Strange New Worlds S2E10: Hegemony

We opened this season talking about how, as good as Strange New Worlds is, it’s the safest possible Star Trek show to make, aping the original’s sturdy formula and loading it down with familiar elements like Spock, Uhura, and the starship Enterprise itself. The show’s writers, who obviously read these reviews on Subject, seem to have taken that as a challenge, using the show’s sturdy framework as a jumping-off point to take all kinds of risks, including last week’s musical episode, and the semi-animated crossover with Lower Decks.

But now we’re back to basics. Nurse Chapel is helping Pike’s erstwhile girlfriend Captain Batel assist a human colony when a hostile ship darkens the skies. It’s the Gorn, a one-off alien from the original Trek who became a terrifying villain in season one of SNW. Ruthless predators, they also lay eggs inside human hosts, killing them while spawning new Gorn. Hemmer, last season’s chief engineer, suffered that grisly fate. La’an’s family were killed by the Gorn. And now they’re threatening Chapel and Batel. It’s personal for everyone on the Enterprise.

Except Starfleet doesn’t want Pike to intervene. They’re negotiating a delicate peace with the Gorn, and the colony is outside of Federation space, so while the Gorn attack can’t be considered an act of war, retaliation by the Enterprise can. Except the attack wasn’t only on the colony. Pike and crew arrive in orbit to find Batel’s ship, the Cayuga, destroyed, and the Gorn blocking all communications and transporters.

And the Federation are still ordering Enterprise not to engage. The Gorn have announced a demarcation line, with the planet and any possible survivors of the colony or the Cayuga on the other side of it. Pike is ordered to stay on his side. And if you think he’s going to follow those orders, well, you’ve never seen Star Trek before.

A risky plan, an away team going into danger while the shipboard crew tries to solve a mystery, it’s all by-the-numbers Trek, and it’s all done very, very well. There’s no point in spoiling the plot details here, but it’s everything you’d want from an episode of Star Trek — adventure, science, emotion overriding logic, logic overriding emotion, heroic rescues, devastating losses, a pretty significant bit of fan service that manages to also serve the story, and a few exploding control panels thrown in for good measure.

But there’s more to what makes Strange New Worlds great than how well it pushes all the familiar Star Trek buttons. It’s just plain good at storytelling. The episode wrings a lot of drama out of the crew not knowing whether Chapel was killed on board the Cayuga. We know she doesn’t die, as she serves on Kirk’s Enterprise, but it still pulls at the audience’s heartstrings because of the effect it has on Spock, who can’t hide his concern for her behind logic, and makes no pretense that his search for survivors on the Cayuga is about anyone other than one particular survivor.

We know how things end up for him as well, but we don’t know quite how he gets from the unsure, emotional Spock we see here to the creature of pure logic who spars with Dr. McCoy a few years into Strange New World’s future. And that’s the secret to good storytelling — all the clever plot twists in the world don’t mean a thing if the audience isn’t invested in the characters and their relationships to each other. And it’s the only way to make a prequel work. To delve into the characters, as Ethan Peck does weekly with Spock, and better understand what made them into the iconic characters we already know.  

The same goes for the characters we don’t know as well. The crux of the episode hinges not on whether the Enterprise can fire enough photon torpedoes and keep the shields up long enough to beat the enemy. It’s more concerned with whether Christopher Pike — who, in last season’s finale, had to acknowledge that he wasn’t as equipped to handle the Romulans as Captain Kirk would have been — is equipped to handle the moment, with his crew and ship in danger, and an all-out war hanging in the balance.

It’s a fantastic way to end the season, and underscores our biggest complaint with the show — that the season isn’t long enough. All we can do is hope that the studios quickly give into the writers’ and actors’ reasonable demands, Paramount+ doesn’t collapse, and we’re back on board the Enterprise soon.

Stray tachyons:
• The colony Batel and Chapel help out in the opening is directly modeled on a Midwestern small town, and while that’s almost certainly to save set-building costs, it’s also part of a long Trek tradition of the wildly technologically-advanced Federation setting up agrarian colonies around the galaxy. The writers have a deep conviction that all technologically-advanced spacefaring people want deep down is to cosplay The Andy Griffith Show. One would think a dense, walkable neighborhood would be a more optimal setup.

• And that’s it for season two of Strange New Worlds. Subject’s ongoing coverage of all things Trek will continue when season four of Lower Decks premiers in September.