Holy falling tribble babies, Batman!
CBS All Access' Star Trek: Discovery season 2 opener "Brother" was amazing.
I liked the first season–I did–but I didn't love it. When I was asked last season what I thought of Discovery, I would tell them "It is one of my favorite Star Trek movies, but it doesn't feel like a show." The people at CBS All Access and the showrunners–current-title-holder Alex Kurtzman and formerly Aaron Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg (who co-wrote the season 2 premiere with Ted Sullivan)–seem to have listened to what fans and critics had to say about Discovery's inaugural mission and appear to be giving us exactly what we wanted. "Brother" was the complete package: great action, witty dialogue, laugh-out-loud scenes, classic Trek Easter eggs, and a whole crew of complex, lovable characters.
Fair warning: we're setting our review phasers to "spoilers"…
A dramatic change in tone and feel of Discovery was obvious from the very first moments of the episode. To a backdrop of historical Cassini images, we hear Sonequa Martin-Green (Michael Burnham) recounting an African story from "1000 centuries ago" about a young girl who threw ashes into the sky to create the Milky Way, hiding in the stars a secret message "visible only to those whose hearts were open enough to receive it." Told like a bedtime story for a small child, the fable moved directly into Burnham's first moments with Sarek (James Frain), Amanda (Mia Kirshner), and a disgruntled and rude tiny Spock.
The scenes between young Burnham (Arista Arhin) and her foster mother Amanda are remarkable and give the audience fantastic insight into Burnham as a character–I wish we had seen them sooner. Additionally, we learn that it has been years since either Burnham or Sarek have seen Spock (Ethan Peck), and neither had expected to see him again (it is not clarified, but contextually it seems they meant they had not expected to ever see him again–which is odd since Spock and Burnham are both in Starfleet). While a family rift is obvious–and at multiple points, Burnham hints that she caused it–it appears that the problems between Spock and his father are separate from Spock's falling out with Burnham. Perhaps this as-yet-unrevealed issue between the foster siblings will be the showrunner's attempt to explain how Spock has a mystery sister no one has ever heard of.
Last season, Discovery was dark, everything was an emergency, and we had no time to get to know the ship's crew when they were not in life-or-death situations. While the action was great, the main characters didn't seem quite "human." The humor and crew interactions in "Brother" go a long way to rectify that shortfall. Ensign Tilly (Mary Wiseman)–by far my favorite character–seems to be even Tilly-er, suffering from "verbal diarrhea" the first time she meets Captain Pike (Anson Mount); being "drunk on power" with her new Command Training Program, and having a profound love of math.
Stamets (Anthony Rapp) is grieving the loss of his husband Hugh (Wilson Cruz), watching holo-vids, listening to Hugh's favorite Kasseelian operas, and planning to leave Discovery to escape his grief. The rest of the crew seems to be bonded by their misfortune. The cautious-yet-hopeful looks that the bridge crew exchanges with each other when they have their first interactions with Captain Pike tell us more about their relationships with each other than the entire first season combined.
Humor–well-written, witty, sometimes campy humor, even in the face of danger–has been a mainstay of Star Trek since the USS Enterprise first set out on its five-year mission. The first season of Discovery was light on the humor, and with the exception of Tilly's scenes, it just didn't seem to work. Over hiatus, the Discovery writers somehow found their humor groove. The dialogue in "Brother" moves fas, but the classic Trek Easter eggs, subtle jokes, and off-hand references are on-point. I laughed out loud more than a dozen times, to the point where my husband and my dog were both looking at me like I was crazy.
There's even a redshirt reference that alas ends up with us feeling a little bit blue…
I cannot address humor in this episode without singing the praises of Tig Notaro as the incredibly smart, incredibly honest, incredibly practical engineer Jet Reno, who has been single-handedly keeping injured Starfleet officers alive after a crash-landing on a hyper-dense asteroid. Her performance is both intelligent and hilarious, and unapologetic for either. I loved it and I hope she shows up later in the season.
Mount's Pike is perfect: his interactions with the crew, his way of speaking, his body language, and even the way he says "hit it" instead of "engage" all added up to someone I wanted to stay in the Captain's chair. I found myself thinking "is there a way to fit Pike taking long-term command of Discovery into Star Trek canon?" because I want more. I want him to stay. It could be that I feel differently by the end of the season, but he seemed to work so well with the rest of the cast that it would be a pity for him to only stick around for one season.
Another positive change from last season is that this episode felt, well, episodic. "Brother" had a beginning, a middle, and an end of it's own mini-plot, even while it was still part of a larger arc. The first season of Discovery felt like a long stream of "to be continued" episodes that created one really long film while this season will also, logically, be one large arc, I am excited to have a true series of independent stories that make up a larger whole. I hope they stick with the format: it meshes nicely with the new, lighter tone of the show.
Finally, let's talk about the brother the episode was named after. From the first moments of the episode to the last (and woven throughout), we gain insight into the way in which Burnham's relationship with her foster brother Spock influenced her life and the woman she has become. We don't have the whole story and will likely to have to wait a while before we get it, but we leave "Brother" with an excellent view of our favorite half-Vulcan through his sister's eyes.
In fact, we don't even see the adult Spock at all this episode: just "angry child" Spock. But we still feel his presence throughout the episode, underlining the interactions Burnham has with both Pike and Sarek. I am interested to see what will happen when both siblings are finally in the same room, and I am dying to know what caused the rift.
Just please–for the love of Captain Kirk–don't make the "deep dark secret" be an illicit love affair between the siblings, cause I would just have to burn it all down.
To make a long story even longer…I loved the episode. I loved the new additions to the crew, and I loved the change in tone and format of the show. I hope the quality I saw in "Brother" continues throughout the season, and I am disappointed that I have to wait a whole week for another episode.
Until then, here are a few random thoughts I had about the episode to ponder until next Thursday:
● Why does Sarek's house on Vulcan look like a 1970's minimalist house in Beverly Hills?
● What is with the landing pod uniforms? They looked like something you would see in a Bowie music video.
● Why did it look like the "Red Angel" had antennae?
● Why were they still using paper books in the 23rd Century?
● Why do the turbolift tubes look like a rollercoaster track? And are we really supposed to believe the inner workings of a space ship are just basically the inside of Space Mountain?
● Should you really trust a starship captain that got an "F" in astrophysics?
● Mansplaining is deadly.
● "Not every Cage is a prison, not every loss is eternal"