In Episode 9 of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, a plotline strongly reminiscent of late '70s and early '80s sci-fi horror slips far more than an alien or four into our hearts.
The first season of Strange New Worlds started with Captain Pike grappling with foreknowledge of a terrible fate that awaits him in Star Trek canon. Meanwhile, Spock this season has struggled with a relationship that The Original Series tells us is doomed. In both cases, SNW made the road to these futures feel uncertain in the moment, just through the strength of its scripting and character performances. The same is no less true for Cadet Uhura, who in Episode 9, “All Those Who Wander”, finds herself at the end of her first stint aboard the Enterprise with nothing but questions about where she wants to be and what she wants to do.
We know that she’s going to become Lieutenant Uhura of Captain Kirk’s crew, but how? That’s the challenge of this penultimate episode: to present a storyline that explains how our young, brilliant linguist finds her sense of home.
The way SNW goes about this task, though, is exceptional. On the surface, our plot also brings us another encounter with the Gorn, the violent species that uses human bodies as hosts for its young. And it does so by invoking all the greatest classic SF of the late ’70s through early ’90s. But there are real stakes here, and this series has already made it abundantly clear that it does not shy away from killing characters.
So strap in, kids. This is one heck of an hour’s TV.
Establishing the stakes (Spoiler-free zone)
We open with Cadet Uhura’s personal log, before a party at the Captain’s Table to celebrate the end of her and another cadet’s first rotation on the Enterprise. Ensign Duke also receives the new title of Lieutenant, and Uhura tells Ortegas that she hates goodbyes, but she’s still not sure what she wants to do with her life.
The ship is already on a priority one mission to deliver vital resources to a population in dire need, but a new priority one mission surprises everyone. This one, Pike reveals to his team around a waffle breakfast in his quarters. Starfleet has lost contact with the USS Peregrine, which sent a distress call before being downed on a Class L planet, Valeo Beta V: a frigid world where anyone who descends to its surface will be out of communications range.
The crew decides to split up, with Captain Pike taking Cadets Uhura and Chia for one last road trip in the “station wagon”, along with Lieutenants Duke and (Sam) Kirk, Spock, Nurse Chapel and Dr. M’Benga (ill-advised to take both, if you ask me), Chief of Engineering Hemmer, and Chief of Security La’an, fresh from therapy to recover from her childhood as prey in a Gorn nursery.
On the surface of this frigid world, mysteries turn sinister with blood trails everywhere, and a bitter storm is approaching fast. The Peregrine‘s crew is dead, but in such strange groupings as to make causation unclear, until a ship’s recording reveals that the Gorn have been here. Two life signs remain in the abandoned starship, and when the crew investigate they find a bedraggled human girl, and a giant blue alien of a species the Federation has never encountered before.
Is this how our young linguist is going to find her usefulness and way home?
Challenging expectations (Spoiler zone)
Hah. No, that would be too easy. Welcome, instead, to Alien, Star Trek style!
Just as in our last episode with the Gorn, suspense and the delayed reveal of our “monster” play a significant role in building a high-stakes adventure, and the death count is real. M’Benga’s sensors are unable to detect the Gorn eggs in our strange blue alien friend, so while the girl runs and hides, and Chapel barely escapes behind a forcefield, four Gorn burst from its cavity. Two immediately attack each other, killing one, and the rest scatter to cause mayhem. Cadet Chia? Bam. Out. Lieutenant Duke? Also down in a snap, much to Lieutenant Kirk’s fury, which he takes out on Spock for failing to show any emotion at his friend’s death.
In the process, one of the remaining three Gorn is killed, leaving two hatchlings rapidly growing, and becoming more dangerous, as Hemmer discovers when blasted with acidic venom, while he and Uhura were bonding in the shuttle bay.
This isn’t a team species, though: the last two Gorn will fight each other to establish an Alpha, while reacting to any aggression around them. And this is a weakness that the Enterprise away team is ready to exploit, along with the fact that the Gorn hate the cold. With La’an’s careful instruction to treat the Gorn as highly intelligent, a plot is formed to corral the remaining two into a space where they can be frozen solid. The only problem? The team needs bait: themselves.
Everyone plays their role to nudge the Gorn into the shuttle bay. Uhura’s fast on her feet while Kirk is ready to close off corridors behind their prey. La’an knows what she’s doing, and pauses the plan only when the two Gorn hatchlings find each other and battle to the death. (One left!) Only Spock, in trying to provoke one with Vulcan calm, fails to capture its interest. Told that he needs to be angry, he releases his long-treasured Vulcan hold on his emotions, and gets results.
Everything seems to be going smoothly, right until La’an reaches the shuttle bay and hops into a secure pod beside Hemmer’s. Hemmer flips a switch, blasts the Gorn into an icicle, and… ta da! Mission accomplished, right? Well, no. La’an and Hemmer both know what needs to happen before the rest of the crew catches up: Hemmer’s wound isn’t just venom. It’s also more hatchlings. M’Benga wants to promise a cure, but there’s no time to explore options. With one more beautiful speech to Uhura, his dear last friend, Hemmer walks out to the rim of the shuttle bay, takes in a world that reminds him of his home, and falls off the edge into a deep cliff.
In hindsight, too, Hemmer’s death makes perfect sense. We need to get Scotty on this crew at some point, after all! But it’s a testament to SNW‘s depth of characterization, that Hemmer felt so much a part of the Enterprise that one could easily forget the larger canon to which he belongs. At the funeral, led beautifully by Lieutenant Ortegas, Spock finds he cannot regain control of his emotions and heads out to punch a bulkhead. Chapel notices him leave and tries to be present with him as a friend. In his anger, which he hasn’t been able to contain once loosed, he almost hurts her. When she tries to help him understand that feeling isn’t bad, just human, a heartbreakingly intimate hug ensues, followed by him hastening away.
Has the groundwork been laid for a closing episode with Spock’s half-brother, who has long since chosen the way of feeling over Vulcan norms? Possibly, but some other key details leave the season’s closer wide open. La’an, for instance, receives permission from Pike to go on a deeper fact-finding mission with the girl they rescued, to hunt for her family and further traces of the Gorn. And although Uhura is at the end of her time as a cadet, she visits the bridge with one last very significant look at the communications station. Her future, as per TOS canon, awaits after all.
Humanist narrative structure?
This episode was so good at presenting red herrings, while also setting us up to expect reversals. The whole waffle-breakfast-briefing-room shtick wasn’t just an opportunity to show off Pike’s cooking, but also a trial run for a whole episode that offers its spin on classic sci-fi tropes. And when the show gave us two very obvious “redshirts” in Cadet Chia and Lieutenant Duke? To say nothing of a late-season role for Sam Kirk, who’s been injured before on away missions? That was also a sneaky way of letting us believe we already knew everyone who was going to die.
Critically, too, this episode doesn’t skimp on character arcs. M’Benga’s recent loss of his daughter shows up in his protectiveness of the girl they find on the ship. La’an’s struggle with her childhood finds a clarity of purpose in her mission here. Hemmer lives his philosophy of pacifism as a radical pursuit to its fullest. And Spock’s inability to manage the anger he looses, and the danger it poses for Chapel, significantly escalates that slice of this season’s struggle between his Vulcan and human sides.
It’s an episode of high stakes SF horror with a genuinely terrifying baddy at its heart. And yet, like the very best of such classic cinema? “All Those Who Wander” remembers that there can be no real tension if we’re not invested in our characters first. The balance struck here is both entertaining and rich in humanist insight.
‘All Those Who Wander’: the thematic payoff
But the real stroke of humanist genius? That lies with introducing a big blue alien who speaks a language the Universal Translator can’t translate, in the middle of a story framed by our famed linguist’s struggle to decide her future career. A lesser episode, and a lesser series, would have made this one fluke encounter with a new alien the crux of Uhura’s transformation. It would also have sent the message that Uhura’s usefulness is what matters when determining her place. That she should go where she can be successful, the hero, and wherever her skills will win the day.
That is not the lesson here. Instead, Uhura is given an opportunity to embrace that home is nothing more than a choice to lean into healthy community and relationships wherever they arise. Her linguistics skills are secondary. Her willingness to connect with other people in general will give her what she wants. If she’s ready for it. If she’s ready to risk the pain and the inevitability of future loss that comes from truly being present for, and with, the people she loves. And that’s a radical concept in our world, where there’s so much pressure on so many human beings to “earn” a sense of belonging, safety, and care. Uhura was given a gift, in the crew of the Enterprise, of a healthy place to lean into: good relationships with wonderful people.
Would that our own world could always offer the same. Maybe then there would come a rest to more people’s wandering, and a healing of the deep loneliness that so many of us carry within. But until that better day, four happy humans to an episode that reminds us that not all who wander are lost: just waiting for a place they can truly lean into, and maybe even call their home.
Quotes of note, and Easter eggs
- There is so much cool stuff in this episode, great lines and fantastic throw-backs, but I have to begin by saying that the episode title is… a bit of a misstep. While sci-fi horror shapes most of this episode’s references, “[Not] all those who wander [are lost]” is most strongly associated with The Lord of the Rings. The reference makes sense in relation to Uhura’s storyline, but I wish they’d found something closer to the tone of the episode as a whole.
- On the other hand, the Captain’s Table as this ship’s situation room? Genius. Pike’s version of a briefing room is way more fun than The Next Generation‘s. Where were the fondue or tapas parties in the latter? Why didn’t everyone slurp tea together in Picard’s ready room? Missed opportunity!
- Did Lieutenant Duke and Sam Kirk give off a frat-boy vibe to anyone else? Kirk essentially played the “Game over, man! Game over!” role in this episode, but he is… really not a pleasant character so far. Not at all sure if this is something that can or will be overcome in Season Two.
- Hemmer’s talks with Uhura were the thematic gems of this episode. In the first, Uhura claims that she’s finally ready to face her future alone, and Hemmer points out that her problem is the opposite. “Real fear is putting down roots. … It is better to leave than to be the one left behind. But that’s wrong. You create bonds. It’s a gift. Of course the people you care about are going to cause you pain. It will hurt. But the love it yields will far outweigh the sorrow.” And in the second speech, near the end? “Open yourself. Make a home for yourself among others, and you will find joy more often than sadness.“
- Although Ortegas’s speech this episode was tenderly funny, the laugh-out-loud moment for me came from La’an and Uhura, when the away team first encountered the big blue alien. When initial attempts to communicate failed, Pike asked, “What’s he saying?” and La’an observed, “Universal translator isn’t processing it. Uhura, do something.” And just… the look on Uhura’s incredulous face when she replied, “That’s not how linguistics works!”
- I counted references to… Alien (chest-bursters), Aliens (Newt!), Alien 3 (herding plot in the corridors), The Thing (shapeshifting DNA, frigid location), Predator (the Gorn’s sound, and heat imaging), and maybe even a little Gremlins (from how the offspring skittered about the lab). Any others come to mind while watching?