Star Trek: Discovery 2.01 – “Brother”

It’s back! We’re back! With a shiny new (old) captain and an intriguing new mystery, but still the same space nerds we know and love.

Space, the final frontier…

I got chills when I heard Sonequa Martin-Green recite those words. Not just because, HELLO, IT’S ICONIC, but she is a woman, and an African American woman, and she gets to speak one of the most iconic phrases in science fiction, previously spoken only by white men.

The opening monologue, setting ancient African mythology against a backdrop of real footage of space, segues into a flashback to Michael’s arrival in Sarek’s home, and her first encounter with her foster family.

I never feared that season 2 would move Discovery‘s focus to Pike or Spock, or any other character, but nevertheless I appreciated this unambiguous opening statement: Michael Burnham is still the protagonist. And I see no reason for that to change going forward.

New year, new captain!

I have a lot of affection for Chris Pike, based mostly on the fact that “The Cage” was my very first exposure to the TOS era back when I was a kid, and my mum liked him better than Kirk.

I was keen to see him in Discovery, but I didn’t particularly want him to be the new captain — I had hoped that role would go to the character known only as Number One, the Enterprise first officer played by Majel Barrett in the unaired pilot, before the network got cold feet about seeing a woman in command.

(One source claims that the network liked the character, but wanted to replace Barrett with a “better” actress. As Number One marks one of the best performances of a long and respectable career, I can only assume that by “better”, they meant “more emotionally accessible and traditionally feminine”. Thank heavens we never see that sort of complaint about female characters now, eh.)

As usual, no one cares what I want, so we have Pike instead. And given that Michael was explicitly inspired by Number One, who was also extremely logical and stoic, I can see how that could be a good thing. Too many similar characters in one show might be a bad idea.

I didn’t mind Pike here, but I’m having a hard time reconciling the Pike of Discovery with the Pike of “The Cage”. The difference is intentional — Anson Mount talks about it here — but Pike in “The Cage” struck me as fairly introspective, and a bit of a hardass. Here, three (or fifty-odd, depending how you’re counting) years later, he seems more gung ho, and almost self-consciously easygoing.

It’s that latter part that I find both off-putting and interesting. Is Pike trying too hard to be likable? Is he overcompensating for Lorca — both his idea of Lorca, and his idea of what Lorca did to his crew?

I suspect this is, again, intentional:

Pike is very affable in the season two premiere, but will that change? Is he going to start having conflicts with the Discovery crew once he settles in?

Mount: Oh yeah, I mean, he’s got serious flaws. As any good character does. There’s conflict that Pike is struggling within himself. The Enterprise was forced to sit out the Klingon wars and that has taken a toll on Pike and the crew of the Enterprise. A lot of the people that they worked with are not there anymore. And so they feel simultaneously guilty and kind of jilted, that they weren’t involved in the Klingon war. So those roosters will come home to roost.

But I’ve also realised that my idea of Pike, based on “The Cage”, is quite incomplete — we find him there in a state of what we would now call burnout. He’s grieving for lost crew, he’s thinking of leaving Starfleet, he’s exhausted and introspective. But this, I’ve come to understand (in, like, the last month) cannot possibly be the whole picture where Pike is concerned.

It’s strange to let go of a headcanon which dates back to my childhood, but also a bit exciting. I don’t know who Pike really is, but I’m keen to find out.

I was particularly intrigued by the moment where he thought the crew needed to be persuaded to rescue any survivors from the Hiawatha. Because, clearly, he has to some extent made assumptions — faulty ones — about how much Lorca affected Discovery’s culture. But also, “The Cage” opens with him needing to be persuaded to gamble that survivors of a crash are still waiting for their decades-old distress signal to be heard. He’s come a long way since that episode.

“I thought I broke a captain!”

I’ve seen complaints about Tilly backsliding into nervous and inappropriate fast-talking in “Brother”, but everything she does throughout the episode makes sense to me.

I want to talk about this scene in particular, because I think her awkwardness in dealing with Pike is completely understandable. The last time she interacted with a captain on this bridge, it was Lorca, telling her to defy her every instinct when it comes to nervous chatter. Which, she must have realised, was just another layer of manipulation, because he surely knew of Captain Killy, even if they weren’t acquainted, and he knew what she was capable of.

So now she has a new captain, and … well, that’s terrifying. Chances are, he’s exactly who he claims to be — but who is that? What does he expect of her? Of the crew?

Pike, bless him, doesn’t bark at her, but makes a joke, defuses the tension. Then he more or less sits on his desk, throws the textbook in the bin and invites his students to call him Chris. Because he’s trying almost as hard to be liked as Tilly.

Which brings us the cringeiest scene of the episode: Pike invites the bridge crew to give their names.

Thanks, I hate it.

…okay, hate is a strong word for a scene I found merely unnecessary, but it annoyed me.

We already knew the surnames of every single character in that scene, and most of their first names. It felt like a sop for the people who moan that Discovery isn’t “real Star Trek“, whatever “real Star Trek” is, because the bridge crew aren’t the main characters.

Thing is, they don’t need to be. It’s a bridge full of O’Briens — strong supporting characters who could totally carry an episode or join a spin-off’s ensemble if needed, but sometimes they’re just there to push buttons and say, “Aye, captain.”

O’Brien’s evolution from “silent extra” in the TNG premiere to main character in DS9 was organic. This scene felt forced. I’m not opposed to letting the bridge crew evolve, but this was artificial.

I’m also going to talk about Tilly in her own right

Last week, on the plane to Brisbane, I inhaled The Way to the Stars by Una McCormack, the new tie-in novel that deals with Tilly’s teen years. And it was good! It badly needed a better edit and another round of revisions, but unlike the other tie-ins so far, I never found myself wanting to throw it across the room or set it on fire. (Urges best resisted when you’re reading ebooks, by the way.)

I adored Tilly in “Brother”. I didn’t always agree with her decisions, but I understood them, and they were consistent with everything we know about her.

For example! I think that leaving Discovery is a really good decision for Stamets! He shouldn’t have to live and work on the ship where his partner was murdered, knowing that Hugh’s killer won’t — probably can’t — face justice in any meaningful way. I think that moving to Vulcan and pursuing his research in a setting where he can deal with his own grief and not worry about his colleagues’ emotions, is exactly what he needs, and I think it’s wrong for Tilly to try to persuade him to stay.

However! I also think that it’s reasonable — given her established behaviour, and also her youth — that she’d make the attempt. Tilly has trouble letting go of people she cares about — we saw it last year with her support for Ash post-Voqectomy — which is admirable, but sometimes isn’t what they need. Learning when to let go is something that has to come with experience.

I appreciated, though, that there was a lot more to Tilly than being Stamets’s emotional support nerd. She’s sciencing in her own right, scheming with Michael to become the founding mothers of a new branch of physics, and taking charge of the operation to capture a piece of dark matter asteroid.

Actually, I’m gonna go back to Pike for a bit…

I almost expected a scene where Tilly asked permission to science the shit out of the asteroid, to be followed by Pike grumbling before reluctantly going along with it. Which goes to show how much Lorca’s presence impacted even viewer expectations. Discovery is once again a safe space for nerds.

Which is probably a relief for Saru, too!

Okay, I’m talking about Saru (and Pike) now

I know a lot of people wanted Saru to stay on as captain for season 2, but I really don’t think he’s ready yet. He had barely six months of experience as a first officer before Lorca … you know. And Lorca, bless his black heart, was not a good mentor.

I think that Saru is capable of being a great captain, but he’s not there yet. But I also think that, with Georgiou gone, Pike is an ideal mentor: he respects Saru’s ability to quote rules, and doesn’t mock him for it, but he’s also experienced enough to know when the rules need bending.

I didn’t much care for Saru in the first half of season one, but he’s grown on me — especially since the Short Trek “The Brightest Star” (they’re on Netflix now!) revealed that he is from a pre-warp, low-technology society. Which is unprecedented in Trek! He’s not just the outsider because he’s an alien, he’s new to the technology of the Federation, and all the cultural assumptions that other characters take for granted.

When, in season one, he complains that Burnham treats him like a xenoanthropological specimen, he’s not just having a (justified) whinge about her rudeness — he’s clearly aware that that’s the position his species occupies in the status quo of the galaxy, and conscious that anthropology can fall into the traps of othering and objectification.

(I don’t think it’s coincidence that Bo Yeon Kim, who co-wrote that short, has a background in anthropology.)

All this is to say that I’ve come to find Saru really interesting, and I’m eager to see him thrive under a captain who respects him, encourages his best qualities and helps him address his weaknesses.

1,700 words and I haven’t even mentioned Jett Reno yet

I have a pattern when it comes to characters I adore. They are, quite often:

  • women
  • approximately middle-aged
  • competent
  • lacking in tolerance for bullshit
  • sarcastic
  • only recurring supporting characters because I hate myself

They don’t have to tick all these boxes — Katrina Cornwell, for example, doesn’t seem particularly sarcastic — and sometimes my fave is a young woman, or even a man. But I have a Type. So I can only assume that Alex Kurtzman had me, specifically, in mind when he created Jett.

Please excuse me while I capslock:


Unless your fave is Miles O’Brien or B’Elanna Torres, or, possibly, Geordi LaForge, anyway, it’s pretty cool. Improbable, of course, but one of the things I love about Star Trek is that even an engineer on an insignificant medical frigate is capable of wacky genius-level engineering.

I also liked that, even though breast cancer and ensuing double masectomies are presumably a thing of the past, no attempt was made to pad Tig Notaro’s jacket, or to present her as anything other than a woman without breasts. That gives me hope that we’re also not going to learn that, for example, we’re meant to believe Jett is into men.

I guess there was also a plot

But no villain — despite the trailers promising The End Of All Life In The Galaxy, all we have so far is a mystery. Or a set of mysteries:

  • What are the red signals?
  • What is the Red Angel?
  • What is the deal with the dark matter asteroid (and how is it related to the first two questions)?
  • Where is Spock (and how is he connected to the other mysteries)?
  • Why are Spock and Michael estranged?

I cannot even begin to speculate yet! But I’m keen, and curious to know what comes next.

No, actually, I do have one theory: that Michael and Spock’s relationship ground to a screeching halt when Michael told Spock he should do what Sarek says, and be a proper Vulcan. While — going by the established timeline — she’s a serving Starfleet officer, representing everything he wants and is told he shouldn’t have.

There was also a Significant Fortune Cookie

Or a slip, at least, lying on the floor by Lorca’s old desk.

It goes, Not all prisons are a cage, nor all loss eternal. I believe. Something like that.

Possible interpretations, all of which are perfectly valid at this point:

  • allusion to Pike’s experiences in “The Cage” and foreshadowing for his eventual fate in TOS
  • foreshadowing for the return of Hugh Culber
  • something something Ash Tyler, the “loss” of Voq and his “imprisonment” in a human body?
  • the Gabriel Lorca of this universe is alive and well … okay, probably just alive, and coming back as soon as they have a script Jason Isaacs likes
  • foreshadowing for whatever Spock is up to?

There are even more theories out there, but these are my favourites. I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit that, when I first watched the episode, I only thought of the Lorca connection, and completely missed, for example, the extremely obvious reference to “The Cage”.

(For what it’s worth, the tie-in novel Drastic Measures ends with prime!Lorca in a prison … somewhere, just weeks before the Battle of the Binary Stars — well after his counterpart had taken over his life in our universe. The Disco writers room are keeping a pretty tight rein on tie-in content; that’s not something you could just throw in without their approval. On the other hand, I believe the official position on these novels is that they’re canon “unless we think of something better”.)

Rest In Pieces, Science Officer Connolly

There was a review a couple of weeks ago, complaining that “Brother” had too many scenes where the crew praise Michael, and that the script was deeply unfair to poor old Connolly. (I thought it was on, but although I recognise that review, and the comments, the bits I remember aren’t there, so I must be thinking of another site. Apologies, TrekMovie!)

I read that, rolled my eyes, braced myself for incoming complaints about Mary Sues, and started composing a few paragraphs about the importance of seeing a black woman being praised and admired by her colleagues, especially after a season where she spent a lot of time isolated and mistrusted.

Imagine my shock when none of those scenes happened. Michael was competent and, occasionally, outspoken. She was treated with respect. I did not see a single scene where she was singled out for particular praise or attention, save for Pike and (I think) Commander Nhan respecting the skills she has developed through hard work and experience.

On the other hand, there is one (1) instance where I felt bad for Connolly: when Crewman Linus sneezed on him. That scene was silly and gross, and completely unnecessary. Linus needs to look into basic hygiene. Or stay in his quarters when he’s sick. Or both.

As for Evan “Mansplain McBlue-Shirt” Connolly, my only beef is that I’m curious to know why he seems to have a particular chip on his shoulder when it comes to Michael. Does he hold her responsible for the war? Does he think she didn’t deserve reinstatement? I don’t care about him, but I want to learn more about Michael’s reputation beyond Discovery. We could have had less sneezing and more worldbuilding, dammit.

But I am very much in favour of Discovery‘s tradition of killing a gross mansplainer every premiere, and of not killing Commander Nhan, who is competent and nice and looks very fetching in her red shirt.

A very brief word on Sarek and Amanda

This is already a long post, and I’m quite sure I’ll have other opportunities to talk about Sarek’s terrible parenting, so I’ll be brief:

I don’t believe for a minute that Sarek adopted Michael because Spock needed to learn about empathy, and orphans are more common than puppies in the Star Trek universe. But I think that’s what he tells himself because he cannot admit to having an emotional response to meeting this poor human child who needs a family.

His interactions with Michael — inviting her to confide in him, but not pushing — are a big improvement over his treatment of her in “Lethe”. He’s come a long way! (I guess believing your daughter’s dead for nine months will do that. Take notes, Spock! Uhhhhhh, don’t actually die — okay, you know, you do you.)

I honestly have more questions about Amanda, and her role in this family. I think that Amanda worked wonderfully well as an archetype in the 1960s — the proud mother, the society wife to a brilliant but irritable public figure — but a lot of elements built into the very DNA of the Sarek-Amanda marriage have dated badly.

This doesn’t mean I dislike it — I find that tension really fascinating and enjoyable — but, you know. Questions.

Other things!

  • I hate the TOS uniforms so much. Always have. Even retooled to match the Disco cut. Even with the optional skirt a reasonable length. There are just too. Many. Colours.
  • So far, season 2 hasn’t required a jerk ranking — the only person who qualifies is Evan Connolly, and look how he ended up! I … kind of miss it, actually.
  • Major characters we have yet to see: Ash Tyler, L’Rell, Georgiou, Spock (obvs), Kat. I assume the first four will turn up in the next couple of weeks; as for Kat, it’s anyone’s guess.
  • Just how much space is there between decks on the Disco? It seems improbable that there’d be this much empty space, but one Reddit commenter — the most reliable of sources — said that you sometimes get this on container ships, where everything is modular and robots can fill or empty small spaces as needed.
  • Tilly refers to the ship as “Disco”, because she is all of us.
  • Amanda wears robes and a tiara around the house, because why not? I love it, but it’s one of the choices that makes me feel like she’s more of an archetype than a fully developed character.
  • Silly criticism of the week: “The presence of asteroids is a Star Wars ripoff.”

In conclusion

Linus, blow your nose. Everyone else: thumbs up.

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