Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (SNW) Season 1

Season 1Season 2

Strange New WorldsChildren of the CometGhosts of IllyriaMemento MoriSpock AmokLift Us Where Suffering Cannot ReachThe Serene SquallThe Elysian KingdomAll Those Who WanderA Quality of Mercy

 

Strange New Worlds

Synopsis

Stardate 1739.12: As the Enterprise is in spacedock and Captain Christopher Pike is on home leave in Montana, his communicator repeatedly beeps but he doesn't answer the calls. Pike is out for a ride on his horse when a shuttle with Admiral April appears. The admiral tells him that Una Chin-Riley, Pike's Number One, has gone missing on a first contact mission. Pike contacts Spock on Vulcan, who says goodbye to his fiancée T'Pring and returns to the Enterprise. Lieutenant La'an Noonien-Singh acts as the ship's temporary first officer. She is the sole survivor of an incident with a mysterious species known as the Gorn. The Enterprise leaves spacedock and heads for Kiley 279, the last known position of Una's ship, the Archer. As his ship has gone to warp, Pike retreats to his quarters. He is plagued by the vision of the accident that will leave him paralyzed. The Archer is still in orbit of Kiley 279, but no one is aboard. Noonien-Singh recommends to raise the shields. A bit later, several plasma torpedoes hit the ship but inflict only minor damage thanks to the shields. Overall, considering the low technology level of the planet, the warp signature received from there is implausible. Spock concludes that one of the warring factions of Kiley 279 has not built a warp drive, but a warp bomb. Pike, Spock and La'an proceed to sickbay, where they are greeted by Dr. M'Benga. Nurse Chapel has prepared injections that would temporarily alter their appearances to look like the inhabitants of Kiley 279. They materialize outside a complex where the bomb is being built and assume the identities of two scientists. The scientists themselves are beamed up to extract extra DNA to stabilize Spock's disguise. They are being kept sedated, but one of them wakes up and runs away. Using the emergency medical transporter, Chapel finally manages to catch up with him when he reaches the bridge together with Uhura, who managed to calm him down. Pike, Spock and La'an take an elevator down to the area where Una and her two crewmates are being held. Una says that the wormhole opened for the Discovery caught the attention of the planet's inhabitants. They then reverse-engineered the technology of the warp drive. As the six Starfleet officers are on their way back to the surface, Spock's appearance reverts to normal, which alerts the aliens. A brawl ensues, but they make it to the elevator. Pike decides not to beam up but to speak to the leaders of the planet. After meeting with Pike, the government and the rebels enter talks for the first time in a century. Pike beams down again and illustrates what is bound to happen if the planetary conflict continues, with footage of Earth's World War III. In the following, the people of Kiley 279 change their minds and work on the common goal to go out into space instead of fighting each other to death.

Commentary

Back in 2015, when CBS needed some kind of Star Trek to launch their own streaming channel, an episodic show about the adventures of a starship crew would have been the royal road to win over the fans. But CBS decided otherwise. They wanted a "modern", serialized format. Also, they neither went with Bryan Fuller's anthology pitch, nor did they listen to the fanbase that very consistently demanded a series set in the future instead of another prequel/reboot. And they apparently didn't really want to rely on the legacy at all, beyond having "Star Trek" in the title. And so CBS created Discovery.

I have to concede that Discovery tried something new. It tried nothing less than to reinvent the franchise, up to the point where it turned out almost unrecognizable as Star Trek. Even though no one officially acknowledges it, the experiment failed. It failed so clearly that the series was redefined twice, first by sending in the Pikes and Spocks, and then by sending the ship itself to a time where it could do no further harm to Star Trek's continuity and integrity - besides the still ongoing work on the characters to make them relatable and likable.

When he came aboard in DIS: "Brother", right at the beginning of Discovery's second season, Anson Mount's mission as Christopher Pike was nothing less than to save the ailing show. And he was successful, at least as far as he reminded us that Star Trek isn't a bleak universe with war and intrigues but about collaboration and trust. Pike, Spock and, to somewhat lesser extent, Number One became so popular with the fans that it seemed like a no-brainer to give them their own spin-off show. Moreover, the animated series Lower Decks demonstrated how easy it can be to please the audience and to keep the more critical fans busy with overt character references and Easter eggs. Finally, considering that Discovery and Picard writers kept struggling with their serialized stories, it seemed like the right time to finally return to self-contained weekly adventures. And so CBS created Strange New Worlds.

The new show plays the nostalgia card like no other live-action series before. Uhura, Chapel and M'Benga too appear, all as regular characters. Even a certain George Samuel Kirk is there, although he was included primarily for a lame red herring (because we were seriously supposed to expect his brother). Not all of them are "big" names that casual fans would care for or even know of. Strictly speaking, in classic pre-Abrams Trek even Pike is a character of marginal significance, considering that he only appeared in a pilot episode that was rejected (and in the two-parter that was created from the footage). Yet, the very positive reactions to the character announcements prove the strategy of unabashed total fan service right.

Publicity opportunities seem to have played a greater role in the creation of this show than the possibility to further develop Star Trek on a creative level. It is almost 60 years since "The Cage" was produced, and here we are again with Pike, Spock and Number One. It's throwback time. The premise of filling gaps in biographies and in galactic history might be intriguing if it were a first time in the franchise. But we have to remember that Strange New Worlds is the fourth prequel to Trek and is set in the second reboot universe of the franchise. The motto of Strange New Worlds, as far as I can tell after watching just one episode, is to remake TOS - with some of its characters and many of its idiosyncrasies but the way the people in charge imagine it should be produced today. It sets out to better TOS. Some of the sets and graphics look a little bit like they did in the 1960's, and some of the handheld devices were designed as if they could come straight out of TOS. But everything is a lot sleeker or cooler and most notably much bigger or more powerful than in classic Trek. I will not further comment on technology levels and visuals such as most notably the reimagined Enterprise, as I have done that extensively elsewhere and because SNW, despite some small amendments, has essentially the same continuity issues as Discovery.

Speaking of Discovery, other than inheriting its philosophy of a "visual reboot", the new series is somehow wary not to draw on this legacy too much, although it is effectively a spin-off of that show. It was necessary to refer to the recent "classified" events in Discovery's season 2 a couple of times to establish the setting. Overall, however, SNW is designed to be a totally different series, as the stories, the pacing and the tone are concerned. And the look is somewhat different too. Even if it strains the "in-Discoverse" credibility, there are new uniforms yet again, and the ship has received a refit yet again (note the new windows on the saucer edge, as well as the modifications to the bridge).

Robert April is yet another check mark on the list of canon characters that SNW works off, perhaps also in an effort of self-justification. I personally have no big problem with the casting of Adrian Holmes as Admiral April. TAS is animated and only "proto-canon" in my book, and SNW itself definitely has more important canon issues that need to be addressed. Still, it should not remain uncommented. I appreciate if a casting for a new character is color-blind. I don't even mind if "marginalized" ethnic groups or genders are preferred in the process, as it is the rule in modern Trek. But Robert April is an established character from a series that the current creators of Trek regard as canon. And just as the casting of Scarlett Johansson for "Ghost in the Shell" stirred up a controversy for her having the wrong ethnicity, it must be allowed to criticize the decision that SNW's April is black. The preemptive stigmatization of all critics as racists in many channels killed any reasonable discussion of the topic. On the same topic, there is also an Asian transporter chief, who definitely is not named Kyle by chance.

The issues with lacking likeness aside, unless the prequel takes into consideration to become a total reboot, there is also the dilemma that the younger characters outgrow and hence redefine their established older counterparts at some point. Strange New Worlds reaches this point as soon as in its first episode. Nurse Chapel exemplifies the problem particularly well. And demonstrates that just respecting the broad strokes of an existing biography isn't enough to get across it is the same person. Majel Barrett's character used to be demure and dutiful, as it was expected from a woman in the 1960's. She appeared in about two dozen TOS episodes, but although she sometimes got to say more than one or two lines, her role was to be useful in the first place. She looked up to Dr. Korby, her fiancé, and famously to Spock, but also to Dr. McCoy. The new Chapel played by Jess Bush does not only look a lot hotter, her personality is quite the opposite in most ways. We don't get the impression she would ever allow herself to be guided by a man. She is assertive and always good for a tongue-in-cheek remark, the way it is expected from a female character in a modern TV show. The Chapel of the 1960's would have acted like a damsel in distress when the alien stormed out of sickbay. The modern Chapel runs after him with a smile. No one wants to go back to the 60's. But do the characters of the 60's need to be "fixed" just like the technology level and the ship's size? Or shouldn't we rather leave them alone? And now that we have two extremely different Chapels, which one is canon? If we still insist on both being the same person, we have to assume that Chapel will undergo an unfortunate development in the few years until her TOS time.

I am pleased with Celia Rose Gooding's portrayal of Cadet Uhura, although she too will likely outgrow Nichelle Nichols's character. At least, I can still imagine this is the same but a younger Uhura than in TOS, unlike it was the case with Zoe Saldaña. I can't tell more at the moment, considering that Uhura's role in the pilot is rather small.

As for La'an Noonien-Singh, her character is a perfect choice because we know well how in TOS: "Space Seed" Spock, Uhura and Chapel all remembered serving on the Enterprise with a descendant of their guest Khan only a few years earlier. Sorry for the sarcasm, but the ancestry of this character is not justifiable, unless Strange New Worlds pulls another Lex Spock. There is no benefit in the back story except to satisfy the pathological fixation of the creators of Trek on KHAAAAAN. Well, perhaps it is also a middle finger to fans like me who still care whether Trek makes sense or whether the galaxy becomes a village where anyone or anyone's relatives appear anywhere and any time. Her tragic back story of witnessing how her family served as food in a Gorn nursery is another contrived fact - although it seems to be more or less a rule that everyone in Starfleet loses their family.

As I already mentioned in my Discovery season 2 reviews, I like Ethan Peck's portrayal as Spock. But I was also concerned that the process of Spock becoming the person we know would be gratuitous. Well, he suddenly seemed to be closer to Nimoy-Spock with his suppressed emotions at the end of the season finale "Such Sweet Sorrow II", but I take it this was more like an artistic choice for his final appearance on the show. In "Strange New Worlds", he appears still different to me than in either DIS or TOS. He provides comic relief several times ("Are you naked?", "Where are my pants?", "Ahhhhhhhh... That's better."), and it seems he overall doesn't take himself so seriously, perhaps as a part of the overall more humorous approach of the show. I'll defer my judgment whether this is a credible or desirable Spock until I have seen a few more episodes. And until it becomes clear how much his relationship with T'Pring (or relationships among Vulcans in general) will be retconned.

I like Captain Pike, as does pretty much everyone else - but is that enough to carry a show? What I get from the pilot episode is that he is very much defined by his considerateness - and by the prospect of ending up in the wheelchair. I wonder if the following episodes will continue showing how Pike has horrifying visions of his future because they are getting tiresome. It should become a plot point how he eventually manages to overcome the trauma and to live his life or what's still left of it. Otherwise, it would be gratuitous to frequently show how Pike ends up just for some dramatic impact, and it would cast doubt on whether he is fit for duty. I don't know what to make of his log entry that he is a lucky man because he evidently isn't if he keeps being haunted by his inevitable fate. Or did the mission to Kiley 279 miraculously heal him? Pike's cautiousness when it comes to protecting his crew is in character, but I don't think that he would have to tell that with corny lines such as "This mission will not be anybody's last day."

The alien civilization on Kiley 279 is very human-like. The sets and props are designed to be reminiscent of Earth's 21st century, which enables a red herring right at the beginning of the episode. The klaxon sound, the red lights in the corridor, the control room, the uniforms - everything is as on Earth, until we see the alien foreheads and recognize that the "UFO" they spotted is a Federation starship. In the following, there are further hints of how very similar Kiley 279 is to Earth. They even use red and green lights the same way! And they have elevator music, which for me is the funniest moment in the whole episode. Of course, this all primarily serves to underline Pike's line of reasoning that if Riley 279 continues the conflict with matter/antimatter weapons, they will destroy their civilization the same way as it happened in World War III.

I think that after a very strong beginning (considerations on the Prime Directive) the story about the first contact becomes both too preachy (Pike gives a lecture on WWIII) and too simplistic and rushed (the inhabitants of Kiley 279 learn their lesson without posing further questions). The latter is a consequence of SNW being modeled after TOS, where Kirk routinely convinced the planetary leaders of putting down their weapons (or argued their ruling computer to death), and everything promptly seemed to be fine. TNG and ultimately DS9 were much more complex and realistic in this regard. The issue of being preachy is not completely new, but in classic Trek references to Earth's history used to be rather casual and symbolic, whereas Pike equates Kiley 279 with Earth and breaks the fourth wall. What's more, in his recount WWIII originates in riots in the USA, which sort of ignores the actual geopolitical situation of the 21st century and vastly overstates actual inner conflicts in the country that apparently matter to the writers. Well, they may excuse this with the 21st century of Star Trek being different (as seen only recently in Picard's season 2), but then they shouldn't turn it into a social commentary on the actual world (and strictly speaking just on the USA).

Another letdown is that everything what happened to Una and crew of the Archer gets a raw deal and leaves many open questions. Although Una is a member of the main cast, this simply doesn't seem to matter. We also don't learn what the "warp bomb" is actually about and how the inhabitants of Kiley 279 could build one so fast. It is a plot device that merely serves to involve the Federation and that quickly loses its relevance - aside from being impossible anyway if we give it some further thought (see in the annotations).

"Strange New Worlds" is an enjoyable pilot episode. The story may lack complexity but does a good job to introduce the setting and the characters in only some 50 minutes. SNW presents itself as a show with spirit and humor, as opposed to Discovery, where attempts to include some fun are often heavy-handed or come with an awkward timing. It also feels cozy, as everyone is nice to everyone else, in contrast to the often bitchy or aggressive tone in Discovery. Sets and sceneries look great, giving it the semblance of a big-budget movie. I largely managed to put my objections to the lack of visual and technological continuity aside (which doesn't mean they are less valid now, though). I can live with the redefinition of legacy characters, as their looks or their personalities are concerned, although it would have been desirable not to include them in the first place if they are not supposed to remain within character. Perhaps the series would work just as well with less member berries and more true continuity.

Annotations

Rating: 6

 

Children of the Comet

Synopsis

Stardate 2912.4: The Enterprise is in the Persephone system to survey a comet. Cadet Uhura is invited to the captain's quarters for dinner where she impresses everyone with her language skills. She surprisingly tells Pike that she is not sure about whether she belongs in Starfleet. Uhura then reveals that her parents and brother were killed in a shuttle crash, that she felt unable to go the university because of that and joined Starfleet in an attempt to honor her mother. Spock finds out that the comet will impact the inhabited planet Persephone III in two days, without the prospect of survivors. Pike orders to prepare ion engines to deflect it and use photon torpedoes to launch them. But the comet turns out to be protected by a forcefield. As the forcefield is down again, a landing party consisting of Spock, Kirk, Noonien-Singh and Uhura beams over to investigate. They find large artificial structures, in the center of which some kind of "egg" is located. When Kirk approaches the central structure, he is hit by an energy surge. The shields of the comet go up again, making transport and communication impossible. Ortegas suggests to use phaser harmonics to shatter the comet. But the Enterprise is attacked by a huge vessel. Its commander introduces himself as a "Shepherd", whose mission is to protect the comet they call M'hanit that is meant to follow its own preordained path. He also says that the landing party, who desecrated the place, are meant to die there. In the meantime, Uhura has found out that the comet reacts to music and gets it to lower the shields. They can be beamed back. But now the ship is under attack by the Shepherds. Pike pulls a trick and surrenders, threatening to destroy the ship and thereby the comet if the Shepherds don't accept. In the meantime, Spock takes a shuttle and heats up one side of the comet in a way that it changes its course. The comet only scratches the atmosphere of Persephone III, thereby releasing water that will make the desert planet more fertile. Not knowing that M'hanit did not change course on its own, the Shepherds say this was all predestined and that the Enterprise crew should have had faith. Yet, Uhura discovers something astonishing: An earlier message that she decoded based on the knowledge that it is music contains the course of M'hanit without a collision and image data. The image shows a piece of ice that broke off when Spock heated up the comet. So was the whole sequence of events predestined? Pike can't stop pondering about his own apparently inevitable destiny, although Number One tells him not to waste his life because of that.

Commentary

In the pilot episode, La'an Noonien-Singh described how her whole family was killed by the Gorn. Just one week later we learn that Uhura too lost her family! I'm not saying that this contradicts canon in any way. I'm not saying that it is somehow detrimental to the character we know from TOS. I wouldn't complain if the commonness of "extremely rare diseases" or "extremely unlikely accidents" befalling their relatives were crucial for the character development. But it only boils down to a brief shock moment, and at most a sentiment like "This is so tragic. She needs Starfleet as a new family." Which is pretty much the same as when the writers added Reno, Adira, La'an and, in a way, Picard to the Starfleet orphanage. And these are only the examples from the past two or three years! How incredibly lazy is it to pull this melodramatic trick all the time? Couldn't there have been anything else interesting about Uhura, a character that was underused in TOS and that we would love to know more about? Anything creative? Celia Rose Gooding is convincing and endearing as a young Uhura who still needs to find her way, but this revelation, as soon as in the teaser, almost blows it for me.

To the writers' credit, at least Uhura remains in the focus of the story. She feels uncomfortable on her first mission to a strange new world, especially since it leads to the surface of a comet, in spacesuits. But the loss of her family doesn't have to be and doesn't seem to be the reason for her insecurity, which sort of makes the mention of the stroke of fate gratuitous on top of everything. Uhura just isn't prepared for what's out there. It's as simple as that. She feels like anyone who suddenly finds themselves in a hostile environment, only protected by a few layers of a hopefully strong fabric. She reminds me very much of Hoshi Sato in ENT: "Fight or Flight" in this regard. Perhaps it is supposed to have a significance that La'an, who is also on the mission to the comet, copes with her loss in a very different, almost converse way? I don't know. She doesn't talk a lot with Uhura, unlike Spock.

The part with Spock trying to encourage Uhura is the one I really like. After the silliness or embarrassment about some things he said or that happened to him in the pilot episode, Spock is in character again. I think I already mentioned it in my Discovery reviews, and I would like to repeat that in my view Ethan Peck is a clearly better Spock than Zachary Quinto. Although I understand that acting is not about the imitation of someone else in the first place, Peck rather gets across the vibe of the late Leonard Nimoy.

I started this review with a bit of a rant, but after the unfortunate revelation and still in the teaser it becomes clear that "Children of the Comet" is a classic Trek treat with everything that we love about the franchise. There is a space mystery that baffles the crew but without them becoming unprofessional. There is a crew member who overcomes their personal troubles and solves the puzzle. There is an adversary, whose zeal and the size of whose starship may be a exaggerated, but who may come straight from a TOS, TNG or Voyager episode. There is a classic situation where faith clashes with science and in which the latter gains the upper hand - until it doesn't. There is a good deal of action and use of technology, none of which is over the top.

I also like how the new chief engineer Hemmer, an Aenar, is introduced. He is blind (like actor Bruce Horak), but he never thought of himself being impaired. In fact, he considers his ability of precognition superior, rather than compensating for something he lacks. This attitude is presumptuous, and I kind of like that because I expect it will keep his character interesting and may stir up occasional small conflicts. Also, it wouldn't have been a good idea to turn Hemmer into a second Geordi. When she approaches him, Uhura makes essentially all the same mistakes that disabled people are tired of in real life. But she eventually proves that she has superior abilities too when she speaks his native language.

On the downside, Sam Kirk turns out to be a stock character in the tradition of many TOS redshirts, of Guy Fleegman of "Galaxy Quest", of Dirgo in TNG: "Final Mission" and of Lt. Connolly in DIS: "Brother". His trait of being a bit careless entails a punishment that some people may think of deserved. Well, Kirk is lucky to survive, but not surprisingly so because his destiny is just as much set in stone as Pike's. I would have hoped for him to be a positive character, but someone established as a white guy with a mustache probably invites stereotyping.

The visuals of the episode are fantastic. I only dislike the idea of Spock flying the shuttle through space debris. Although it isn't gratuitous this time, it is what happens in about every second Discovery episode and has totally lost its attractiveness in my book. The writers need to think of new forms of space action, or return to the old ones. Speaking of which, the dog fight between the Enterprise and the alien ship successfully uses the possibilities of CGI to bring a classic situation to the screen. DS9 and Voyager still remained a bit two-dimensional in the computerized visualization of such scenarios, whereas space battles in the Abrams movies and Discovery regularly suffered from hyperactivity.

Just like the pilot episode, "Children of the Comet" presents a classic Trek story (with some elements borrowed from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind") of the kind we have last seen in 2005. And it doesn't feel dated. In my opinion, there is more Trek spirit in the first two episodes of SNW than in the first two seasons of DIS! I disapprove of one aspect of the character development. But the rest of the story makes up for my initial anger. There is no confusing sidetracking and no endless mystery-mongering of the kind that Discovery and Picard are so fond of. And I am glad that Pike's visions of the future are less obtrusive than last week. Once again, the outcome is a bit rushed and simplified (it's raining, and everyone on the former desert planet is happy), but I can accept that because it was not different in classic Trek.

If I imagine the script of "Children of the Comet" had been written and filmed as a TOS, TNG or VOY episode, it would have been above average. Not among the greatest, but very enjoyable.

Annotations

Rating: 7

 

Ghosts of Illyria

Synopsis

Stardate 1224.3: A landing party investigates a former Illyrian colony on Hetemit IX, whose inhabitants have mysteriously disappeared. The Illyrians are known for their genetic modifications. This made them outcasts in the Federation, whose laws were created under the impression of the Eugenics Wars on Earth. As an ion storm approaches the colony, Pike orders all personnel to assemble for beam-up immediately. Chief Kyle only manages to transport them with additional power provided by Hemmer. Pike and Spock have to stay on the surface and seek shelter. In the meantime on the Enterprise, crew members are showing signs of a curious illness that makes them seek the proximity to light sources, even if they get hurt. Dr. M'Benga says that this goes along with a vitamin D deficit. Una Chin-Riley too is affected for a moment but doesn't mention it. When M'Benga scans her, he doesn't find any symptoms. As it is unknown how the disease spreads, Chin-Riley orders the ship to go into a lockdown. Hemmer appears in sickbay, and M'Benga is visibly on edge when the chief engineer begins to shut down the section's systems to run a diagnostic. As most crew members are confined to their quarters, Uhura's fellow cadets contract the disease, while she herself doesn't. Since she was in her dark bunk bed, Chin-Riley concludes that the epidemic propagates with light. She orders all lights to be switched off. The first officer then receives an alert from the transporter room, where Hemmer has beamed up a piece of the planet's mantle in order to expose himself to its immense and definitely lethal heat radiation. She stuns the chief engineer and takes him to sickbay. She now reveals that she is actually an Illyrian and asks M'Benga if this may help him, but his scans reveal that she doesn't have antibodies because her immune system has completely wiped out the infection. On the planet, Spock comes to the conclusion that the Illyrians living there were going to de-engineer themselves in order to be accepted into the Federation. As the storm is intensifying, strange energy creatures break through the door and cover Pike's and Spock's bodies, saving their lives. Spock surmises that these are the Illyrians. Driven by the "light madness", they ran into the storm, where their biosigns somehow became pure energy. As time is running out on the Enterprise to fight the epidemic, Chin-Riley receives a warp core containment warning. It turns out that La'an Noonien-Singh has deactivated it against all reason. Chin-Riley manages to disable her, and additionally provide a sample of Noonien-Singh's newly formed antibodies for M'Benga to synthesize a cure. Chin-Riley offers Captain Pike to resign her commission for lying about her genetic modifications, but he declines because he thinks she is the best example that prejudices need to be overcome. A little later in sickbay, she confronts M'Benga with what Hemmer found in his diagnostic. Something is hidden in the pattern buffer of the medical transporter, which inhibited the biofilters to work properly and caused the crisis in the first place. M'Benga admits that his terminally ill daughter Rukiya is stored there, in the hope of some day and somewhere finding a cure. He requests to spend time with his daughter after shutting down the transporter, which Chin-Riley declines. She allows him to keep the pattern buffer running, with an extra power source.

Commentary

Genetic engineering has a very long and controversial history in Star Trek. This Strange New Worlds story is in line with the attitude and legal situation that was established in TOS, TNG (with the notable exception of "Unnatural Selection") and DS9. But I doubt this was a good decision. The attempt to maintain continuity is considerably weakened anyway by the introduction of a new race (or one from the novelverse rather than from canon, to be precise) that suddenly exemplifies genetic engineering like no other and whose propensity to improve themselves is notorious. I don't think it helps in any fashion that a species called Illyrians is already known from ENT: "Damage" because these folks were pretty standard aliens-of-the-week and didn't have the air of being genetically engineered at all. Strange New Worlds could have found much better candidates for aliens who embody genetic improvements in canon, such as the Suliban. Also, wouldn't her being modified have more of an impact if Una Chin-Riley were human?

Speaking of humans with genetic modifications, La'an Noonien-Singh was obviously meant to fill that role instead of Chin-Riley, although she technically isn't an Augment. We learn that she always knew that the infamous Khan Noonien-Singh was her ancestor, and so did the kids who teased her about it. Aside from being intolerant in a way that should have no place in the 23rd century, this also raises a few more continuity problems. Not only is it inexcusable in light of the events of "Space Seed" that no one would remember La'an a few years later. It also doesn't make sense that no one would recognize Khan or identify him by his DNA. The writers exploit canon nonchalantly, only for a cheap reference, and they don't seem to be aware they're painting themselves into a corner. I wonder anyway why the series would need two characters with a very similar unusual history of being outcasts, other than for one (Una) being the mentor of the other (La'an).

"Ghosts of Illyria" is totally Una's story. She is not only an exceptionally strong woman, but mutates to a superhero, ultimately when she redirects the energy from the warp core. Although this in the tradition of the old trope that only one character is immune and saves the ship, it could have been shown in a more decent fashion. And she should have received help from someone at some point. After she had already saved Hemmer from exposing himself to the heat of the planet's mantle, it was even a bit boring when she came to the rescue all alone again, this time to keep La'an from blowing up the warp core (and without a phaser because hand-to-hand combat is more fun?). What's more, I don't like how her heroism is visualized. I understand that men who valiantly carry a woman out of danger are a common movie stereotype, which invites to be parodied. But the scene in which she has the Hemmer dummy hanging over her shoulder and walks through the corridor (straight-faced and with with triumphant music) is just cringe. I think the much funnier parody is when she rips her shirt open, Kirk-style!

As if the issues with the first officer and the security chief were not yet enough, the episode establishes that the chief medical officer too holds a secret. And yes, although technically his daughter is not yet dead, M'Benga is the third officer in three episodes to lose close relatives prematurely! Even the fourth if we choose to take Spock's adoptive sister into account or the fifth if we consider Pike's knowledge about his own fate. The character building in this series follows a clear pattern. Firstly, fan service: Introduce someone who is familiar from classic Trek or at least has a name taken from classic Trek. Secondly, appeal to emotion: Let them suffer from some trauma, preferably after losing their family, which they keep secret but eventually open up to someone.

Both Una Chin-Riley and Dr. M'Benga have violated Starfleet regulations. Just as Captain Pike excuses his first officer's lie about her true nature, she herself later chooses to overlook that M'Benga unwittingly caused the medical crisis. Although it is a tradition in Star Trek to bend or change rules if they are inflexible or intolerant, Pike as well as Chin-Riley seem to act out of an emotional impulse and almost create the impression that rules generally don't matter if you don't like them or if you like the person who broke the rules. Perhaps it is simply one incident of this kind too many in a single episode. Anyway, the motives and consequences of decisions, like so many issues, get a raw deal in "Ghosts of Illyria". Only at the end of the episode, Una says something remarkable as if she were speaking to me: "What if I hadn't saved all those lives? Would the captain feel the same?" This advocatus diaboli argument addresses my concerns quite well but comes too late to change the outcome.

In "Ghosts of Illyria", the issue of genetic engineering is discussed on various different levels. There are the Illyrians in general, who are not accepted into the Federation because of their genetic modifications. There is the one Illyrian group who, as Spock finds out, wanted to revert all this just to become members of the family and died (or were converted to pure energy) in the course. There is one particular Illyrian, Una Chin-Riley, who chose a different way of achieving that and lied about her true origin when she joined Starfleet. Finally, there is La'an Noonien-Singh, who feels the heavy burden of her Augment ancestry on her shoulders. This is too much and too contrived in its interdependence. And although everyone mentions prejudices against people with modifications only casually, it becomes overall too moralizing. Also, as already mentioned, do Pike or M'Benga really reconsider their preconceptions, or would they only make an exception for esteemed officers and for Illyrians who wanted to integrate themselves so hard that they died?

I am glad that the episode looks at the other side of the coin as well. On the topic of the motivation of the Illyrians, Una justifies it to La'an with the words: "Illyrians seek collaboration with nature. By bioengineering our bodies, we adapt to naturally existing habitats. Instead of terraforming planets, we modify ourselves, and there's nothing wrong with that." However, in a way, this justification is just as racist as the prejudices the Federation holds against her people. While racial stereotyping is more or less a firmly established concept in Star Trek ("All Vulcans are peaceful and all Klingons are warriors."), her affirmations are doubtful if they appear out of context, referring to a species we have never seen before. It still needs to be confirmed by Illyrians other than Una. What's more, we already know that there are different factions of Illyrians, which further calls her blanket statement into question.

The crisis on the ship is aptly visualized by showing crew members who do all kinds of crazy stuff to expose themselves to light, from breaking a lamp's glass to blowing up the warp core. The countermeasures, on the other hand, are only mentioned and not really shown. Chin-Riley issues a full lockdown (obviously also through the fourth wall, considering the COVID-19 situation at the time the episode was produced). But all we actually see of the possibly difficult situation is how Uhura is in her shared quarters with her crewmates. When the first officer later orders the ship to go dark, we see how the lights go off from the outside. But except for the corridors, which are a bit dimmer than usual, every single other room remains at full brightness all the time! In fact, the purportedly "dark" ship is still a lot brighter than Discovery under normal conditions!

On one hand, "Ghosts of Illyria" consists of a cookie-cutter plot about a disease on the ship and one immune character who saves everyone. And about energy creatures. On the other hand, the episode includes a multi-leveled story on genetic modification that fails on several accounts. And although I appreciate the thoughtful remarks on the intolerance of the Federation as this subject is concerned, it all ultimately gets a raw deal and is solved more in the fashion of "we are better than that, we are entitled to ignore the rules" than "let's investigate the matter and then try to change the rules".

Annotations

Rating: 3

 

Memento Mori

Synopsis

Stardate 3177.3: It is Remembrance Day, and everyone on the Enterprise wears a badge in honor of ships and crews that were lost. Only Lt. La'an Noonien-Singh does not put on the badge that would commemorate the colony ship SS Puget Sound she was on and that was raided by the Gorn. The Enterprise arrives at Finibus III to deliver a new AP 350 air filter for the colony. But no one responds. A landing party discovers evidence of a massacre but no bodies. Then a vessel with survivors appears. Since their ship is heavily shielded, it is not possible to use the transporter. Pike orders to extend the deep space transport tube for them to cross over. When a small hostile alien ship appears, it is not possible to raise the shields because of the tube. The Enterprise sustains heavy damage, six crew members and three civilians are killed. La'an recognizes that the attackers are the Gorn, who have used the survivor ship as a bait. She recommends to retreat to the atmosphere of a nearby brown dwarf. Shields and sensors wouldn't work in there. But Spock comes up with a way to detect enemy vessels through changes in the Coriolis forces. After ensuring that the Gorn can't locate the Enterprise, Pike orders to drop the last operational photon torpedo on the enemy ship. It gets destroyed. But the explosion gives away the location of the Enterprise for a much bigger Gorn vessel. Pike takes the ship deeper into the atmosphere. When it is necessary to seal off the lower decks, a crewman is left behind and dies. A pursuing smaller enemy ship implodes. In sickbay, it turns out that Una is heavily wounded and needs surgery, but she orders M'Benga to give the last available blood plasma to another crew member. When she wakes up, she sees that M'Benga tapped his own blood to save her life. La'an and Spock take a shuttle to find a way to escape. La'an asks Spock for a mind-meld in the hope to find something that may help defeat the Gorn. She remembers that her brother decrypted the light code that they used to communicate. She also recognizes that Spock lost a sister. Using light signals, they get the big Gorn ship to destroy the last smaller one. Hemmer and Uhura are trapped in the main cargo bay and are struggling to get the AP350 powered down. But it is too late. The device will explode. It is necessary to vent the bay to get rid of it while they are still inside. As the brown dwarf is about to be sucked into a black hole, Pike orders a risky maneuver close to the event horizon and uses the AP350 as a decoy. When it explodes in space, the Gorn are under the impression it was the Enterprise and retreat. Uhura and Hemmer survive. La'an decides to put on the badge.

Commentary

Every single one of first three Strange New Worlds episodes relied heavily on the trope that crew members mourned the loss of family members - Spock, La'an, Uhura, M'Benga. At first, it almost seems that "Memento Mori" tops this and is all about the dead. Fortunately, Remembrance Day merely serves as a framing device for an unexpectedly exciting story. Still, I wonder whether the plot needed the contrived concept that Pike loses crew members on Remembrance Day and that the ship is attacked by the Gorn at a time when La'an is most reluctant to be reminded of them. I also wonder whether this story shouldn't have been saved for later because every single episode of SNW so far is like a Remembrance Day.

At least, "Memento Mori" is the first SNW episode that doesn't introduce new personal traumas. We are already familiar with what happened to La'an's family, who served as food and as breeding sacks for the Gorn. We learn a bit more about her back story in this week's episode, especially in the mind-meld with Spock. La'an's involvement in the story as the only crew member with Gorn experience is overall strong. She provides tactical advice on several occasions, just as well as her personal opinion that the Gorn are monsters that would not deserve the pity of Starfleet. But I can't see much character development. In the end, she decides to put on the commemorative badge that she did not want to wear earlier in the episode. But that is just a symbolic act. If and how La'an's way of coping with her past may have actually changed or may be about to change is concealed behind her constantly grim face. When he approaches her on the bridge after the battle, it is much like Pike speaks for her and expresses what she should say, that next time they are better prepared when the Gorn show up. We can never tell what La'an herself thinks. Perhaps I still need to warm up with the character. Then again, it may not have been a wise idea to have a story about a rather complicated and uncommunicative person so early in the series. It would have been a further reason to postpone the whole Gorn thing.

One of the things that bother me most about the recent Trek seasons is that way too many characters are haunted not just by memories but downright by the ghosts of deceased beloved people. It is still acceptable if this is visualized in the form of flashbacks. But it has become a fashion that characters suddenly freeze because they see a ghost or that we are even shown the dead person standing right beside them and talking to them. Adira, Book, Picard, Raffi, Pike and La'an - they all have repeated ghost experiences! Star Trek writers can and must come up with other ideas how to make or keep their characters interesting. And even if we accept the concept for character development, it is imperative that they find other ways to work it into a story and visualize it. It is simply getting on my nerves how frequently La'an's brother is shown in "Memento Mori". The unobtrusive flashback during the mind meld would have absolutely sufficed!

I think that the B-plot of Uhura and Hemmer working in main cargo is more successful in terms of further fleshing out their characters. They both start off just as we know them. Uhura is enthusiastic and eager to convince everyone of her many competences. Hemmer is smug and acerbic as usual. Both experience their limits in the course of the story. After his hand is broken and only Uhura can do his engineering work, Hemmer becomes increasingly soft and humble. Uhura, on the other hand, as well as she performs her tasks, ultimately fails to shut down the AP350.

Fortunately the well-paced action plot more than makes up for the mistakes about La'an's character development. "Memento Mori" is in the best tradition of "Balance of Terror", "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan", TNG: "Disaster" and DS9: "Starship Down". There are many similarities in the plot particularly with the two latter episodes but this is overall to the benefit of "Memento Mori". I especially like one scene, which does not seem to be among the most exciting ones. It is when Pike, after his crew has found a way to detect the enemy vessel, does not order evasive maneuvers and waits until the Gorn ship eventually changes course, whereas Ortegas at the helm is uneasy. Just like in "Children of the Comet", Strange New Worlds pulls off a classic space battle with a professionally acting crew that is focused on their jobs (I think the bickering by Ortegas is still acceptable for the most part). We really have to wonder why this wasn't possible in four seasons of Discovery.

As enjoyable as the plot is on the whole, it also leaves many open questions. Several story elements are not sufficiently explained or the writing loses sight of them. Here are just a few examples:

On the other hand, I understand the decision not to show the Gorn. Although the demonization of the enemy is something that generally should have no place in Star Trek, not showing the opposite side adds to the "submarine" feel of this episode. I wonder anyway whether we will see the Gorn face to face in the series, or whether the writers avoid a direct confrontation because they think that fighting against the Gorn without seeing them somehow preserves continuity (although in TOS: "Arena" it is evident without the slightest doubt that Kirk has never heard of them).

The visual effects are very good once again, although many of them are rather dark and dirty, owing to much of the action taking place in the atmosphere of the brown dwarf.

"Memento Mori" is not among the most original Trek episodes. It is the first installment of SNW without a central ethical message. It has a mistimed and contrived framing story, and the attempt to develop La'an's character is unsuccessful in my view. But the action part works very well. I wouldn't mind seeing more of these classic Trek plot revivals with modern effects on SNW. On the other hand, wouldn't it be about time for something really new?

Annotations

Rating: 7

 

Spock Amok

Synopsis

Stardate 2341.4: The Enterprise is docked to Starbase 1 for repairs. Spock promises his fiancée T'Pring to spend time with her, after attending a briefing on a possible new ally of the Federation, the R'ongovian Protectorate. When representatives of that civilization unexpectedly show up on the Enterprise, Spock is late for his date, and T'Pring leaves his quarters. In the crew lounge, Christine Chapel, who is on a date herself, decides to give Spock relationship advice. Spock returns to T'Pring and performs a Vulcan soul sharing with her. But it takes an unexpected turn, and their two katras switch bodies. When Captain Pike appears and says that the R'ongovians would only continue to talk with Spock, the two explain the dilemma. T'Pring decides to join the meeting, in Spock's body. Spock, on the other hand, is confronted with the case of the Vulcan criminal Barjan. He is ready to surrender, which would have been T'Pring's task to take care of. Spock seeks the help of Nurse Chapel yet again and knocks down the reluctant Barjan when he mocks the two. The empathic R'ongovians continue to adapt to the person they are talking to, and no one can tell what they actually think about joining the Federation. Pike changes the tactics and begins to dissuade them because he thinks someone needs to address their concerns. They leave the conference room wordlessly, but they raise the Federation flag on their solar sailing vessel just before their departure. In the meantime, many crew members have decided to use the opportunity to go on shore leave, but La'an and Una prefer to stay aboard. They apprehend two ensigns in the airlock, who are trying to leave the ship without authorization. They were playing "Enterprise bingo", a game that involves a checklist of crazy things to do on the ship. La'an and Una decide to try it themselves, only to notice that there is no thrill to it unless they really break a rule. In sickbay, Dr. M'Benga and Nurse Chapel revert the katra transfer.

Commentary

I wrote in last week's review that Strange New Worlds should try out new story concepts, instead of always drawing on revivals of classic plots. Well, here is "Spock Amok", and it is something new indeed, at least in post-2005 Trek. In a much-needed break after the battle against the Gorn, it consists of several small and light-hearted plot threads, all of which are designed to be humorous. The last episode of this kind that I remember was ENT: "Two Days and Two Nights".

This episode is titled "Spock Amok", which sounds like a request not to take it too seriously. It also foreshadows that it would deal in some fashion with "Amok Time", one of Star Trek's most famous episodes. This happens right at the beginning. Spock is in the arena on Vulcan. His fiancée T'Pring claims he is too human. It is obvious that everything is just a dream, even before Spock's ears mutate, upon which the human Spock has to fight against his Vulcan counterpart and has his chest sliced just as Kirk a couple of years later. This pacifies the nerd in me, who would have cried "canon violation" in case this all had been real. But even though it suits the chronology and the character, Spock's premonition remains just a humorous side note. We are not supposed to take it seriously, just like most of the rest of the episode. But it feels like a great chance to add depth to the character and to address his being torn was squandered by putting it into an overall humorous context.

The story about Spock doesn't get better as the dream is over and the real T'Pring appears. Everything about her and about how the two interact seems awkward, even before the body switch. And illogical. For instance, why would T'Pring care so much about the decoration of his quarters? And what is the difference between "human" and "Vulcan" style anyway? Her criticism of him being too human and the comparison of human and Vulcan ways continues throughout the episode. It is mentioned almost ad nauseam by her or by someone else, about a dozen times altogether. And most of it is just as pointless as her remark about the decoration. The bottom line, for me, is: This story and ultimately the body switch prove that Spock and T'Pring are different - but because they are a man and a woman, not because one of them is only half Vulcan! The frequent racist prejudices are just a pathetic attempt to assign a different significance to it. According to T'Pring, Spock's sense of duty is a human trait. She means to say that a Vulcan man would have left the meeting prematurely for her? Also, when T'Pring already inhabits Spock's body and is talking to the alien guests, what exactly is wrong with her saying she sometimes wishes she could be on Vulcan instead of Starfleet, so much that Pike has to step in? Vice versa, would T'Pring's allegedly pure Vulcan logic (that we never witness in this context), as opposed to Spock's "hybrid" approach, really be the generally appropriate way to bring in criminals?

The thread about T'Pring's job that Spock suddenly has to take over is the weakest of the episode, and of any Trek episode since 2018. It comes out of the blue that she is some blend of a social worker and James Bond. We learn nothing about the criminal Barjan except that, we guessed it, he is an even more racist asshole than your average Vulcan. There is no reason why Spock would want to team up with Nurse Chapel of all people, and for the writers to push their connection so extremely hard in general. Finally, it is out of character for him to knock down Barjan, whether he is in someone else's body or not. This plot thread is totally unconvincing. And speaking of being out of character, I already mentioned in my review of "Strange New Worlds" that this cheeky person is a totally new Chapel. Slapping Spock takes the discrepancy to a new level.

I don't like the negotiations with the R'ongovians either, although it is somewhat more interesting than Spock doing T'Pring's job. It is very contrived and doesn't make much sense, considering that you don't try to fool an empathic species that should register your pretense. Also, the resolution is underwhelming. Pike makes a big deal of him finding the key how to win over this particular species, but he applies simple reverse psychology, a concept that should be well-known still in the 23rd century. In the end, these folks have no further significance and merely serve as a test for T'Pring to do her best Spock impersonation. I like how Ethan Peck delivers some (stereo)typical female gestures and facial expressions in this role, but story-wise there's not more about it.

Overall, the body switch is an unusually exploitative story even by SNW standards, as the legacy of the characters is concerned. At least, it is handled with decency within the scope of the episode. But it fails to make a statement about how the two are different and how they learn to understand each other better. And it is sort of pointless, since they will part ways in a few years anyway.

I am more positive about the adventures of Una (whose nickname is "Where fun goes to die") and La'an, who are trying to find out what could possibly be so thrilling about "Enterprise bingo". They have another concept of recreation than the rest of the crew. They are outsiders for that matter, which doesn't bother them unless it undermines their authority. The two Enterprise officers are in character, and it is appropriate how they finally discover the joy of breaking the rules. I imagine how, at some point, Tuvok and Seven on Voyager may have tried to find out as well why everyone else is having more fun. Or rather Freeman and Ransom on the Cerritos? This kind of humor walks a fine line in a live episode. Anyway, only the "good cop, bad cop" trick when La'an and Una interrogate the poor young ensigns doesn't work for me. It is merely included for a quick laugh and then loses its significance, like so much else in this incoherent episode that always tries hard to make its way to the next punchline.

Perhaps rather than certain parts of the story, most of all the music in this episode is pesky. There is too much of it, and it often sets a mood that doesn't fit the scene. It is ominous in moments that are rather awkward, and funny in situations that otherwise lack humor. I only like how the famous "Amok Time" theme is brought back, but that was a no-brainer anyway.

"Spock Amok" tries something new and aims to be humorous or tongue-in-cheek. But the attempt fails for the most part. Almost everything is funny just for a moment, and the story then struggles to prepare the next punchline. With the exception of La'an and Una, the characters feel like shoehorned into a story in which they make awkward experiences. The intentionally contrived setup (not only the body switch but also the concept "X will only talk to Y") doesn't pay out, especially as the Spock/T'Pring thread is concerned. Whereas the damage to continuity is not as severe as I feared, I have the impression that it unnecessarily pokes fun at the characters. Sorry, but Lower Decks is the clearly better comical take on Trek.

Annotations

Rating: 3

 

Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach

Synopsis

Stardate 1943.7: The Enterprise is in the non-aligned Majalan system when the ship receives a distress call from a shuttle that is being attacked by a cruiser. After the Enterprise has returned fire with minimum power, the cruiser is badly damaged and crashes on a moon. Three Majalan people are rescued from the shuttle: Alora, whom Pike already met when he visited the system ten years ago, a boy called the First Servant and his father Gamal. Pike agrees to ferry them to safety to their planet where the First Servant's ascension to the throne is to take place. Alora says that the attackers were aliens from a nearby colony. In sickbay, it turns out that the boy has a quantum bio implant that tremendously enhances his brain functions. The Majalans generally have very advanced medical technology and have eradicated any form of disease. Dr. M'Benga asks whether they would be able to cure a "hypothetical" patient with mast cell cygnokemia, by which he refers to his daughter. They could, but would only help her if she was one of them. Spock retrieves a device from the crashed and abandoned attacker ship that he suspects is a neural dampener, but Gamal doesn't want to confirm it. The landing party also recovers a coin that Alora identifies as an oath coin of the First Servant's guards. She suspects that one of them is a traitor. Pike accompanies Alora to Majalis, which consists of islands floating in the sky above a surface of lava. When she notices that one of the guards, Kier, repaired his coin, he attacks her and runs away. Alora, Pike and the other guards finally surround him. Alora asks him why he betrayed his people, but he grabs and attempts to kill her, upon which she stabs him with a knife. On the Enterprise, Uhura decodes data carriers that La'an took from the crashed ship and finds out that the alien attackers are descendants of the Majalans and for some reason left their planet to settle on a barren world. Gamal and the First Servant suddenly decide to leave and demand to be beamed down to Majalis. But someone else transports them away, apparently to another alien cruiser. Gamal is beamed back briefly after, and the ship prepares to go to warp. Pike orders the tractor beam to be engaged but the ship attempts to go to warp anyway. The strain on its hull being too strong, the cruiser finally breaks apart, apparently killing the boy too. But Spock, who previously talked with the boy about his scientific endeavors, receives a signal on a subspace frequency that they talked about. He was not actually beamed over to the other ship but hides in a cargo crate. Uhura investigates how someone could lock a transporter on someone on the Enterprise and discovers that Gamal recorded the First Servant's and his own biopatterns, which would facilitate just this. His plan was to save his son from a life that consists of being hooked up to a computer without ever growing up, which is the actual duty and fate of the First Servant. For some reason, the ancestors of the Majalans came up with this way to control their world. Pike has already beamed down again to attend the ceremony, unaware of what would happen to the boy. When he tries to intervene, the guards knock him down. He wakes up in Alora's apartment and it is too late to still help the boy. Although she hopes he may want to stay and learn to understand the Majalan ways, Pike leaves immediately. On the Enterprise, Gamal gives M'Benga advice on how he can treat his "hypothetical" patient.

Commentary

"Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach" is even more of a classic Trek revival than any of the preceding five Strange New Worlds episodes. It has a bit of everything that stories about secretive aliens are traditionally made of, much like an amalgam of a variety of episodes from TOS: "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky" to TNG: "The Perfect Mate", with a flavor of "The Cloud Minders". Everything that happens feels somehow familiar, but mostly in a positive sense because it is so much in line with how it would have been handled in the classic shows. This not only applies to the story but also to the dialogues, visualization and score, all of which is unusually unobtrusive for a modern Trek show.

Well, it seems the writers were not quite as confident about the recipe. They included a large number of plot twists, pertaining to the Majalans, their history and technology, the enemies and traitors, the role of the First Servant and the agenda of his father. And they apparently thought it would be most exciting to save the biggest surprise for last. Thematically comparable TOS or TNG episodes used to have only two turning points. Here, the situation changes every couple of minutes. Still, most of it doesn't come as a real surprise, not even the big revelation of what will happen to the First Servant. As a matter of fact, as I was watching I correctly predicted the following three of the twists: The inhabitants of the colony are related to the Majalans, the boy survives the explosion of the cruiser and something gruesome would happen with him when he ascends the throne.

I think the revelation should not have been dragged out. There may have been an ethical dilemma for Pike whether to save the boy or not instead of a fait accompli. Also, I would have reduced the interaction of Pike and Alora, which is never really interesting. Whereas it seems that these two are talking with each other all the time (besides some other common activities), I would have liked to see more of the First Servant, Gamal, M'Benga and Spock. Especially Spock's friendship with the boy and Gamal and M'Benga's shared worries about their children would each have deserved more than a single scene.

Although the resolution is unnecessarily protracted, I am content with how the big dilemma of the Majalan society in general, of the father who wants to save his son and of the captain who cannot do anything to help him is fleshed out. And I am impressed that SNW dares to pull a downbeat ending, in contrast to what happened in the pilot episode. After five episodes that were, well, a bit exploitative, the series takes a first step to tell mature stories. And even though Pike leaves Majalis with big disillusionment, personally and as a Starfleet officer, we have something like a small happy ending regarding the advice that Gamal, the father who lost his son, gives M'Benga, the father who hopes to save his daughter.

Many aspects of the story are a bit formulaic. This is a consequence of SNW generally relying heavily on Trek clichés, but also of the salami tactics in the particular story. Someone of the crew investigates an object or some data, confronts someone of the Majalans and then learns another small part of the truth. This is how many of the aforementioned numerous plot twists come about. But the framework of the series itself also contributes to the feeling that everything follows a pattern. Strange New Worlds is not serialized, yet it strives to work off its character stories much like in Discovery or Picard and to have them solved or at least updated by the end of the season. This is more consequential than in classic Trek. But it gives the character development little breathing room, for we can be sure that Pike's vision of the future, Spock's being half-human, La'an's Gorn experience and M'Benga's attempts to find a cure for his daughter will be alternately in the focus. I will postpone my judgment until the end of the season but my impression right now is that the character stories are pushed too hard and laid out too systematically.

Speaking of being formulaic, this clearly also applies to La'an's rules. But I like this aspect of the story, also because La'an comes across as more professional when she supervises Uhura.

All in all, "Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach" (What a wonderfully poetic and fitting title!) brings us classic Trek vibes and the most intellectual story of SNW yet. Not everything makes perfect sense and there are perhaps too many twists and contrived concepts. There is too much emphasis on the story about Pike and his alien lover, whereas some possibly more interesting connections are limited to one or two minutes of screen time. But I am overall pleased with this episode. Although it isn't among SNW's best, it feels like Star Trek done right.

Annotations

Rating: 5

 

The Serene Squall

Synopsis

Stardate 1997.9: The Enterprise is tasked with helping Dr. Aspen, who works for a humanitarian organization, to find three colony ships that are stranded near the edge of Federation space. Aspen warns Pike of a pirate ship called Serene Squall that is known for raiding their aid missions. Following a distress call, the Enterprise enters an asteroid field and gets trapped in a net consisting of lasers and mirrors that may destroy the ship. As the net is growing smaller, Spock has only one chance to pick the asteroid that contains the source of the beams and target it. He struggles with the decision but the guess turns out to be correct. Dr. Aspen approaches Spock, telling him he should not think so much in categories of being human or Vulcan. The ship then receives another distress call. A vessel with 200 lifesigns in the cargo hold shows up, plus 30 more in other places. Since there were 200 colonists on the three ships, it looks like they are held prisoners by pirates. As Pike beams over with a landing party, pirates secretly board the Enterprise. As a fight on the bridge ensues, Una Chin-Riley issues a command lockdown. Spock and Aspen escape the grasp of the pirates, as does Nurse Chapel. On the transport ship, actually the Serene Squall, Pike and his team are taken prisoners by the Orion Remy and his crew. The rest of the Enterprise crew is beamed over to that ship as well. Remy doesn't seem to be popular, not only because of his bad cooking, and Pike and Una see an opportunity to instigate a mutiny. On the Enterprise, Spock and Aspen have reached engineering, as has Chapel. Spock successfully re-initiates the ship's command functions, only to notice that someone else takes over control of the ship. It is Aspen, whose real name is Angel and who is in command of the pirates. They assumed the wrong identity and made up the colonists in distress to lure the Enterprise into a trap. They do not want the ship, however. Rather than that, they demand the release of a certain Xaverius from a Vulcan rehabilitation colony. Knowing that T'Pring, Spock's fiancée, is in charge of the program, Angel arranges an exchange. When T'Pring arrives with a ship, Spock pretends that he has an affair with Chapel, upon which the two resolve their bond. Angel's deal is going to fail. Moreover, as the mutiny is ongoing, Pike has taken command of the pirate ship and successfully locks out Angel from the command functions. Whereas all other pirates surrender, Angel escapes with a shuttle. Spock and T'Pring decide to perform a rebonding ceremony. Spock, however, has a suspicion that he shares with Chapel. He thinks that the Vulcan criminal named Xaverius is actually Sybok, his half-brother.

Commentary

I would have preferred T'Pring not to appear once in every two or three episodes of Strange New Worlds. Aside from not being in line with TOS, where she and Spock didn't appear to have much contact at all since they were bonded in their childhood, it also sort of defies the premise that T'Pring is troubled with having a long-distance relationship across the vast distances of space. Strange New Worlds suffers from the same syndrome as the first two seasons of Discovery in this regard, where distances were never far enough for Sarek and/or Amanda not to meet up with Michael Burnham every few weeks. I also would have preferred SNW not to capitalize on Spock's struggle between his human and his Vulcan half yet again. This idea was overstressed only lately in "Spock Amok" and would have needed a break. Also, "The Serene Squall" only rehashes what we know anyway about the character, except for new trivialities such as his embarrassment about literature on human sexuality. At least, this all does not come across as quite as racist as "Spock Amok".

I think the plot with the trap set up by the pirates and one of them assuming a false identity would have worked better without the strong personal involvement of Spock's family & friends. It feels like his uneasy relationship with T'Pring, his unlikely friendship with Chapel and ultimately even the characters Stonn and Sybok were shoehorned into a cookie-cutter story essentially for the sake of fan service. Even if we neglect continuity concerns, in Strange New Worlds Spock is a bit like a soap opera character, as opposed to the professional officer he will be in TOS. It is evident that Angel and Sybok as well as Stonn are set to reappear and, like T'Pring and Chapel, will play a much bigger role in Spock's life than would have been realistic and desirable. Subtlety in character building is not among SNW's strong suits.

Although it is just a cover identity, "Dr. Aspen" is convincing as a philanthropist, who mirrors the work of present-day NGOs. Their idiosyncrasies such as dancing to loud beats further add to the impression of an unusual character by 23rd century standards. Their propensity to hold unsolicited counseling sessions and their special interest in Vulcans and particularly in Spock makes sense in hindsight. Yet, with this one exception the entire character building goes out the window when Angel reveals their true identity and their true personality. It would have been much more realistic and much more desirable if Angel had not mutated to a stereotypical villain with evil laughter and if the screenplay and portrayal had maintained some basic sympathy with them. The revelation of Angel's identity as one of the pirates does not come as a big surprise anyway. At least, it is better timed than the plot twists of last week's episode. And although I don't like how Spock gets personally involved in several ways when Angel discloses what they actually want, for the reasons already mentioned, the twist works comparably well if only we don't consider the bigger picture.

Even though Angel is lying about their true identity most of the time anyway, which readily explains why they appear as inconsistent, I have a small problem with them. Non-binary actress Jesse James Keitel was announced to play a non-binary character. Dr. Aspen is accordingly referred to as "they/them" in the episode because of their file, and that is also the feeling I get from Keitel's performance. So far, so good. But is the mustache-twirling Angel non-binary as well? If yes, what are the odds? Did the pirates wait until a person with matching gender identity comes along, whose role Angel could assume?

The broad strokes of the plot seem to be reasonable, but there are several cringe moments and the more large plot holes the more I reflect about it. Other aspects are unconvincing because they were cut short or dumbed down for the sake of a stronger focus on the Spock tale. It is a red herring that Pike encounters the cumbersome Orion Remy on the Serene Squall, who at this time seems to be the leader of the pirates. For a while, it looks like we would get to see more of the captain's attempts to incite a mutiny on the pirate ship. But it actually happens off-screen. The story neglects to show how the mutiny comes about and reduces it to the repeated cue about Alpha Braga IV and vague mentions of the crew being fed up with Remy. It doesn't really make sense that, in the end, Pike suddenly stands at the ship's wheel (cringe!) while fighting is going on behind him. Well, as I think further about it, I don't really want to know how they could get the incredibly dumb pirates to release them...

On the other hand, the whole scenario of the laser grid was inserted with the sole intent to create a dilemma for Spock when he has to make a guess which asteroid to fire at. There is no doubt that, unlike "Dr. Aspen" claims, this trap too was set up by the pirates. But we never learn what its actual purpose was, considering that everything they wanted was to capture the ship with Spock on it, rather than to destroy it. It is a paradoxical plot device that ought to have been removed from the episode altogether.

There is one character, Erica Ortegas, who is part of the main cast of SNW but whose contribution to the stories so far consisted of nothing but occasional quips. I mentioned in a previous review that it is okay with me if she reacts to dangerous situations with gallows humor. But after listening to her for seven episodes, my impression is that she reacts to every single order of a superior officer with irony, sarcasm or outright defiance. This is not only highly unprofessional from an in-universe viewpoint, it is also a pity that the character remains essentially a stooge.

"The Serene Squall" could have been a decent space adventure but forfeits most of the excitement that otherwise lies in the story because of the contrived involvement of Spock's family & friends. Also, there are many gaping plot holes, plot-driven oddities and cringe moments that I simply can't overlook. Overall, this is the least successful SNW episode so far.

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Rating: 2

 

The Elysian Kingdom

Synopsis

Stardate 2341.6: The Enterprise has finished a survey of the Jonisian Nebula. Erica Ortegas attempts to activate the warp engines in vain. When she tries the impulse drive, she is kicked off her seat and gets hurt. Captain Pike calls Dr. M'Benga. But as the doctor arrives on the bridge, the scenery and the crew have changed. Pike now appears as the servile Sir Amand Rauth and Ortegas is the courageous Sir Adya. They hail M'Benga as their king. Both are characters from the book The Kingdom of Elysian that he reads from to his daughter Rukiya. Back in sickbay, he encounters Nurse Chapel, who is the healer Lady Audrey in this fantasy and La'an, whose new personality is the naive Princess Thalia. The Crimson Guard of rivaling Queen Neve appear and demand King Ridley to hand out the Mercury Stone. They have apprehended Hemmer, whose role is Caster the Wizard. Hemmer is the only one besides M'Benga who is aware of his true identity because he managed to block an alien consciousness that was about to enter his mind. The guards drag him away. But Wizard Pollux, who M'Benga knows is Caster's brother, appears in Spock's body. Pollux offers to lead them to Queen Neve. The doctor knows he would betray them because it is so written in the book. The Queen turns out to be Uhura. She has M'Benga, Adya and Rauth taken to the transporter room aka dungeon where Hemmer is incarcerated too. Hemmer uses a magic trick, actually a laser cutter, to open the door. When they bump into the Crimson Guard again, a fight ensues and Rauth runs away. But a huntress of the name Z'ymira (Una) appears and chases the attackers away. She and Adya are in love, which makes M'Benga suspicious because this is not written in the book. It is actually what Rukiya made up as an alternate ending. He now knows that the fantasy way created from her brain patterns. She is the Mercury Stone. And it turns out she is not in the pattern buffer of the sickbay transporter any longer. M'Benga, Hemmer and Adya rush to the doctor's quarters where they hope to find Rukiya. They run into the Crimson Guard yet again because the cowardly Sir Rauth has switched sides. But Hemmer pulls another magical trick and beams them away. M'Benga finds his daughter. She has no sign of cygnokemia and tells him that her friend, the entity that lives in the nebula, has created this reality for her. M'Benga wants to end the scenario but also to save his daughter. Speaking through Hemmer, the entity offers the option that the Enterprise is free to leave and that Rukiya could stay in the nebula if this was her wish. With a heavy heart, M'Benga accepts her decision to stay. She reappears once more to him, this time as an adult woman, to tell him she is doing fine and has made lots of new experiences. When everyone is back to normal, there is a gap of five hours in all memories and recordings, and only M'Benga is aware of what has happened.

Commentary

"The Elysian Kingdom" is far from being the first Star Trek story to mingle the "real" world of the future and a fantasy scenario, thinking of TNG: "Masks" or the adventures of Moriarty or Captain Proton. It also isn't the first story in which fictional characters come to life in the form of unaware regular crew members, which already happened in DS9: "Our Man Bashir" and VOY: "The Killing Game". I am pleasantly surprised that the SNW writers made use of the concept without predating the invention of the holodeck. But overall, the fairy-tale is neither very original nor very ambitious. It is frolicsome but not much more.

"The Elysian Kingdom" is the arguably campiest live-action episode of the franchise ever made. At least, it the episode that was most clearly designed that way and doesn't turn out unintentionally camp. Anson Mount as the cowardly Sir Rauth is particularly funny, so much that the king normally wouldn't need a jester. His intonation and facial expressions are totally over the top and I love it, although it would never be acceptable in a non-humorous context. His hair is hilarious! Christina Chong is similarly out of character as the pampered princess with her pocket puppy. And she can sing! It is a blessing for the austere La'an that she remembers nothing of it! The other fairy-tale characters, on the other hand, are only mildly interesting. Perhaps the writers were cautious not to overdo every single of them, in order to maintain a basic seriousness of the story. It is worth mentioning that Ethan Peck as Pollux manages to get across a sense of wickedness while still maintaining the composure of Spock. But although Melissa Navia finally gets something to do besides making cheeky comments, this all happens as Sir Adya and never as Erica Ortegas, who still has received zero character development by now.

While the "Elysian" characters are only partially successful in my view, I like how the starship plays its new role as a fairy-tale kingdom. Or rather, how it is not totally converted into something different. The "cheap" approach to just add a few candle holders, wall hangings, banners and plants to the familiar sets is very efficient. This is still the Enterprise, not an illusion, not an alien planet and not some holographic scenario either. It gives the whole situation a sense of reality. And it allows for some of the greatest jokes of the episode, when characters refer to normal ship systems as if they were magic (a bit like in LOW: "Where Pleasant Fountains Lie").

I generally dislike if Star Trek crew members are caught in a fantasy and expect everything to make perfect sense. Instead of applying science, they rather follow the rules of the game, as absurd as they may be, such as in DS9: "Move Along Home". In TNG: "Masks", Picard even seems to give the solution to the alien riddle priority over the safety of the ship and crew. "The Elysian Kingdom" too makes this mistake and M'Benga plays literally by the book. At least, it does not appear quite as improper as in the aforementioned examples. Also, the twist that he recognizes the alternative ending that his daughter made up eventually justifies why he assigns relevance to what happens in the tale.

I wouldn't complain about the course of the plot if "The Elysian Kingdom" were a mere fun episode like the already mentioned "Our Man Bashir". But the frame story is about two serious issues: the encounter with a lifeform in the nebula and the fate of the terminally ill Rukiya. Regarding the alien entity, we know this kind of stories very well from "The Squire of Gothos", "Catspaw", "Spectre of the Gun" and "The Savage Curtain". And these are only a few examples from TOS of the perhaps most overused Trek trope: an alien lifeform that strives to understand the crew and creates a custom-tailored scenario for them to have fun in and/or to prove themselves worthy. The solution to the puzzle of what happens in "The Elysian Kingdom" and why is underwhelming and hasty. Even though it was clear that someone or something in the nebula would turn out responsible, I would have expected more from it.

Unlike similar episodes in TOS or in other classic Trek series, SNW avoids to derive a moral lesson from the encounter with the alien entity. Neither does the crew learn anything about alien life or about themselves, nor does the entity eventually understand the crew better. After 40 minutes of silliness, the discussion about the motives of M'Benga to keep his daughter in the transporter buffer, as well as of the entity to release her, is condensed to three or four sentences. It falls short of my expectations, to put it mildly.

The story attempts to make up for the lack of an intellectual message with the emotional impact. It does not leave me cold how M'Benga says goodbye to his daughter with a heavy heart. It is an adequate ending of the episode, and a reward for those among the viewers who thought that everything until then was too silly. But it is also a very rushed and forced ending. There is no ethical dilemma any longer, but just a simple solution. The commonality of Rukiya and the alien entity both being lonely and the dichotomy that Rukiya has to decide on the spot whether she wants to stay with her dad or leave him forever are lame plot devices to bring everything to a quick end. Realistically, would a non-corporeal entity know what growing up means and what a child needs? Would a father leave his daughter to a lifeform that he knows absolutely nothing about? And even if he did, wouldn't he at least want to continue the study of the entity and the nebula? But we are not meant to ask those questions. We are meant to believe that everything will be fine and that Rukiya exists happily ever after in the nebula, for which to demonstrate she appears one more time to her dad.

Overall, "The Elysian Kingdom" is an episode that plays safe. It is even safe in a literal sense because no one of the crew is in danger of dying, although the fictional characters repeatedly threaten to apply violence. This is the logical consequence of the scenario being taken from a children's book, but this also takes away any sense of danger.

"The Elysian Kingdom" also relies heavily on the formulaic character building of the series. As I predicted a few weeks ago, once again an established traumatic experience of a crew member is the focus, and it really seems that all of them will have been resolved right in time for the end of the season. This and most other SNW episodes up to now are like a TOS revival in the way the story is presented but in which everything significant is custom-scripted for one specific character. I like the emotional impact of M'Benga's goodbye to his daughter but I would have preferred a story with less foolishness and with more food for thought. Rukiya's sudden departure additionally makes the medical advice that M'Benga received from Gamal just two weeks ago sort of pointless in hindsight.

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Rating: 3

 

All Those Who Wander

Synopsis

Stardate 2510.6: As Uhura's assignment to the Enterprise comes to an end, she is still unsure whether her place is in Starfleet. Pike receives orders from Starfleet Command to salvage the USS Peregrine. The sister ship of the Enterprise attempted an emergency landing on the L-class planet Valeo Beta V when contact was lost. Captain Pike leads a landing party with two shuttles to the surface, while the Enterprise delivers vidium power cells to Deep Space K-7. Due to ionic interference on the planet, no contact with the outside world is possible during that time. Upon their arrival, the landing party does not register any lifesigns near the ship, but soon discovers the bodies of many Peregrine crew members. A log entry by the ship's captain states that they picked up three castaways on a Class-M planet: a human girl, an unknown humanoid and an Orion. The Orion turned out to be infested with Gorn eggs. The girl named Oriana and the alien she calls Buckley are the only survivors. Oriana and Buckley stay with Nurse Chapel and Cadet Chia in sickbay, while Uhura and Hemmer work on restoring power. Suddenly Gorn hatchlings emerge from Buckley's body and kill Chia. Oriana runs away. La'an arrives and, together with Chapel, finds the girl in the coldest area of the ship that the Gorn would avoid. As Pike, Spock, Kirk and the freshly promoted Lt. Duke are investigating the corridors, the Gorn also kill Duke. Just as a Gorn is about to attack Hemmer and Uhura in engineering, La'an appears. But she can't prevent that Hemmer gets sprayed with an acidic secretion. Pike recalls the landing party to sickbay. The plan is to set up a trap, with the landing party themselves serving as the bait. Spock tries in vain to lure the creatures out of their hiding and enters a state of rage to infuriate them. After the two last Gorn have fought for dominance, this leaves only one of them, the alpha Gorn. La'an makes it follow her into engineering where Hemmer has set up a trap that freezes the creature to death. Hemmer, however, was infested with a hatchling when he was hit by the acid. He commits suicide in order to save the rest of the crew. The Enterprise lifts the damaged Peregrine off the surface. At the memorial service for the dead crew members, Spock can't control his resurfaced emotions and finds consolation when Chapel tells him that this is his human side. La'an asks Pike for an extended leave to find a new home for Oriana, to which the captain agrees.

Commentary

All previous Strange New Worlds episodes were pretty quick to establish which character they would focus on. Although "All Those Who Wander" begins with Uhura's log entry, it becomes clear after a while that the story is actually more about La'an, as already foreshadowed in the recap. I usually don't think the recaps contain spoilers or are anticlimactic, but this time I think it goes too far. It would have been better not to spotlight La'an's Gorn experience because this unmistakably gives away what would happen.

"All Those Who Wander" is heavy on exposition. The scene in which Pike communicates the new orders to his senior officers is a single big info dump. They are eating while discussing the options, which is probably meant to ease the situation but actually comes across as extra awkward. The rather heavy-handed writing continues nearly all the way through the episode. There is too much character interaction on a personal, rather than on a professional level. At least some of it serves a purpose. Spock's clash with Kirk (who once again acts like a dick) illustrates how the half-Vulcan normally holds back his emotions before he loses this ability. It is also fitting how Hemmer and Uhura work together one last time, with him being much more amiable than he used to be. But it is very talkative and somehow all about feelings, and not necessarily the ones that are related to or realistic for the current situation. This is a Discovery trope that SNW so far mostly avoided. Other side stories along these lines, such as M'Benga who refers to a girl he just met as his daughter, are totally gratuitous. And regarding Chapel, who eases Spock's pain of not being in control of his emotions, this further undermines everything we know about them from TOS.

Actually, if Chapel were any other nurse and/or if Spock were any other Vulcan, their interaction would resonate with me - a lot. The two are the arguably strongest character pairing of the whole series. But everything about them is not only not in line with TOS but is defiantly anti-canon, the best proof that SNW wants to be a modern TOS with cooler characters above all, rather than a distinct Trek series.

Despite the spoiler about the Gorn, the investigation of the abandoned USS Peregrine is suspenseful up to the point when the Gorn connection is explicitly revealed in the ship's captain's log. Unfortunately things go south from here. The first of many problems is that it is as blindingly obvious as probably no plot twist in the franchise ever before what would happen with the alien "Buckley". La'an is very explicit about what the Gorn would do with the victims. And we all know Ridley Scott's "Alien" after all, whose most famous scene and other plot points this episode rips off without any notable changes. There is even the girl, who was the only one to survive unscathed, as in "Aliens".

The two redshirt deaths (well, actually blue and yellow) add insult to injury regarding the uninspiring story. It looks a bit like the writers attempted to add some Star Trek flavor to the classic sci-fi plot. But especially the death of Lt. Duke is shown in an inappropriately humorous fashion, after a joke about the injury of his arm being not so bad. Even TOS was rarely that inconsiderate.

I anticipated that someone besides the two redshirts would die, but I expected this person to be Ripley La'an. As I already addressed in previous reviews, many stories are too clearly fabricated for one specific character to face their personal demons and thereby learn to cope with them. And just as a contrived situation was created last week to bring the story about Dr. M'Benga's daughter to an end, this week La'an not only encounters her mortal enemy face to face but also meets a girl with almost the exact same story as her own! My expectation was that she would sacrifice her life for Oriana. In the end, La'an only pauses her career for the girl, which makes just as much sense in the character building pattern of the series. But it leaves me a bit puzzled. Wouldn't it have been useful to establish a bond between the two, in more than just a brief scene? La'an's decision comes out of the blue. Thinking further about it, she would have deserved more scenes in the episode anyway, and perhaps more than one mood swing. It is a bit bland how La'an simply continues to be the fierce Gorn fighter all along, only to suddenly soften up in the very end.

Hemmer's story in "All Those Who Wander" is more interesting. I should have anticipated that the writers consider his character development complete. After initially acting like an arrogant prick, he opened up to Uhura in "Memento Mori". He later disappeared for three episodes and resurfaced for last week's cosplay adventure. As much as I like his new (and final) role as Uhura's mentor, it comes out of the blue. We will never learn whether he actually changed in the short time since we first saw him. It will remain his secret whether he was kind to Uhura because he felt she needed guidance or whether he was or has become generally more sociable. Hemmer's death scene is a clear emotional highlight but doesn't make up for the mistakes of the story.

About Uhura, the ending insinuates that she has made her decision to stay in Starfleet. But I don't buy into the line of reasoning. It strikes me as illogical. She has just been through the gruesome Gorn attacks and she witnessed how the creatures killed her friend Hemmer. This is not exactly a motivation to pursue a career for somebody who isn't a born fighter, such as La'an. Uhura may have decided for herself not to go on away missions but to stay at her comm station for that matter, which she perspicuously inspects at the end of the episode. But would she be any safer there, considering what happened to the Peregrine?

Summarizing, "All Those Who Wander" could have been a solid horror action thriller, if "Alien" had never been made, if the Gorn were not yet established and if we were not familiar with Spock and Chapel from TOS. But as much as the people in charge would love to, they can't start over with a clean slate and pretend that we didn't already know their stories and characters. This dilemma of SNW shows as clearly as never before in this episode, which feels much like a remake of the classic sci-fi movie in the form of a TOS parody. The episode has its moments and an emotional ending, but it just isn't enough to compensate for the very weak plot and the character stories that don't quite work.

With Hemmer's death and the departure of La'an and Uhura this episode feels like a season finale. I am looking forward to what happens in the actual finale next week, which I expect to hold quite a few surprises for us!

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Rating: 2

 

A Quality of Mercy

Synopsis

Stardate 1457.9: The Enterprise and the Cayuga under Captain Batel support the Earth outposts along the Romulan Neutral Zone with supplies and upgrades. As Pike, Una and Spock are talking with Hansen Al-Salah, the commander of one of the outposts, his son Maat enters the room. He is one of two cadets that would not survive the reactor accident to occur in seven years. Pike has to leave the meeting, and only Una knows why. He starts to write a letter to Maat, warning him of what would happen. Suddenly Pike's future self from a time after the accident appears in his quarters. He says that this interference would wreck the future and produces a Klingon time crystal. The younger Pike touches it and travels seven years into the changed future. All cadets survived, no one was even hurt and he is still the captain of the Enterprise. Pike talks to Spock, who is his first officer now, and Spock confirms through a mind meld that the captain tells the truth about him traveling through time. The ship receives a distress call from Commander Al-Salah of Earth Outpost 4, which is under attack by an unidentified enemy. As the Enterprise arrives, it is too late. The outpost is gone. The USS Farragut under Captain Kirk joins the Enterprise. But Pike doesn't trust Kirk because he is afraid his brash young colleague might start an all-out war. Either inadvertently or intentionally, the Enterprise intercepts a video image from the bridge of the Bird-of-Prey, giving away that the Romulans look like Vulcans. The Enterprise and the Farragut follow the Romulans in a way to appear like an echo to the limited sensors of the enemy ship. When the Romulan ship is about to cross the tail of a comet, the two Starfleet ships prepare to intercept it with a pincer move. But the Bird-of-Prey has turned around and cripples the Farragut. The Enterprise fires back, upon which the Romulans deploy their plasma weapon. Fortunately, its range is limited and the damage on the Enterprise can be repaired. The Enterprise beams the survivors of the Farragut aboard. Among them is Commander La'an. She is surprised that Pike does not know that Una has been in a penal colony for seven years. Although Kirk and Erica Ortegas protest, Pike offers a cease-fire to the Romulan commander, who accepts. On the Bird-of-Prey, the subcommander questions the decision of his superior officer likewise, and secretly calls the fleet for support. Kirk, on the other hand, arranges for a fleet of unarmed and unmanned mining drones to face the Romulans, in the hope that they wouldn't recognize the ruse. The Romulan Praetor has her fleet fire upon the Bird-of-Prey with its unreliable commander. As the enemy armada begins to fire on the Enterprise, Kirk uses the drones as a cover. The ship jumps to warp, but only after taking heavy damage. Spock is among the seriously wounded and won't recover. The Romulans declare war on the Federation. After wrapping up the failed mission with Kirk, Pike returns to his own time. He deletes the letter he was going to send to the boy. Captain Batel beams over to the Enterprise and arrests Una Chin-Riley for being genetically modified. But Pike swears that this isn't over yet.

Commentary

I expected the worst when I saw the trailer for "A Quality of Mercy" with what seemed like a predated Romulan attack, and I was kind of relieved when this scenario turned out to be an alternate future as soon as in the teaser of the actual episode. But although Strange New Worlds spares Star Trek's continuity this week, the series continues the trend to rewrite TOS, rather than to tell its own stories. Uhura, the Khans, Spock & T'Pring, Spock & Chapel, the Gorn and now the Romulans.

Traveling to another time or timeline is usually an opportunity to show familiar characters, places and events in a different light. The marvelous "Trials and Tribble-ations" is an example of an episode that additionally builds bridges between generations in-universe and in real life. "A Quality of Mercy" lacks this appeal because SNW is a reboot to start with. Everyone and everything is much bigger, sleeker, faster, cooler. We can't tell what is re-imagined and what is "really" supposed to be different. The events set in the year 2266 follow the same pattern as in TOS: "Balance of Terror", but it doesn't give me the impression of being the same universe. It was probably meant as some kind of homage that lots of trivia such as lines of dialogue are like in the old episode, but this comes across as rather gratuitous. I particularly dislike that Erica Ortegas has the same role as the xenophobic Stiles in the TOS episode, although I admit it is the first time in the series that there is more about her grumblings than the attempt to entertain the bridge crew. Also, the wedding ceremony is more like cringe, despite or just because of the outcome being equally tragic for the couple as in the TOS episode. I don't think that shamelessly stealing from a classic to such an extent qualifies as a homage.

Overall, this all feels like SNW is trying to better an episode that was perfectly fine the way it was filmed in the 1960's. As I write this, I haven't read any reviews or fan opinions yet, but I am afraid that most of them will praise how "A Quality of Mercy" retells "Balance of Terror" and will drool over the new visuals, rather than appreciate the (few) original aspects of the story.

The fact that the whole scenario was created for Pike to reconsider his decision to change the future unfortunately gets a raw deal in the spectacle that ensues. This is a pity because I really like the idea. Although it is essentially the old trope of someone traveling to the past to alter history, the story comes with an intriguing change of perspective. And it gives the stupid notion that Pike's fate is cast in stone only because he touched that crystal in DIS: "Through the Valley of Shadows" a new meaning. Pike is still the master of his destiny but thanks to the Klingon crystals he just knows too much about what would and what could happen. I can't tell whether that was the intention all along (the DIS episode is almost four years old after all), but kudos to the people who came up with this more enlightening sequel! This aspect of the story leaves me quite content. And the scene in which Pike learns that the boy is a future cadet who wouldn't survive gives me goosebumps!

Well, perhaps I shouldn't praise the story before it is finished. In the end, it all boils down to Pike saving Spock because the Vulcan is the much more important person and still has things to do - "fate-of-the-galaxy type things". As already in DIS: "Unification III", I don't think that Spock needs this kind of worship. Also, the inevitability of Spock getting injured in Pike's place is essentially the same bullshit all over again as in "Through the Valley of Shadows". And even if we buy into the reasoning, wouldn't it have been a sufficient motivation for Pike to change his mind to see Spock like this? Why do the stakes have to be still orders of magnitude higher?

And now for the yellow-shirted elephant in the room. It was a bad idea to have James Kirk in the story in the first place, just for an extra dose of fan service, considering that it is a different timeline and he could be anywhere else in the galaxy. Additionally, I am sorry to say that Paul Wesley is not James Kirk for me. He may have wanted to give his own interpretation of the character, without delving into imitating mannerisms. But the result is a little charismatic, even boring character. Anson Mount as Pike owns all the common scenes with him. In a way, Mount plays both roles of Pike and Kirk in one person - not merely because he is the captain of the Enterprise but because he comes across as much stronger. As I watch and listen, it is like Pike-Kirk (Mount) speaking to some bland captain of the week (Wesley).

I also don't understand why Kirk is given such an undeserved bad rap in "A Quality of Mercy". What he says throughout the episode makes sense and is well in line with TOS (where Kirk was generally more considerate than many seem to remember). If there is something objectionable about him, it is his querulousness. He almost seems to be in a competition with Ortegas who would complain more. Anyway, Kirk never gives me the impression of a loose cannon. So why is he framed as someone who should not be trusted? Pike has doubts about Kirk after speaking with him for just a minute. And Sam Kirk corroborates the notion that his brother is difficult to keep in check. While this serves the purpose to establish a contrast between the two captains, it should rather have been accomplished by showing it instead of talking about it.

Considering that Kirk's ways are repeatedly criticized in the course of the episode, it is astonishing how we might draw the conclusion is that a show of strength would have saved the day in "A Quality of Mercy". However, I think the contrast between what happened in TOS and what happens in SNW gets overdramatized for the sake of the plot. Kirk did not try to get the Romulan commander to agree to a cease-fire, but he followed the rules of engagement after the Federation was attacked without provocation. Pike, on the other hand, does not really exhibit a weakness that would invite the Romulans to start an all-out war. Like with the inevitability of Pike ending up in the wheelchair for the greater good, there is a dichotomy to the Neutral Zone incident that realistically shouldn't exist.

The crew of the Romulan Bird-of-Prey was obviously changed to mirror the situation on the Enterprise. There is now a young subcommander, who relates to his commander like Kirk to Pike. Most notably, both young officers call for support that their superiors would not have wanted. Although I like the idea, it is also quite formulaic.

It doesn't come as a surprise at all when Una Chin-Riley is arrested for being genetically modified at the end of the episode. I see this twist much like a reward for attentive viewers, who caught the hint that, seven years later, she would have had spent almost seven years in a penal colony. This development is consequential in the context of the series, considering what was established about the legal situation in "Ghosts of Illyria". Also, it skillfully involves Captain Batel, which gives rise to an additional conflict. But most importantly, it opens opportunities for an original storyline in season 2, one that hopefully has nothing to do with anything that did or would happen in TOS.

With the exception of Una Chin-Riley, almost all character arcs are concluded by the end of the season, just as I predicted. Pike makes his peace with the future. Check. Uhura decides to remain in Starfleet. Check. M'Benga says goodbye to his daughter. Check. La'an finds a new purpose and becomes more relaxed (at least, she will be seven years in the future). Check. Hemmer turns out to be a nice person. Check. Ortegas makes non-humorous remarks. Check. That leaves Spock and Chapel, whose character developments are less predictable and overall more interesting, as anti-canon as it may be.

The season 1 finale of Strange New Worlds turns out better than I anticipated after seeing the trailer. Although this time the series finds an excuse to remake TOS, I think seeing much the same story as in "Balance of Terror" with much better effects and with a new Kirk is little interesting and overall gratuitous. The way that Pike's destiny is dealt with is far more captivating (except for the Spock thing), as are other original aspects of the story. SNW should focus on its own strengths instead of trying to remake TOS all the time. Unfortunately, with characters such as Spock and Chapel this is part of the series premise. As this can't be changed easily, it is all the more important to tell stories that explore strange new worlds.

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Rating: 4

 


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