Strange New Worlds S2E9: Subspace Rhapsody

Dammit, Strange New Worlds, you got me again.

Faithful readers know that your reviewer isn’t the biggest fan of silly novelty episodes, especially when an outsized proportion of our too-brief season is devoted to them. But time and time again, SNW wins me over by simply being very, very good at everything it does.

There’s been talk about a musical episode of Star Trek since Deep Space Nine, and of course plenty of Trek actors have had musical sidelines, from Shatner and Nimoy’s infamously terrible cash-in albums in the ‘60s to Brent Spinder’s significantly less-awful cash-in album in the 90s. Avery Brooks moonlighted as a jazz singer, and Scott Bakula, René Auberjonois, Anthony Rapp, and Wilson Cruz are all Broadway vets.

So we could have easily gotten a musical episode before now, and thank goodness we didn’t. Nearly every iteration of Trek has gotten silly, with embarrassing results, and Strange New Worlds is the exception to the rule. Again and again, the show has taken a premise that shouldn’t work and made it, for lack of a better word, sing. A musical episode of SNW works not because of the cast’s vocal talent (which is considerable), but because the writing is sharp enough to ground even the silliest premise in the characters’ emotional lives and stakes that feel real.

Before striking up the band, we re-establish a bunch of the season’s ongoing storylines: Uhura’s overworked; Pike isn’t sure he wants to pursue a relationship with Captain Batel; La’an still has a thing for Kirk, who is still unaware of their alternate-timeline romance (and seems to spend more time on Pike’s Enterprise than his own ship); Chapel still wants to impress the Vulcans enough to win a research fellowship, while winning over one Vulcan in particular; Una’s unflappably professional; Ortegas doesn’t have much to do besides be awesome in one or two scenes every week. 

All of these storylines play out in song, as when Uhura and Spock are unable to communicate with a space anomaly, and as an experiment send a song instead of a spoken message, it reacts by creating an “improbability field” that makes the crew burst into song when their emotions are heightened, just like people do in a musical. That the science is hot nonsense matters less than the fact that the episode understands and adheres to both the rules of a musical, and the rules of a Star Trek episode, and makes both work simultaneously.

As a Star Trek episode, it largely works because of how seriously the show takes this silly plot. The singing spreads to other ships, including the Klingons, and causes a legitimate diplomatic rift. Tampering with the anomaly that’s causing the singing could blow up the Enterprise, if not the whole fleet. It would have been easy to have the crew treat their circumstances as a lark, but it very effectively grounds the episode to keep things focused on good old Star Trek ship-in-peril problem-solving.

The show lampshades the fact that — as in classic musicals from Gershwin to Adventure Time — characters can only express their true feelings when they’re singing. La’an brings it up to Pike as a “security threat,” although it’s pretty clear that, after belting out a classic Disney “I want” song in the privacy of her quarters, she’s worried about spilling out her well-guarded emotions in front of her colleagues. But it’s Pike who gets burned, as Betal berates him in song for being emotionally unavailable, with the crew looking on.

Pike quickly goes from treating the singing as an annoying quirk to a serious problem. If he can spill out his relationship issues in front of everyone, who knows what other more important secrets could get spilled. So while Spock and Uhura continue to try and understand the why of what’s happening, Pike assigns La’an and Kirk to work out a way to blow up or shut down the anomaly.

Which poses a serious problem for La’an. While she’s not emotionally ready to talk to Kirk about her feelings for him, she’s also strictly forbidden by Starfleet rules from talking about the alternate timeline, and is worried she’ll blurt it out “in the form of a 17th-century sea shanty.”

Even by the already-high standards of this cast, Christina Chong is a standout this week. She’s got a terrific voice (she hoped to be a Broadway star before finding success on TV, and released an EP of pop songs earlier this year), but she also gives La’an so much emotional depth — even in scenes where she doesn’t have any lines, you can see the emotional turmoil playing out across her face.

And while La’an and Kirk still have chemistry, he’s not the same Kirk she fell for. He’s more of the brash, arrogant Kirk we know from the original series — talking over her in meetings, honing in on her romantic interest in him immediately… but also full of genuine concern about La’an. While they don’t rekindle their romance, they find an emotional connection and he becomes the rare person she can open up to. It’s a very smart choice by the writers to steer away from the obvious thing we want and give us something more meaningful we didn’t realize we needed.

And in the larger picture, the writers made a bold choice in starting La’an off as a closed-off, coldly professional character in the early run of episodes, only to have her come into her own as the emotional center of the show. It’s an incredibly confident move that’s paid dividends again and again this season as we’ve watched the character grow.

Along similar lines, the episode has the confidence to keep a big gun in reserve — Celia Rose Gooding, a legitimate Broadway star who was nominated for a Tony at age 20 for their role in Jagged Little Pill and won a Grammy for the Original Cast Recording. Yet despite being the one to trigger the singing anomaly, Uhura doesn’t get a song until 45 minutes into the episode. And even that song itself starts slow as Uhura’s unsure of herself and then crescendos until Gooding is belting out high notes and Uhura has the late-episode flash of inspiration that saves the day.

Saving the day naturally involves a big, showstopping finale, and while it’s the corniest song of the bunch, the show takes the trouble of giving both a pseudo-scientific and plot justification for it, and by the end of the hour, the show has built up enough goodwill that even the most jaded of reviewers had a smile on his face.  

We opened this season’s reviews talking about how, as good as Strange New Worlds is on every level, it’s the safest possible premise for a Star Trek show. So it’s entirely to the show’s credit that they continue to take big swings within the safety of that premise. Did we need a musical episode, a sitcom-style farce, and an animated crossover? When the results are this enjoyable, it’s hard to say no to any of it. From here on out, wherever the Enterprise goes, we’ll happily follow. Unless Spock loses his brain again.

Stray tachyons:
• As with the animated opening to the Lower Decks crossover, the a capella rendition of the opening theme was a nice touch.

• The songs run the gamut, musically, ranging from classic show tunes to a jazzy Chicago-style number to modern pop to La’ans Disney Princess number, with a nod to Una’s (and Rebecca Romijn’s) love of Gilbert and Sullivan for good measure.

• Fans will no doubt spend years debating the merits of Ethan Peck’s nuanced performance as Spock vs. Leonard Nimoy’s iconic portrayal. But I think we can all agree that Peck is the better singer.

• Even the fanservice makes sense thematically, as Uhura gets called “The Voice of the Enterprise” for the first time before leading the big finale.

• We know through Worf that Klingons have a deep love for opera, so we expect that they’ll join in the chorus at some point. When they finally do… we won’t spoil it here, but it’s such a dumb gag and we can’t stop laughing over it.

• As much as these reviews gush over the writing and acting, the direction is also consistently great (handled here by Arrowverse vet Dermott Downs, in his first foray into Trek and, as far as we know, musicals). A shot of redshirts crisscrossing a hallway that rotates the camera 360º and resolves into them dancing in unison was a particularly clever move.

• Prepare for another wild shift in tone next week, as our season finale will almost certainly involve a long-delayed reunion with the Gorn.