In Episode 7 of Strange New Worlds, a familiar source of Star Trek fun (pirates! mutiny! hijacking!) also serves as the staging ground for questions of identity. Is either/or the only way to work through the labels in our lives?
One of my biggest issues with J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek (2009) was its abysmal treatment of Spock’s core struggle with his human and Vulcan halves. Oh, he still had that tension in the movie! But Abrams also had Spock casually shacking up with a human (Uhura!) while loathing the human side of himself. Did this make any narrative sense? Absolutely not. Was it extra annoying with respect to how it diminished Uhura? You betcha. And was the whole relationship thrown in to alleviate Kirk and Spock being so close on screen without at least one of them overtly showing that he liked women? I would bet my bottom dollar on it.
Strange New Worlds, on the other hand, has taken Spock’s identity crisis seriously, and although I wasn’t entirely pleased with the stark divide drawn between humans and Vulcans with respect to logic in Episode 5, “Spock Amok”, Episode 7 plants itself squarely in that crisis, and offers a tremendously nuanced look at identity strife in general.
And it does so while also offering a goofy tale of ne’er-do-well human smugglers, in a tradition for Star Trek that goes right back to “Mudd’s Women”, Episode 3 of The Original Series. (A groaner with lousy gender politics. No need to be a completionist!) This most recent hour of Trek is quite silly at times, filled with highly dramatic performances and double-crosses, but also offers a startling amount of nuance and heart. Let’s dig in.
Establishing the stakes (Spoiler-free zone)
The episode opens and centers on Spock’s relationship with T’Pring, who is trying to understand and connect more with his human half while going about her work at the Vulcan criminal rehabilitation center. Spock is not comfortable talking about this side of him, though, so he seeks the counsel of Nurse Chapel, a friend whose genuine love for him makes her a better friend. (Not some sulky saboteur, as our toxic culture would like us to believe is the only possible outcome for people with unrequited feelings.)
The two are on the way to the Captain’s Table, a ritual gathering of crew and special guests. Here, we meet Dr. Aspen, a sleek and stylish “they” who runs aid missions at the edge of Federation space, and is currently worried about the plight of a few stranded colonist ships. After being teased a bit for his Starfleet nickname, the “Boy Scout”, Captain Pike notes that this sector is a bit like the Wild West, and Number One (Una) notes that an unaffiliated vessel, The Serene Squall, a pirate ship, has been sighted in the region.
When the Enterprise reaches the colonists’ co-ordinates, there’s nothing but wreckage, and strong signs that the colonists must have been taken captive, to be sold as slaves beyond Federation space. Our Boy Scout decides to leave Federation space to follow a distress call without explicit Starfleet approval, and very soon the Enterprise, out in uncharted territory, falls into trap after trap. In the first one, Spock has to make a gut decision, which deepens the complexity of his human/Vulcan misgivings. Dr. Aspen has experience with Vulcans, though, and they offer counsel about how to reframe this whole mental problem.
Nevertheless, the ship is soon boarded by pirates, while an away mission finds itself taken prisoner on The Serene Squall, where Pike is threatened with the death of his crew if he doesn’t hand over the Enterprise‘s command codes. Dr. Aspen and Spock have evaded capture in one part of the ship, Chapel in another, and now comes the work of retaking the Enterprise. What are a good Boy Scout and a Vulcan acting on gut feelings to do?
Challenging expectations (Spoiler zone)
There’s more than meets the eye with Dr. Aspen, of course, and at a critical moment, when Spock and Chapel have rerouted ship’s controls to engineering, Aspen turns on the pair and takes control of the Enterprise. Their whole character switches, with Aspen delighting in Spock’s clear hurt at having been betrayed. Aspen points out, too, the absurdity of thinking that logic ever really existed outside of emotion. Did a sob story about colonists in distress not drive every decision made on the Enterprise that day?
But Aspen has even bigger designs: to use Spock as a hostage, to get T’Pring to release a criminal at the center who also happens to be the man Aspen loves. If T’Pring agrees to the exchange, she will lose her reputation and career, but Aspen is dead certain that, for all Vulcans’ appeals to hard logic, the fiancée will choose her beloved fiancé’s live in the end.
At the last minute (and apologizing in advance to Chapel for what he’s about to do), Spock announces to T’Pring that he’s having an affair, and the two very convincingly kiss in front of the view screen. T’Pring breaks their betrothal, which gets her out of a conflict of interest with respect to handing over the criminal in her care. Aspen is furious, and goes to a mad enough extreme that she calls for the Vulcan ship (with her beloved?) to be destroyed.
Luckily, though, the sideplot on the pirate ship reunites in the nick of time. There, Pike noticed that the leader of the pirates was serving slop to his crew, and offered Remy a proper meal, which the crew entreated him to accept. The cutesy Boy Scout move worked out well enough that Pike could observe crew dynamics, identify weaknesses, and pull an “Alpha Braga IV” maneuver: namely, incite the crew to mutiny with a few choice words from the prisoners’ cage. The Enterprise away mission quickly gains control of The Serene Squall, while Aspen uses a personal transporter to bolt away to a secret vessel.
When the Enterprise crew is reunited, only a few repairs remain. T’Pring tells Spock that she never doubted his performance of an affair was a ruse, and also acknowledges that his human side can be a strength, because it clearly helped him pull off the fake kiss with Chapel. They renew their vows, while Chapel and Spock have an ache of a conversation where Chapel explains how much she knows there are no feelings between them, because Vulcans are honest, and true to their vows. They part as they ever were: very good friends.
Only one thread remains unresolved: the matter of the criminal Aspen wanted released. And here’s where we learn that Spock has another sibling, a half-brother he was warned to steer clear of. A Vulcan who refused to partake in the emotion-purging ritual of their people. His name is Sybok, and we clearly haven’t seen the last of him on this show.
Humanist narrative structure?
If I were reviewing this episode for pure fun-factor, it would get top marks, but the pirate-ship sideplot was a bit lackluster on the humanist side of things, because it relied on the assumption that smugglers are gullible fools. Without the smug Starfleet conviction that our valiant heroes could easily instigate a mutiny with a few choice words, the whole pirate crew pitched into disarray at the drop of a hat, the plot could not advance. That’s a pretty lazy and classist way of thinking about different forms of intelligence in the cosmos.
I also don’t know whether to tip my hat or roll my eyes at the costuming for this episode, which was exceptionally Star Wars-y in its depiction of sleek, slender Aspen in a skin-tight black suit for most of the episode, in contrast to Chapel’s usual pristine white uniform. Talk about your classic Good Angel, Bad Angel scenario on Spock’s shoulders!
But the episode absolutely gets it right when it places so much sage counsel about identity in its main antagonist’s mouth. This is, of course, a very fictional way to go about raising important ideas (real-life villains rarely give dramatic closing speeches, or offer counseling services on their way out the door), but it also firmly reinforces a key concept in the episode: that we are none of us fully either/or. That a “bad guy” can also speak the truth.
‘The Serene Squall’: the thematic payoff
This concept is present right in the episode title, because “The Serene Squall” is itself a clear contradiction of terms. But while Spock is center-stage with his identity crisis, it bears noting that the writers cleverly offered a parallel journey through Pike’s sideplot, too.
Pike was surprised to learn that he was considered the “Boy Scout” (it’s even in his Starfleet file!), and certainly seemed to be resisting that label when he ventured out of Federation space without approval or backup, landing the Enterprise in hot water astonishingly fast. But when he was on the pirate ship itself, he leaned into his strengths, whipping out that Cooking Merit Badge to charm the crew and buy him time to foment insurrection. So did he live up to the label, in the end? Not exactly. Better to say that Boy-Scouting gets him out of situations that the rest of his character gets him into in the first place.
Likewise, in an excellent early exchange between Spock and Aspen, the struggle between “being human” and “being Vulcan” is illustrated for the false dichotomy that it is. Biology, geography, upbringing: these are all highly contextual constructs. In a later speech, Aspen then doubles down by noting that it’s not what you are, but who you are that counts.
The distinction might feel pedantic, but it’s significant: it’s the difference between the static and the active in our lives. And the fact that this insight comes from a character who, like all the queer characters on Strange New Worlds, just effortlessly is, without needing to belabor their pronouns or spell out their orientation? Makes the lesson all the more powerful.
Whatever struggle exists within us, around the labels most important to us, maybe it’s time to stop treating ourselves as one thing or another, and lean into the “Yes, and!” in all our fleeting, precious lives. Three out of four happy humans, then, for an episode that crafted its pirates as fools so that everyone else could play out far more nuanced inner lives.
Quotes of note, and Easter eggs
- Ortegas remains my favorite character: so little screentime, but so many good lines! When Pike asks her to take the Enterprise closer, she replies, “How close do you wanna get? First date, or third date?” (Pike: “Blind date.” Ortegas: “Copy. Proceeding with caution.”)
- One cringeworthy, but also common part of the Trek universe is the prioritization of twentieth- and early twenty-first-century media, as if nothing more interesting is going to come around in the next century or so. This episode’s invocation of three such books made me wince, because I cannot believe that T’Pring would choose Henry Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer, Eric Jong’s Fear of Flying, and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts to deepen her understanding of human sexuality in the twenty-third century. It’s on par with a lot of The Next Generation‘s hyperfixation on nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, though, so… not without precedent! Just, not usually so overt.
- The foregrounding T’Pring’s work, on the third moon of Omicron Lyrae, is quite special. The idea of restorative justice for violent criminals doesn’t come up enough in Star Trek, and even Star Trek: Discovery has some pretty heavyhanded ways of treating transgression. But even though T’Pring and Spock’s relationship is canonically doomed, the way SNW gives screentime to T’Pring’s efforts to rehabilitate offenders makes it clear that she remains a fully realized person doing tremendous good in a difficult world. I hope this side of the series’ universe pays off.
- We’ve actually heard of Spock’s half-brother before. At least, if you watched Star Trek V: The Final Frontier! In rejecting logic, Sybok became a V’tosh ka’tur, which is just a fancy way of saying that he’s a person “without logic”. Even that’s a bit reductive, though, because it simply means that he refused to purge himself of feeling through the Kolinahr ritual. Some Enterprise episodes explore the concept further, but essentially, the V’tosh ka’tur believe they’ve found a balance between logic and emotion that works.
- Oh, Nurse Chapel. Jess Bush’s performance was stellar, and she and Ethan Peck have terrific on-screen chemistry. While she’s done an excellent job being a good friend, there’s something more than a little crushing about how much she reveals (and that Spock doesn’t quite understand) in a closing speech where she explains, “Like I said earlier, I like Vulcans. I know where I stand with you. You’re an honest man. You’re not the guy who would chase after another woman while you have a girlfriend. So, I know, for certain. There’s no feelings between us.” He takes her at her word, but oh, that last line is still a lie. Not sure how the show plans to sustain this painful thread in the long run!
- Another funny moment: When Pike’s returned to the prison cage and Dr. M’Benga runs tests on his injuries, Pike announces, “More good news! I convinced these guys to sell us to the Klingons!”, and with perfect comedic timing, a politely smiling Ortegas asks M’Benga if he’s sure the med-scanner isn’t broken, and M’Benga rushes to check it out. Good chemistry all around on this fantastic crew!
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
Season 1, Episode 7: “The Serene Squall”
Episode 6 | Episode 8