I can already tell I ranked this one too low going into this rewatch. Partly, I think this is because the season on a whole is so strong that, aside from a few at the top and maybe one or two at the bottom, the rest falls into a mushy middle of very good. And since this is the second episode, it easily got lost in the shuffle.
Another reason is that, while this is another classic Star Trek story that also focuses on Nyota Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding), part of that focus is the big problem I have with the episode: yet another tragic backstory. Just this crew alone already has Captain Pike (Anson Mount) and La’an Noonian-Singh (Christina Chong) in the “overcoming tragedy” camp (and we will learn about still others as the show continues).
The idea that Uhura ran away to Starfleet because her entire family was killed in a shuttle accident just isn’t anything that’s needed from a character or plot perspective. Uhura is a cadet trying to find her way in Starfleet. She would naturally be nervous or unsure of where she stands on the ship. Saddling her with loss only serves to a) shock the audience and b) limit what can be done with the character moving forward.
It’s a shame too, because the rest of the opening sequence of the episode is wonderful1Pike cooking dinner for his crew adds so much to his character and reinforces his less formal command style. As someone who also does the cooking at home, I very much appreciate this modern take on masculinity and leadership (it’s a far cry from Riker making bad scrambled eggs as a joke in “Time Squared”).
Seeing Pike don an apron and show care for his shipmates flips a standard, outdated gender role on its head in a way that is long overdue; it’s a much better approach than Janeway “burning” a replicated roast.. Dinner table scenes may be a nightmare in terms of the logistics of filming coverage and acting, but they are great for revealing characters. In the span of just a few minutes, we learn more about Ortegas (Melissa Navia); are introduced to Chief Engineer Hemmer (Bruce Horak); and see his interactions with Spock (Ethan Peck) and Uhura. We also see, thanks to some superb acting choices from Anson Mount, how the standard-issue “tell me where you see yourself in ten years,” question—one that he has asked countless cadets previously—now suddenly affects him. And Celia Rose Gooding does a superb job as well conveying both Uhura’s confidence when talking about learning all of the native languages of Kenya and her awkward anxiety when she’s unable to say she is committed to Starfleet.
Space Warrior Monks
The actual story this week, just like last time, is classic Star Trek. While observing a comet passing close to the planet Persephone III, Spock concludes that it will actually impact the world, which would wipe out the entire ecosystem, including a group of relatively primitive humanoids (General Order One again!). When an artificial structure is found on the comet, Pike decides to send an away team down to investigate (after a more ship-based attempt to move the comet fails because of—surprise!—a force field). Both the preparation for beaming down and the scene once the away team materializes on the comet once again give Celia Rose Gooding the opportunity to do some marvelous reactive acting—Spock and Chapel (Jess Bush) are flirting, while La’an is completely disinterested. Her combination of awe and nervousness on the comet itself prompts Sam Kirk (Dan Jeannotte) to play the role of “seasoned pro” which he does rather well. At least until he is zapped by whatever it is that’s controlling the comet.
His accident leads to the appearance of another tried-and-true Star Trek antagonist: the Alien Religious Fanatics. Calling themselves “The Shepherds,” they arrive in a massive ship much more powerful than Enterprise and accuse the crew of interfering with the comet, which they refer to as “M’hanit.” It has been their “sacred duty” for generations to follow M’hanit’s passage through the universe, and Enterprise’s interference is nothing short of blasphemy.
The Shepherd we see on screen is wholly unimpressed by Pike’s explanation that they were trying to save millions of lives—their belief is that M’hanit’s course has been preordained, and whether that means it will destroy millions of lives or bring life to planets it encounters, their role is to ensure that’s what happens. They’re also aware of the landing party, and this only increases the Shepherds’ anger2Pike’s immediate dismissal of the Shepherds as fanatics feels a little out of character for me given his actions and comments around faith from “New Eden” (Star Trek: Discovery S02E02), though it’s possible his later experience on Boreth has changed this part of him as well.
It’s also possible that the inconsistency is due to the change in showrunners from Discovery Season Two..
Meanwhile, the pressure is squarely on Uhura—because the alien structure and “egg” at the center are covered in what appears to be linguistic symbols, La’an has decided that it is really up to her to save the landing party—to figure out how to lower the shields that are preventing them from beaming out.
The way Uhura does this is fantastic as she realizes that the “comet” is responding to her absent-minded singing. I absolutely love watching her thought process at work here as she realizes what’s happening, and then proceeds to test her theory while looping Spock in as well (I can’t help but think they missed an opportunity of forcing La’an to join a-la Worf in INSURRECTION). The notion that whatever species is connected to M’hanit communicates via musical tones is fascinating and isn’t that far removed from the way Species 10-C communicates via pheromones in season four of Star Trek: Discovery.
While this does allow Enterprise to beam the landing party back, it does incur the anger of the Shepherds, who had warned Pike to not attempt to rescue them. This ultimately leads to my second issue with the story and the reason why I still rank this one slightly below last week’s: Uhura’s musical discovery provides an escape, but it doesn’t actually solve the bigger problem. That honor goes to Spock instead, and don’t get me wrong, Spock is one of my favorite characters in all of Star Trek. But it would have been great to see Uhura see the entire arc of this story through.
That said, I do like what we see on screen, with Pike moving Enterprise directly in M’hanit’s path, hoping that the Shepherds will choose to come to their aid. While I didn’t realize it at the time, this furthers our understanding of Pike’s adherence to the concept of showing mercy—something that will serve him well several times yet also prove to be a major downfall in Episode Ten.
Spock’s use of the shuttle to melt part of M’hanit so it breaks into multiple fragments is visually gorgeous, and, while as a parent I couldn’t help but recognize a bit of “child lawyering” with the technically we aren’t touching it solution, it works for me.
Meanwhile, one of the pieces of M’hanit that has broken off passes through the atmosphere of Persephone III, bringing with it rain and the potential to completely change the climate of the planet. To the Shepherds, this reinforces their belief that M’hanit could “bring life” to the planet if it chose to do so. This is met with a dose of skepticism from Pike and company…until Uhura reveals that messages from the comet prior to their intervention appear to predict both the path it would take and the exact shape of the piece that would rain down on Persephone III. Was this something that was preordained after all? In classic Trek fashion, this is never answered.
It does, however, cause Pike to again consider the implications of his vision on Boreth. Una (Rebecca Romijn) suggests that the future he saw might not be set in stone. This probably is what starts the thought process that ultimately plays out in “A Quality of Mercy” and it also inspires Pike to look up the names of the cadets for whom he will be sacrificing the life he knows in less than ten years.
Moment of Melumad
One thing (of many) Nami Melumad does well in Strange New Worlds is provide a mix of modern scoring with a flavor of the 1960s TOS style. While not quite reaching the level of wacky over-the-top music like what we often got as bumper cues in TOS (those that accompany a cut to commercial), the moment where the away team realizes they are stuck on M’hanit comes close, and is preceded by some very TOS-sounding brass lines.
- While much more in keeping with 24th Century uniform design than the 23rd with its mix of Star Trek: Picard and TNG admiral aesthetics, I really like the look of the cadet dress uniform.
- The shot of poor Sam Kirk being turned over after he’s been zapped is a great homage to the scene from “Operation—Annihilate!”
- I cannot help but hope that the inhabitants of Persephone III—the Deleb—are prepared for the mudslides that are about come.
- Speaking of the Deleb, how is it that we know what they call themselves?
- Ethan Peck’s laugh is uncannily similar to Leonard Nimoy’s
- Captain Pike’s apparent taste for brown liquor (one that I share) calls to mind Commander/Admiral Adama (Battlestar Galactica).
- One thing that I ding both this and the previous episode for is their underuse of Number One (Una). That changes with the next episode.
Henry Alonso Myers & Sarah Tarkoff