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Star Trek: Discovery's best change has been spending more time with the crew
In almost every Star Trek series or film, the main cast is usually made up of the officers who serve on the bridge. Whether it's on any of the Enterprises (take your pick), the Defiant, Voyager, or Ops on Deep Space Nine, you've usually got each member of the opening credits snug as their station, with a Chief Engineer in Engineering, a Chief Medical Officer in sickbay, and maybe a Quark tending bar. Star Trek: Discovery broke this mold with its first season, but as it starts to give us more and more access to the crew that serves on Discovery's bridge, the show continues to get better and better.
This is not to throw any shade on Season 1 of Discovery. Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) didn't really care who or what flipped the switches on his ship, he had an agenda and that was that. We saw familiar faces every week, and some we knew more than others. We definitely knew Commander Saru (Doug Jones), as he was on the USS Shenzhou in the premiere, was bumped up to first officer, and is second in the main credits. We also recognized Lt. Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts) at the helm, though she got a cybernetic upgrade before transferring to Discovery. We've yet to find out whether or not this is because of injuries that she may have sustained in the first two episodes.
Aside from those two, we barely got names. We weren't on the Shenzhou long enough to get to know the person who looked like they had a television on their head, but on the Discovery we soon met a robotic-looking person that talked, um, like a robot every now and then. We saw the same officers at the same posts week after week, and while we did meet the Chief of Security (Rekha Sharma as Commander Landry) she only lasted two episodes before being conveniently replaced with Shazad Latif's Ash Tyler. Sometimes Tyler manned the tactical station, and sometimes he didn't.
As for the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Engineer? Well, we did meet Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz), but he was not the CMO. We lost Culber, but thankfully we got him back. He's still not CMO, though — it's not confirmed, but I guess that Discovery's CMO is Dr. Tracy Pollard (Raven Dauda), as she's the only other doctor that we see on a regular basis. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) is a scientist in charge of the spore drive — he is not the Chief Engineer. Not only have we never seen the Chief Engineer, we've never even heard about them. We've never seen Main Engineering, either. We get lots of time in Stamets' spore lab, but I have yet to see a warp core. Who and what is holding that ship together, anyway?
The only tried-and-true engineer that we've met is Jett Reno (Tig Notaro), who is a new addition in Season 2. She has only appeared in two episodes thus far, but the character seems to have transferred over from the out-of-commission USS Hiawatha. I very much hope that she is made the new Chief Engineer, and continues to appear on the show. Her interplay with Stamets (and everyone else) is brilliant.
What about those friendly faces we saw (and occasionally heard) for a full season, barely even knowing their names? Captain Christopher Pike came to the rescue.
One of the first things that Pike (Anson Mount) does after taking command of Discovery in the Season 2 premiere is have the bridge crew give a "roll call." He doesn't even care about rank, he just wants to know who he's working with. It's a great character moment for Pike, because we immediately recognize him as a wise leader who knows the power of morale and camaraderie (the anti-Lorca, pretty much), but it's also great for the viewer. It's almost a meta moment, because we finally get full names and close-ups. Pike gets to know them, we get to know them, and Season 2 has continued to ramp this up with every episode.
Who have we gotten to know? We already knew the aforementioned Lt. Detmer because she definitely stood out in Season 1, but now we know her better. Because of that, when Detmer is at the helm, we feel like we're in good hands. Her interplay with Lt. Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo) has been increased as well, and it's been great to get to know "Owo," as Pike (almost instantly) nicknamed her. Not only do we trust her at Ops, she actually got to go on an away mission after being stapled to her chair for the entirety of the first season.
We've got Lt. Bryce (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) at communications, and Lt. Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choon) at tactical. Commander Nhan (Rachael Ancheril) came aboard with Pike, and is acting as the new Chief of Security. We know that Pike won't be sticking around after this season, but here's hoping that Nhan sticks with Disco.
*WARNING: From this point on, there will be spoilers for the most recent episode of Star Trek: Discovery. If you haven't watched it yet, you know what to do: Black Alert, fire up your spore drive, and hit it.*
And then there's Lt. Commander Airiam, the robot-looking woman we'd seen all last season. Formerly played by Sara Mitich and played this season by Hannah Cheesman, we probably got to know Airiam the most. She was cool, she was incredibly capable, and that was before we got a tragic backstory that explained her cybernetic enhancements. Detmer had a moment of bonding with her where she cheers for cybernetics, and Ensign Tilly (Mary Wiseman) cheers too because she cheers for everything... that's only a small part of why we love Ensign Tilly, who has maintained a big presence from the start.
These officers may just be given an added line here and there, but now when Pike orders an insane amount of targets to get hit with torpedoes, we know that Rhys is the one who will be doing the shooting. My heart leaps every time Pike says "Owo." Detmer can outfly any Tom, Dick, or Wesley Crusher, and looks more stylish while doing it. When we see scenes of the crew bonding, they carry so much more weight now. The reason, pretty simply, is because now we actually know who they are.
This is why the most recent episode, "Project Daedalus", was able to work as well as it did.
Through the cybernetic eyes of Airiam (who we know had her systems corrupted by an unknown entity in a previous episode), we see memories of her bonding with the crew members that we've come to know. She shares a laugh with Detmer, Owo, and Tilly. She spars with Rhys.
These memories are important, because they are the last thing that Airiam sees before she is blown out of an airlock. Her systems have been corrupted beyond repair, and the only way to save the day is for her to go the way of so many Cylons before her, which happened on a completely different show, but whatever.
It's one of the most heartbreaking moments of Discovery thus far, and it is one that I didn't see coming. I should have, but I'm a slow learner. It works because the show took the time to build Airiam up, and it got us to love her. A pivotal part of that was Airiam's connection to her fellow crewmates, who we've also gotten to know. When Airiam went out the airlock, I felt it, and I immediately became frightened for Detmer, Owo, and the rest. They are not disposable red shirt characters anymore — losing any of them would be hard, and I will have none of it.
Airiam could return, of course — Tilly has her memories and possibly more of her code (or something like it) saved and stored, but we've already had one miraculous rebirth this season (with Dr. Culber) and if Airiam returned, it would lessen the moment. Airiam made peace with it, and suddenly the stakes on Discovery have never been higher.
This is why getting to know the bridge officers has been, in my opinion, the biggest improvement Discovery has made in a season that has been full of nothing but improvements. If Owo had died last season, I would have gotten over it. If she were to die now? Nope. No, sir. No way. Bring that Luddite-raised Ops genius back, and bring her back now. Don't bring her back five seasons from now as a Romulan, either. Owo is not Tasha Yar and I'm not shopping for bridges.
Hopefully, this is only the beginning of the increased presence of Detmer, Owo, Bryce, and Rhys — in getting to know them, we get to know the ship itself, and we learn what this crew is really made of. We feel how they fit into the family of the ship. In turn, we feel more like a part of that family ourselves.