Not since the days of Kirk, Picard and Janeway has Star Trek delivered a starship captain as fully formed and engaging as Star Trek: Discovery’s Captain Christopher Pike. But for the series’ so-far exceptional sophomore season, Pike’s introduction points to the possibility of being both gift and curse.
Though two other iterations of Pike have previously been brought to life — first by the late Jeffrey Hunter on the small screen in “The Cage” pilot, then by the great Bruce Greenwood in J.J. Abrams’ first Trek movies — neither hold a tricorder to what the charismatic and instantly likable Mount accomplished in his first few minutes of screentime during the Season 2 premiere “Brother.” The series’ sophomore season is clearly using Pike as a palette cleanser for both the audience and the characters after their run-in with last season’s duplicitous Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs). The anxiety and constant “what-is-he-REALLY-up-to?” tension that cloaked the Mirror Universe baddie took a toll on both fans and the heroes. As cool and fresh as the show’s take on Lorca was — we had never seen a Trek Captain like this before — it was at times exhausting (and a little daunting) to be in the weekly presence of a character who makes the mere appearance of his signature fortune cookies a cause for dread.
In a meta move, Pike’s first scene on the Discovery bridge in the Season 2 premiere addresses the PTSD of everyone’s collective Lorca experience. He directly informs the bridge crew that, simply, “I’m not Lorca.” By having Pike temporarily take charge of Discovery in such an empathetic and confident way — more of a “Cool Dad” than badass Starfleet officer — it allowed his charisma to influence the crew. It sets the stage for Season 2 as a two-hander of sorts, pairing series lead Michael Burnham (the compelling Sonequa Martin-Green) with Pike on missions both on and off the ship. But in doing so, the show sets itself up for the potential to run the risk of this supporting player-slash-glorified featured guest star to steal the spotlight from fan-favorite Burnham. So how can Season 2 address that dynamic and allow this to remain Burnham’s show?
From the jump, Mount’s performance effortlessly capitalizes on the stuff fans loved about Kirk and Picard, while also allowing him to carve his own path for the character. The end result is a mix of Kirk’s charm and likable swagger (a confidence that doesn’t teeter into arrogance, unlike Kirk at times) along with Picard’s more cerebral tendencies when it comes to negotiating threats both inside and outside his ship’s hull. (This iteration of Pike seems like the personification of all the good intentions the creators of Enterprise had in mind when they brought Captain Archer to life, except this time it lands).
Pike is a scene-stealer, taking the episode’s best lines and quips to the point where Burnham can seem like a secondary character. Granted, the extra attention given to Pike in “Brother” was likely part of the unenviable task the show had of introducing a new lead character and giving time to their current one, while also re-establishing a more fun, Marvel-y tone for the series that got muddied because of Discovery’s behind-the-scenes showrunner troubles at launch. Those plates are difficult to keep spinning for any show, especially one as high-profile as Discovery. The fact that the show doesn’t break – let alone drop – any of them is a testament to the talents responsible for making the series, both in front of and behind the camera.
That balancing act of introducing Pike without short-changing the series regular is best exemplified during “Brother’s” standout set piece: A fast-paced sequence where Pike, Burnham, and two others struggle to fly exploratory pods through and around a deteriorating asteroid. But it’s Burnham who gets all the hero moments by coming up with the inventive plan to rescue Pike when his pod suffers damage that makes it impossible for him to safely evacuate it. Executing a Hail Mary play to save Pike by ejecting herself to catch him, she relies on Discovery’s bridge crew to safely plot their trajectory to the surface of a very unsafe and large piece of space rock. The sequence communicates character through action; while Pike is the cool new kid on the block who gets all the best one-liners, Michael’s our hero. She’s first through the door.
That door opens even wider for Michael in the third episode of Season 2, “Point of Light.” The second episode, “New Eden,” splits its time 60/40 between Michael and Pike, as the latter largely drives Discovery’s take on a popular Original Series trope: beaming a team down to a planet that’s home to a pre-warp population with a secret. While “Eden” gives most of its screentime to Pike and supporting characters like the “stan”-worthy Tilly, “Point of Light” is all Burnham. This hour seems to be a proof of concept for how the show will – and should – handle the Pike-Burnham dynamic. Pike gets to strut around the bridge, doing captain-y things, but the beating heart of the series is Burnham and her interactions with the crew. They are her friends, her family – even when her real family, adoptive mother Amanda, shows up to help piece together the puzzle of what happened to Burnham’s half-brother, Mr. Spock.
Never has Trek invested a lead character with so much rich vulnerability as it has with Burnham. Pike takes a deserved back seat here for the show to further cement that Michael’s inner life is just as interesting, if not more so, than the CG-fueled action that threatens it. Her struggles with family — the ones we are born into vs. those we work with — are universally relatable. When “Point of Light” isn’t serving as a stepping stone in terms of this season’s mystery plot (involving Spock and his relationship to a MacGuffin known as “The Red Angel”), it operates as a reminder that if you take away all the explosions and phaser battles and punching, the reason audiences keep tuning in every week is because of the characters. It’s because, especially, of Burnham.
You won’t find a hero like her, or relationships like hers, anywhere else in PeakTV.
Sure, Pike is the big man on campus. But he’s ultimately a cog servicing the greater story — of which Burnham is the engine. With the newest episode of Discovery on deck, the series would be wise to follow “Light’s” template in executing future Pike-Burnham adventures. Because while we don’t know yet how long Pike will be around after Season 2 wraps, we do know that Burnham is a fixed point. And it’s her pathological inability to never not be interesting that hooks us in, and that gives viewers a reason to invest in future seasons where characters like Burnham boldly take Star Trek where it has never gone before.
New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery air Thursdays on CBS All Access