In Its Second Season Premiere, 'Star Trek: Discovery' Learns How To Have Fun

We're back in the saddle again! Welcome to Star Trek: Discovery, Season 2, where we have a ton more fun around these parts than last season.

In fact, "fun" and "levity" are the themes of this episode, "Brother," despite its intense undercurrent. The episode follows Michael as she tries to figure out what happened to Spock. Unfortunately, we didn't meet Spock in person, except in the form an audio recording. However, we did get a lot of clues about what this season will bring. Let's get into it.

Fresh storytelling perspective

Last season, everything was all doom and gloom despite the fact that we knew how everything would turn out in the end. A lot of hardcore moments hit us in the face, such as a man being raped, attempted mass genocide, the death of a beloved crew member at the hands of another crew member, a captain being eaten by Klingons, and let's not forget the huge intergalactic war that was taking place. Things were dark. Too dark for a Star Trek series.

Granted, I got used to the darkness and even found some purpose for it; the show reflected the country's mood at the time post-Trump's election, and between the political depression and the fear of a North Korean nuclear war, it makes sense that TV would reflect some of that existential worry. However a Star Trek series was probably the last show we probably expected to go this route.

Vulture's Chris Chafin touched on this in his article detailing some of the storytelling changes that are happening this season. Part of his article includes an interview with Alex Kurtzman, Star Trek Into Darkness co-writer, who has signed on as this year's showrunner.

"Star Trek has for years been characterized by an essentially optimistic vision of the future. And that vision is more essential now than it's ever been," he said. "To be able to create something that posits that our best selves will emerge in the future is really gratifying."

Indeed, Kurtzman is the big reason for the change this season. As Chafin details, the first season's showrunners, Aaron Harberts and Gretchen Berg, were fired in part because of their alleged verbal abuse towards the writers' room.

"It's absolutely lighter than season one, but that's because the nature of season one was all about war and the urgency of it," he said to Chafin, adding that he felt that the darkness was "a way to get to the light."

I feel like that's a diplomatic way for Kurtzman to talk about the challenges he faced steering this starship back towards the path of Star Trek goodness. But regardless of any challenges that we, the viewing public, might surmise, it seems pretty clear that Kurtzman and the team have smashed them with this declarative first episode.

We are immediately hit with jokes and and visual delight, like that Shape of Water-esque alien crewmember who complains to Michael about catching a cold, all related in warbles. Tilly is still Tilly, tripping over her words and being overtly optimistic and caring. The rest of the bridge crew, who were only mostly-silent, criminally underused seat fillers the first season, now have personality and agency. They even get to tell us their names, something I don't think they ever did during the first season; we just had to infer over the course of the episodes.

The most apparent sea change has been with the captains. Last year, we had Lorca, who ran Discovery with a vice-like grip. You could use it as an allegory to the Harberts/Berg drama behind the scenes. Enter Captain Pike (Anson Mount), a Captain Kirk-esque laid-back captain who rules through community-building and camaraderie. Behind the scenes you have Kurtzman, the Captain Pike for the writers' room, who is, in my mind, promising the writers that they will finally, finally, get the chance to explore the universe with a sense of effervescence.

More of Michael’s backstory

Thankfully, this season seems like we'll get more of Michael's history on Vulcan. One of the things I did complain about last season was that we didn't get a lot of Michael's childhood memories. Yes, we got a few here and there. But there was so much focus on Michael's relationship with Ash Tyler and the war and Ash's rape at the hands of his Klingon captor (let's not forget about this problematic storyline that had no clear, sensible resolution), that the show kinda forgot about Michael's past, even though Michael's past was supposed to be central to the series.

In "Brother," however, we start out with Michael's past driving the story forward. We see that when she was brought home by Sarek, Spock didn't take a liking to her at first for reasons we have yet to figure out. (You could presume that it's because Michael is a human, or because he childishly felt that she was taking his parents' attention away from him.)

But we do see that while Spock begins to warm up to Michael, something has driven them apart — something that's supposedly Michael's doing. Michael is intent to find him and apologize? Rectify? We can assume this is her purpose for going aboard the Enterprise even though she already knew Spock wouldn't be there — he'd already taken a mysterious leave of absence. However, instead of finding Spock or some clue as to how he might feel about her, she finds one of Spock's personal logs that reveal a map of some part of the cosmos, a map that Spock left just in case something happens to him. The mystery gets deeper, as does Michael's guilt.

Twists on canonical callbacks

The action that moves the plot along is saving the stranded crew of the U.S.S. Hiawatha, including its engineer-turned-surgeon Jett Reno (Tig Notaro!) from an asteroid that's about to crash headlong into a pulsar. The mission is successful, but it also proves weird for Michael, who ends up getting stranded herself, sustaining an injury, and seeing what she thinks is an angel of death: a creepy figure with protrusions similar to wings' bones. But she's nicked away from the pulsar's grip at the last second by Pike.

While the mission helps us get our daily dose of action, it also provides us with some recognizable Star Trek moments, such as the Red Shirt being assigned to an away mission. However, there's a twist. Usually, the Red Shirts are the ones killed on the missions. But we got our first clue that Discovery was going to do something different since this Red Shirt (Rachael Ancheril) was outfitted in facial prosthetics, meaning that she was too expensive to get killed in a fiery blast. It was the Enterprise's science officer, Connolly (Sean Connolly Affleck), instead. He made sure the audience cheered for his death too, since he was back-talking Michael every step of the way because she was a woman who dared to know how to do her job and have great ideas that could keep them safe.

There were even some little nods to the current Star Trek film series. In that series, when Pike wants his ship to go into warp speed, he says "Punch it." In this series, our Pike says "Hit it." Also, as already mentioned, his style of governance is a lot like Captain Kirk; he's firm when he needs to be, but overall, he's one for team-building and creating a communal atmosphere.

Even more incredibly, we got some callbacks to last season. Hugh, Stamets' late partner, was still a part of the episode in the form of a video message, but his inclusion (as well as his continued listing on the show's cast page), means that Hugh's spirit is still a part of the universe. We'll be seeing him again, and I'm happy. We even got a mention of the tardigrade, our extraterrestrial friend from the first season who helped the Discovery crew achieve their hyper-jump capabilities.

Overall, "Brother" was a solid first episode, firmly establishing that we're in a new age for Star Trek Discovery. Even though there's clear danger ahead from what the series preview tells us, there's still going to be a lot of fun, a lot of joy, and a lot of excitement. Finally, we can get our popcorn and relax now that peace has returned to the Federation.