In Episode 8 of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, storytelling is how humans cope with change and seek better endings.
Classic Trek series always left room for play, and sometimes did so quite literally, with beloved characters play-acting in completely different roles for many episodes. Holodeck episodes in The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager allowed crew members to play-act consciously. Q-continuum, time-travel, and mirror-universe episodes invited a range of unwilling, unintended, and naturalized character reversals. And the occasional role-swap via aliens? Well, those both brought us some of the best (“The Inner Light”, TNG S5E25) and the weirdest (“Masks”, TNG S7E17) episodes in the Star Trek universe.
In part, this kind of scripting attests to a different era not only in television but also visual media in general: a time when people were more frequent theater-goers, and stage-training still strongly informed the selection of actors for TV and film (along with the ways scripts were written). A famed stage-actor would routinely switch out roles, so why shouldn’t a gig on TV allow them to show range, too? More recent shows don’t engage as often in this sort of play, so Strange New Worlds took a real risk in giving us an episode that embodies that earlier Star Trek spirit.
Or did it? SNW has been so good at establishing characters and their relationships with one another, that it’s not at all too early for us to delight in some role-reversal for our beloved crew. (We’re already “in” on the joke of their different performances.) Also, for all the campiness of a play-acting episode, “The Elysian Kingdom” still bears the mark of more recent TV series, because even its play has a more serious point. It’s an episode where the narrative structure serves a specific character arc, and although the connection might prove a bit too pat by the end, it nonetheless raises an important point about how many humans move through tragedy into healing.
Establishing the stakes (Spoiler-free zone)
We start with Dr. M’Benga, informing us in a personal log that the crew is in the middle of a routine survey mission in an unexplored nebula. Meanwhile, he’s still struggling to find a cure for his daughter’s illness, which is reaching a point of no return despite how much time he keeps her in a transporter pattern buffer. Whenever she’s out, he reads her the same story, over and over, and she’s grown impatient with the ending. She wants something better. M’Benga promises that one day she can write her own stories. Number One (Una) finds him toiling away at a TV-version of what a chemistry lab might look like (it’s pretty hokey), and orders him to rest.
Rest doesn’t last long, though, because on the bridge Captain Pike has tempted fate by telling Mr. Spock how fantastic it is to have a mission where nothing serious happens. Sure enough, when they soon after try to leave the system, warp drive won’t function, and a failed attempt to use impulse thrusters knocks Lieutenant Ortegas unconscious. M’Benga is called to the bridge, but something comes over him in the lift. When the doors open, the ship is still intact… but he and all the crew are dressed as characters in the fairytale he’s read a hundred times to his daughter.
M’Benga is at first the only one who hasn’t forgotten who he is, even though he’s addressed as King Ridley. Pike has become a simpering coward of a chamberlain, Ortegas is a knight (still as quick-witted as ever but now with a sword and a thirst to use it), Chief of Security La’an is an annoyingly precious princess with a lap dog, Spock is a double-crossing dark wizard, Nurse Chapel is more folksy mystic than healer, and… well, some surprises await with the rest of the crew.
There is another officer who wasn’t affected, though, and when M’Benga realizes this, he has to use his knowledge of the fairytale’s plot to coax the rest of the crew to help him find his only useful ally, and figure out how to reverse what’s happened to everyone on the Enterprise—before anyone gets seriously injured as they “play”.
Challenging expectations (Spoiler zone)
The other unaffected crewmate is Chief Engineer Hemmer, who benefited from being Aenar, a blind species with other heightened senses. Hemmer was able to sense a consciousness trying to enter his mind, and repel it, whereas the rest of the crew had no chance. Hemmer’s a cute choice for this role, too, because his alien background means that he has no preceding association with the tropes of human storytelling involved in this adventure. Nevertheless, he really gets into his character as a wizard (“the magic… of science!”) once he figures out how the game is played.
Una plays the forest huntress, while Cadet Uhura ends up smashingly decked out as the story’s main nemesis, an evil queen. The original story has both sides vying for a weapon called the Mercury Stone, but as M’Benga and Hemmer put their heads together, they realize they’re dealing with a spontaneously generated space consciousness (see: Easter eggs for Trek episode commonalities) that has drawn this fairytale from someone’s head. But whose? M’Benga realizes it must be his daughter’s when the Huntress and the Knight make it enthusiastically clear that they’ve been shacking up for a while. In the real story, the two never meet, but his daughter always thought that they’d make a great team to help the king.
The rest of the pieces fall quickly into place: Rukiya is the Mercury Stone, and when M’Benga finds her, he learns that she and the nebular consciousness have become fast, fierce friends. The consciousness has healed her disease completely, but the “magic” of that cure will not extend outside the nebula. M’Benga must choose between the crew’s return to normal and ongoing life with his daughter, in this state of play forever. He checks in with his daughter’s wishes, then with a heavy heart lets the consciousness take her to play forever together in the nebula.
As a final act of grace, seconds later she returns to him as an adult (time passes differently for beings outside of bodies) and assures him that she and “Deborah” (the name she gave the consciousness, after her late mother) are very happy. She entreats him to go on with his life and be happy now, too.
A tall order, when the rest of the crew wakes with no memory of the last five hours. But Una, visiting sickbay after the ordeal, discovers that the good doctor knows what happened. She sits beside him, ready to listen to the story that M’Benga now has to learn to tell as well as the one he’s been reading to his daughter for ages. The story where he, not some fairytale king, must make the most painful choice of all.
Humanist narrative structure?
This episode sets up where it’s going from the outset, during a prolonged storytime scene between M’Benga and his daughter. This eases the audience into a plot where we get to pay attention to all the role-reversals in process: Pike going from brave to cowardly, La’an turned from serious to frivolous, Una and Ortegas as a badass fighting team but also relentlessly quarreling couple (and good friends Ortegas and Pike hateful of each other, too), Uhura resplendently tyrannical, Spock duplicitous, Nurse Chapel a gentle medium instead of her usual spunky self.
All of these work because we’ve seen the original characters so well established. And so, even though this episode isn’t really about anyone but M’Benga and his daughter, this storytelling structure still advances our understanding of the rest of the crew, by giving us clear studies of their nature by stark contrast.
(Well, except for Hemmer. He’s definitely an engineering wizard in both realms!)
There’s also… a delicate balance struck by this episode, which managed to create a happy ending out of the blue for M’Benga’s dying daughter. I think we do have to take the story at face value, and accept the extraordinary last-minute intervention.
Other elements in this piece invite another reading. A sadder reading, perhaps, but also one in which the power of storytelling comes pressingly to bear on the plot. After all, M’Benga was exhausted when he was called to the bridge. Not in a clear state of mind, because he was trying so hard to heal his daughter. And when the adventure ends, the rest of the crew has no recollection of the previous five hours. Even more curiously, M’Benga didn’t immediately step forward to report his memory of these events. Una only discovers his personal account by accident.
So while the story offers details suggesting that something extraordinary did happen, well… [SPOILER] we’re also left with one man’s testimony, the main resolution is very convenient, and the name of the episode even invokes a land of the dead! Such a narrative framing leaves open the delicate possibility that M’Benga’s daughter died after all, and that this is the story he’s now telling himself about his loss. A story where she gets to go somewhere and play forever, safe and secure in the love of something that reminds her of her late mother. [/SPOILER]
Does it matter what the truth is?
Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Even buried beneath so much goofy play, the role of storytelling in our lives leaps out as this episode’s most pressing concern.
‘The Elysian Kingdom’: the thematic payoff
Folklore takes many forms in our lives, as OnlySky‘s resident folklore-specialist Jeana Jorgensen will be the first to tell you. And yet, as many here at OnlySky will also tell you, there is a complicated push-pull between constructive narrative play and too credulous a dive into fantastical stories that feel too good to be true.
Are we allowed to imagine stories with happy endings, and still be solidly empirical and pragmatic experiencers of the cosmos? Tough question, when the world offers so precious few of them. What, then, are we to make of a Star Trek episode that pulls all the strings to offer an ending that, while wrenchingly bittersweet, is also highly “Elysian”, offering nearly the best of all possible worlds? And that asks only that we “go along” with the fairytale, long after the episode’s main play-acting has concluded?
Star Trek has a long history of both aspiring to utopia and also highlighting that utopia is always an aspirational project, never one of true arrival. The ultimate reveal of the entity behind this fantasy playground was therefore a touch too pat and convenient for me, even with the note of ambiguity sewn into the episode’s closer. I still give “The Elysian Kingdom” a solid three happy humans, though, because I admire the sheer ambition of an episode striking out to make a campy adventure of a distinctly Classic Trek register… while also asking us to think about the role of fantastical storytelling in all the deepest hardships of our lives.
Quotes of note, and Easter eggs
- The one story note that bothers me is M’Benga’s insistence on reading Rukiya the same story every night. Usually, it’s the child begging for repetitive storytelling, but not here. It’s necessary for the plot that this tale be the centerpiece of their relationship, but it still strikes me as unusual that M’Benga wouldn’t want to give his child every new experience possible, to make the most of the time they have.
- [SPOILER] The whole nebular consciousness shtick is Classic Trek, too. And you can even tell that there’s an homage in process when M’Benga and Hemmer are debating the plausible science behind the phenomenon (invoking the Boltzmann brain thought experiment, of a mind without a body), and the Huntress (Una) points out that this being in the nebula sounds like a god. Good point, Una! In “Who Mourns for Adonais?” (TOS S2E2), Kirk’s crew comes into contact with the aliens who visited Earth as the gods of Olympus, and deals with a petulant Apollo longing for new worshipers. In “Where Silence Has Lease” (TNG, also S2E2: coincidence, or express parallel?), Picard meets a god-like power in the void that holds the Enterprise captive and runs tests on its crew. And this is on top of Q, the Prophets/Wormhole aliens of DS9, the “Caretaker” of Voyager, the whole plot of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, along with a handful of other god-like entities across franchises. Suffice it to say, Star Trek has always dabbled in the question of how to interact with near-omnipotent forces, and almost always from a strongly secular subject position. [/SPOILER]
- I will be the first to admit that I have lost all objectivity when it comes to Ortegas. Ethan Peck (Spock) looked very nice in his wizard get-up, but Melissa Navia’s Ortegas is my jam on every level, and always there for comic relief. There’s also just such a difference between the way SNW presents queerness and the way it was awkwardly done on Discovery. A lot of queer people, myself included, don’t want a future where people still have to stress about coming out. We want to imagine a world where loving who we love, and being who we are, is a naturalized part of everyday life. And with Ortegas, along with Nurse Chapel, last week’s Dr. Aspen, and now maybe Una too, that reality is nicely fleshed out. (Could do with seeing some queer men on crew, mind you.)
- Spock’s definitely learning to strike that Vulcan/human balance (a subtle but excellent sign of character growth). When Pike celebrates their quiet mission, Spock notes, “Captain, you have repeatedly told me that humans have a superstition against calling attention to good things by saying them out loud.” And Pike replies, “Why Mr. Spock. I never took you for the superstitious type.” But moments later, when the ship gets stuck, Spock wastes no time in teasing: “Scans indicate minor sicatron flux emanating from inside the nebula. Perhaps that has affected our warp capabilities. Or… perhaps you did indeed ‘jinx it’.”
- Amusingly, the pup from La’an’s fairytale persona, a cloyingly sweet and over-the-top princess, is the actress’s actual dog. That explains its tolerance while her character makes it give little puppy-claps of applause!
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
Season 1, Episode 8: “The Elysian Kingdom”
Episode 7 | Episode 9