Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Meets the “Children of the Comet”

It’s time for the next Star Trek: Strange New Worlds review. Reviews of previous episodes (well, just one so far) may be found here.

Warning: Spoilers under the cut!

The second episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds kicks off with throwing a dinner party in his quarters. Invited are the bridge crew and other officers as well as Cadet Uhura who shows up in her dress uniform and is of course completely overdressed, thanks to a prank by helmsman (or rather helmswoman) Erica Ortega, who herself wears her favourite cargo pants and combat boots combo. This is not the end of the humiliation for poor Uhura, because next she manages to offend Hemmer, the Enterprise‘s chief engineer, who happens to be an albino Andorian and blind, but really does not like to be treated as if he were impaired, because he’s not, thank you very much.

Science fiction from the 1960s and 1970s is often very ableist – see The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey and “Stranger in Paradise” by Isaac Asimov, both of which horrified me with their casual dismissal of disabled people. Even Star Trek was not immune and the Original Series episode “The Menagerie” is another example of casual 1960s ableism, because of the way it portrays Pike’s life as a disabled person after his near-fatal accident. This even spills over into Strange New Worlds, because Discovery made the stupid and unnecessary decision to give Pike a prophetic vision of his ultimate fate, which has come up in every episode so far, though to be fair, it was only two episodes. But considering that Strange New Worlds finds itself saddled with the ableist legacy of “The Menagerie”, it’s good that they have added a disabled character to the cast who lives a full life. Even if Hemmer hasn’t been given a whole lot to do so far.

Uhura perks up, when she chances to hear a Kenyan folk song in the music on rotation at Pike’s dinner party. In fact, Poke likely put that piece of music in rotation to get Uhura to loosen up a little. It works, too, because Uhura tells Pike and the assembled crew a bit about herself. She is from Kenya (which we already knew) and a linguistic prodigy who speaks thirty-seven languages. She was planning to study xenolinguistics at the University of Nairobi, when her parents and her brother died in a shuttle crash, leaving young Uhura adrift. She goes to live with her grandmother, a retired Starfleet officer who encourages her to apply to Starfleet Academy, which Uhura does. Though at this point in time, Uhura is still not sure if Starfleet truly is the right path for her. This brief scene gives us more background on Uhura than we got in three season of the Original Series plus one season of the Animated Series and six movies, as Keith R.A. DeCandido points out in his review at Tor.com.

Of course, dinner party scenes are ideal for characterisation and so Spock also gets a nice character moment, when Pike recounts a funny story about chasing some alien and tripping over his own pants and everybody laughs except Spock, who just looks delightfully puzzled, since he cannot grasp what’s supposed to be so funny about somebody else’s misfortune. “Sometimes, things go so disastrously wrong that you just have to laugh,” Pike says.

I have always been sceptical about recasting iconic Original Series characters like Spock or Uhura, but Ethan Peck absolutely nails Spock in a way Zachary Quinto in the J.J. Abrams movies never did. And Celia Rose Gooding makes an excellent young Uhura. Both actors also nail the relationship between Spock and Uhura, such as when Spock tells Uhura that if she isn’t really sure that Starfleet is for her, she should either become certain of her place or move on and make way for someone else. In turn, Uhura teases Spock about Christine Chapel’s obvious liking for him, which confuses poor Spock very much.

The Enterprise is observing a comet, when they realise that the comet will hit a planet, which is inhabited by an intelligent, if primitive species. Of course, the Prime Directive forbids directly interfering in that species’ development, but Pike is not willing to let them die either – something that Picard has to be persuaded to do for another doomed alien species in the (terrible) Next Generation episode “Homeward”. That is, not the episode itself is terrible – it’s okay actually – but the fact that everybody in Starfleet, including moral paragon Jean-Luc Picard is fully willing to let the aliens die, if not for the intervention of Worf’s human foster brother Nikolai Rozhenko. Tor.com‘s Keith R.A. DeCandido explicitly calls out “Homeward” as well as a Voyager and an Enterprise episode to point out that no, the Prime Directive is not actually a license to commit genocide by neglect, even if it has occasionally been interpreted that way. Indeed, as Pike explicitly says in this episode, “We don’t interfere in the development of species, but we also don’t just let them die.”

And so Pike comes up with a plan to launch some photon torpedoes and nudge the comet away from the inhabited planet. “Come on, let’s save a planet before breakfast”, he says. There’s only one problem. When the Enterprise fires its torpedoes at the comet, they are repelled by a force shield.

Comets usually don’t have force shields, but a closer scan of the comet reveals not only a force shield, but also some kind of building or structure on the surface. The force shield would likely also hold off a shuttle, but it only activates, when some object is aimed at the comet. Beaming an away team down to the comet’s surface to figure out how to deactivate the force shield and/or move the comet should be possible. This away team consists of Spock as chief science officer, La’an Noonien Singh as chief of security, Lieutenant Sam Kirk (older brother of James Tiberius), since he is a xenobiologist, and Cadet Uhura, since she is the closest thing to a xenolinguist the Enterprise has.

Uhura understandably freaks out – she’s just a cadet after all and not supposed to go on away missions – but both Spock and Pike tell her that she is the only person for the job they have on board. Again, Celia Rose Gooding does a great job portraying Uhura oscillating between sense of wonder (“I’m standing on the surface of a comet”) and sheer panic.

The away team ventures into the structure on the surface of the comet, which is obviously man or rather alien-made. The entire building is covered in markings and at the center is a giant egg, which should make anybody who has seen Alien very uneasy. “Are those markings linguistic or just ornamental?” Sam Kirk asks Uhura, who realises that as the resident xenolinguist, she is the one who is supposed to figure this out. Uhura finally detects a repeating sequence in the markings, which she deduces as a code. Sam Kirk decides to try it out – apparently, he is as impulsive as his more famous brother – and promptly gets blasted by the egg. He lands on his back on the floor, grieveously wounded, in a shot very reminiscent of the first (and last) time we saw Sam Kirk on screen, fifty-five years ago in the Original Series episode “Operation: Annihilate!”

La’an hails the Enterprise and tells them to beam everybody out now, but – surprise – the force shield reactivates and the away team cannot be beamed out. They’re stuck, though La’an manages to stabilise Sam Kirk. Well, we know he wasn’t going to die here, because we’ve already seen him die in “Operation: Annihilate!” some ten to fifteen years later.

Understandably, Uhura freaks out even more. Spock attempts to give her a pep talk, which works just as well as you’d imagine. In order to calm herself, Uhura starts humming a folk song from her home, which causes the marking on the wall and the egg to light up. The comet is clearly responding to her.

Meanwhile, the Enterprise has problems of its own, because a giant spaceship suddenly appears out of nowhere and fires on the Enterprise. When Pike hails them, the alien captain informs him that he and his people are the Shepherds of the comet, which they call M’hanit. The aliens are convinced that M’hanit is no mere comet, but a life-giving, all-knowing deity that must not be tampered or interfered with. Pike apologises to the Shepherds and points out that M’hanit is currently on a collision course with an inhabited planet and that this impending collision will not only wipe out the planet but also destroy M’hanit itself and all the Enterprise was doing was trying to prvent that collision. The Shepherds, however, are not impressed. M’hanit knows best and if M’hanit decides to strike the planet and commit suicide in the process, then so be it. The Shepherds are also not at all amused that the Enterprise landing party has desecrated the temple on the surface of M’hanit and warn against further interference.

Now the Shepherds are clearly religious zealots, though – as Keith R.A DeCandido notes – their non-interference policy is not that different from the Prime Directive, though Starfleet usually isn’t that fanatic about it. However, Pike is just as determined to hold true to Starfleet’s ideals of saving those in need and that’s what he will do, Shepherds be damned.

Meanwhile, back on M’Hanit, Uhura has deduced – based on the fact that the comet responded to her humming – that the mysterious markings are a form of musical notation. And since music is also mathematics, she manages to decode the markings and begins to hum the melody they represent – with some help from Spock, since Sam Kirk is still unconscious and La’an doesnt sing. It works, too, because the M’hanit deactivates his force shield, allowing the Enterprise to beam the team back up.

Unfortunately, this also infuriates the Shepherds – so much for “M’hanit knows best”. And so they start firing at the Enterprise and unfortunately, they have the bigger guns. However, the Enterprise has Erica Ortegas, who flies the ship into the comet’s tale and closer to M’hanit, close enough that the Shepherds stop firing for fear of hitting the comet. Pike then orders all systems except for life support shut down. Then he hails the Shepherds and tells them that the Enterprise is unable to manoeuvre due to the battle damage it sustained. He then asks the Shepherds to tow the Enterprise out of the comet’s tail and promises that the Enterprise won’t touch the comet. Which it doesn’t.

While the Shepherds are busy with towing the Enterprise, a lone shuttle emerges unnoticed from the Enterprise‘s shuttle bay. The shuttle is piloted by Spock and its hull radiates heat. Spock then flies very close to M’hanit in order to melt some of its mass off and nudge the comet into a path that will keep it from colliding with the planet. The manoeuvre is successful, too, and Spock even laughs out loud, because – to quote Pike – sometimes things go so disastrously wrong that you can only laugh about it. The special effects of the space battle, the chase through the comet’s tail and Spock’s flight are very impressive as well. Episode 1 was fairly low on special effects and set mostly on a planet that looks eerily like 21st century California, probably because they saved up the special effects budget for this one.

However, M’hanit is not just nudges off course, the melted off chunk of ice enter the atmosphere of the planet, injecting a lot of water vapour into the atmosphere and causing rains on the arid planet, which will help the people living on its surface. M’hanit has indeed brought life to the desert world. The Shepherd captain contacts Pike again and smugly says that Pike has now seen the power and wisdom of M’hanit. Pike does not contradict him, because it is no use arguing with zealots.

Meanwhile, Uhura has decoded the musical notes from M’hanit and finds that they not only describe Spock’s exact flight path but also the exact shape of the chunk of ice that Spock broke off the planet. But how could M’hanit and whoever built the structures on its surface know that, especially since Uhura recorded the music from M’hanit well before the plan to nudge the comet off course without touching it was even formed.

So is M’hanit truly all-knowing and a messenger of some alien deity or – since this is Star Trek – highly advanced being and did he just need a little help from Starfleet to fulfill his mission? The episode never really answers those questions. However, the experience with M’hanit reminds Pike of his terrible ultimate fate once more. Earlier in the episode, he told Number One that he knew the names of all the cadets whose lives he saved, so he asks the computer to look them up and is of course faced with photos of approximately eight to ten year old kids.

As for Uhura, Spock tells her that if she decides that Starfleet is the path she wants to take, this will be a win for Starfleet. Of course, as James Whitbrook points out in his review at io9, we already know that Uhura will stay in Starfleet and aboard the Enterprise and that she will be communications officer by the time we meet her again. Nonetheless, this episode not only gave Celia Rose Gooding a chance to shine, but also fleshed out Uhura’s character and used one of the few things we do know about her from the Original Series, that she loves singing and music, to do so. Plus, Uhura gets more to do in this episode than in most episodes of the Original Series.

This was another great episode, which not only showed us the Enterprise crew “sciencing the shit” out of a problem. Even better, it was a linguistic first contact story and I have a soft spot for those. In general, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds continues to be highly enjoyable and probably the most Star Trekky of the 21st century Star Trek series. This is what Discovery should have been like, when the decision to set the show approx. ten to fifteen years before the Original Series was made. Discovery has since found its own path, though it is still great to finally get the show that Discovery should have been, but wasn’t.

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