Star Trek: Discovery Returns Boldly, But We're Not Quite Sure Where It's Going Yet

Burnham’s back, baby.
Photo: CBS

When Star Trek: Discovery premiered back in 2017, our recap praised its spectacle but questioned just where the show would be going thematically. Now, Discovery is back for season two, with a premiere that revels in the spectacle of space exploration once more, but has us asking that same question.

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“Brother,” in many ways, feels like Discovery’s do-over premiere. Although not a two-part saga in the vein of season one’s “The Vulcan Hello/The Battle of the Binary Stars,” there are plenty of mirrors between it and our first taste of this latest chapter in the Star Trek saga.

It’s another kind of introduction, even if several of the characters are now familiar faces. It focuses on action-packed spectacle more so than the heady moral questions of the day Star Trek usually digs its teeth into, setting up a ton of new mysteries for the rest of the season to follow up on instead of providing any meaty answers of its own. The episode feels like it’s striking out at the same goals when it comes to establishing a tone to go forward for the rest of the season. In a moment I found both delightful and a little bit cheeky, it even borrows an action sequence from the 2009 Star Trek reboot movie—the space jump sequence, right down to the candy-color-coordinated jumpsuits and, this time, even the fact that the gung-ho adrenaline junkie on the away team gets killed after ignoring safety advice!

How many times must we emulate this one (at least pretty good) sequence from Star Trek ‘09?
Image: CBS

But for all the familiar structure, where “Brother” differentiates itself from the season one premiere most—in a very good way—is the tone. Discovery’s debut wanted to embrace a grim, uneasy time for Starfleet and the Federation, and its spectacle keenly focused on the shock and horror of the outbreak of conflict with the Klingons. The spectacle of “Brother” meanwhile feels like it’s in service of reminding us all that flying around in space exploring the mysteries of the universe can be fun and awesome.

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And that’s a great thing, because in uniting its characters—Burnham, the rest of the Discovery crew, and newcomer Anson Mount, as Enterprise Captain Christopher Pike—under the sheer joy of what they’re doing makes this crew actually feel like a classic Star Trek unit more than any of the empty “We are Starfleet!” platitudes season one had to offer. These people all went through hell in Discovery’s first season, but now, they can all get back to the boldly going that inspires Starfleet’s best and brightest. Everything’s a little less on edge, and the show can begin to breathe a little more calmly.

Pike introduces himself, and his failing grade in Astrophysics.
Image: CBS
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It also means that, while she still drives the heart of Discovery’s story (mainly through the mysteries teased in this episode, which we’ll get to later), Sonequa Martin-Green’s Burnham is no longer the sole spotlight the show focuses its attention on. There’s more time in “Brother” with Saru, with Tilly—as loveable as ever as Discovery’s newest Command Program applicant, something she likes to repeatedly note—and with Stamets, and most crucially not just through the lens of their specific interactions with Burnham.

Hell, there’s actual extended bridge scenes, something that felt like an absurd rarity in Discovery’s first season, where the bridge staff interacts with each other. When Captain Pike comes aboard to commandeer the Discovery for a mission a damaged Enterprise cannot complete, there’s even a cute roll call as he tries to learn as much as he can about them—and assure them all that he is no Gabriel Lorca, Mirror Asshole. It’s also to remind the audience that yes, all these characters actually had names, and we’ll probably remember that now that they’re getting to have a little more personality, and, well lines of dialogue. For now, it’s still all early days and small steps, and it’s something that’s likely to evolve considering Pike notes to Burnham that he’s treating his stay on Discovery as having “joint custody” with Saru. But they’re very welcome steps that give me hope we’re going to really start getting to know these characters going forward.

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Babby Spock is a rude little boy.
Image: CBS

But while Burnham is not the sole focus of the story in “Brother,” she plays a major part in its core mystery, and for now, that’s where a lot of my questions and uncertainty for Discovery’s sophomore season lie. The titular sibling is of course Spock (played by Ethan Peck), and while the spine of the episode is dedicated to Pike coming aboard the Discovery to investigate a series of mysterious beacons emitting messages across the galaxy (with a diversion to rescue a Starfleet medical transport, the U.S.S. Hiawatha, that’s been MIA since the early days of the Klingon War), much of its runtime is dedicated to something I found myself referring to as...well, Spockteasing.

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“Brother” constantly feels like it wants to have its replicated cake and eat it too when it comes to Spock, constantly dangling the young, beardy Vulcan in front of both the audience and Burnham (who is filled with unease over the thought of crossing paths with her distant adoptive brother), while never really delivering beyond a neat pile of story hooks. Peck only appears through voiceover in the episode, and the only Spock we see is an even younger version in flashbacks to Burnham’s childhood, as she’s welcomed into Amanda and Sarek’s home and faces an incredibly frosty reception from Spock. But even without him there—gone on personal leave to investigate the same signals the Enterprise and now Discovery have been alerted to, heralded by nightmarish visions he apparently had as a child—Spock casts a big shadow over the episode.

Burnham discovers Spock’s connection to the signals.
Image: CBS
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And it’s not just in his connection to the mysterious signals being set up as the big mystery of the season either. There’s an apparently deep fracture in Spock’s relationship with his family, which Burnham reveals to Sarek might be her fault—a precursor for some major drama for whenever Discovery gets round to stopping its Spocktease and actually reunites Burnham with her brother. But so far, it’s all couched in uncertainties, strung along with a knowing nod that you’ll stay around to see this latest take on a beloved Star Trek icon. It’s the most frustrating aspect of an episode that otherwise delivers on a solid tonal reset for Discovery, awkwardly brushing up with the intent to hew towards a more idealistic path with its promise of melodrama and conflict for poor Michael Burnham.

But really, for now, all we can really do about that is wait and see. There are still plenty of questions to ponder about just where Discovery’s second season will go from here—both in its mystery arc and whether or not the tonal contrast between the larger mission and Burnham’s own brewing personal dramas will eventually even out when Spock’s absence and the nature of these signals inevitably intertwine. But beneath the familiar glitz of its slick spectacle, there’s enough in “Brother” that has us hopeful that, little by little, the show’s learning from some of the regrettable pitfalls its first season fell into. It’s good to have you back, Discovery.

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Math be praised!
Image: CBS

Assorted Musings

  • I hope you’re satisfied with the amount of Enterprise you got, because that...kind of seems like all you’ll get until the end of the season, when Pike inevitably returns to command it after he’s done being interim Discovery Captain. Like it did with Spock, it felt like the show was dangling the iconic ship juuuust out of reach enough to be annoying about it, so maybe it’s for the best that Enterprise is going in for some much-needed maintenance.
  • Same goes for the Enterprise style uniforms. We know Pike’s costume change was coming given he’d be spending more time on the Discovery this season, but still...those classic uniforms are so nice. I wonder if they’ll eventually trickle over by the season’s end?
  • One big leap for this premiere was that we had basically no Klingon character stuff, outside of a mention from Pike that Starfleet had consulted with L’Rell over whether or not the Klingons had found out what the mystery signals were. Given their focus in season one, it was almost jarring.
  • I love that this episode went so far out of its way to let you know that Pike is not Lorca 2.0 that they even had a scene of him trashing Lorca’s ready room standing desk. What was with that ominous as hell fortune cookie message he found though, “Not every cage is a prison, nor every loss eternal”? Innocent reference to the original Trek pilot “The Cage,” or something more dreadful to come? Please, please don’t let it be Lorca coming back somehow.
  • I’m going to be very sad if Stamets actually does end up leaving the ship and the series to accept that teaching position. While it’s understandable—he went through some shit last season—who will be left to pull the best reaction faces on the show? Maybe Tig Notaro’s Denise Reno, who the crew rescued from the downed Hiawatha (and I’m pretty sure is still on Discovery by the end of this episode?) could be a replacement. After all, a scientist-turned-engineer being replaced by an engineer-turned-scientist would be an interesting parallel.
  • I wish that very first trailer for the new season hadn’t spoiled Tilly’s “This is the power of math, people!!!” gag for when the Discovery hauls in a giant sample of the mysterious rocks it had found near the signal. Such a fun moment.
  • So, Burnham gets a freaky vision of an angelic looking figure after she’s injured trying to escape the ruins of the Hiawatha. Safe to say that’s linked to whatever nightmares Spock had relating to the signals, right? I wonder if there was some weird brother/sister Mind-Meld stuff at some point in their past.
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About the author

James Whitbrook

James is a News Editor at io9. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!