fortune cookies, which contains a very ominous message hinting at “The Cage” and “The Menagerie”) and actually talks to the bridge crew and asks them to introduce themselves – as much for Pike’s benefit as for ours, because the bridge crew were criminally underused in season 1, where their job was mostly to stand around and look terrified while Lorca shouted, and I for one couldn’t even remember their names. Coincidentally, I hope that we will be seeing more of the bridge crew in season 2 and that these characters will finally get some lines and personalities.

Now Camestros Felapton points out in his take on “Brother” that he misses Lorca. Oddly enough, I agree with him, for while Lorca was a terrible captain and terrible person, he was also endlessly fascinating and Jason Isaacs seemed to be having the time of his life playing him. Meanwhile, Pike is very much what a Star Trek captain should be – cleancut, heroic, charming and likeable, but so far he’s also a little bland. The fact that Anson Mount is known for playing bland characters – see his turn as Blackbolt in the short-lived Inhumans TV series – doesn’t help either. Though it’s only been an episode so far (and remember that at this point in season 1, we hadn’t even met Lorca or most of the main cast yet) and Pike as the anti-Lorca is perfectly serviceable as the interim captain of the Discovery. By the way, am I the only one who suspects that Discovery will change captains as often as it changes showrunners? Cause in fourteen episodes we’ve gone from Philippa Georgiou (okay, not actually captain of the Discovery) via Gabriel Lorca via Saru to Christopher Pike with intermezzi by Tilly as her evil mirror universe counterpart Captain Killy and Philippa Georgiou’s evil mirror universe counterpart as herself. That makes an average of two and a half episodes per captain.

Conveniently, Pike also clears up some dangling loose threads and conflicts with established Star Trek canon. When we first meet them, Pike and his crew are wearing bright and colour-coded uniforms that are much more in line with what we remember from the original series. The uniforms are new, Pike explains, and haven’t yet been rolled out to the entire fleet. Even their spacesuits are colour-coded and the show has a bit of fun with subverting one of Star Trek‘s oldest clichés and killing off the blueshirt rather than the redshirt (though the blueshirt was a jerk no one will miss anyway). There even is a miniskirt seen on a female crewmember, even though I recall that the miniskirts only came in during Kirk’s time and the women of Pike’s Enterprise wore pants. Coincidentally, one of the trailers for Discovery shows Michael Burnham wearing something that looks very much like a clasic Enterprise miniskirt.

Pike also explains why we saw neither hair nor hide of the Enterprise during season 1 of Star Trek Discovery, even though the Federation was engaged in a (never before mentioned) war with the Klingons and driven to the edge of extinction. Because it turns out that the Enterprise was on one of its five year exploratory missions and just happened to be on the other side of the galaxy, when the war broke out. Coincidentally, this also explains why Spock was absent throughout season 1 and didn’t even try to help his foster sister Michael when the Federation blamed her for their rank incompetence and gave her a life sentence in a slave labour camp. It’s no surprise that Sarek didn’t try to help Michael, because Sarek has always been something of a jerk as well as a crappy father. However, Spock isn’t a jerk and I can easily imagine him hijacking the Enterprise and coming to Michael’s rescue and later on explaining why that was a completely logical thing to do (after all, that’s more or less what Spock does for Pike in “The Menagerie”). However, if Spock was on the other side of the galaxy with the Enterprise that explains his complete and utter absence. Of course, Michael also mentions that Spock is estranged from his family (well, Sarek is a jerk) and that she suspects she is at fault, but then Michael probably also assumes that she was personally to blame for global warming, the US government shutdown, Brexit, the Syrian Civil War and the burnt dinner in the Discovery‘s cafeteria last night. Assuming blame for everything that goes wrong is simply what Michael does.

However, even though the episode title “Brother” clearly refer to him, Spock is also absent from the Enterprise, when it meets up with Discovery, for it turns out that he took a leave of absence to investigate some mysterious red signal bursts that have been giving him nightmares (Spock has nightmares?). Shortly thereafter, the Enterprise is ordered to investigate those same signal bursts (which is a total coincidence, I’m sure) only to get bad damaged in the process, which is why Pike commandeers the Enterprise. Nonetheless, we don’t get to meet adult Spock, now played by Ethan Peck, in this episode, though we briefly see a young Spock, who is not very pleased when Sarek brings home a sister for him, particularly one who is supposed to teach him empathy (at least according to Sarek, though personally I suspect Sarek has something quite different in mind, considering he clearly has a fetish for human women) in a flashback scene. Meanwhile, the other kid of Sarek, Sybok, is still nowhere to be seen. James Whitbrook at io9 calls the show’s withholding Spock, while frequently mentioning him, “Spocktease” and that’s a very apt description.

But while Spock’s absence is very noticeable, the Discovery still has an actual mission in this episode in addition to investigating those weird red signal bursts, which will probably form the season’s main plot arc. For during their investigation of the signal bursts, the Discovery comes across a crashed Starfleet ship, the USS Hiawatha*, on an asteroid. The Hiawatha crashed early during the war with the Klingons and the surviving crew has been trapped on the asteroid for ten months now. However, the asteroid is on collision course with a pulsar, so Pike orders a rescue mission. It’s probably no coincidence that the main plot of “Brother” is another call-back to “The Cage”, where the Enterprise also mounts a rescue mission to Talos IV to rescue the survivors of a crashed spaceship that has been down there for a long time. I’d actually forgotten that bit – it’s been ages since I’ve seen either “The Cage” or “The Menagerie” – and only remembered it, when I linked to an episode summary further up in this post. And yes, missions to rescue the survivors of crashed spaceships are a common Star Trek plot, as common as investigating mysterious space phenomena, but the parallels are still striking.

Pike puts together an away team consisting of himself, Michael as well as two officers, a redshirt and a blueshirt, he brought with him from the Enterprise. I’m not sure if those two are characters we’ve seen in the original series before – apart from Spock and Pike, the only Enterprise crewmember from “The Cage” I remember is the first officer Number One (does the character even have a name?), played by Majel Barrett in the original and Rebecca Romijn in this episode. But in the end it doesn’t matter whether redshirt and blueshirt are characters we’ve seen before or not, cause by the end of the mission one of them will be dead anyway. And no, for once the redshirt lives and the blueshirt bites the dust. Though blueshirt is such an unpleasant character that no one will mourn him. In fact, he’s a jerk from the moment on he first beams aboard Discovery and is also the butt of one of this episode’s best jokes, the scene in the elevator where a flu-stricken alien Discovery crewmember coughs green slime all over blueshirt.

Because of some technobabble reason, simply beaming down to the asteroid won’t work and neither will using a shuttle, so the away team has to make the trip down to the asteroid surface in small lander pods, giving the special effects team a chance to strut their stuff. Visually, Discovery certainly is the best looking of all Star Trek shows and also beats some other contemporary space opera shows like The Expanse. By the way, one departue from previous Star Trek shows that Discovery maintained in season 2 is that the show is much faster paced and more action-packed than Star Trek traditionally was. But then TV has changed a lot since the 1960s and even since Star Trek‘s second heyday in the 1980s/90s and the talkier, slower pace of the older Star Trek shows wouldn’t really fit into today’s climate. Though it will be interesting to see how the Picard show handles this, since Sir Patrick Stewart is a bit old to play the action hero.

During the flight through the asteroid field, blueshirt fails to obey instructions and promptly gets himself killed. Pike’s pod fails, but Michael rescues him, once again ignoring a direct order, but then that’s the sort of thing Michael does. Meanwhile, redshirt actually makes it down in one piece, to everybody’s amazement. Down on the surface of the asteroid, they find the crashed Hiawatha and a handful of survivors. While the survivors in “The Cage” were a couple of old people and an attractive young woman, who serves as a love interest for Pike, the survivors in “Brother” are led by chief engineer Denise “Jet” Reno, a woman in her forties who is nobody’s love interest so far. Denise Reno is played by actress and comedian Tig Notaro, whose casting made headlines last year. Now I have to admit that I’d never heard of Tig Notaro before, because I rarely watch comedy programs and she only appeared in US only programs anyway. However, based on what I’ve seen of her in Discovery, I really like Tig Notaro as Denise Reno and wouldn’t mind seeing more of her. Besides, the actress is a little older than me and from Pass Christian, Mississippi, while I spend almost a year in Biloxi, so we were practically neighbours once upon a time.

In the end, the survivors are evacuated from the asteroid, but Michael is wounded and sees a mysterious angel-like glowing figure just before Pike rescues her. It is strongly implied that Michael’s angelic vision is connected both to Spock’s nightmares and the mysterious signal bursts, for of course it is. I’m still not sure whether the Star Trek format is suited to the serialisation that is currently so popular for TV shows of any kind, but at least season 2 keeps the arc plot in the background for now and focusses on telling more self-contained stories.

There also is a B-plot in which Sylvia Tilly, now promoted to ensign, is tasked with capturing one of the asteroids and investigating its unusual properties, which gives her a chance to seriously geek out, both on her own as well as with Michael and Stamets. Mary Wiseman as Tilly is as delightfully bubbly as ever. Stamets, meanwhile, is still mourning the loss of his partner/husband (I don’t recall whether they were married or not) Dr. Culber and is planning to leave Discovery and Starfleet behind for an academic position. And though I would never have thought this when Discovery started in 2017, I would actually miss Stamets, because I’ve really come to like the character by now. Though Wilson Cruz, who played the late Dr. Culber, is actually in the opening credits now (and briefly seen in a video Stamets is watching), so he may well be back. Personally, I would love for that to happen, because Stamets and Culber were on of my favourite couples in all of Star Trek and like many other viewers, I was furious when Culber was killed off for the sake of a cheap plot twist. Saru doesn’t have a whole lot to do in this episode, though he gets some great lines. Saru is another character I initially didn’t much like, but have come to like a lot by now. I’m not sure if the fact that several characters, most notably Stamets and Saru, have drastically changed from their first appearances where they were very much jerks, is due to inconcsistent writing because of the behind the scenes drama or because Michael’s view of these people has changed. At any rate, Michael seems a lot happier and more integrated into Discovery‘s crew these days.

Meanwhile, the various Klingons who really dragged down last season (at least, when they were Klingons – Voq as Ash Tyler was actually likeable) are nowhere to be seen, though L’Rell is briefly mentioned in the dialogue as the new Klingon chancellor. I suspect they’ll be back though, because some new Klingons as well as Ash Tyler could be seen in the trailer for season 2, including a scene of Michael kissing Ash. Though I had to pause the video to make sure that it was really Ash Michael was kissing and not Spock, because Ethan Peck’s Spock sports a beard and has borrowed Chekhov’s hairstyle, so they look similar, especially during a 1 second glimpse in a trailer. And since that wasn’t a sisterly kiss at all, Michael kissing Spock like that would have been a tad squicky. Coincidentally, I’ll be happy to see Ash Tyler again, because he and Michael were a cute couple. Indeed, if there is one thing Star Trek Discovery is to be commended upon it’s the characterisation and the romantic relatiosnships.

So based on “Brother”, season 2 of Star Trek Discovery seems much improved compared to season 1. Which is typical for Star Trek shows, since they seem to be cursed with weak first seasons. But since Discovery is so unlike other Star Trek shows, I was a little worried it would break that pattern as well.

At any rate, I’m looking forward to where Discovery will be boldly going next.

PS: Whatever happened to Lorca’s poor tribble? We saw his fortune cookies, but we didn’t see the tribble? Did it die? Did it flood the Discovery with baby tribbles in the meantime? Was it evacuated to a tribble zoo? Inquiring minds want to know.

*I still have no idea how Starfleet names its vessels. There is no real discernible naming pattern. So far, Discovery seems to have stuck with naming Starfleet ships for real spacecraft from the 20th and 21st centuries, i.e. Discovery, Shenzhu, Buran, etc… Hell, even Enterprise was the name of an early spaceshuttle, though that was named after the fictional Enterprise and not the other way around. But there never was a spacecraft called “Hiawatha” to my knowledge. And naming a Starfleet vessel after a historical Iroquois leader or a poem doesn’t match any patterns we’ve seen so far.

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5 Responses to Star Trek Discovery is back… and it actually feels like Star Trek, for a change

  1. Pingback: Star Trek Discovery: Brother (S2E1) | Camestros Felapton

  2. Maybe all the starfleet ships are named after poem?

    • Cora says:

      I suspect you won’t have any problems finding poems entitled “Enterprise”, “Discovery”, “Voyager” or “Defiant”, but “Buran” or “Shenzhou” might be a stretch, at least in English.

      And now I very much want to see the Starfleet poetry anthology, which collects only poems named like Starfleet vessels.

  3. Steve Wright says:

    My own headcanon is that, what with the Federation being a post-scarcity economy, Starfleet has many, many ships, and its administrators use any naming convention they can find….

    (This is partly based on my playing, and extensively fanficcing, Star Trek Online, where – until very recently – a player character was bound to go through several different ships in the course of levelling up, requiring me to find a naming convention – not just an individual ship name – for each character I played. My main, for example, has ships named after compositions by Gustav Holst – which became, in fact, a key plot point in the fanfic, one time.)

    • Cora says:

      That makes as much sense as anything else and indeed a lot of ship naming conventions just happened, because someone liked it that way. For example, a shipping company specialising in vehicle transporters happened to be run by an opera fan, so all their car transporters are named after operas.

      Besides, it’s damned difficult to come up with names for ships, especially if you also have to name planets, walk-on characters, etc.. I usually establish a pattern of sorts, e.g. on this planet everybody and every place is named after actors and directors of Italian sword and sandal films. Here we have the planet of Winnetou films, there the planet of Russian science fiction films, here’s a whole realm of planets named after Raumpatrouille Orion characters, etc…

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