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Star Trek Dis - Season 2 - Episode 01

Star Trek Dis - 2x01 - Brother

Originally Aired: 2019-1-17

Synopsis:
After answering a distress signal from the U.S.S. Enterprise, the U.S.S. Discovery welcomes aboard Captain Christopher Pike and begins a new mission to investigate the meaning behind seven mysterious red signals. Michael Burnham grapples with her past growing up on Vulcan with her foster parents and brother Spock.

My Rating - 3

Fan Rating Average - 5

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Problems
- The young Michael Burnham shown in this episode is older than the one seen in the pilot.
- It's not clear how Pike could've gotten his orders from Starfleet to take command of Discovery if they were supposedly on their way to investigate the mysterious signal only to suffer a catastrophic systems failure that crippled everything on the ship so much that it made communicating with another ship difficult.
- The exterior shots of the turbolift reveal huge, implausibly cavernous empty spaces all throughout the interior of Discovery.
- Burnham said the landing pods were built for a specific mission and that she was one of the test pilots. There would have been no plausible time for this to have occurred though, since from her time on Discovery up until this episode, events have been so compact that no such mission could have taken place off screen.
- It's completely ridiculous that Saru's eyesight is more acute than any of Discovery's sensors.
- Repeating a mistake common mainly to TOS, this episode has some usage of English Imperial units rather than metric.
- Lt. Commander Airiam voiced her rank when introducing herself despite Pike explicitly ordering everyone not to.
- Why not build the pods or the viewscreen out of transparent aluminum instead of glass that can crack and shatter?
- So Burnham just breaks into Spock's quarters, rummages through his things, reads his personal logs, and invades his privacy and nobody cares?
- In TOS: The Cage, Pike expresses discomfort having a woman on the bridge. Now a very short time later, he's surrounded by women on the bridge and seems to have no problem with it. While this aspect of his characterization in the 1960s is obviously distasteful for modern audiences, it's yet another striking example of Discovery's selective regard for canon. A better story would've made a reference to this line from TOS: The Cage and done something explicit to rationalize it. Maybe Pike had been more sexist earlier in his career. Maybe his personal file projected on the viewscreen should've had reprimands from Starfleet HR for sexist behavior, showing him having completed mandatory sensitivity training. Honestly, even the thinnest attempt to resolve the contradiction in characterization would've been better than flatly pretending that line never happened, as Discovery does all the time with both visual canon and story canon it finds inconvenient.

Factoids
- Commander Nhan is a Barzan, a species not seen since TNG: The Price. The Barzans are not members of the Federation, so it is curious how Nhan became a member of Starfleet.
- Stamets describes a former colleague on the Enterprise who is an ethnobotanist. This could possibly be a reference Sulu, who is a science officer and has an affinity for botany.
- The fortune cookie Pike picked up reading "Not every cage is a prison, nor every loss eternal" is a reference to the episodes of TOS which established the foundations of his character, TOS: The Cage and TOS: The Menagerie.

Remarkable Scenes
- Young Spock slamming the door on young Burnham's face.
- Tilly on reassigning people's workspaces: "I'm drunk on power!"
- Stamets: "Tilly, you are incandescent. You're going to become a magnificent captain because you do everything out of love. But I need you to repeat after me." Tilly: "Okay." Stamets: "I will say..." Tilly: "I will say..." Stamets: "Fewer things." Tilly: "Fewer thin—okay..."
- Connolly's death was pretty satisfying.

My Review
"Sometimes it's wise to keep our expectations low, that way we're never disappointed," Pike warns us, as though he is speaking through the fourth wall; as though he is speaking for the Discovery writers to the audience. After the canon-wrecking disaster that was the first season, that is indeed good advice. This episode of Star Trek Discovery: The Search for Spock sidelines the more interesting questions about why Burnham and Sarek are estranged from Spock to focus on yet another galaxy-wide emergency that occurs only moments after the Klingon war has ended. While building up Burnham's, Sarek's, and even the audience's expectations to see Spock materialize on the transporter pad only to end up with an obnoxious letdown of an understudy in Connolly is a reasonable dramatic move for the plot to build up tension, it is much less reasonable for the narrative to decline to let the audience in on just what drove Spock from his family. The mystery surrounding this is entirely manufactured and could be resolved quickly if the characters ever bother to ask or answer obvious questions about it, but nobody ever does.

As usual with Discovery, rather than establishing a dramatic hook, the narrative just dangles the possibility of eventual reveals and maintains a constant state of galactic emergency. A generally accepted guideline for writing good fiction is that suspense is better than mystery. You can hook an audience by disorienting them with endless mysteries that focus attention on piecing together clues, but better stories lay out all the players and their motives early, captivating audiences based on dramatic hooks alone. Good suspense is of course a lot harder to write and it appears to be beyond the capabilities of Discovery's writers so far. Perhaps they were hoping we wouldn't notice because we'd be too distracted by the nostalgic glee of seeing Pike and the Enterprise again like dangling keys in front of a toddler.

As for the all-consuming emergency of the season, we're not off to a great start. The justification for Pike to take command of Discovery doesn't meet the criteria Saru cites, as there does not appear to be any imminent danger posed by these mysterious signals. This is more like a scientific curiosity than a threat. But everyone seems to be constantly trigger happy on Discovery. Like with mysterious signals immediately being interpreted as a threat, so too were Jett Reno's drones when Burnham said, "I have an incoming target," and everyone whipped out phasers in response to the unknown like a spaghetti western rather than whipping out tricorders like an episode of Star Trek. Even the changes to the title sequence reflect this attitude: the communicator was removed, but they kept the phaser in. This jumpy behavior accords with an overall shift in tone on Discovery from previous Star Trek series that has become more evident over time. These characters are not the professional, disciplined crew of previous Star Treks. Instead we're shown a cadre of largely shrill, undisciplined, seemingly emotionally unbalanced (or at least immature) people whose hyperactive vicissitudes are continuously validated by a narrative that acts as though their behavior is something to celebrate when it so often is anything but admirable. They're constantly either sneering or manic as though none of them ever matured beyond adolescence.

A particularly noteworthy example (though there are so many that could be cited) is a scene when Pike chastises Burnham for not offering a constructive solution to rescue the downed Federation ship and she gets offended, replying that she was getting to that. For some reason Burnham didn't seem to understand that in an emergency situation, you have to get to the point quickly. Pike cut her off after a lengthy debate had already begun and Burnham began her supposedly constructive remark with, "Landing on an asteroid traveling at 5000km/s with spotty telemetry and no transp—" and she wonders why Pike cut her off? He cut her off because he was "thinking of all the syllables that gave their lives" in Burnham's completely unnecessary preamble. Repeating a bunch of facts Pike already knew presumably for dramatic effect is the opposite of constructive.

She could've just said, "We have a third option most Starfleet vessels don't have, captain: dope space motorcycles." Then Pike could've replied, "Sweet, saddle up," or "Hit it," or "The power of math, yippee!" or whatever overly contemporary shorthand the writers see fit to dump on us, cementing the scriptwriting as 2019 in space. Such heavy reliance on slang is not the shortcut to authenticity the writers seem to be hoping for, but instead evokes some of Star Trek's worst eras. Like the times when TOS couldn't escape the 60s, Discovery is dating itself as a late 2010s / early 2020s show with its stylistic choices constantly and it will not age well. While TNG, DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise were not immune to being overly contemporary at times (especially in their earlier seasons), Discovery is amping that up considerably and seems to be worryingly openly celebrating it.

This worrying tone shift of course extends well beyond unprofessional characterization and overly contemporary scriptwriting though. As alluded to in previous reviews, this episode appears to be doubling down on Discovery's slow drift towards just making Star Trek a cheap knockoff of a Marvel Avengers film. By now all the pieces are in place: a lot of manufactured excuses for action sequences like the space motorcycles, excessive CG clutter like the holographic candles in Burnham's quarters, and they even have Iron Man-style spacesuits which appear from mallet space and expand all around you. Perhaps the reason we never see this tech again in chronologically later Star Treks is due to idiotic design flaws, like inability to manually seal the helmet leading to Starfleet to collectively hang their heads in shame and toss this junk out the nearest airlock. Also, why not put on spacesuits before climbing into the space motorcycles to begin with, you know, to avoid the chance of the helmet not sealing properly in an emergency?

Thinking these things through just didn't seem to be a priority for the writers here. They were preoccupied with writing scenes that dump exposition on us at as rapid a clip as possible while the main focus of the camera is on a random alien dumping bodily fluids on someone for comedic effect because haha body humor is funny; Star Trek is a comic book franchise now, isn't that great? What's next, butt jokes?

It's certainly true that not all of Star Trek needs to be humanist philosophy all the time. The best Star Trek episodes are sometimes thoughtful, cerebral affairs like TNG: Tapestry, but Voy: Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy was also a hilarious and welcome addition to the canon. Discovery's ambitions are clearly leaning more towards the latter, and that's not necessarily a bad thing in principle if done skillfully and tastefully. What's so sad about this is Marvel films actually do a much better job of executing on this goofy, immature genre of storytelling, whereas Discovery comes off more as a cheap imitation. More importantly though, everyone knows what they're getting with a Marvel film. It's either your cup of tea or it isn't. If you like that stuff, great. But taking the pre-existing Star Trek franchise with all its history and depth and shoehorning it completely into the butt joke genre seriously undermines what makes the prior art so great. It's as though somebody said let's make Star Trek into the MCU while possessing no understanding of what makes either Marvel films nor Star Trek appealing to people, so it ends up being good at neither.

Lastly on this list of notably distasteful things, while Discovery's disastrous attitude towards visual canon has been discussed at length already here many times, the redesign of the Enterprise's interior offers another unique angle from which to explore this sad state of affairs. Recall the following exchange from TNG: Yesterday's Enterprise:

Guinan: "I look at things, I look at people, and they just don't feel right." Picard: "What things? What people?" Guinan: "You. Your uniform. The bridge." Picard: "What's the matter with the bridge?" Guinan: "It's not right." Picard: "It's the same bridge. Nothing has changed." Guinan: "I know that. I also know it's wrong."

Then, later on, Garett says: "This sickbay, I've never seen anything like it, even on a starbase. And your uniform. What ship is this, captain?"

What those characters are describing is a sense of disorientation due to constantly shifting visual continuity. A similar point is made in TNG: Parallels where Worf complains of being disoriented because sets and uniforms keep subtly changing and creating a sense of—and I quote directly here—"discontinuity." This is exactly what audiences are feeling when they see the redesigned sets of the Enterprise in a show that is allegedly part of the main canon, unlike the Kelvinverse films which deliberately set themselves apart from canon to avoid these problems. Discovery has trapped Star Trek inside something not unlike this Bob's Burgers episode, except nobody's laughing. Every week is a stressful exercise in, "What canon will they crush next?" The best option available to us is to take Captain Pike's advice: "Keep our expectations low, that way we're never disappointed."

While it's mainly quite a letdown to have a season premiere that draws so heavily on beloved canon like Pike, Spock, and The Enterprise fall so flat, there are some good things in here. This episode resolves the lingering question from the first season about why Burnham was absent in TAS: Yesteryear. And Pike's on-the-nose reference to Nhan being a "red shirt" only to subvert the trope and see Connolly die in his blue shirt instead may have been a somewhat obvious move, but still a well-executed and strangely satisfying one. Plus it's hard not to appreciate the roll call scene which feels like it was as much for the audience's benefit as it was for Pike's. It would be nice to add some more depth to Random Communications Officer Man and the other bridge crew. Broadly speaking though, it would be nice to add considerably more depth and care to the writing of Discovery in general. Let's hope we get it sooner than later.

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