Star Trek Discovery: Brother

The war with the Klingons may be over, but Starfleet is concerned about a brand new phenomenon – a series of mysterious red bursts that simultaneously occurred thousands of light years apart. Discovery has been tasked with investigating them, and to that end, they have been assigned a new captain – Christopher Pike of the USS Enterprise. As Pike takes the captain’s chair, Burnham finds herself both dreading and anticipating the chance to meet his science officer, her adoptive brother Spock.

Some ten months ago, Discovery’s first season left us with a cliffhanger ending in which Discovery had just made contact with none other than the USS Enterprise, NCC-1701. In time, we learnt that Pike and Spock would play an important part in season two, but any further specifics would have to wait.

If you thought you’d finally get to see Spock in this episode, however, then you’ll be somewhat disappointed. Yes, he appears as a child in a couple of flashback scenes, but other than that, he’s notable in his absence. Burnham gets all excited when she hears that Enterprise’s science officer is beaming over, but it turns out to be Lt Connolly, a man so annoying that the audience is bound to cheer when he inevitably meets an untimely end. Eventually, Burnham plucks up the courage to ask to visit Enterprise, only to be told that Spock isn’t even there – he somehow has privileged plot knowledge about the red phenomenon and has gone off to investigate it alone.

Speaking of which, as a potential season-long story arc, the ‘red bursts’ have yet to become particularly compelling. Is red in and of itself a colour to be feared in the Star Trek universe? Given the dangers of red matter in the Kelvin universe, and the life expectancy of a 23rd century officer wearing a red shirt, maybe Starfleet is right to be concerned about it.

Anyway, the red phenomenon leads Discovery to a region filled with asteroids, mysteriously high gravitational fields and a crashed starship. What follows is a string of action scenes, which are all very polished, but failed to enturely hold my attention. The main standout from this section of the episode is the rescue of new recurring character Jett Reno, a self-reliant engineer who promises to be a spirited addition to the cast.

Character catch-up

  • Pike steps in here as Discovery’s interim captain, a man of Starfleet principles who promises to be a far cry from Gabriel Lorca. We’ve had two takes on Pike before. In The Cage, he was an introspective man who agonised over the responsibilities of his position and the lives lost under his command. In the Kelvin universe, he was mostly a mentor and enabler for Kirk’s rise to captain of the Enterprise. This new take on Pike clearly cares about the people under his command, and in doing his utmost to “leave no one behind”, but will there be more to his character than that? Only time will tell.
  • Burnham spends most of this episode agonising over her relationship with Spock. We see in flashbacks that young Spock was not especially happy about Burnham’s addition to the family, even though it was Sarek’s hope that having a human peer would help his son learn empathy. It seems that in the intervening years, Burnham and Spock did become friends, but something happen to sour their relationship. Is this all tied in with Sarek refusing to support Spock’s entry into Starfleet? We’ll just have to wait and see.
  • Tilly remains quintessentially Tilly, talking a lot, coming up with good ideas, and being concerned over Stamets. She may not be as good a character as “Captain Killy”, but somehow I can’t help but like her.
  • Stamets is understandably having a tough time after Hugh’s death, and wants to leave Discovery to take up a post on Vulcan. Presumably he will get sufficiently caught up in events to remain aboard, but the poor guy hasn’t even been given any compassionate leave.
  • Saru had to hand over his interim captaincy of Discovery to Pike, but not without due process and procedure. Naturally his threat ganglia are still as sensitive as ever.
  • Culber is still dead, but we’ve been told he will be featuring in this season somehow. So far, we’ve seen him in the form of a holographic recorded message that Stamets likes to replay to himself, but presumably this won’t be the extent of his involvement.

Notes and Observations

  • The transporter room operator appears to be wearing a VISOR.
  • The Enterprise personnel wear a 21st take on the classic TOS uniform design, described here as the “new uniforms”. We know that Starfleet uniform design changes relatively frequently, so I’m content to fit the Discovery uniforms into the timeline.
  • Pike and Spock are obviously the big names from the Enterprise in this era, but I’d really like some cameos from other characters from The Cage. Let’s have an appearance from Number One!
  • What could the “non-baryonic matter” in the asteroid field actually be? Given that it seems to be solid, we can probably rule out neutrinos and electrons. Maybe it’s a new form of “mesonic” matter, a physical manifestation of a type of matter that’s only theoretical in our current models, or, most likely, some special Star Trek matter that defies our laws and understanding of physics.
  • Reno claims she was able to save her crewmates because fixing bodies is just another type of engineering. Whilst, in a broad sense, this is true, in our world people study medicine for years to become qualified doctors, and we certainly don’t let engineers perform intricate surgery. Given that medicine in the 23rd century involves not just humans, but a whole variety of humanoid species, either Reno’s genius is beyond measure, or this situation is barely credible.
  • Discovery’s spore drive has been packed away, possibly never to be used again – thus explaining its absence in all other Star Trek series.
  • Why is there so much space in the turbolift shafts? It seems wasteful.

Theory: Mirror Universe Klingons

This one comes courtesy of my occasional viewing companion, who wonders – “are the mirror universe Klingons really pathetic when compared to the prime universe Klingons?”. He offers up the following pieces of evidence.

  • Last season, Emperor Giorgiou seemed to think she could get somewhere by torturing a Klingon, even though for a Klingon this is basically the equivalent of foreplay. We know the Emperor is no fool, so maybe she’s merely used to a weaker brand of Klingon.
  • At the time of Mirror, Mirror, the Terran Empire clearly did not fear the Klingons – it was only after Spock’s pacifist teachings spread that the Klingons were finally able to form an alliance to conquer humanity. Was this because the mirror Klingons were not as fearsome a galactic power as their prime counterparts? The prime Klingons may never have defeated the Federation, but they were definitely on an equal footing, even without the Romulans or Cardassians on side.

Extra: Star Trek and unconscious bias

Both the Kelvin universe reboot and Discovery have something that earlier Star Treks don’t – a higher proportion of aliens. Arguably, this is just because they both have the budget and production values to spend on bringing more exotic life forms to the screen, but in this episode it really highlighted something for me. There’s a scene where the named characters walk into a turbolift already occupied by a distinctly alien officer from an unknown species. “Oh look, yet another weird alien,” I thought, “Discovery really likes to pack those in.”

But in truth, that’s exactly how it would be in the Federation. As with much of media, earlier Star Trek trained us to believe that the default person is a white Caucasian male, and that any variant on this is unusual. Include more than one (maybe two, at a push) women, ethnic minorities or aliens in your cast, and suddenly people start complaining it’s too much, even if that group is now more representative of society as a whole.

Not only is the Federation supposedly a utopia where gender and ethnicity attract no prejudice and are no barrier to doing whatever you want, but it’s also a collection of 150 different worlds. Sure, some of those worlds are likely colonies of the founding members – humans, Vulcans, Andorians and Tellerites – and not every world supplies officers to Starfleet, but that still means there’s a whole range of species serving aboard starships. Even if it means we have to adjust our own internal biases, we should expect to see starships filled with a diverse range of people from all across the Federation. Ships full of Caucasians should be particularly unusual exceptions, anomalies even.

Summary – Brother: One big Spock-tease.

Addendum: Short Treks

Now available in the UK, the Short Treks are four 15-20 minute mini-episodes focused on a single Discovery character. So far, I’ve watched two of them.

In Runaway, Tilly discovers a stowaway aboard Discovery in the form of Po, a young Xahean engineer who seems keen to escape her home world. As Tilly bonds with Po and gradually learns more about her backstory and motivations, it helps her consider her own place on the command program, and develop a bit more self confidence. It’s a nice little set piece that highlights Tilly’s character well, and introduces us to her overbearing mother.

Calypso is set in a future in which Discovery has been abandoned for a thousand years – long enough for Zora, the ship’s computer, to develop sentience. Although still bound by her last orders to wait for the crew, she rescues a passing escape pod and nurses the man within it back to health. What follows is a brief love story that is entertaining enough, but has very little to do with Star Trek. It could easily have been set in pretty much any sci-fi universe.

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