“Where’s my damn red thing?” — Star Trek: Discovery’s “Brother”

The very first Star Trek character that Gene Roddenberry ever wrote was Captain Christopher Pike. As played by Jeffrey Hunter, Pike was a solid, stolid leader in the Hornblower mode, one who was world-weary and thinking about retiring in the flashbacks of “The Menagerie,” using footage from the unaired pilot “The Cage.” As played by Bruce Greenwood in the alternate timeline of the Bad Robot movies, Pike was a wise mentor, an understanding authority figure.

Anson Mount debuted his interpretation of Pike on the second season premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, and it’s a fascinating mix of Hunter and Greenwood, and a role that’s written with the knowledge that it takes place several years after “The Cage.” It’s also a delight, a welcome shot in the arm to the show which delivers its best episode yet.

Back when “Context is for Kings” came out, I was struck by the fact that the U.S.S. Discovery was a ship very well suited to a more standard Star Trek than the war tale we got in season one, as it’s a ship of science and exploration.

In “Brother” that’s front and center, both in the background, as Ensign Tilly allocates lab resources to the various science and engineering crews, and in the foreground as they use their scientific knowhow to rescue the crashed survivors of the U.S.S. Hiawatha, trapped in an asteroid that’s about to collide with a pulsar.

Pike has been transferred temporarily to Discovery from Enterprise in order to investigate seven simultaneous bursts of energy. Originally Enterprise was to investigate—but the bursts of energy also apparently did catastrophic damage to the larger vessel. The ship just returned from a five-year mission (ahem), and was apparently deliberately kept out of the war. They were too far from home to do any good, and they were in reserve in case of catastrophe. (If you want to know what the Enterprise was doing in detail, John Jackson Miller has a Discovery novel coming out in July called The Enterprise War which will provide that very story.) There’s an amusing conversation between Burnham and Pike where the latter quotes Spock’s problem with that particular directive, and you can almost hear Leonard Nimoy voicing the dialogue Pike quotes.

Spock himself, however, isn’t around. After the armistice, Spock took an extended leave of absence. He had more than enough leave time accumulated. Burnham is disappointed at not getting to see her foster brother, and we find out from flashbacks that the two of them didn’t always get along. (We know from “Yesteryear” and the 2009 movie that Spock’s childhood was pretty difficult in any event.) Sarek doesn’t seem to give a damn (which fits, as he and Spock were in the midst of their twenty-year-long snit, as established in “Journey to Babel“), and he buggers off on a mission of his own. (Burnham is also surprised to learn that Sarek knew that Amanda read Alice in Wonderland to her. Even Burnham knows that Sarek’s the worst father ever.)

The heart of the episode’s plot is the Hiawatha rescue. It does cost a life—Connolly, an Enterprise science officer, who I was just starting to like when he died from his own arrogance—but despite the risk of traversing a vicious gravity field and a ton of asteroidal debris, Pike, Burnham, and Commander Nhan (an Enterprise engineer) manage to get on board and they find survivors. An engineer, Commander Reno (played with delightful snark by Tig Notaro) has kept the crew alive after they crashed for ten months. She’s relieved that the war is over and even more grateful for the rescue.

But the soul of the episode is the crew trying to move past the events of season one. The damage Lorca did to the ship is seen particularly in how antsy the crew is around Pike at first, mistaking his friendlier command style with another iron fist in a velvet glove like they got from Lorca. (At the end of the episode, Pike complains about the lack of chairs in the ready room.) Stamets is still devastated by the loss of Culber, having accepted a transfer to the Vulcan Science Academy after this mission is done. Meanwhile, Tilly is taking to being an officer like a very talkative duck to water.

For Burnham, though, the big issue isn’t getting past the war or Lorca or Pike or any of that other stuff—it’s the possibility of being reunited with a foster brother she hasn’t spoken to in ages. And she believes it’s her own fault that that’s so. Even that is fallout from the war, though, as Pike says that the war affected everyone, including Spock.

And then Burnham goes onto Enterprise to Spock’s quarters, and finds a recording that changes everything.

I’m curious to see how they continue to explore Spock’s childhood (if they will beyond what we got here), as I like the idea that he suffered nightmares, which seems only fitting given his unique status and how much he was bullied by other kids (again, see “Yesteryear” and the 2009 film). I also hope this will mean more of Mia Kirshner’s Amanda, as her compassionate portrayal of Spock’s Mom is one I really like, as she welcomes Burnham with open arms and tries to get her and Spock to be friends in the opening flashback. I find Kirshner’s Amanda to be far more compelling than either Jane Wyatt’s warmed-over 1950s housewife in “Journey to Babel” or Winona Ryder’s nowhere performance it the 2009 film.

The glue that holds this episode together, though, is Mount. His command style is casual, one that inspires loyalty. Pike is far more relaxed than he was in “The Cage” when he was drinking with Boyce and talking about getting away from it all, but the experience with the Talosians was meant to affect him deeply, and the Pike we see in “Brother” shows that it has. He’s rediscovered the joy of commanding a starship, one that had been beaten down by the battle on Rigel VIII that preceded “The Cage,” and which was responsible for the ennui Pike felt in that episode.

Best of all, though, is that when Discovery needs to bring a piece of the asteroid on board—having already failed to transport it because the transporter can’t get a lock on the exotic material it’s made out of—Pike makes a show of giving Saru command for that part of the mission, as that’s Discovery‘s true long-term assignment: scientific discovery. (It’s right there in the name and everything!)

Doug Jones gets short shrift in this episode—aside from a brief mention of Saru’s sister (introduced in the Short Treks episode “The Brightest Star“), the first officer doesn’t really get much to do. Although I did love his “really?” bit when his cilia raised during the rescue mission, because of course it did.

I really hope that the banter between Detmer and Owokusen is going to continue, as that was one of my favorite parts of the episode. In general, the bridge crew got more to do this time around, and that’s all to the good. I really hope the dedication to Discovery‘s original mission before it was subsumed by the war effort is going to continue. I really hope that we see more things like Reno’s using her engineering skills to keep her crewmates alive, and just in general moving back to a place of compassion. (Tellingly, Reno set a bunch of booby traps around the crashed ship in case any Klingons showed up.)

And I really hope they’re going somewhere interesting with Culber. Wilson Cruz has been elevated to an opening-credits regular, a surprising move for a character who’s dead. His appearance in “Brother” is limited to Stamets watching an old recording of him, and Stamets’s grieving is obviously going to remain a big part of his character. I doubt it will be enough to remove the bad taste of Culber’s murder from our collective mouths, but we’ll see.

Pike’s going to be in command for a while, and I’m really looking forward to it. Mount was a disaster in his last TV starring role as Black Bolt in ABC’s dreadful Inhumans series (Mount is tied with Finn Jones for Worst Primary Lead In An MCU Production), but his relaxed charm is suiting Discovery well. With the ugliness of war in the rear-view mirror, the show feels lighter, happier, more like a show about people who seek out new life and new civilizations and all that jazz. They have a mission that’s about that very thing, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Keith R.A. DeCandido‘s favorite moment of the episode was when Pike asked for roll call on the bridge. I loved that it was important to Pike to know everybody’s name.

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