Star Trek: Discovery season 2 premiere: In praise of Tig Notaro
Star Trek: Discovery continues to be a TV series under construction.
Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts are credited as co-writers of Thursday’s season 2 premiere, “Brother” (which hits CBS All Access at 8:30 p.m. ET). They were the showrunners, before departing midway through production on this new season under somewhat cloudy circumstances. I try not to pay much attention to behind-the-scenes stuff — what’s on screen is what counts! — but Discovery’s whole origin story is rooted in executive-producer parlor intrigue. Co-creator Bryan Fuller left before the series ever aired. As Oscar Wilde said, to lose one showrunner may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose three by season 2 suggests you’ve crashed the spaceship on an meteorite hurling toward a supernova.
But co-creator and current showrunner Alex Kurtzman is ambitiously universe-ing the CBS All-Access Trekverse, promising tantalizing spinoffs for beloved starship captains and reformed reality-hopping totalitarian dictators. Worth remembering, maybe, that the history of Star Trek is a history of revolving-door creative minds. Discovery has a solid cast, and whenever season 1 took a break from grimdark war-torn brutality, a fun sensibility shined through. There was that silly-smart time-loop episode, and the swordsy trip to the Mirror Universe. I really liked Airiam (Sara Mitich in season 1, Hannah Cheesman in season 2), a cyborg-droidlien-“augmented human” bridge officer who had that particular look of a background character who will have a whole focal mythology by season 5.
Still, I find it difficult to offer a straightforward review of the season 2 premiere, which strives hard to set a new course for Discovery. There’s a new commanding officer on the bridge: Anson Mount’s Captain Pike. There’s a new mission: Find the source of the mysterious signals spread out across 30,000 light years! There’s the horizonal promise of a major appearance by Young Beardy Spock (Ethan Peck).
It’s not quite a repilot, but it feels like the beginning of a pivot, one that I will be spoiling completely from here. I want to see where this goes, but I’m not quite convinced yet. I just don’t get this weird reboot fascination with Captain Pike. There’s “honoring the franchise’s history,” and then there’s canonical dumpster-diving. Jeffrey Hunter was terminally boring when he played Pike in the original Star Trek pilot. The character lived in Trek lore as a special kind of pre-internet curio, a kind of beta-test Kirk who memorably hung out with space-whales in one of the loopiest ’90s Trek books.
And yet Kurtzman already helped to reanimate Pike once, as the gruff-but-lovable father figure Bruce Greenwood played in the Star Trek film reboots. Mount’s Pike is a chill dude who mainly exists in “Brother” to promise he’s steering this ship/show in a new direction. “I’m not Lorca,” he promises, right after a gene-finger test confirms (apparently) that he will not reveal himself as an alternate-universe duplicate or a plastic-surgery’ed Klingon sleeper agent. “Wherever our mission takes us, we’ll try to have a little fun along the way too,” he tells Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), sounding a lot like the new boss who spends the first meeting talking a lot about his college band while promising he definitely hasn’t been hired to cut the staff in half.
Will Pike bring the fun? Reply Hazy, Ask Again Four Energy Distortions From Now. And who knows about neo-Spock. As a Gotham hater-turned-acolyte, I am honor-bound to give all Young Version of Iconic Hero origin stories at least half a chance. “Brother” did spend an awful lot of time suggesting some big mystery around the Burnham-Spock sibling dynamic. “There is something about your relationship you’re not sharing,” Sarek (James Frain) said, which ick ick ick if they were hooking up, but Discovery won’t go there, right?
There is one element of “Brother” I just loved: That would be Tig Notaro, the actress-comedian behind Amazon’s brilliant-but-canceled One Mississippi. The Discovery crew finds Notaro’s character, Jet Reno, on a crashed spaceship that was — sorry, sorry, wait, let’s pause here. Jet. Reno. That is a Good Space Name. There are so many Bad Space Names. Like Dryden Vos. Like Tolian Soran. Like Jyn Erso. Like — being cruel to be kind — Odo. JET RENO. Okay, in.
Jet Reno is an engineer in the grand Starfleet tradition, capable of performing feats of technical wizardry. She’s been keeping some of her crew alive for 10 months and 11 days, using a mix of biotech medicine and old-fashioned skull surgery. “I’d shake your hand,” she tells the bemused Discovery away team, “but I’m up to my elbow in Tellarite brains.” When she does offer her hand, it’s covered in alien gore-gloop. No worries, though: “Tellarite blood’s rich in hemerythrin,” she explains, sounding like the kind of highly effective person who doesn’t need spellcheck when she types “hemerythrin.”
The energy Notaro’s bringing to the role feels like a playful shift. Discovery is an ultra-kinetic show — the Top Gun-ish meteorite run in “Brother” looks like it cost more than every Borg episode combined — and the performances seem designed to generate a constant intensity. In season 1, Martin-Green was called upon to feel all the emotions all the time: I caused the war! The Klingons killed my parents! My stepfather’s in trouble! The captain whose death I indirectly caused has returned in an alternate universe! Nothing wrong with intensity, but I do think there’s some intangible Trek magic in the relaxed vibe onboard the starship bridges, all these no-nonsense professionals tap-tapping at their consoles while the wonders of the universe play on the viewscreen.
That’s the sense you immediately get from Jet Reno. She’s very DeForest Kelley, very Doctor Hologram from Voyager. Reno discovers that the cosmic apocalyptic war with is over, and her response is deadpan: “No one’s speaking Klingon, so we won?” The Discovery officers are shocked to discover that she’s managed to take great medical care of her crewmates for so long. “Body’s just a machine,” she says, no big deal.
There’s another version of Discovery — older-fashioned, less serialized — where Jet Reno is the Big Guest Star Arc of “Brother.” Like, the ship orbits the planetoid, beams down, meets the Brilliant Person Shipwrecked on a Lonely Planet: That’s a holy Trek narrative format. Discovery has a lot of business to get through in “Brother,” setting up the big seasonal arc, teasing the arrival of Spock, finding a reason to briefly film Burnham from a Requiem for a Dream close-up camera as she runs from various explosions. You can’t have a big space action scene every week, so I remain unsure precisely what the future holds for Discovery. If Jet Reno — JET RENO! — is there, so am I.
Also, in “Brother” there was a crowd shot with Airiam, and I think this is the first time we learn that, in her resting stance, she extends her arms at a bit of a Frankenstein angle. The fan theory that she’s the Borg Queen is the best fan theory, but I would counter: Entity From Machine Planet That Transformed V’Ger, question mark?
Star Trek: Discovery