In this mission statement of a season opener, Strange New Worlds confronts what is broken within our worlds, and what needs to be healed in ourselves to face the challenges as they come.
Last year, Strange New Worlds offered a breath of fresh air in a sea of Star Trek-themed shows that demonstrated little patience with the original groundwork of the franchise. From Discovery‘s relentless reinvention of its world to serve the lead character’s journey, to Lower Decks‘ erasure of a post-scarcity economy to give us a crew acting like it exists in today’s late-stage capitalism instead, to Picard‘s melodramatic patchwork of nostalgia in lieu of coherent and steady plotting… it’s been a rough ride for the universe.
Did anyone writing for the franchise actually like grappling with serious moral and ethical dilemmas in The Federation anymore?
But SNW emerged not only with solid episodic storytelling, but also writing and acting that made the world feel lived in from the start. It committed to its premise, of following the years in which Captain Pike commands the Enterprise, while enriching its cast with hidden facets of the deeper history of Star Trek: The Original Series. These included Doctor Joseph M’Benga: played by Booker Bradshaw in TOS S2E16, a Black doctor on screen in 1968, and now played by Babs Olusanmokun; Number One: the female second in command played by Majel Barrett in the original pilot, now played by Rebecca Romijn; and Erica Ortegas, based on a navigator in the original script named Ortegas, now played by the effortlessly quick-witted Melissa Navia.
SNW also developed certain TOS enemies, like the Gorn, to much more formidable threats, and grew our understanding of Vulcan culture while retaining aspects key to the iconic character of Mr. Spock, our half-human struggling between two worlds, played here by Ethan Peck. It also faced up directly to the main issue with Captain Pike, played by Anson Mount, by making him as abundantly aware as any Trekkie that his character will eventually come to a terrible end. The question is not whether that end can be avoided: Pike decided last season to focus on doing what he could with the time he had, especially since his date with destiny surely meant that he had to survive any crises in the interim.
Last season, I reviewed this show in light of the humanist questions its episodes raised, because SNW actually takes ethical quandaries seriously, in a manner similar to TOS, TNG, and DS9. Moreover, it treats the crew as a genuine ensemble cast where everyone’s vantage point is held in balance, as opposed to the celebrity-officer approach found in other NuTrek series.
This return to form also offers us chewier dilemmas as we go forward, though, because paying attention to the traditional Star Trek universe means confronting major flaws in The Federation and Starfleet. We’ve always known that the Prime Directive is a very flimsy rule in practice, but a key limit to Federation tolerance in TOS arises around the subject of genetic augmentation. This was in the 1960s, too! Long before our own questions around embryonic research, stem cell therapy, and other CRISPR-involved genetic modifications.
In TOS, there is a strict ban on genetically modified humans, which made a lot of sense considering its production era, under the recent shadow of the Holocaust, where eugenics made itself most brutally manifest. But this Federation ban created its own marginalization, and paved the way for a great injustice: Captain Kirk sending a genetically modified super-people to the wrong planet for exile. Although he had meant to offer them a better life than that in a penal colony, no effort was made to check in on these people, and after they suffered on the wrong world for years, the stage was set for the retributive events of The Wrath of Khan.
In Deep Space Nine, too, this ban persists, causing serious problems for Doctor Julian Bashir when his backstory is revealed. Why is the Federation so rigid in this one way? How can a culture of exploration, which welcomes people from most every background, possibly keep punishing some for being genetically modified?
This is one of a few questions about the Star Trek universe that, from the Season 1 closer, we knew SNW would be tackling head on. Then, Number One was taken into custody for having concealed that she is Illyrian, a genetically modified species. We also knew that there would be bigger war issues afoot, when La’an Noonien Singh left the ship to help a survivor of the Gorn return to her family. And we knew that Spock’s personal struggle between both halves of his world, including the deep feelings he and Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) share while he is betrothed to T’Pring, had come to a breaking point with the rage he released to fend off a Gorn attack.
So how did Season 2 open?
On the surface, by giving us a fast-paced and intense episode that involves breaking many codes of conduct to save lives. But underneath that surface? More than anything, this is a season opener for everyone who followed Season 1: to let us know what issues are now considered settled among these seasoned characters, and to forge a very explicit path forward, with respect to the work this series aims to do next. This isn’t a normal episode. This is a mission statement.
Let’s dive in.
Establishing the stakes (Spoiler-free zone)
The Enterprise is at Starbase 1 for routine inspection and maintenance, and Pike informs Spock that he’ll be taking personal leave to try to help Una (Number One), incarcerated for having lied about her genetic origins. We see the crew’s love of their ship through their defensiveness with inspectors: Uhura especially (Celia Gooding), recently promoted at the end of Season 1 to her character’s iconic role on the bridge, is not about to let go of her station for a second.
But this isn’t going to be a simple day at port: Uhura detects a transmission that seems to be from La’an, requesting assistance and warning of a threat to the Federation. When Spock takes this intel to the starbase, it’s dismissed, leaving him with a choice between obeying the command structure and stealing the Enterprise. With his core crew on his side, he makes the “logical” choice, and they fake an engine problem to get the inspectors off ship.
All but one falls for it: Commander Pelia, played by the standout actress Carol Kane. Pelia slyly notes what they’re up to, but rather than rat them out, she also notes that a Vulcan Starfleet officer would only do something so drastic if he had a very good reason, and helps them set out.
(NB: This is an effortless introduction of a new Chief Engineer to take Hemmer’s place. Bruce Hornak played the Aenar Andorian wonderfully in Season 1, and there are rumors he’s been recast for another character in Season 2, but the position needs to be in flux to pave the way for a future Scotty. Kane is a fantastic fit of a Guinan-esque character for this show.)
On Cajitar IV, a planet where dilithium has been severely over-mined and greed abounds, the crew catches up with La’an, who’s been infiltrating a group of extremists from both Klingon and human backgrounds who seem intent on breaking the treaty between the Federation and the Empire. La’an isn’t sure exactly what they’re planning, but it’s something big, and the lead-up to it has already caused the return of ion radiation poisoning, a brutal side-effect of the use of photon torpedoes on terrestrial populations. Nurse Chapel and Dr. M’Benga head out to check on the sick, while La’an and the rest try to figure out what the extremists are doing.
In a potent reversal, though, it’s Chapel and M’Benga who stumble on the truth, when picked up at the med-tent and hauled off to treat the sick among the extremists. In a deep mining cave, they see the Starfleet vessel that has been built underground: a prop that the extremists have placed on the edge of Empire space, to sacrifice in an attack on a Klingon vessel that will surely destroy the peace. But how are the medical officers going to inform the rest of the crew in time?
Challenging expectations (Spoiler zone)
When I say that the scripts in SNW reflect characters that are fully lived in, I mean it. In a few comments between our nurse, our doctor, and a patient, we learn that M’Benga has been through war trauma before, that Chapel is acutely aware of the toll this trauma has taken on him, and that they are no strangers to working in sync under all kinds of duress. What follows is a sequence in which M’Benga and Chapel take an enhancement he always carries with him for emergencies, and the two, in their amped up state, wrestle Klingons all the way up to a transponder module inside the fake vessel, where they can send a message to the Enterprise.
Meanwhile, aboard the Enterprise, the crew eventually witnesses the launch of this fake Starfleet vessel, and Spock, knowing that Chapel is probably aboard it, still has to destroy it before it reaches its target, a Klingon battle cruiser. After waiting as long as he can, he issues the order. The ship is destroyed. The peace holds. Seconds after the explosion, a beacon reaches the Enterprise and they transport two people who propelled themselves unprotected into the void just in time. Spock rushes to be present when Chapel arrives, on death’s door from exposure.
After smoothing matters over with the Klingons, everyone drinks blood wine, and the Enterprise heads home. Spock is let off with a reprimand, but only because command has been keeping a secret: they’re bracing for a massive war with the Gorn, so even though Spock’s choice was risky, it saved them a war on two fronts.
Humanist narrative structure?
The way a story is told does a lot of work to mitigate any suspension of disbelief issues it might contain. I mean, we’re dealing with faster-than-light technologies, and all kinds of hand-wavy space-magic solutions in Star Trek all the time. What allows science fiction to get away with some of the more ridiculous extremes is the human elements they serve.
In this case, on the surface, the idea of Chapel and M’Benga jacking themselves up with a serum that gives them superhuman strength to plow through a long line of Klingon combatants is ridiculous. And if it were being played straight, as a simple gimmick to keep the plot moving forward, it wouldn’t work at all.
But what’s actually happening here is coded in those earlier comments between Chapel and M’Benga, wherein Chapel expresses care and concern for M’Benga as he faces trauma he has seen before, and has to make the choice to commit himself fully to the violence that war-doctoring has compelled from him in the past. There’s no quirky “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a widowmaker” one-liner here: M’Benga is visibly struggling with his pain at seeing crimes against humanity, and is willing to lay down his life to stop history from repeating itself.
As such, the fighting sequence here has more of a “descent into hell” feel to it than anything. The two medical officers have taken an oath to save lives, and in this case the best way to do that is to participate in violence to reach the transponder, and thereafter to risk dying with the ship if they can’t find a way off. The cinematography reflects the haunted feeling of consciously throwing oneself into a horrible path of action: there is nothing glorious or triumphant about their battle to stop another full-on humanitarian nightmare from getting off the ground.
‘The Broken Circle’: the thematic payoff
When I said that this season opener is a mission statement, I was referring to how little wrestling over decisions actually exists in the plot, while decision-making is still of the utmost importance to the episode as a whole. When Spock decides to disobey orders and deceive Starfleet, that is a big choice, and it is made quickly, but with great seriousness. So too is Chapel and M’Benga’s choice to engage in traumatizing violence to stave off further disaster. And of course, biggest of all is Spock’s choice to tell his crew to fire on a vessel carrying someone he clearly loves.
But that’s where SNW shines, because the relative speed of these decisions does not at all undermine their gravity. Rather, in “The Broken Circle”, we are given a series of situations in which there is no time to waver; where the most responsible and ethical thing to do is to act with expediency, even when it means accepting the risk of moral compromise, or exceptional personal loss. What is right cannot always be decided over a boardroom conversation, or in a public debate. The greatest ethical dilemmas in our lives can come upon us quite suddenly, and if we are to survive the attendant trauma, we have to make of ourselves the kind of people who already know ourselves well enough to respond seriously and swiftly to crises as they arise.
The topics addressed in this episode do not exist in a vacuum, either. M’Benga’s pain, at seeing extremists so cavalierly push to start another armed conflict and humanitarian nightmare to jack up mining profits, is our pain. We are at war not only with other nation-states (e.g. Russia), but whole private militias that always stand to benefit from the collapse of global peace. We are also being crushed by petroleum companies choosing profit over human lives.
The circle of faith in human fraternity, in a shared desire to live and grow in peace together, is so easily broken by a few bad actors.
Who will we be when—not if—they bring the threat of further violence to our doors?
Quotes of note, and Easter eggs
- Another sinister note for the Federation (though not surprising, considering its extremist stance on genetic modification) is how difficult a time Una seems to be having in finding good representation for her case. This is part of why Pike leaves to help her, but it does not bode well for the moral resilience of a civilization, if even public defenders don’t want to touch a case involving genetic modification. I have no idea how this show is going to solve this issue within the parameters of traditional Star Trek, but I’m curious to find out!
- “After explicitly ordering you not to go, you risked hundred of lives and you risked peace in the quadrant!“
“If you could lower the volume of your voice, Admiral?“
“My God, are you hungover, Spock?“
“The result of a peace treaty with the Klingon captain.“
- There is always a good comic-relief moment to be found in bridge banter with Ortegas, and this episode’s comes when Ortegas asks Spock, in the captain’s chair, what his catchphrase before going to warp is going to be:
- O: Are you gonna say it? Your thing?
- S: My what?
- O: Your thing. You know. Everyone in the chair has their thing.
- U: Captain Pike always says “Hit it”.
- N: My last captain liked to say “Zoom”.
- S: Must I have a thing? Do you have a thing?
- O: I’ve been workshopping “Vamos!” But it’s supposed to be about you. What kind of commander are you? So! No presh.
- S: …
- I would like the ship to go… NOW!