If not a second pilot episode, Star Trek: Discovery certainly delivers a brand new mission statement with Season 2 premiere, ‘Brother’.
Looking back on the first season of Discovery, it was not only the strongest first season of a Star Trek show since 1966, it was also the most radical. Trek’s return to television under the original auspices of Bryan Fuller, later with significant support from Alex Kurtzman after a difficult road has now emerged as show runner and steward of Trek’s modern TV revolution on CBS All Access, was designed as a refreshed update from the era that spanned the late 1980’s through to the mid-2000’s. Gone were the stand-alone episodes, the 24/25 episode seasons, even the traditional structure of network television with one eye on syndication. Discovery was living in the now.
Season 1 threw a great deal at the wall. A ship and Captain we didn’t even see or meet until the third episode, allowing the first two episodes to serve as more of a prequel epilogue than a traditional Star Trek two-part pilot of old; pure, serialised storytelling which contained character development and story tropes such as the time loop episode within a broader season-long arc; and in particular, the Captain of the ship—the inviolate hero of all Trek series of old—turned out to be the villain of the piece, not to mention the fact our main character turned out not only to be of lower rank, but a mutineer to boot! Not all of it stuck, but Discovery from day one broke the Star Trek rules with a casual, F-bomb dropping swagger of its own.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of ‘Brother’, therefore, is just how hard it works to feel like the Star Trek that long came before Discovery.
Kurtzman as show runner, and here writers Ted Sullivan and Aaron Harberts & Gretchen M. Berg (earlier show runners later kicked off the staff for unreasonable behaviour), pick up from the Season 1 cliffhanger of the Discovery coming face to face with the legendary USS Enterprise by finding a handy solution to the problem of who will be the ship’s new Captain – enter Anson Mount as Christopher Pike (he does a great job, by the way), the original Captain of the Enterprise’s five year mission before the days of James T. Kirk’s immortalised crew, who fits the template of what everyone expects a Starfleet Captain to be: male, white, square-jawed, all-American and innately noble. “I’m not Lorca” is one of the first things he says to the crew.
Discoveryalso strives to detach as much as possible from the complexities of the Season 1 narrative, which awkwardly veered from the mire of a dour conflict with the Klingon Empire, the exploitation of space creatures to fuel a new propulsion system, and a pulpy period being stranded in the Mirror Universe under the yoke of the fascist Terran Empire. Season 1, in retrospect, all feels akin to a prequel story before the traditional Star Trek adventure begins with ‘Brother’ and a narrative kicks off which allows for exploration, mystery, a fair dose of technobabble, and the crew functioning like a crew on a streamlined story – all of which was often absent in many episodes last year.
As a result, while ‘Brother’ is reassuring television, and will likely be very popular among Star Trek purists, it resets Discovery a little from operating as a trend setter pushing the franchise forward into not just uncharted space, but uncharted narrative territory. Season 1 often felt edgy and difficult, sometimes even unknowable – it takes a few watches to bed in, for your expectations to adjust to the fact this isn’t your Dad’s Star Trek, that it’s more of a fusion of JJ Abrams’ Kelvin Timeline sheen and spectacle with a modern science-fiction bent. Season 2, on this evidence, will be more Star Trek Beyond than Star Trek ’09, to use a crude comparison – enjoyable and entertaining but familiar and safer.
‘Brother’ also naturally is dominated by the Vulcan-sized elephant in the room that is the iconic Commander Spock, Michael Burnham’s foster-brother who also, of course, is XO of Pike’s dry-docked Enterprise, and the central emotional core of family and distance (as displayed in the touching dynamic between Tilley, rapidly becoming the series’ heart, and engineer Stamets, planning to move on to evade his grief), is arced around Burnham’s difficult relationship with Spock. Though we see the character only in childhood flashbacks and hear him on a recording, Spock’s presence dominates the episode like a looming shadow. If the show isn’t careful, he may come to overshadow the entire season.
This is where Discovery has to watch where it treads in Season 2. It is already a show built heavily on 1960’s nostalgia infused with modern storytelling sensibility, in a similar manner to Abrams’ rebooted movies, but introducing the Enterprise and Pike’s crew only serves to increase that tenfold, especially in exploring an era of Spock’s history we have never before seen. In many ways, Spock is and always has been Star Trek – he is the one character who could define this franchise more than any other, and Discovery appears now to be building a season of storytelling around Burnham’s relationship with him.
Time will tell how well this works. ‘Brother’ plays nicely as an opener, setting up a plot which will allow Discovery to explore space in the way Season 1’s more aggressive narrative wouldn’t, with plenty of nice character beats and a sense the ensemble is beginning to expand, but familiarity can sometimes breed contempt. Discovery hopefully can blend Star Trek storytelling we know and love with the boundaries it dared to push in its first year as it warps off into its second.