The USS Cayuga, under the command of Maria Bartel, is helping administer vaccines to colonists on a planet just outside official Federation space, assisted by Nurse Christine Chapel -who returns to the ship just before Bartel has a subspace chat with Pike about progress. However, the message is cut off and it becomes clear that something has gone wrong. The outpost has been attacked and the Cayuga destroyed by the Gorn, the merciless, reptilian race with whom the Federation has had several bloody encounters (but with whom they have held off tackling directly or officially). Given that the colony does not yet have full Federation status, the response has to be limited, but when Enterprise arrives it sees the floating cosmic wreck of the Cayuga. Forbidden by Starfleet from crossing a demarcation line set out by the Gorn, Pike is placed in a difficult situation. Who was on the ship and who was still on the surface? With something interfering with scans and transport, there’s no immediate or safe way to check on their status.
A plan is devised to sneak a rescue team through the debris field and find out the state of any survivors, but even if the away-mission succeeds without getting everyone killed, how can anyone get back to the Enterprise without further bloodshed, devastation or a full-on declaration of war? As Pike and Spock consider that they may have already tragically lost those dearest to them, a series of further impossible choices will decide how many more live or die in the hours to come…
While not as intense as its earlier triumph, Under the Cloak of War, there’s definitely a feeling that Strange New Worlds second season deliberately raises the stakes and sense of consequence for its finale (entitled Hegemony – referring to the description of ‘dominance of one group over another‘) with an away-mission where many, many lives are on the line. Each reference and appearance of the ‘Gorn’ race in this latest Trek series has come with foreboding and a sense of brutality, depicted as a truly alien race whose violent behaviour that makes Klingon’s look like reasoned librarians. That’s all somewhat at odds with the version that wrestled Kirk back in The Original Series. Though there’s continued character developments (and some quirky introductions), a lot of what makes the episode work is the environmental factors. The VFX and Production Design departments combine to give various locations and backdrops that work to good effect, including a decimated town under siege and a dizzying space-walk that includes a low-gravity fight with a CGI Gorn warrior who looks legitimately intimidating.
For a significant part of the episode we don’t know the casualty count – only that its high. We eventually find out that Bartel has survived, but may not be completely unharmed by the assault. She’s glad to see Pike but also angered that he has put himself at risk for her. It’s even longer before we get confirmation on Christine Chapel’s situation – knocked unconscious aboard the Cayuga and only surviving in a small air-packet on its damaged hull. The problem with a prequel series is that, the odd cheeky tweak aside, it has certain guard-rails upon which it can brush but never cross. Though the situation in the finale is tense, we absolutely know – beyond any rug-pulling that would turn continuity on its head – that there are characters who are predestined to survive, whatever those long odds. The flipside of that is that for that peril to seem remotely real in the moment itself, there’s a shortlist of characters who definitely, definitively and assuredly are not safe and therefore the most likely to be upcoming collateral damage. Decent writing, then, must play with those odds just a little (if it can’t change things dramatically, it can provide new insight, connective tissue and nuance) and it does so to some extent, keeping us invested. Bartel is the obvious nominee for uh-oh survival odds, but she’s still intact by the episode’s end. Most of the characters don’t have the foreknowledge that we have (though I wonder if Pike keeps thinking, if I’m destined to die in ten years, then can I even die here, so what’s the solution going to be?’) so a decent plot and scripting makes them face death and danger as if it was their last stand.
Strange New Worlds S2 has swung wide, way more ambitiously and confidently than one might have expected and while not every episode has worked perfectly, the sheer breadth of stories and tone, while keeping the central values consistent, is admirable…
Two seasons in and some of the larger mythology pieces are falling into place. We’d briefly heard a throwaway mention of Montgomery Scott last season, but as soon as the Away Team encounter an engineer with a strong Scottish accent and an ability to improvise well under pressure, we know that another piece is locked in – and by no less than Matt Quinn, the first genuine Scot to play the iconic role of Scotty. Before the recent WGA and SAG strikes, the Trek Powers-That-Be indicated that we’d eventually meet the character and it is believed that he will continue to appear in some of the confirmed Season Three episodes (currently delayed by those strikes).
Plotting-wise, it’s interesting that the separated characters each decide on the same objective – the destruction of the transmitter that’s blocking communications and transporters – and instigate plans independent of each other. It puts both groups in mortal danger, but also makes the viewer aware that the consequences and injuries acquired along the way might have been less (or more) depending on how things worked out. Had Pike, Bartel and Scotty managed to get to the beacon first, there would have been no need for Spock to risk his life on the remains of the Cayuga but might then have not saved Christine. Had Spock managed to get the saucer spiraling towards its target earlier, Pike and Co might not have needed to make the dangerous trip to get equipment to deactivate the beacon. It’s all down to the Catch-22 fact that the teams couldn’t co-ordinate.
Already a staple of their appearances to date, there were more undeniable references to the Alien saga along the way with the Gorn coming up close to Bartel’s face before not killing her. Anyone who has seen the Sigourney Weaver franchise can probably guess the good news/bad news implications: Melanie Scrofano’s Bartel is spared because the alien senses that she’s been infected/impregnated with Gorn eggs. I can’t help wondering if another aspect of the Alien franchise might also be at work here. Ridley Scott’s xenomorphs would spawn variations that took on aspects of the host creature. The current Gorn and the series have notably kept the zoological and anthropological aspects to a minimum. Strange New Worlds‘ Gorn are so radically different than TOS version that an evolutionary-shift to a more humanoid form would actually be useful connective tissue, something of a bridging explanation and also open up other dramatic possibilities. Then again, SNW has essentially acknowledged and immediately dismissed the radical redesign of the Klingons between the various Treks, so maybe we’ll just put it down to improved VFX and artistic license.
The few quibbles go from minor to your-mileage-may-vary. While it’s nice to see Scotty, there’s already an expansive cast to cater for. They’ve all been generally well-served this season (and in this episode) with the exception that, with all the publicity surrounding Carol Kane joining the cast as new Chief Engineer Pelia, she’s the one main character I would have expected to have her own spotlight at some point and she has had very little to do since Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow except a sprinkling of acerbic dialogue here and there. Also, this is another one of those episodes to demonstrate an unfortunate (cost-saving) sf trope…where an alien planet looks exactly and conveniently like somewhere on Earth, a throwaway line saying that the colonists – not even Federation members – basically modelled themselves on a 21st Century MidWest Earth environment. (Okay, sure…)
The season leaves us in a scenario that perhaps deliberately echoes the classic command-decision cliffhanger of The Next Generation‘s third year. Here it’s not Riker being forced to fire on the Borg and the transformed Picard, but Pike deciding whether to follow orders and retreat, leaving many of the colonists and some of his own crew at the mercy of the, well, merciless Gorn. It’s a shame we don’t get his decision: they are both equally difficult, valid options but the problem with any amount of wavering in the moment is that it will be artificially amplified to the audience by the fact that we won’t get a pay-off until at least this time next year (maybe longer, depending on how long the strikes continue). That time-frame makes Pike look a little weaker than perhaps intended.
Thoughts about the season as a whole… Strange New Worlds S2 has swung wide, way more ambitiously and confidently than one might have expected and while not every episode has worked perfectly, the sheer breadth of stories and tone, while keeping the central values consistent, is admirable… the shorter seasons of ten episodes (rather than a network twenty -two or more) cuts away a lot of the potential padding and without doubt SNW has become the benchmark for the current quality of Star Trek (which not so long ago might have been damning with faint praise). If anything, it’s only been let down by the order of episodes – I would definitely have rearranged some of the stories to sheer off a little of that handbrake turn feeling that came later in the run, though judged as singular, individual entries they largely delivered in their own right.
It’s going to be a long wait for the confirmed Season Three, but there’s every reason to look forward to it.
- Production Design / VFX8