Yes, I know, it’s been awhile, and yes, I know I did not finish doing reviews and commentary for either Star Trek: Discovery or Fox’s Orville. In my defense, a great deal happened during the back half of the season, including the arrival of our twin boys, but part of my New Year’s Resolution is to be better about updating, so let’s talk Trek.
Thursday is now space sci-fi in as both Discovery and the Orville air, and last Thursday night was an exercise in a strange sort of déjà vu. We started with the first episode of Discovery’s second season and then flipped over to Fox for MacFarlane’s nostalgia fest, so let’s address the shows in that order.
I have to say, Discovery had a pretty strong opening. I appreciated how the show transitioned us into the introduction of Anson Mount as Captain Pike, reacquainting us with familiar faces and even providing us a nod to the fantastic Short Trek “The Brightest Star” with a reference to Siranna. The opening set up mostly concerns Burnham’s relationship with Spock, beginning with her introduction to the household on Vulcan featuring the Mia Kirshner’s always fabulous Amanda. We get our first glimpse into Spock’s childhood as imagined by Discovery, and we see a very angry young man, which is a nice nod to Spock’s characterization both in The Animated Series episode “Yesteryear” and in Star Trek 2009. As with all of Discovery’s visuals, the sequence is stunning if not particularly subtle with Spock appearing out of an angry holographic serpent, but the writers tie that flashback sequence back into the episode’s conclusion flawlessly.
Anson Mount’s Captain Pike is light years better than his Black Bolt from ABC’s ill-considered Inhumans series. Having watched all of that season, I was more than a bit trepidatious when Mount’s casting was announced, but Mount’s Pike is pithy, no-nonsense, and honestly funny. He’s willing to dispense with rank when it’s unnecessary, even if Airiam can’t let it go, and he’s equally willing to listen to ideas that are presented. We’ll definitely see how he fits in with our crew over the coming season.
Ensign Tilly is back, and though her Short Trek “Runaway” gave us a Tilly at her best, this episode brought back her habit of chattering when nervous, even in cases where she should not have been. Her sequence with Stamets is fantastic, and both Mary Wiseman and Anthony Rapp bring their A-game to that moment, as their mutual grief is palpable. Tilly squealing “That’s the power of math, people!” may be my favorite moment out of the entire episode.
Otherwise, the episode does a solid job setting up the arc for this season. There are mysterious red lights that appear out of nowhere, and the Discovery’s crew is off to investigate them. We get a gorgeously shot sequence involving questionable EV-suits and landing pods that is almost a beat for beat repeat of Kirk’s space jump in Star Trek 2009, with some added threat to Pike, and apparently, the red lights involve some sort of red being that has what look to be seraph wings. Apparently, Spock has been getting visions of these lights, so that’s why he’s conspicuously absent both from the Enterprise and the episode.
Now, we know that Spock canonically has some psychic chops. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture (hopefully, this will be the only time I reference that film), he leaves his preparations for Kolinahr because he feels V’ger’s mental call. However, that’s really about the only time we hear much about Spock’s mental powers beyond the occasional mind meld. This season of Discovery seems to be building on that, but we’ll have to see where the series takes the concept. My big sticking point with the Spock issue is that honestly, it feels a bit like Star Trek is starting to suffer a bit from the trope of repeating characters. The Federation is comprised of hundreds of worlds by this point. Why do we have to revisit Spock, who has already been explored extensively in The Original Series, had an arc in The Next Generation, and is a major mover and shaker in the rebooted universe? I love the character, too, but there’s an entire universe out there. Exploring new characters is in-keeping with the franchise’s ethos.
I’m not even particularly bothered by the inclusion of Pike as he got so little screen time in The Original Series, but Spock seems unnecessary, even if I was willing to swallow Burnham’s relationship with Sarek. My other complaint is that the show seems to be setting Burnham up to be either at fault for the fissures in her relationship with her adoptive brother or to perceive herself to be. After last season’s arc which held her accountable for the Federation-Klingon war, it feels a bit like we’re rehashing old territory. I did love her backbone when she stood up to Pike, though. It’s good to see her standing up for her crew.
Speaking of retreading territory, that brings me to the episode of the Orville. I have to admit that I was underwhelmed by the season opener, “Ja’loja.” Beyond the fact that the premise of the show was that Bortus had invited the crew to his home planet to watch him pee, prompting my husband to observe pithily that Macfarlane was keeping up his reputation for tasteful writing, the season premiere seemed too focused on the love lives of the respective characters.
Watching Alara Kitan struggle through a bad date was cringeworthy not just because the date was that bad but also because it’s painfully obvious that the writers don’t really know what to do with female characters. Once again, Adrianne Palicki’s Commander Grayson gets short shrift as Macfarlane’s Ed Mercer fails to handle Grayson’s new relationship with anything remotely resembling emotional maturity, and when Grayson points this out to her new flame, he’s “too evolved” to get angry at her ex-husband literally stalking them. The show then expects viewers to accept that her rage is easily appeased with some Journey and a good Merlot. Y’all, I love me some Journey and wine, but I don’t know that I’d be able to dismiss that level of creepy as easily as does Kelly Grayson.
I did like that the season opener transitioned nicely into “Nothing Left on Earth Excepting Fishes.” The A-story features Mercer’s burgeoning relationship with Janel Tyler, the winsome cartographer introduced in “Ja’loja” and was the source of Gordon’s (Scott Grimes) interest. Gordon features prominently in the B-story, in which he attempts to take the Command test, albeit mostly as something to tell prospective dates. This is remarkably similar to the B-story in “Thine Own Self” from The Next Generation’s final season in which Counselor Troi takes the Bridge Officer’s Test with Commander Riker. Whereas the TNG episode explored Troi’s need to prove herself, Gordon’s arc is…about picking up hot crew-members. That’s unfortunately par for the course, particularly where Grimes’ one-note Gordon is involved. That is a character who is overdue for some development.
Mercer’s arc is better, and MacFarlane channels 90s era Trek flawlessly. However, even the A-story is all-too-familiar. As it happens, Lt. Janel Tyler is actually Teleya from season one’s “Krill.” To refresh, Mercer and Gordon infiltrated a Krill vessel, where Mercer and Teleya developed a rapport only to have him reveal himself to be a Union captain and murder most of the Yakar’s crew. In “Nothing Left,” Teleya masquerades as a human to seduce and kidnap Mercer. It’s a nice flip of the original story, and both Michaela McManus and Seth MacFarlane display depth and range as actors. Whereas the previous episode ends with Teleya’s understandable rage, this episode ends on a more hopeful note, with the added benefit of some Billy Idol because clearly a man from the far-flung future would be obsessed with 20th century music and culture.
Other notes from the two episodes of the Orville that I’ve seen—frequent readers know that I love Penny Johnson Jerald. Her Dr. Finn is an updated version of Dr. Beverly Crusher—a single mom by choice to two boys, and I do appreciate that her reintroduction to viewers reinforces the relationship she and her boys have with Isaac. In “Ja’loja,” her victory over the Sanctiparents is delightful, but I wonder why Isaac has to be the one to figure out the mystery. It’s not particularly subtle, and it didn’t require deep thinking. I feel like Dr. Finn could have made similar deductions. That said, it’s a good way to bring both her boys and Isaac into the season.
Did anyone else notice in “Nothing Left” that Kelly Grayson points out that she sees Mercer’s smile #4? She says he has three smiles for happiness, several for passive-aggression, and a few left for something else. If the first three are for happiness, I kind of wonder what number four is.