A cliffhanger season finale of Strange New Worlds challenges a few forms of hegemony, and asks us how fear serves in our lives.
I’ll admit, it’s been tough to wrap up this season of Strange New Worlds, knowing that the ongoing writers and actors’ strikes all but guarantee a long delay before Season 3. Season 2 also ends on a cliffhanger, which makes not only the wait but also the write-up a bit more challenging. However, what really had me dragging my feet with talking about “Hegemony” was a changing view of the episode over the last few days. When I first watched it last Thursday, I let the wave of action thrill and delight. Since then, I’ve been sitting with all the set-up, and wondering if it did enough. I suppose time alone will tell.
Granted, there is a wonderful new character in this episode, whose presence affirms that SNW is moving closer to The Original Series canon, and might even be creating space for the series to transition into a reboot. Lots of room for speculation! But as we close off this season of SNW reviews, we’ll try to focus on the series as it currently stands, on its own merits and goofs.
This was certainly a challenging season, not least for the actor who plays Erica Ortegas, who lost her partner suddenly before filming, and struggled to inhabit the cheerful role to the extent that she did. On-screen, the series also had a significant tightrope to walk, with respect to teasing possible divergences from TOS canon while playing with familiar elements. We had, of course, Spock and Nurse Chapel’s growing relationship, and La’an’s romance with James T. Kirk in an alternate universe, and Captain Pike’s struggle with intimacy in his relationship with Captain Batel, knowing full well that a difficult destiny awaits him.
Considering how relentlessly horny the original Enterprise crew was, it’s no surprise that this latest Trek spin-off has continued the long tradition of workplace romance in Starfleet. Perhaps more surprising is that the series this season also focused on celebrating Uhura’s skills and establishing her comfort in being solo, effectively retconning some of TOS‘s flirtations between Uhura and Spock to develop a much more grounded and comfortably platonic camaraderie. Good.
We also gained an interpretation of Kirk that better accommodates his original charm without being anywhere near as creepy as the Kirk of, say, “Miri” (TOS S1E08), where he expressly flirts with a teenager identified as having the mind of a child, and where Spock like a typical “bro” wingmans by dismissing Yeoman Janice Rand’s concerns with a reminder that this child is technically older than them all.
(Ugh. It’s not all gold in them thar classics.)
Under-utilized in this season, though, was Carol Kane as Commander Pelia, Chief of Engineering. Aside from a few throwaway quips, she’s served essentially as a placeholder for our inevitable heir to the engines. Sam Kirk, James’ brother, also showed up a touch more, but centrally as a person with baggage or as an extra in group scenes. Despite having an excellent field of study for Star Trek episodes, xenobiology, he doesn’t get to shine as an expert in his own right. And despite an excellent set-up for Spock with his own brother last season, Sybok didn’t merit even a mention amid Spock’s crises with his humanity this season.
This is in part because the writers made a conscious choice to aim for stylistic variation: every episode given its own tone, while working within Star Trek‘s overarching parameters. We had a trial episode, a semi-animated crossover episode with Lower Decks, a full-on musical episode, a renegotiation of classic TOS lore, a goofy time-travel episode in Toronto, and stories dealing with loss and war. I strongly suspect that this structural choice was taken expressly to showcase SNW ‘s range, because executive producer Chris Fisher has stated that he wants the series to be given longer seasons (See: Easter eggs).
This struggle between meta-narrative and diegetic storytelling is also at the heart of the current WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Although creators by and large pour their hearts into their productions, we’re a long way from the days when Roddenberry was given a second chance (thanks to significant string-pulling, and funding from Lucille Ball) to produce a pilot for TOS. Now, many shows struggle to make an impact with short seasons produced through corner-cutting that affects staff livelihoods, just to be cancelled and have the content removed from streaming services ASAP, to cut down on paying residuals (royalties) to the creative team.
Unlike many series, though, SNW has a high probability of getting its Season 3, so its narrative choices are definitely going to have to have pay out in the next opener.
What might that payout look like? Well, some aspects of “Hegemony” were certainly predictable. For instance, we knew we were going to meet the Gorn again, after they’d been teased to us all season. But in what light? Last season, they came to us in a form inspired by the Alien franchise, and used to advance the idea that sometimes an opponent cannot be turned into a friend: only survived.
We knew, too, that Captain Batel of the USS Cayuga was going to be involved, because having her tell love-interest Pike that she was being sent on a Priority One mission as good as offered her up as redshirt-bait.
And since the themes of loss and war have permeated throughout this season, from Doctor M’Benga’s descent into violence in “The Broken Circle” to war-crime fallout in “Under the Cloak of War”, we also knew they would return with our closer.
The question is: would they bring any deeper lessons with them?
Establishing the stakes (Spoiler-free zone)
The USS Cayuga is helping out on Parnassus Beta, a colony world just outside Federation space. This escapist homestead is styled to look like the 20th century Midwest, but at least its residents understand the value of vaccination, which Nurse Chapel provides while she hitches a ride on her way to a fellowship with Dr. Korby. After finishing up, she transports back to the ship, while Captain Batel looks on in horror at a sudden, terrifying arrival in the sky: the Gorn.
On the USS Enterprise, Uhura gets the distress call, and Captain Pike orders the ship to head out for rescue, while also reporting the crisis to Admiral April. April presents some unsurprising news: the Federation is not on great terms with the Gorn Hegemony, so outside Federation space Starfleet ships cannot risk a confrontation that might spark total war, even to protect human life.
April wants to be sure that Pike’s relationship with Batel won’t interfere with his decisions, but the more striking exchange involves Pike arguing that sometimes a monster is just a monster (referring to the Gorn). This is a reversal of Pike’s views in Season 1, when he and La’an were discussing the species. Here it’s April who notes that we use “monster” to describe what we don’t yet understand.
(This will be important in the Season 3 opener, I’m sure, but we’re not there yet.)
The crew zips off on its rescue mission, only to be stunned by the sight of the Cayuga in pieces in orbit around the planet. With the wrecked saucer spinning before them, the crew struggles not to fear the worst. There’s an interference field blocking transporters, scans, and communications, so the crew has to come up with workarounds. Number One, Una, asks the crew to imagine what they would do under Starfleet protocols in such a crisis, and they start looking for more rudimentary attempts to communicate.
The Gorn haven’t cleared out, though, and after a hunter ship sends a message with a strong demarcation line through the system that blocks the Enterprise from the planet and wreckage, Pike knows full well what he’s risking by pursuing further search-and-rescue. Tough pips. He’s going in anyway.
Bringing out a slew of new tech developed since their last run-in with the Gorn, Pike assembles a rescue party with sensors that can actually pick up Gorn signals, and weapons with better offensive capabilities. (And armor! A rarity in Star Trek!) La’an Noonien-Singh, who has more experience with the Gorn than anyone else, our combat-savvy Dr. M’Benga, and Sam Kirk (who wants to redeem himself after a poor showing with the Gorn last time) aim for the surface.
Oh, and who helps them get there in one piece? Why, our dear pilot Erica Ortegas, of course. Denied an away mission once because she needed to help the Enterprise navigate a debris field, she’s now the perfect candidate to help the shuttle navigate… another debris field, from the Cayuga‘s wreckage, to slip past the Gorn undetected. Because the species focuses more on light and energy signals, so long as the rescue party looks like wreckage it should be able to reach the surface intact.
Which it does! And there, with Gorn younglings scouring the territory for sustenance, the search for Pike’s beloved amid the ruins of the colony begin. It’s a curious hunt, though, because the Gorn younglings aren’t behaving quite as they used to. La’an notices that they’re working together, when in the past they would have torn each other to pieces in the fight for dominance.
Meanwhile, aboard the Enterprise the rest of the crew is plotting to take down the Gorn interference field, so they can beam survivors out. Once they source the counter-frequency on the planet’s surface, an idea emerges: the remaining saucer section of the Cayuga could be rigged with projectiles to simulate a naturally degrading orbit that would conveniently crash directly on the device.
Spock insists on doing this himself, as the only one aboard who can do the mental calculations necessary to place the projectiles properly. But there’s more to his volunteering than this “logic”. Ever since sighting the destroyed ship, he’s been busy attempting to find signs of life in possible pockets on that saucer section. Una tried to help him move through the hard reality that there are probably no survivors, but Spock has configured his last encounter with Chapel as a silly fight, irrelevant, and wishes to find her alive to reconcile.
So Spock sets out to send the saucer section into a collision course with the planet, and Pike’s team, noticing the same interference device from the surface, rushes toward a possible, if faint sign of human life. Is Batel alive? Is Chapel?
Challenging expectations (Spoiler zone)
Yes to both, but it’s complicated.
Chapel survived within a pocket of life support she created for herself in the wreckage of the Cayuga, and after conveniently seeing the Enterprise through the glass soon before Spock sets out with his projectiles, she sets about trying to escape the ship. There’s a Gorn adult on board, though, so her pathway out is impeded until a very convenient run-in with Spock allows the two of them to tag-team fighting the creature in a scene paying express homage to Alien in many of its shots.
The two of them eventually hang out in space suits together, with the saucer section on a collision course for the planet’s surface, and in reaching for one another’s hands affirm that their bond is still strong.
Meanwhile, Pike’s team has been busy, too. First they ran into a trap, cleverly set by a young engineer who introduced himself in the richest of Scottish brogues as Lieutenant Junior Grade Montgomery Scott. He’s been keeping himself alive since surviving an attack on the USS Stardiver one system over, and he takes the away team to the rest of the survivors, including Batel. There, in a broken-down Midwest-style diner, more info about the Gorn is swapped. It seems that their swarming instinct might have been triggered by a coronal mass ejection, which aligns with how the species communicates through light and might prove useful intel for future confrontations—if the rescue party can survive this one.
With his splendid knack for technical fixes, Scott offers a possible path to evacuation: rigging up a system that would let Gorn ships think the shuttle was one of theirs. They wouldn’t be able to get everyone out, but they could get some.
Only, Scott needs a part from his own shuttle to complete this fix, so he, Batel, and Pike head off for it, while Ortegas and M’Benga tend to the wounded, and Kirk and La’an make themselves similarly useful. In the shuttle, a Gorn youngling finds them and almost attacks, before Batel puts herself in front of it and the creature skitters off. Pike doesn’t chalk this up to freak luck and demands honesty. Uh oh. Batel has already been infected, her body carrying growing Gorn spawn.
(Irresponsible of her not to tell anyone? Oh my yes.)
Fortunately, the saucer section crashes in time to destroy the interference field and allow the Enterprise to beam out survivors. Once Pike and Batel are back aboard ship, the freshly returned Nurse Chapel is instructed by Pike to do everything she can to help Batel survive… and instructed by Batel to kill her if it’s too late.
Oh, but why Chapel? Why not M’Benga?
Funny thing, that. While Scott gets to have a fun reunion with his old engineering prof, Commander Pelia, not everyone from the surface got transported back to the Enterprise. M’Benga, La’an, Ortegas, and Sam are still with the rest of the survivors… on a Gorn ship, many of which are currently converging on the region.
With an active call from Starfleet for the Enterprise to withdraw to prevent war, and so many of their people now kidnapped behind enemy lines with civilians… what’s a good Boy Scout like Captain Pike to do?
We’ll find out in a year, or maybe two.
Humanist storytelling structure?
Cliffhangers are a huge part of human storytelling, for better and for worse.
Star Trek has used them often, with the most theatrical emerging in The Next Generation, which closed Season 3 on “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I” and began Season 4 with Part II. Mind you, that cliffhanger aired on June 18, 1990, with a shocking final image of Jean-Luc Picard turned into Locutus of Borg and Riker ordering the Enterprise to fire… and picked up on September 24 of the same year. The Battle of Wolf 359 is one of the most epic events in Star Trek lore, in part because it lingered in Trekkie minds the whole summer in between.
These days, though, cliffhangers are riskier outings. When Good Omens, Season 2 closed out with its own dramatic rift between lead characters, there was no guarantee that the series would get a third season. It probably will, and creator Neil Gaiman has other ways to advance the story if not, but unfortunately many shows expressly gamble on a cliffhanger as a last-ditch appeal for studios to renew their creative outings. This isn’t a great way to pursue deeper storytelling.
Thankfully, even though SNW will take a lot more than a summer to finish what it began in “Hegemony”, the writers have sown enough seeds (chestbursters?) to suggest an interesting destination. We’ve already gotten used to seeing the Gorn as monsters; now, through details sprinkled throughout, we’re seeing the species act with more conscious efforts at collaboration. Are they… evolving?
That’s a crude way of framing it, although Star Trek has a terrible track record of discussing evolution accurately, from “Transfigurations” (TNG S3E25) to the truly wretched “Threshold” (VOY S2E15). Let’s just say that some social engineering might be in the mix, and that this would go a long way to helping the Gorn of SNW align with the slightly more reasonable Gorn of TOS.
But there’s another remarkable feat that this finale pulls off, especially after the last episode found us more or less solidifying the series’ march toward TOS canon:
It makes us care about who lives or dies, even though we know Chapel is going to survive somehow. How does it do this? Well, that’s where the episode shines.
‘Hegemony’: The thematic payoff
There are a few overwhelming givens going into this season finale. The Gorn are bad. The Federation is morally superior. And everything’s lining up for TOS canon: with Kirk, Pike, Spock, Chapel, and other members of the original Star Trek crew.
What exactly is a “hegemony”? It’s centrally used to describe the Gorn’s power structure, a state of dominance by one group over others. That accords well with what we first learned about their maturation process in Season 1, where younglings compete within their broods, Highlander-style, until only one survives.
In the real world, hegemony is a loaded term that describes any state of military or soft-power (cultural, social, economic) dominance over others in a given area. We talk a lot about Western hegemony in politics in a more generalized way, and about specific hegemonic hierarchies in past city-states and world regions.
Here, though, hegemony means something else as well. It’s also about emotional states in ascension. It’s about being dominated by fear of loss, and maybe letting emotion rule you to the point where sensible actions are thrown out the airlock.
Pike faces this sort of “hegemony” often in the episode, when trying to balance care for his partner with his obligations to the whole of Starfleet, in defence of the Federation and all its inhabitants, and human life in general. Indeed, this is the closing crisis of the cliffhanger: will he be ruled by his emotions at cost to the whole fleet? Will he be able to accept the loss of Batel, or members of his own crew?
Spock also confronts this emotional “hegemony” when both holding on to hope of life on the saucer section of the USS Cayuga and also actively setting it up for destruction, to fulfill critical mission parameters to save others.
It’s a great theme to wrestle with, and SNW does this best when it sits with the ache that exists in both characters. We might know better than Pike and Spock what’s going to happen in the long run, but they don’t know for sure (and truly, neither do we, despite our informed hunches!), so it’s the scripting and shooting of their uncertainty that brings this fear so splendidly to life in a gripping season finale.
However, SNW also pulls its punches here, and that’s a darned shame. In the season opener, Spock pulled off a grand last-minute rescue… and he does similar here, perhaps even more unrealistically. Although the series takes death seriously throughout (as was illustrated in an opening flashback to “Memento mori”, SNW‘s most somber episode), the writers also allow Spock to have it both ways: to face his fear of loss, and to be rewarded with no loss at all.
Perhaps this was preemptive salve for what’s to come. Perhaps, in Season 3, we’re going to see the crew grapple with terrible choices that don’t resolve as easily. That would certainly allow for a much deeper conversation about the dangers of letting fear “rule” over us. For now, though, I’ll hazard three happy humans for an episode that explores the ideas we let “dominate” our worldviews… and hope to heck we get a second half to this story that brings its most humanist elements safely home.
Quotes of note, and other Easter eggs
- Okay, okay, it has to be said: knowing that M’Benga and La’an are on a Gorn ship together… how much should we actually be worried for the Gorn? I would love to see a spoof Star Trek short that’s filmed in horror movie style from the frightened perspective of a hapless Gorn officer trying to survive their rampage.
- We get some fancy new tech to deal with Gorn, including nitrogen grenades. It’s a convenient infodump, but not without its humor. Pay attention to how the tech is simplified in this cute three-part exchange:
- Pike: “Ever since the Gorn started massing on the edge of Federation space, Starfleet’s been working on weapons to counter them. Now all our ships carry these, in case.”
La’an: “‘Gorn Protocols. To be distributed upon an encounter with the hostile species.’”
Ortegas: “Break in case of Gorn.”
- Pike: “Ever since the Gorn started massing on the edge of Federation space, Starfleet’s been working on weapons to counter them. Now all our ships carry these, in case.”
- But the Gorn might have the best line in this episode. When Chapel encounters one on the saucer section, it’s furiously trying to access ship’s systems. Every time the system denies it access, it growls louder. Honestly, who wouldn’t?
- SCOTTY! We have our very first actually Scottish Scotty in Martin Quinn, whose accent comes from Paisley, near Glasgow. The first Scotty, Canadian James Doohan, had more of a caricatured West Lothian with entirely the wrong intonation, while Simon Pegg’s British background gave him more of the correct sounds but still a scattershot of Hollywood Scottish-isms. Quinn also has the proper charm of a Scotty, and I look forward to seeing more of him.
- Relatedly, Pelia might actually get a proper role in Season 3 now that her pupil is back. When she sees him in this episode, she’s both surprised and not at all surprised, because he was one of her best students, even though it never showed up in his grades. (Una should hopefully be happy to hear that she wasn’t the only exemplary Starfleet officer who struggled in Pelia’s classes!)
- I know I said the series starts in a town styled after the US Midwest, but you’re actually looking at Pickering, Ontario. The set was originally used for Amazon Prime’s Reacher series, so isn’t it heartwarming to know that big media distributors can share nice things when they want to?
- That said, I’m not exactly chuffed by the weird hand waving over Earth citizens just deciding to wander off and settle outside of Federation space, to live out lives based on fetishized notions of the 20th century. It certainly happens in Star Trek canon! There’s a reason I was reminded of “Miri” (TOS S1E08), which takes place on a mirror Earth hundreds of light years from our own, in a town like something out of the mid-20th century. But could we please get a little self-reflection about what these choices say about future generations?
- Homage abounds in this episode, from the classic shots, sounds, and staging drawn from the Alien franchise, to a discussion of zombie movies that Spock files away for future research. How does SNW get away with all these callbacks? In part, the sense of play built into the series means that we’re not viewing any these references as offhand jokes. But Star Trek also has a long history of taking inspiration from preceding genre outings. One facet of the worldbuilding in TOS was the use of “Espers”, people with a high ESP quotient, which the franchise quietly phased out after the sci-fi trope became less popular. But where did it come from in the first place? Why, the work of Golden Age sci-fi writers like Alfred Bester, author of The Demolished Man (1953). There’s a huge difference between homage and throwaway reference, and SNW generally manages it well.
- I underplayed Chris Fisher’s enthusiasm about SNW. In interview, he said, “I think the show has just started. … This could be a 10-year show. Because of COVID, because of the strike, it’s taken 4 years to make 20 episodes. So hopefully, Paramount+ is smart and says, “Hey, let’s go make 20 a year. Let’s start making this show. This is gold.” From Fisher’s lips to Q’s fickle wish-fulfilling ear!
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
“Hegemony”: Season 2, Episode 10
Season 2, Episode 9 | Season 3, Episode 1