Warning: This Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 1, episode 7 review contains major spoilers – many of them set to stun. Boldly go further at your own risk…
His mother famously hailed from Earth, but Spock has always been happiest when embracing the Vulcan side of the family tree. Over his decades on the Enterprise bridge, he’s often been found purging himself of human “weaknesses” like emotions, but this entertaining episode eloquently explores the idea that he shouldn’t have to make that choice – and that maybe it’s time to accept that simply being Mr. Spock is enough.
Seeing as he’s been a lead character in the original series/movies, J.J. Abrams’ reboot, and now Strange New Worlds – as well as turning up as a special guest star in The Next Generation – you could be forgiven for thinking the franchise has already explored every facet of its most famous character. ‘The Serene Squall’ suggests we still haven’t reached peak Spock, however, as his efforts to reconcile conflicting aspects of his dual heritage dovetail neatly with this week’s mission into non-Federation space.
In a break with Strange New Worlds tradition, the scene-setting log entry comes from a non-crew member, as T’Pring takes a break from her duties at the Ankeshtan K’til rehabilitation center – based on the third moon of Omicron Lyrae, in case you’re wondering. Using a phrase we never thought we’d hear uttered by Vulcan lips, she talks of her plans to “spice things up” in her long-distance relationship with Spock, and her exploration of 20th-century erotic fiction leaves her fiancé looking hilariously flustered. “She appears more eager to explore my humanity than I am,” he tells his confidante/in-house relationship guru Nurse Chapel, Ethan Peck once again showing his deftness playing the lighter side of Spock. The decision not to imitate the legendary Leonard Nimoy in his performance continues to pay dividends – and makes canonical sense, considering this is a younger, less fully formed version of the Spock who’ll later serve alongside Captain Kirk.
While his science officer is distracted by matters of the heart, Captain Pike has some missing colonists to find. Visiting aid worker Dr. Aspen says the ships lost power 26 days ago, and that – trapped in what Pike describes as “the quadrant’s version of the wild, wild west” – they’re at risk from space pirates who’ll think nothing of selling them into slavery. And so, the Enterprise’s very own “boy scout” – the description is literally in Pike’s file – decides to take the ship on a rescue mission, refusing to hang around for the two days it’ll take approval to arrive from Starfleet: “I’m not waiting to be told it’s okay to keep people off the auction block,” he points out.
A fake distress signal quickly lures the Enterprise into a “net… made of lasers” and to make matters worse, it’s shrinking rapidly. Spock shoots down the asteroid that’s the source of the trap, but he can’t get his logical mind around the fact he made a life and death decision based on a hunch.
Dr. Aspen (a nonbinary character, played by trans actor Jesse James Keitel of Big Sky and Queer as Folk fame) is clearly intrigued by Spock and his struggle to come to terms with two different sides of himself. “All species put things into boxes,” Aspen points out. “You’re either this, or you’re that – and sometimes we act a certain way to fit people’s expectations, but that’s not necessarily who we are. And sometimes, like on the bridge just now, that can limit us.” It’s a positive, inclusive message that captures what Trek’s idealistic future should be about. Indeed, with the aid of canon-shaped hindsight, it’s sad to know that Spock will continue to struggle with his identity for years to come.
There’s little time for further reflection, however, because those space pirates aren’t playing games. A clever piece of transporter room sleight of hand leaves Pike, La’an, and their away team trapped on what they believe to be a colonist ship, while a bunch of heavily armed hijackers sneak on board to take over the Enterprise. Only a conveniently placed Jefferies Tube and some cleverly placed Vulcan neck pinches keep Spock, Aspen, and Chapel out of harm’s way when the rest of the crew end up banged up on the eponymous Serene Squall.
Given the efficiency of their Enterprise hijack, the pirates are a remarkably ill-disciplined bunch, seemingly more interested in embracing their over-familiar brand of Mad Max-style apocalypse chic than following any chain of command. Their leader, an Orion named Remy, is suitably impressed with Pike’s jawline – disappointingly, his efforts to rough up the captain display rather less respect for that gravity-defying quiff – but he has such a weak hold over his subordinates that Pike simply has to cook a nice meal to sow the seeds of mutiny.
But Remy was never the real brains of the operation, a fact that becomes clear as soon as Dr. Aspen lets slip that there was always more to their presence on the Enterprise than being Spock’s counselor. In fact, it turns out they’ve been playing games the whole time and the Aspen identity was just a front for the infamous Captain Angel, who – having cleverly manipulated Spock from the start – is now in a prime position to take over the Enterprise.
It’s not the most surprising of twists, but it’s made entirely worthwhile by Keitel’s wonderfully OTT performance. Angel looks totally at home in the captain’s chair, and it’s instantly clear that this is someone who leads by sheer force of charisma while taking no small amount of pleasure in their day job. They’re the character Discovery season 3 baddie Osyraa should have been before she regressed into a pantomime villain.
The solution comes in a fun twist on the hackneyed old “love conquers all” trope. After T’Pring responds to the subspace ransom note Angel’s put on her boyfriend’s head, Spock uses the medium of an extremely passionate kiss to convince everyone on the bridge that he’s having an affair with Chapel. T’Pring subsequently claims she never bought the deception for a second but – as this season has shown on several occasions – Vulcans are rather better at lying than they traditionally claim.
Pike and co. taking control of the Serene Squall – and “gently” firing at the Enterprise’s impulse engines to disable the ship – is a little too easy to be believable. Even so, that’s a small complaint in an episode that repeatedly plays to Strange New Worlds’ strengths. There’s now little doubt that this is the best Star Trek ensemble since The Next Generation, whether it’s Ortegas using dating analogies on the bridge – surely she’s due her own episode soon – or Pike acting as if it’s “International Talk Like a Pirate Day”. Special mention should also go to Jess Bush’s turn as Christine Chapel. In the original series, the character was often unfairly reduced to standing around while the men did the talking, but this new, prequel incarnation is now one of the show’s most three-dimensional characters. Her scenes with Spock are a mix of obvious chemistry, and painfully inevitable heartbreak.
The episode saves its biggest moment until last, however, when Spock realizes that Angel’s wayward Vulcan husband is actually a character with significant Trek history. While many have tried to forget the William Shatner-directed Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Spock’s half-brother, Sybok, should be familiar as the pain-absorbing mystic who took the Enterprise on a frequently mocked mission to find God. Discovery, Picard, Lower Decks, and Strange New Worlds have never been scared to mine past Trek lore, but heading back to Star Trek V really is going where no one has gone before.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is currently airing now in the US on Paramount Plus. The streaming service launches in the UK on June 22. For more, check out our guide to the Star Trek timeline.
4 out of 5
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
‘The Serene Squall’ is undeniably Spock’s episode but it’s also an opportunity for the rest of the Enterprise crew to shine. Jesse James Keitel quickly establishes Captain Angel as a villain to watch – we’re sure they’ll be back – but in the long term it’s the return of Spock’s black-sheep-of-the-family sibling, Sybok, that will dominate the headlines. Don’t expect this family reunion to go well…