I distinctly remember thinking to myself once I saw “Memento Mori” for the first time that “Wow, Strange New Worlds really nailed it with their version of ‘Balance of Terror’!” Though I didn’t know how literal that thought was going to become by the end of the season, “Memento Mori” is an excellent addition to the Submarine Combat category of Star Trek episodes, and it’s easily the best episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds thus far.
When I rewatched it in preparation for Season Two (and for writing up these posts), I had honestly forgotten just how much happens in this single episode. I’ve already mentioned how the primary story brings to mind “Balance of Terror” with Enterprise locked in a struggle with multiple Gorn vessels. But we also get a B-plot with Hemmer (Bruce Horak) and Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) that brought to mind Geordi and Dr. Crusher trapped in the cargo bay in “Disaster.” One thing I have enjoyed throughout the first four episodes is how Uhura rotates through the various departments and is able to show off her proficiency in pretty much all aspects of the ship’s operations, and we get to see her further her relationship with Hemmer that began during the dinner scene in “Children of the Comet.”
But first and foremost, this is La’an’s (Christina Chong) story.
Throughout the season so far, we have had bits and pieces of La’an’s backstory revealed to us: we know she was once held captive on a Gorn breeding planet; she was rescued by Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn); and she is probably related to Khan Noonian-Singh, though she isn’t an Augment herself. In this episode, many of these pieces come together.
We first hear, through La’an’s log entry, that Enterprise is set to deliver an air filter and other supplies to the colony of Finnibus III (yet another great TOS-sounding name). It is also “Remembrance Day” and it’s clear that she has no interest in wearing her pin commemorating the SS Puget Sound1Given that La’an was taken from the SS Puget Sound at a relatively young age and subjected to the horrors of the Gorn (some of which we won’t see until Episode 9), it’s not a surprise to me that she doesn’t want to wear that pin.. Una presses her on this, but it’s clear that La’an prefers to focus on what’s ahead rather than dwell on the past, even if it might provide a bit of closure to her. Nor does she have any desire to seek counseling on the matter.
Upon arrival at Finnibus III, there is no response to hails, and when the crew goes down to investigate, they find a massacre. The overhead shot of the colony is up there with some of the more graphic moments in season one of Star Trek: Discovery. It’s meant to be shocking, and it absolutely works.
Meanwhile, Enterprise has found a cargo ship in orbit carrying what is left of the colonists. I will confess that I didn’t see it coming where the ship they are on is shielded, so Enterprise must create a docking bridge to get the colonists off, which in turn makes them vulnerable to an attack from the Gorn. Christina Chong plays La’an’s slow realization of who is responsible so well as she asks a young girl, Fig, what she saw down on the planet and then realizes that there is nothing she or anyone can do to prevent the attack that is about to come.
The result is utterly chaotic and bloody—and brilliantly captured by director Dan Liu, showing a lack of coherence and stability that puts you right in the moment. Una, who is injured more than she is letting on, send La’an up to the bridge. Meanwhile, Hemmer and Uhura are trapped in the cargo bay as Pike and the bridge crew struggle to respond to what the Gorn have done. Pike instinctually orders the ship to pursue the attacking ship, but La’an talks him down, explaining that this is how the Gorn fight: by wearing the other side down and then moving in for the kill.
Pike’s solution is to take Enterprise into a nearby brown dwarf, a scenario that combines the Mutara Nebula from STAR TREK II and the crushing ocean depths that accompany the best submarine films. To survive within the gas cloud, the ship will need to power down many of their systems including shields…but so will the Gorn (“Sauce for the goose,” as Spock will later say).
Aye, aye. Full impulse. To a giant gas cloud…of death. Why not?Erica Ortegas
When it rains…
Unfortunately the final shots from the Gorn before Enterprise can escape into the gas cloud have done significant damage (and kicked off our B- and C-plots). Damage has been sustained in both the main cargo bay and sickbay. Hemmer has had his hand crushed by a cargo pod, the door is blocked, and the air filtration unit’s coolant system is now offline, threatening an explosion that would destroy the entire ship. Over in sickbay, the systems are offline meaning that all Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) can do is triage and stabilize the injured and supplies are dwindling. Phasers are also offline, and there is only one functioning photon torpedo.
Things are bleak, and La’an certainly conveys that impression to Spock (Ethan Peck), Ortegas (Melissa Navia), and Pike. Her speech about the folly of Starfleet believing that any enemy can be talked to and how, “some things in this universe are just plain evil,” reminds me a lot of our first encounter with the Borg in “Q Who?” Intentionally or not, this is further driven home when Pike reminds La’an in private after the meeting that her position as acting first officer requires her to give those in her command a sense of hope:
Belief can be the difference between victory and defeat. Get a crew to believe in miracles, and they might just give you one.Christopher Pike
This is almost exactly the reverse of a piece of advice Guinan gave to Picard in “The Best of Both Worlds” where she says, “If a person is convinced he will die today, he’ll probably find a way to make it happen.” Again, I don’t know if this was intentionally done on the part of Perez and DeMayo, but it’s an interesting juxtaposition either way.
Back down in the cargo bay, Uhura must stand in for an injured Hemmer, as he is unable to use his hands to keep the air filter from exploding (“I’m not fond of teams,” grumbles Hemmer). This kicks off a wonderful character dynamic between the two characters—one that I sorely wish had been used more than what we ended up seeing, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Meanwhile, Spock has managed to work around the loss of primary sinse-oars by developing a jury-rigged radar/sonar system that allows them to use Coriolis motions within the brown dwarf to detect the Gorn ship, complete with a TOS-callback sound effect (bravo to this choice). Also brilliant is Pike’s decision to use the gravity of the brown dwarf to drop their last photon torpedo onto the Gorn ship (since the cloud would affect its navigation). While this succeeds in destroying the vessel, Spock’s radar quickly shows two more ships…and one giant mothership are also out there—and now they know where Enterprise is.
Pike’s decision to attempt to escape by flying Enterprise deeper into the brown dwarf calls to mind all those classic submarine films where the boat sinks to near crush depth, and it absolutely works. The creaking and moaning we hear totally sells the idea that they are in danger of being crushed, as do the scenes shot in the lower decks, especially a scene that also borrows from the grand submarine tradition where Chief Kyle (André Dae Kim) barely escapes before the compartment door is sealed behind him.
The C-plot in sickbay is also well done, if relatively brief. Una ends up being injured more than she initially let on, and with sickbay out of power, Dr. M’Benga and Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) must rely on some “archeological medicine.” They also need to rely on blood for a transfusion, but supplies are running out. Una refuses to take the last unit of blood available, insisting instead that Dr. M’Benga give it to another crewmember just as she’s being sedated. When she awakens, she realizes that she has indeed received blood—directly from Dr. M’Benga. This is a nice continuation of the trust they put in each other at the end of last week’s episode, and the look that they exchange says everything.
The theme of healing also plays a role in the resolution of the main story. With the Gorn still nearby, the nearby black hole is beginning to pull enough material away from the brown dwarf that Enterprise is at risk of being exposed. Since there are no periscopes on board, Spock and La’an set off in a shuttle craft to check on what the Gorn are up to. When they see the two Gorn ships flashing lights to each other as a means of communication (yet another submarine parallel!), it triggers a memory for La’an—one that she is struggling to place.
Her solution is to have Spock perform a mind meld on her in an attempt to fully retrieve the memory. This scene is filmed well and performed well by Christina Chong and Ethan Peck, particularly Chong playing both her adult and younger selves. I’m not sure I entirely buy the technique being able to surface the exact right memory for the situation nor the fact that she retained a detailed record of the Gorn code such that she could fake a message. But the overall strength of the episode makes it easy to overlook any niggling issues.
I’m also very glad that the writers chose to present Spock’s mind meld as a plot solution and not a psychological solution for La’an. While she’s able to focus on a memory she was trying to remember, the experience doesn’t appear to lower any barriers for her or release the stress she has kept inside all this time. To accomplish either of those things would have been lazy writing, and I’m glad they didn’t fall into that trap.
La’an’s forged message convinces the mothership to destroy the other, smaller Gorn vessel, but Enterprise is running out of brown dwarf and time. Using a bit of physics, Pike decides to use the gravitational red shift produced by the nearby black hole to his advantage—by dropping the air filter out of the cargo bay and having it explode in such a way that it looks like Enterprise has been destroyed.
Naturally it all works, despite some drama over whether Hemmer and Uhura survive the maneuver. La’an being La’an, she immediately turns her attention to what happens the next time Enterprise encounters the Gorn. But she also allows herself to relax just a little knowing that they survived and decides to wear her SS Puget Sound pin after all. There is still much about her past trauma that needs to heal, but the process has started.
Personal log, stardate: 3177.9. Today, the Enterprise encountered the Gorn. Seven of the crew gave their lives. But…we survived.La’an Noonian-Singh
Moment(s) of Melumad
The subject matter of this episode gives Nami Melumad a chance to move into a much more tense type of scoring. The investigation of the colony lends itself to the kind of dissonant strings and brass that would be at home in a horror film.
Later, as the Gorn approach, the are given a harsh brass motif that calls to mind similar motifs used by Fred Steiner and Gerald Fried in The Original Series or several scores by James Horner.
- I feel like I gave the Hemmer/Uhura story short shrift here. Needless to say I loved all of their interactions. We see a softer side to Hemmer, particularly when we hear about the pacifism of the Aenar people. Uhura continues to impress as well, and I very much like the sentiment expressed by Hemmer where he says his purpose is to “fix that which is broken.”
- The design of the Gorn ship is fantastic and unusual. It reminds me a little of the Borg ship in “Decent” in its complete amorphic asymmetry.
- The theme of Pike’s instinct for mercy continues here—his immediate decision is to bring the survivors aboard Enterprise even though it leaves both ships vulnerable.
- It’s not something that’s likely to be noticed on a first watch, but it’s a nice bit of continuity that we see the ensign at the communications station again next week getting in trouble for playing Enterprise Bingo.
- I will never not be happy hearing Ethan Peck say “SINSE-oars.”
- It ended up saving the day, but maybe Starfleet should make an air filter that’s not also an atomic bomb.
- Jumping ahead, but it’s a good thing none of these colonists got spit on…