Star Trek: Discovery’s first season was often uneven, not infrequently messy, and rarely introduced one new idea when three would do instead. It’s not that it wasn’t good – sometimes it was great, and there’s a not unreasonable argument to be made that Discovery had the best debut season of any of the Star Trek shows – but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t concede that there was room for improvement.
The second season has seen something of a course correction, though watching it each week it’s difficult not to feel as though perhaps the wrong lessons were learned from Discovery’s early growing pains. Picking up from last year’s cliffhanger ending that saw the sudden appearance of the USS Enterprise, Discovery has been consciously positioning itself as much more in line with the rest of the Star Trek franchise – from classic style uniforms to throwback storytelling, but most obviously with the introduction of Anson Mount as Captain Christopher Pike.
Pike, actually, is particularly interesting in this regard. He’s a character taken from the original Star Trek series, but not in the same sense as, say, Harry Mudd, who appeared in Discovery’s first season played by Rainn Wilson. Rather, Pike – then played by Jeffrey Hunter – was Captain of the Enterprise and lead character in the original Star Trek pilot rejected by NBC; the show was heavily retooled ahead of its second pilot, by which point Hunter had been replaced by William Shatner, playing the younger, more dynamic Captain Kirk. Footage from the original pilot was eventually used in Star Trek as a cost-saving measure, establishing Pike as Kirk’s predecessor within the fiction of the show too; Pike is referenced from time to time in other Star Trek spinoffs, and appeared in the JJ Abrams movies played by Bruce Greenwood.
In that sense, Pike is something of an ur-Captain – there’s a certain mythic weight to him as a character, a foundational ‘first Captain’ figure within the context of Star Trek. He’s all iconography, with relatively little in the way of actual characterisation to maintain fidelity to. Invoking Pike offers Discovery the chance to recontextualise the entirety of the franchise in a way unlike any other character would; Kirk has too much baggage, Archer doesn’t have the same connection to the show’s beginning, and Robert April is really just a fun trivia answer. With Pike, Discovery has a chance to scribble in the margins of the franchise and declare some broad, sweeping truths about what Star Trek is, and what it should be – exactly the sort of thing Discovery should be doing to make Star Trek vital and fresh in 2019.
Rather than treat Pike as an opportunity to recontextualise the wider world of Star Trek, though, he’s instead positioned as the spectre of the 1960s, come to set things right – come to bring Discovery back in line with more traditional Trek. Continuity here is nostalgic and backwards looking; it’s not the basis for something new and more compelling.
It’s not, notably, that Pike doesn’t work as a character – for the most part, he does. Anson Mount is a genuinely charming screen presence as Pike, and it’s difficult not to enjoy the sheer charisma of his performance (a far cry from his role as Black Bolt in Marvel’s Inhumans, but the less said about that the better). Sometimes, in all fairness, that’s all a side character like Pike needs to be – fun and engaging and entertaining to watch. Equally, it’s also perhaps a little early to comment on Discovery’s use of Pike – one recent episode implied Pike was a religious man, and that’s exactly the sort of writing that would prove an effective use of the character, complicating Star Trek’s ongoing relationship with matters of faith and rationality.
Nonetheless, though, it’s telling how much screen time is being devoted to bringing Discovery in line with more acceptable, known elements of Star Trek. Scenes grind to a halt to explain why the Klingons have started to grow their hair again to look more like their Original Series and Next Generation counterparts (including one Fu Manchu style moustache – some things should be consigned to history, irrespective of ‘canon’); the same exposition is repeated and emphasised over multiple episodes to explain why the Enteprise doesn’t use the same holographic communicators seen in Discovery’s first season. The most recent episode opens by panning up reverentially to Number One, another character from the unused Star Trek pilot alongside Pike – though this was surely lost on anyone not only already familiar with said unused pilot, but also the news that the character had been recast for Discovery as well.
Which, ultimately, is the problem – a problem that goes beyond Pike, even if he is a neat representation of the opportunities open to but not taken by Discovery. Season 2 is catering primarily to a narrow segment of traditional Trek fandom; it’s looking backwards, not just obsessing unnecessarily over minute continuity details, but retreading old Trek norms. It’s a fannish instinct that could only ever limit the show – more concerned with being Star Trek, than redefining what Star Trek can be. Indeed, it’s the sort of limitation that would’ve curtailed some of the best of the Star Trek that already exists – Deep Space Nine wouldn’t exist at all – and it’s difficult not to wonder what Discovery might look like if unburdened from those restraints.
Star Trek: Discovery’s first season wasn’t perfect, no – but it was, in many ways, a more compelling programme than Discovery’s sophomore effort. It was a more confident programme, a more challenging one, and clearly much more willing to boldly go somewhere new.