Banquo’s Test Flight

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I am haunted by The Right Stuff this year. The fictionalized(ish) story of the first crewed US spaceflights, the movie makes a neat cameo in Us, an arguably neater one in Captain Marvel. It’s crammed full of scenes that stay with you. Yeager, face maimed and grounded, walking away from his wrecked aircraftThe ‘specimen scene’ for very different reasons.Several sequences involve a very young Jeff Goldbum being excited. It’s a good time, and for me one that funnels down to this photo.

The original Mercury Seven, and another semiotic ghost that’s haunted my career. It’s the cover of a formative album for me, as well as the basis for a short story about the missing eighth astronaut, whose death mirrored the profoundly disturbing urban myth of the lost cosmonauts. And now, it’s cycled back around to appear over the shoulder of Captain Christopher Pike.

Pike as played by Anson Mount has been a season highlight on Discovery this year. Throughout, we’ve been able to convince ourselves that the terrible fate coming for him wasn’t going to be touched on in the show. Mount’s Pike was too jovial, too much of a relaxed, confident, fundamentally kind figure to be broken like that. Last week’s episode put the lie to that hope. In doing so, it showed us something harder and better. 

All the way through the season, Mount and the show’s writer’s room have explored Pike’s survivor’s guilt. Sequestered away during the Klingon war, ultimately because he and the Enterprise are essentially Starfleet’s King Arthur, Pike is consumed with the need to do the right thing. An early standout moment sees him almost panic at the thought of not being able to rescue a fellow officer. A later episode sees him put himself in harm’s way to prove a point. Crucially it also sees him admit that fact. Coupled with the knowledge his initial posting at Starfleet was as a test pilot, and Mount’s instinctively straight-arrow, endearing performance, it re-casts Pike as something more nuanced than we’ve previously seen. This is a profoundly honest, compassionate man who is aware of his faults even as he steers into them. He backs down from nothing and welcomes the chance to do good with the time he has. He’s Captain America in a Starfleet uniform. He’s the original astronaut ideal, projected forwards into a future where his profession means what so many hope it eventually will. And he would fit right in on that photo.

Mount, in the excellent interview in the interstitial above, talks about this being a chance to see ‘Act 2 Pike’ transition to Act 3 Pike and he’s absolutely right. An officer who has been conditioned by his own experience to believe there is almost nothing he can’t solve is faced with an unsolvable problem. How could he say no to that? Plus this, unlike the war, is a bullet he can choose to step in front of, knowing full well the good it will do. The fact his future is notably kinder than he knows at this point is irrelevant. What matters is the Captain thinks aloud and knows exactly what conclusion to come to. What matters, in the end, is the right stuff. And Christopher Pike, especially this version, has that by the bucket load.

Star Trek: Discovery airs on Netflix in the UK and CBS All Access in the US. It somehow, as I write this, has two episodes still to run despite the vast stakes of the last couple of weeks.

Pike and the Enterprise‘s mission during the Klingon conflict will be detailed inThe Enterprise War, by John Jackson Miller, released later this year.

Produced with Branan EdgensAnson Mount‘s podcast The Well is fantastically good. Go check it out, especially the Ileana Douglas episodes.