Star Trek: Discovery
The first season finale of Star Trek: Discovery ended on the ideal type of cliffhanger: the “hmm, that seems like a terrible idea I’d like to block out for a year and circle back” kind. After a whirlwind of a rookie season, wherein choices both smart and utterly inexplicable — but overall unique and daring — were made, the writers made the deeply annoying decision to lean on nostalgia and canon in the final seconds, ending things with a distress signal from Captain Christopher Pike and the U.S.S. Enterprise.
That Discovery takes place a decade before the events of the original series has been well established; we knew the risk of running into canonical TOS characters from the beginning. But actively recruiting Captain James T. Kirk’s predecessor onto the Discovery and into the first new Trek series in over a decade feels titillating at best, a move expressly designed to placate a hardcore cadre of Trekkies who have already expressed serious doubts about the show to begin with. To say nothing of the fact that we’d just managed to kill off the other domineering white guy a few episodes prior! His imminent arrival, along with that of Michael Burnham’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) foster brother, Spock (Ethan Peck) — perhaps the franchise’s most recognizable character — and all the fervor surrounding them has resulted in little impatience for me surrounding the show’s return. Of course I want the show to come back; no first season of a Trek series is its best. But the introduction of familiar characters didn’t bode well at all for Discovery’s future.
Thus it is with slightly bemused optimism that I report that the season-two premiere, which, for better or worse, ignores almost all of the events of last season, is made delightful almost entirely thanks to Pike’s arrival on the ship. Of course there’s also Burnham’s opening monologue, which plays over the footage of Saturn gathered by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and is so beautiful that I choked up and suddenly wondered why this wasn’t part of the overall title sequence, à la Patrick Stewart’s Next Generation prologue. And there’s Tig Notaro as stranded engineer Jett Reno, whose wry genius manages to be a perfect fit for the franchise while also relatably grounding the story in a way previously unseen in a Trek show. Tilly’s still saying too many words, and Saru is still the undersung hero of my heart.
But — and believe me, it pains me to admit it — with Pike, and in particular with Anson Mount’s portrayal, Discovery has suddenly been injected with a version of the paternalism beloved in Treks past (see: Picard, Sisko) that may actually be ideally compatible with the future of the series. Equal parts humble, empathetic, and just a bit overly fixated on being the Discovery’s cool new stepdad, the new Pike is the best version of a white guy the show could have: he treats his role on the the ship as temporary as it is, deferring to Saru and Burnham whenever possible, humanizing the heretofore more or less anonymous bridge crew, and making jokes that feel rooted in classic Trek (“Where’s my damn red thing?” “And Detmer? Fly … good”).
To the plot, though: Stranded with only life support functional, the Enterprise — which, we learn, managed to miss the entire Klingon War while it was on one of its five-year missions — needs serious repair. In the meantime, Starfleet wants to optimize its prized Captain Pike, and orders him to commandeer Discovery to investigate a bunch of mysterious red … things that have suddenly popped up across the galaxy. They’re signals, I guess? And maybe they’re malicious! They’re red, after all.
Pike comes aboard with a redshirt with headgear and a science officer who is, much to Burnham’s surprise (and disappointment?), not Spock, but a large adult son fresh off an Ivy League rowing team named Connolly. (Among the many things I appreciated about this character: the actor who plays him is also named Connolly, as though the writers knew he’d exist so briefly they couldn’t bother to give the character an in-universe name.)
The Discovery is tasked with checking out the only one of the signals with a clear location, which happens to be in the middle of a strange asteroid cluster. One of the asteroids has its own gravitational field — which Large Adult Son so helpfully points out is impossible for an object that small — and just so happens to be where the USS Hiawatha, a Starfleet medical frigate thought to be destroyed by the Klingons over a year ago, has crash-landed. The cluster — awfully similar to the debris field where Burnham and Co. discovered the Klingons’ Beacon of Kahless, I should note — is too dangerous to transport through, so Burnham, Pike, headgear redshirt, and Large Adult Son take these little exploratory pods through the field to rescue whoever may still be alive on the asteroid.
Now, Large Adult Son exists seemingly for two reasons. He makes Pike look like a far better white guy by comparison, and establishes a new norm for the franchise: this time around, it won’t be redshirts who die for stupid reasons — it’ll be smug mansplainers who can’t get over a woman being smarter and better than him at their job. So yeah, Large Adult Son refuses to listen to Burnham’s warnings about steering the pods, despite the fact that she literally test-piloted them, and gets hit by debris and explodes as a result. Bye!
On the asteroid they find Jett Reno, who is apparently such a good engineer that she can also keep actual living people medically stable for 10 months with a heap of scrap metal and some batteries. I guess that makes sense, if medicine has indeed advanced that much — I don’t know shit about computers but can troubleshoot my laptop if it goes haywire. Anyway, they figure out how to transport all the patients off the rock. Burnham misses the transport window and has to do some virtually meaningless escaping of the wrecked ship as the gravitational field collapses it; she gets knocked out and stabbed by some molten shrapnel but Pike comes back to save her because he is a Good Dad. The Discovery manually grabs a big ol’ rock from the cluster because Tilly says it’s sending the last of the mycelium spores haywire, and because it apparently contains non-baryonic matter.
Meanwhile, the elephant not in the room this week: Spock. At the very least, his presence (or lack thereof) in the premiere is very “sorry, sorry, I’m trying to remove it,” as though to assure us it’s not the lazy fan service it appears. The bait-and-switch with his non-reveal — as the Enterprisers materialize on the transporter, a close shot of Large Adult Son’s square jaw and then his human ear, as though ratcheting up fans’ anticipation of his arrival only to deliberately dash it — was deeply satisfying, not to mention somewhat reassuring.
And judging from Burnham’s flashbacks to her arrival into Sarek, Amanda, and Spock’s home on Vulcan, it’s pretty clear that we’re leaning into the awkward insecurity suggested by Zachary Quinto in J.J. Abrams’s film franchise reboot (despite the two properties taking place in two different universes). Mean Baby Spock’s vague rejection of Baby Michael is obviously driven by anxiety, if not a deliberate insinuation that he’s on the autism spectrum; Burnham intimates to both Pike and Sarek that there’s more to their relationship that she hasn’t divulged yet, though, so that’s TBD.
And surprise! Pike’s damn red things, Burnham learns at the end when she boards the Enterprise to snoop through her brother’s stuff, were plotted and scattered by Spock himself, as some sort of puzzle or map for Burnham to follow “in the event of [his] death.” Kind of an extreme way to grapple with your existential crisis, bud, but given Spock’s penchant for pretending to be dead so that everyone who loves him will scramble to find him at any cost, I can’t say I’m surprised.
• Okay, look: I know it’s canon that Pike is from Mojave. I know that some bits of Star Trek over the years have even been filmed out in the Mojave Desert. But has anyone associated with this show ever pointed out that it is, in fact, a desert? Here’s a bafflingly lush still from the original Pike pilot, “The Cage.” And now we have Pike talking about having learned “back in Mojave” that you have to “jump right into” a “cold stream”? Is the Mojave going to be terraformed in the next 200 years? Is that it? Where is this cold stream in the middle of a desert, Christopher? WHERE.
• Should we be worried about Stamets? He’s talking about leaving Starfleet for the Vulcan Science Academy while also obsessing a little too much over the Kasseelian opera primadonna who commits violent suicide after one (1) performance. Here’s hoping a big new rock to play with will keep him onboard, and, you know, alive.
• Did you notice the proto-visor worn by Discovery’s transporter platform operator? … Hmm? Oh, yeah, that was all I had on that one. Good easter egg, folks.