Final Frontier Friday: 'Brother'

Welcome back to ‘Final Frontier Friday’! This week we’re returning to the halcyon days of January 2019 for a look at ‘Brother’, the second season premiere of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’. Which I’m definitely not covering because the season just came out on Blu-ray and I wanted an excuse to watch it. Nope, not at all!

The first season of ‘Discovery’ had an odd relationship to the pre-existing ‘Star Trek’ canon. Like most prequels, it was accused in some fan circles of not being sufficiently reverent of the franchise’s established continuity. This isn’t exactly new to ‘Trek’. ‘Enterprise‘, after all, faced similar accusations throughout its run. But whereas ‘Enterprise’ was generally acknowledged as having improved when embarked on the sort of continuity deep dives that often served as retroactive set-up for the original series, ‘Discovery’ had that opposite problem. That is to say that the show’s biggest stumbling blocks early on came when it tried to tie itself directly to the original series (which takes place a mere ten years later). The biggest example of this, of course, is the backstory of one Michael Burnham, which basically crowbarred the character into the backstory of franchise mainstay Spock.

With all this in mind, a lot of the lead up to the second season (including interviews that ran on this very site) included the writers and producers promising that the second season would “sync up” ‘Discovery’ with the rest of the franchise, showing exactly how it fits into continuity. Though I’ve quite liked the show on balance, this made me nervous for a few reasons.

First and foremost, as I said earlier, while any show is rough around the edges early on, ‘Discovery’ was at its roughest when it tried to tie itself directly into original series-era continuity rather than doing its own thing. Even when it worked, it felt like the show was trying too hard to prove that it was really ‘Star Trek’. (I said at the time that many of the early issues I had with the show would have vanished had it been set some time after ‘Star Trek: Nemesis’. Maybe someone was listening after all.)

Second, the question that the writers focused on (“If Spock has a sister, why haven’t we ever heard of her?”) was always the least interesting to me as a longtime fan. After all, whatever one thinks of the whole “retcon sister” thing, you only have to watch ‘Journey to Babel’ or ‘Star Trek V’ to realize that Spock has a long and very well established of simply not talking about his family – even to his closest friends – unless he has no other choice. Speaking for myself, I was far more interested in things like the spore drive, a hyper-advanced propulsion tech that clearly wasn’t in wide use in shows set ten or even a hundred years after ‘Discovery’. Though the first season provided several perfectly acceptable reasons to discard the tech, only to turn around and keep using the bloody thing, a seeming oversight rendered all the more glaring given that ‘The Next Generation’ in particular portrayed the Federation as constantly researching new engine technologies, all of which are put to shame by the USS Discovery’s magic space mushrooms. But I digress.

Another source of concern, at least on my end, was that the arrival of the Enterprise at the end of the first season finale meant that we spent no small amount of the show’s hiatus wondering whether or not we’d be seeing (and in my case, I have to admit, hoping that we wouldn’t) recast versions of Pike and Spock. The recasting of established roles in ‘Star Trek’ is something that I have an almost knee-jerk skepticism of, especially given the mixed at best results of the various recastings for both the Kelvin trilogy and season one of ‘Discovery’. And of course, we ultimately would see both characters in fairly prominent roles. More than that, though, it seemed to suggest that ‘Discovery’ wouldn’t be “doing its own thing” in the second season, instead, leaning on things that didn’t work in the first.

So yes, as excited as I always am for new ‘Star Trek’, I was one nervous fanboy going into ‘Brother’! But nervous or not, there’s a reason I tend toward cautious optimism with regard to… well, most media, but ‘Star Trek’ in particular. After all, the proof is in the pudding. So let’s get to the pudding.

While en route to Vulcan, the Discovery receives a distress call from the Enterprise. The two ships drop out of warp and scans show that the Enterprise has suffered severe damage. Despite the Enterprise’s system outages, the two ships are able to establish contact and Captain Pike asks to come aboard. Burnham and Sarek are visibly apprehensive about the Enterprise’s arrival, given their strained relationships with Spock, who is serving as Pike’s science officer.

Burnham and Saru head for the transporter room to greet Pike, who beams aboard with engineer Nhan and science officer… Connolly? Spock’s absence surprises Burnham, but before she can ask about her brother, Pike explains that he has been sent by Starfleet to assume emergency command of the Discovery. As the five officers make their way to the bridge, Pike explains that Federation sensors have detected a series of synchronized red bursts, spread across 30,000 light years. That synchronization suggests that the signals are not a natural phenomenon, and the Enterprise suffered shipwide computer malfunctions when they tried to scan them. Pike – and by extension Discovery – has been charged with investigating those signals. Arriving on the bridge, Pike introduces himself to the crew and formally assumes command before ordering Detmer to lay in a course for one of the signals.

Final Frontier Friday: 'Brother'

In engineering, Stamets and Tilly are removing the spore drive equipment and the former reveals that he has accepted a teaching position at the Vulcan Science Academy with the intent to leave once Pike’s mission is complete. Meanwhile, Sarek visits Burnham before leaving the ship. He informs her that the Vulcan High Command is dispatching an expedition to assist the investigation and that his contacts on Qo’nos have denied any Klingon involvement with the signals. The two briefly discuss Spock before the ambassador makes his exit.

As Burnham arrives on the bridge, the ship drops out of warp in the middle of a debris field. The signal has vanished, but at its exact coordinates, they find a massive asteroid, now on a collision course with a nearby pulsar. On the surface of the asteroid is the Hiawatha, a Federation medical frigate that was believed to have been destroyed by the Klingons nearly a year earlier. Pike assembles a landing party, consisting of himself, Burnham, Nhan, and Connolly. The four take a set of landing pods into the debris field, where magnetic distortions interfere with their autopilots. Now on manual control, Connolly flies ahead, arrogantly ignoring both Burnham’s warnings and Pike’s orders to fall back, quickly becoming an unlamented stain on a piece of debris. Soon after, another piece strikes Pike’s pod, sending him into freefall. With a remote assist from Detmer, Burnham is able to bring her pod as well as Pike’s to a safe landing.

The trio begin their investigation of the Hiawatha, where they encounter probes cobbled together from salvaged tech. A voice then calls them to sickbay, where they find that it belongs to Jett Reno, the ship’s chief engineer. Reno explains that several wounded survivors are currently in stasis and that she stayed awake to keep them alive. The four manage to restore power to the transporter and set up pattern enhancers, allowing the Discovery to beam them out. All of them except for Burnham, that is, who is trapped when the transporter is damaged anew after the others get out. She makes her way outside of the Hiawatha as the ship is destroyed around her, and is promptly knocked out by a piece of debris.

Burnham awakens and sees an angelic figure standing before her in the flames. The figure quickly vanishes as Pike approaches, having returned to rescue his officer. At Tilly’s request, Burnham grabs a sample of the asteroid for further study, but the transporter fails to bring the rock along for the ride. Recognizing the potential scientific implications, Burnham and Tilly select an asteroid fragment to tractor into the shuttle bay as they leave the system.

Later, Pike and Burnham meet and the subject of Spock once again comes up, with Pike revealing that he’s on leave. He doesn’t know where Spock went though, having trusted him enough to simply let him leave without asking questions. With Pike’s permission, Burnham boards the Enterprise to visit Spock’s quarters. While there, she finds a log entry in which Spock describes recurring nightmares he had as a child, nightmares that have recently returned. He adds that he believes he has discovered the meaning of these dreams. Burnham then finds a drawing Spock made of an image from his dreams – a drawing that corresponds exactly to a map of the seven signals.

Well, that was some pudding! There was a clear sense when this episode aired that the second season would serve in part to address criticisms of the first, and that becomes obvious fairly quickly. No sooner does Pike set foot on Discovery than the season’s new, lighter tone becomes clear. From Pike’s interactions with the crew to Tilly espousing the “power of math” after successfully wrangling the asteroid fragment, ‘Brother’ has a sense of fun, something that the first season too often lacked. And then there’s the other elephant in the room: the show’s purported continuity issues. How does the season handle those? Well, as of this first episode, it really hasn’t. But by dropping Pike into the big chair, the producers are explicitly and perhaps a bit hamfistedly declaring ‘Discovery’ to be of a piece with the larger ‘Star Trek’ continuity, particularly that of the original series. It may not be subtle, but it gets the job done.

And speaking of Pike, whatever concerns I had about recasting (at least with regard to this role) were instantly allayed. I’m far from the first person to say this (and this isn’t even the first time I’ve said it), but Anson Mount is outstanding as Pike and he only gets better as the season progresses. Everything about Pike’s presence on the show, especially about this early stage, serves as a counterpoint to his predecessor. Before the reveal of his true origins, Lorca was often described as a “wartime captain,” whereas Pike very clearly is a more classical, archetypal idea of what we think of when we think of a Starfleet captain. I’ve been thrilled to see Mount return to the role for the recent ‘Short Treks’ installments and if the fanboy dream of a Captain Pike show ever does come to fruition I’ll certainly be on board.

On the subject of new additions, Reno makes a delightful one. She’s essentially a prickly McCoy type, only an engineer rather than a doctor (and of course, ‘Star Trek’ has a long tradition of off color, blue collar engineers). In some respects, actually, she’s not that far removed from what ‘The Next Generation’ was going for with Dr. Pulaski thirty years earlier. The difference, of course, being that unlike Pulaski, Reno is actually likeable.

As with most shows of its ilk, there are two ways to look at any given episode of ‘Discovery’ – either as a standalone episode or in the context of the seasonal arc. How does ‘Brother’ work when viewed through that lens? Well, it occupies an odd space in the season arc, in that it serves to set it up but does very little beyond that. It introduces the seven signals and the (not yet named) Red Angel, for example, but while that will be a driving force in the season, for the moment the Angel/signal is little more than a MacGuffin – a dramatic device that serves no purpose beyond setting the plot in motion.

As a standalone episode, it’s a fun start to the season. It’s something of a sea change for the series, following an often portentous, heavily serialized debut season with a breezy, largely done-in-one adventure. Neither ‘Brother’ nor the season as a whole is perfect but from a big picture view? It’s an episode that sends ‘Discovery’ warping in the right direction.

What did you think of ‘Brother’? Let me know in the comments, and be sure to check back in two weeks for the next ‘Final Frontier Friday’!