Warning: This Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 1, episode 2 review contains major spoilers – many of them set to stun. Boldly go further at your own risk…
Lower Decks aside, you don’t usually tune into Star Trek for the jokes. That’s not to say the franchise is always deadly serious, of course – over its decades-long history, there have been plenty of memorable one-liners and some very silly trips to the holodeck. It’s more that the laughs have traditionally been a supporting player to all that boldly going and seeking out new civilisations.
Two episodes in, however, and Strange New Worlds is already hinting at a shift in the balance of power. This show is seriously funny, delivering gags at a rate that would be the envy of many comedies – add a laughter track and this would be sitcom-level funny – while making the human race’s ability to find humour in the most difficult situations a key plot point.
This second instalment also wholeheartedly embraces some long-standing Trek clichés, while still managing to feel fresh and new. As in last week’s pilot, the Prime Directive/non-interference plot could have been pilfered from an unused script from The Next Generation, but with a very different crew and 21st century storytelling sensibilities, it goes off in directions you wouldn’t necessarily have predicted. The episode also adheres to the old TNG formula of putting the spotlight on one of the crew, and this time it’s the turn of Cadet Nyota Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding).
Although the Enterprise’s long-serving communications officer has been a Trek mainstay since the original series (where she was played by the legendary Nichelle Nichols), this episode gives one of the classic line-up’s most underserved characters the sort of meaty story she’s rarely been gifted before. On one level it charts the start of her journey from naïve newbie to essential member of the crew, but there’s something more here, a desire to dig deep into her history, and how and why she ended up in Starfleet.
A dinner at the captain’s table is the perfect introduction to the rookie and her new shipmates. Putting the crew into an informal setting – rather more informal than Uhura is expecting when she turns up in full dress uniform – so early in the series proves to be a really smart move, a getting-to-know-you exercise that’s just as important for the audience as the crew. We get a first proper introduction to the ship’s engineer Hemmer (Bruce Horak), a blind Andorian with Daredevil-like extrasensory abilities, while wisecracking pilot Lt Ortegas (Melissa Navia) continues to establish herself as one of the show’s early standouts. But this demonstration of Captain Pike’s culinary skills – barbecued ribs are a speciality – is most enlightening when it comes to the wonderfully candid Uhura, who readily admits she’s “unburdened by conventional boundaries”.
We already knew she was a linguistics specialist, of course – the ability to speak 37 languages is proper best-of-the-best stuff – but Pike’s standard HR question about where she sees herself in a decade’s time is quite the eye-opener. With the benefit of the hindsight that only comes when you’re watching a prequel, hearing Uhura – a character canon tells us will be in Starfleet for several decades yet – admit she’s unsure if she’s made the right choice of career is quite the bombshell. And in the slightly contrived world of TV drama, such a revelation makes her the prime candidate for a life-changing away mission – though Strange New Worlds is smart and knowing enough to acknowledge the convenience of the timing.
But ‘Children of the Comet’ is rather more complex than your average away day. The eponymous comet is on a collision course with a planet that’s home to an intelligent pre-warp society. Warning the locals that Armageddon is nigh would clearly violate the Prime Directive (rebranded from General Order One last week), but when early plans to change the troublesome rock’s course with photon torpedoes are unexpectedly scuppered – “Anyone want to tell me how a comet puts up a forcefield?” Pike asks sardonically – the captain beams Spock, La’an, Uhura and Samuel Kirk over to investigate.
Aside from the moustache, it’s not yet clear why Pike was so keen to get James T’s big brother on board the Enterprise last week. The older Kirk (who died in original series episode ‘Operation – Annihilate!’) may be a highly rated xenoanthropologist, but the fact he wears a blue uniform doesn’t make him immune to the sort of patronising, fools-rush-in behaviour that’s got a lot of redshirts killed in the past. Indeed, if only he’d listened to the more cautious Spock, he wouldn’t have spent most of the episode floored by a near-fatal electric shock that awakens the alien machine inside the comet, and leaves the away team isolated from the ship.
As if it wasn’t already clear that this is no ordinary comet, an alien spaceship with the ability to both outrun and outgun the Enterprise soon appears in orbit. Calling themselves the “shepherds” – the best translation the Universal Translator can give – they claim the comet is actually an “ancient arbiter of life”, a sentient entity that roams the galaxy, shaping the fate of entire star systems. Crucially, these shepherds are not in the mood for negotiation, and see any attempt to interfere in the comet’s divine path as an act of war. Talk about being trapped between a (giant lump of space) rock and a hard place…
Whatever happens above them, the away team are doomed unless they can persuade the comet to lower its forcefield – a development that depends on an incredibly nervous Uhura deciphering the symbols on the walls of the cave that could easily become their tomb. As she channels Close Encounters of the Third Kind to crack the musical code – delivering some impressive a cappella in the process – the adventure also proves to be a learning experience for Spock, who’s yet to grow into the Vulcan we knew in the original series.
Ethan Peck wisely avoids any temptation to imitate the incomparable Leonard Nimoy with a very different take on the half-Vulcan, half-human science officer, and his efforts to understand his human colleagues’ gallows humour make for a fun running gag – even if his pep talks need serious amounts of work. He also sports some of the best sideburns ever seen in Star Trek – precision-engineered facial hair is clearly a big deal on Pike’s Enterprise – and remains completely oblivious to Christine Chapel’s flirting. (This is something he needs to get used to, seeing as she still carries a torch for Spock in the original series.)
While much of the episode focuses on Uhura and Spock, however, Anson Mount’s Pike is clearly the star of the ensemble. Whether he’s telling his crew to “break the laws of physics if you have to”, or agreeing with Uhura’s point that Spock likes to remind people of deadlines, his ability to deliver a line with Indiana Jones-like levels of cool makes a mockery of the fact he was chosen to play the silent Black Bolt in the short-lived Inhumans. And as he did last week, Pike finds a way to bend the rules to come out on top of a seemingly no-win scenario – the fact the crew’s elegant solution involves a spectacular piece of starship aerobatics through an asteroid field is simply a bonus.
There’s also some hope that Pike may ultimately come to terms with the nightmare vision he witnessed on the Klingon moon of Boreth. “Just because you receive a message from the future doesn’t mean you understand it,” first officer Number One/Una (Rebecca Romijn) points out, and for the briefest of moments you can pretend his grisly fate isn’t already sealed in Trek mythology. This incarnation of Pike is well on the way to legendary status, and we want him to remain on the Enterprise bridge as long as humanly possible.
New episodes of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds beam onto Paramount Plus (in the US) and Crave (Canada) on Thursdays. A UK airdate is TBC – though Paramount Plus launches in the UK on June 22.
4.5 out of 5
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds episode 2 review: “This incarnation of Pike is well on the way to legendary status”
Cramming an impressive amount of plot into its lean 52-minute running time, ‘Children of the Comet’ plays out like a self-contained mini-movie. With its clever riffs on quintessential franchise themes, excellent gags and a crew that’s already coalescing into a memorable unit, this is old-school Star Trek storytelling at its best.