"Brother" is a not-riveting but very solid episode of Discovery that feels the most like pre-Discovery Star Trek since "The Vulcan Hello" (minus the Klingons and all their subtitles). Untethered from Secret Evil Mirror Captain Lorca and the less-than-coherent war with the Klingons, the series is free to turn out an episode that has the story beats of previous Trek series, except with better production values.
About those production values: Above all else, that's what sets Discovery apart from previous Trek series. I have no idea what TNG or DS9 would've looked like if it were made with today's technology and digital artists, but Discovery looks amazing. The level of detail in the visual effects and production design are of movie caliber. I know I've said that before, but it bears repeating. Meanwhile, the cinematography (particularly in Burnham's dreamlike flashback sequences) is so artistically polished that it borders on excessive.
Notable here from a story standpoint is the script's largely back-to-basics approach that serves as something of a philosophical reset. It picks up right where last season left off, with the rendezvous with the Enterprise bringing aboard Captain Pike (Anson Mount) but, notably, not young Mr. Spock, who has taken a leave of absence and is elsewhere (Pike doesn't even know where). The prospect of being reunited with Spock looms large for Burnham; they have not spoken in years and her conversations with Sarek are weighed down by lots of mysterious emotional baggage. Their lengthy dialogue scene in her quarters feels more Trek-like than most of last season, but it also feels like kind of a drag.
Everything about Spock seems to be discussed in hushed tones, and Sonequa Martin-Green plays Burnham as especially pained and emotional in these scenes. There's a danger here in taking yet another run at Spock as a character and rehashing the whole Sarek/Spock dynamic. And the writers already seem to betray their intimidation by the concept. Keeping Spock off-screen in this episode simultaneously plays like overplayed reverence for an iconic character and also a stalling technique used to build up the mystery that surrounds him. Plus we have to add in the retcon nature of inserting Burnham into Spock's family and childhood. This is a potential minefield that could blow up in everyone's faces. There was talk last season that we might never see Spock on this series despite the time period. The writers backtracked on that big time, probably wisely, but now they are going to have to deliver the goods while trying to satisfy everyone — always a tough nut to crack with prequel revisits.
Fortunately, we have an involving crisis/rescue/adventure which works mostly because of its straightforwardness, and, yes, those awesome production values. We have an asteroid field, a downed ship, and marooned survivors that have been stuck for months with injured crew members. The frenetic, slam-bang asteroid field sequence is a sight to behold. The subsequent search of the downed ship is absorbing and also visually masterful. The survivors are being held together by Jett Reno, an engineer played by comedian Tig Notaro in a salt-of-the-earth performance that hints at a promising character.
Aside from the rescue attempt, which is successful but absolutely not without significant incident (including Burnham running from fireballs and collapsing structures, being impaled, and seeing something that looks like an angel emerging from red light), the sci-fi mission du jour involves some mysterious "red bursts" (red like the "angel's" light!) spread out through the galaxy and that need to be investigated. These anomalies tie back into the past, as we see (through Burnham's flashbacks) Spock as a child somehow knew about them all those years ago. This revelation is handled through visual storytelling that is as economical as it is evocative.
In the meantime, we break in a new captain. Anson Mount does a good job portraying a balanced leader who wants to get the job done but also seems to want to build some relationships. He tells Burnham, "I'm not Lorca." He announces his intention to redo the captain's ready room to make it more collegial and less authoritarian, and he tells Burnham he hopes to have some fun during the course of this mission. It all adds up to the writers saying "we're changing the course" in a pretty on-the-nose fashion.
On the whole, I liked this. "Brother" is a solid start that tells a self-contained rescue/action story while laying some groundwork for whatever sci-fi strangeness is to come. It does this while pretty clearly cleaning the slate after a messy first season. I'm a little wary of the Spock/Burnham stuff, mostly because it seems like it has the potential to be underwhelming. But we shall see.
Some other thoughts:
- The Enterprise's interim science officer, Lt. Connelly (Sean Connolly Affleck), gets established with just enough dialogue (and gets sneezed on in the turbolift — a moment that did not make me laugh; let's not learn the wrong lessons from The Orville, folks), gets overconfident during the asteroid run, then gets blowed up real good. He wears a blue shirt, but this is about as vintage a red-shirt death as you could possibly get.
- Stamets is planning to leave the ship in the aftermath of Culber's death, because everything reminds him of Culber and he needs a change. (Wilson Cruz appears in this episode in a video recording.) But do you think the intrigue of the asteroid fragment and its weird properties — which also seem to be waking up the spore drive — might possibly be enough to convince him to stay? (That's a sarcastically rhetorical question, people.)
- Pike: "Are you okay?" Burnham, with my alternate dialogue: "Aside from the glowing-hot molten metal spike going through my thigh, doing great!"
- Pike's transfer from captain of the Enterprise to (temporary, I guess?) captain of Discovery was clumsily handled, and they totally gloss over what's happening with the disabled but fully crewed Enterprise. I guess it's just sitting there waiting to be towed back to a starbase while its captain takes over another ship? This is the sort of bizarre narrative gap that typified last season, although this was less severe.
- The bridge scene where everyone says their name to introduce themselves to the new captain is all well and good, but I'd like to see these bridge officers (Detmer, Owosekun, Airiam) actually used as people rather than props this season. One of the biggest problems with the first season was its microscopic character scope. Please fix this.
- Keeping being you, Tilly. You too, Saru.
- Alex Kurtzman took over as showrunner during production of this season, and directed this premiere. So far, so good. This episode modulates the tone by decreasing the crazy of season one in favor of something more conventional that also sets up what one imagines will be a big serial sci-fi mystery. As with all serials, hopefully it builds and comes together, rather than falling apart like last season's ending.
- The CBS app for Android (streamed to a TV via Google Chromecast), continues to annoy and disappoint. When it's working the way it's supposed to, the video and audio quality are great. But the dropped frames are still frequent (the video pauses for one to two seconds while audio continues uninterrupted; this happens sometimes several times a minute) and detracts significantly from the experience. Am I the only one with this setup who is experiencing this? I don't know how this has not been fixed. If I were not watching and reviewing this show, I would not pay for this service. If I could buy this show on a better streaming platform like Netflix, I would.