In 2017, when Star Trek: Discovery first launched, Star Trek’s fan community split nearly in half over the new show’s vastly different approach to the franchise. It was practically a rehearsal for what would happen to Star Wars fandom when The Last Jedi hit theaters a few months later, with one group excited for something new and different, and the other railing against it. Much in the way that Last Jedi fans dug in their heels against the backlash (fueled by the fact that the traditionalist faction also included all of the bigots), I was a zealous defender of Discovery and its dark, serialized first season. “You can’t just do Nineties Star Trek again,” I said to fans jumping ship to Seth MacFarlane’s unimaginative TNG nostalgia trip, The Orville. “That would be lame and boring.” Now, it’s five years later, and while I stand by my support for the new and different, I also have to admit when I’m wrong. As much as the debut episode of Strange New Worlds was a deliberate throwback to The Original Series, its second episode “Children of the Comet” feels drawn directly from the playbook of peak-era Next Generation, and I wasn’t bored for a minute of it.
The Invention of Nyota Uhura
Lt. Uhura may be one of the Star Trek franchise’s most beloved and historically important characters, but she’s also one of the least developed. The Original Series and its film sequels rarely took their focus off of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, and despite the reboot trilogy giving Uhura a larger role, none of the movies are really about her in any way. It wasn’t until The Next Generation that every member of the ensemble cast would get an episode or two in the spotlight each season, with sci-fi dilemmas being drawn from one particular character’s fears, desires, or history. With Strange New Worlds now adopting a version of the Next Generation format, the new series has wasted no time in releasing the long-awaited, first-ever Uhura episode. The A-plot of “Children of the Comet” is told from her perspective, serves as an introduction to her character, and shows off what makes her special. It’s a story tailor-made to encourage investment in her character, but it also never seems as if it’s pandering to fans to whom she’s already an icon.
The episode follows young Cadet Nyota Uhura (Broadway star Celia Rose Gooding), a genius linguist and polyglot whose parents’ sudden death in a shuttle accident led her to seek a new home and purpose in the stars. She has excelled in her studies at Starfleet Academy, beating out thousands of applicants for a coveted field assignment aboard Enterprise, but as she nears graduation, she’s not sure that a life in Starfleet is still what she wants. On her first-ever away mission, she’s beamed to the surface of a comet that’s hurtling towards a populated world to investigate the strange artificial structure that’s preventing Enterprise from diverting its course. The ensuing high-stakes adventure helps her towards a better understanding of not just what she can offer Starfleet, but what Starfleet can offer her. It tests her brilliance and her courage, and rewards her with the incomparable sense of wonder that comes from exploring the unknowns of deep space.
“Children of the Comet” is not overly worshipful of Uhura as a character, something for which both she and the episode benefit. The role of “eager young space cadet” is a precarious one, but even in the spotlight Uhura doesn’t succumb to Wesley Crusher Syndrome, wherein the crew’s least-experienced member somehow outclasses hundreds of veteran officers to save the day. She’s a specialist thrown into a high-pressure scenario that happens to fit her skill set perfectly and allows her to thrive so that both she and the audience can appreciate her value to the team. Celia Rose Gooding also seems totally comfortable with herself in the role. When I spoke with her during the Strange New Worlds press junket, she expressed the desire to show the parts of Uhura beyond what’s big and exciting about her, to portray her as a young woman with texture and vulnerability. In this first episode to focus on her character, Gooding and writers Henry Alonso Myers and Sarah Tarkoff have managed that swimmingly, painting Uhura as someone who is both extraordinary and relatable.
A Team-Building Exercise
While Uhura and the landing party attempt to understand the strange device on the comet’s surface, Pike and the remaining bridge crew encounter a powerful alien ship whose captain (Thom Marriott) believes that the comet is an instrument of divine will. The Shepherds (as the Universal Translator calls them) believe that the path of the comet is preordained and must come to pass, even if that means allowing it to collide with a planet and be destroyed along with it. Pike can’t abide that, but Enterprise is heavily outgunned and needs to figure out a clever way to save the planet and their away team without being blown to bits. This story also plays into Pike’s longer arc as he copes with his prophesied doom about a decade in his future. Is his fate truly sealed? What do you make of a prophecy in a world where time travel is a science rather than science fiction? Like Uhura’s story, this subplot is both a cool sci-fi idea on its own and a reflection of its central character.
Uhura and Pike get the most individual attention, but “Children of the Comet” also gives a few other crew members the chance to run with the ball for short stretches. Spock is part of the away team, but since the puzzle that needs to be solved is outside his area of expertise, he instead tries to offer guidance and support to Uhura. There’s the seed of a mentor/mentee relationship here (something that original Uhura actor Nichelle Nichols always intended in her performance) which could be explored in further episodes. Spock is also key in the action finale, piloting a dangerous shuttle mission in an effort to alter the comet’s trajectory. Helm officer Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia) gets to show off her piloting skills, too, and establish her own playful relationships with both her trainee and her commanding officer. The more crew members who play an active role in saving the day, the more crew feels like a team that solves problems together rather than a support staff for a superhero (i.e. Kirk or Burnham). Everyone matters, but there’s still no question as to who the main characters are this week because the themes of the episode speak directly and specifically to them.
“Children of the Comet” also highlights one of the greatest benefits of Strange New Worlds telling smaller, lower-stakes stories: it allows for us to spend some time with the crew during casual off-hours, something that’s a rarity on Discovery or Picard but was a staple of earlier Treks. This episode opens with Uhura attending a dinner party in Pike’s quarters. Crew members help Pike with sides while he tends to the ribs, and then everyone gathers at the dinner table to dine, drink, and swap stories. While some of the dinner chatter is pretty corny, it’s small scenes like this (or Riker’s poker game on TNG, chill hangs at Quark’s on DS9, etc.) that make our cast of super-genius space adventurers into real people, and establish that feeling of family upon which so many of the more high-stakes episodes rely. The serialized live-action Treks have no space for scenes like this, or else awkwardly squeeze them into grim long-form stories where they don’t really fit. Strange New Worlds reaffirms that each hour of a crazy sci-fi adventure benefits from having its own prologue that’s not coping with the dramatic fallout of the previous episode’s twist nor required to ratchet the tension for the one that follows it.
What Does God Need with a Starship?
Like any good Star Trek episode, “Children of the Comet” leaves the characters and the audience with a big idea to ponder. Unlike the series premiere, whose message of the week was so direct and specific that it fell flat, this episode’s takeaway is more abstract and interesting. While Uhura is stuck on the surface of the comet, she discovers that the intelligence it represents communicates via music. She and Spock sing in harmony, and the comet replies back with a complex melody and then allows the boarding party to return to Enterprise. Meanwhile, Pike has been trying to find a way to prevent the comet from colliding with the planet without the Shepherds noticing. To the Shepherds, the comet is an arbiter of life and death whose will must be respected. Eventually, Pike sends Spock to fly alongside the surface of the comet in a superheated shuttlecraft, which causes it to break in two without ever technically touching it. When the comet cracks, one chunk veers totally out of the way, while the other grazes the planet’s atmosphere transforming it from a barely-habitable desert to one more hospitable for cultivation by the humanoids living there. Later, when Uhura analyzes the comet’s song, she finds data encoded within: an exact image of the life-giving shard of comet that Spock created with his flight path. Except, when the comet sang to her, Spock hadn’t created it yet.
In hindsight, it becomes clear that the Shepherds were right, to an extent. The comet was indeed an instrument of someone’s will, someone with the intent of helping an arid planet to flourish. Where the Shepherds got it wrong was in assuming that any interference by the Enterprise crew or other sentient beings would somehow exist outside of their god’s plan and is therefore sacrilege. Even if some events are preordained (or more likely, foreseen by someone with a nonlinear relationship to time), they’re still the product of our actions as people. For Pike, this makes him ponder the nature of his supposedly unpreventable demise seven years in his future. (Viewers of The Original Series know for a fact that there’s more to his fate than he suspects.) For Uhura, the message is simpler: the universe contains unfathomable wonders, and she is prepared and excited to face them.
Personally, I’m interested in the way the episode muses on the relationship between faith and reason. The Shepherds believe deeply in the benevolent will of whatever intelligence guides this comet. They may have seen prior evidence to justify this faith, the sort of evidence that we and the Enterprise crew witness in this episode. But, the Shepherds also seem to believe that they, alone, understand that will, and they’ll kill to protect their vision of it. There’s nothing in their holy texts about a USS Enterprise, therefore it must not be part of their god’s plan. By the end of the episode, we learn that Pike, Spock, and Uhura’s interference is actually essential to the comet’s journey and that their absence would have resulted in catastrophe. When they part ways, the Shepherd captain tells Pike that he hopes he won’t be so quick to judge the beliefs of other cultures, and that’s a worthwhile message. But it’s a shame that, in order to avoid a war, Pike doesn’t cop to the Enterprise’s role in the comet bringing life instead of death, because the Shepherds have a lesson to learn, too: If you believe in God, or fate, or destiny, don’t assume that you or your kind have an exclusive claim or unique understanding of it. If a divine plan exists, then it’s bigger than you and probably involves ideas not foreseen by texts written millennia before you were born.
Not to totally discount the ten-hour-movie approach to Star Trek, but “Children of the Comet” serves as a strong argument that the classic Trek formula still works as well as ever. Paramount didn’t break it irreparably but pumping out roughly 700 episodes between 1987 and 2005, they just wore it out. After a long nap, it feels fresh again, especially in contrast to its four very different sister series. Since Paramount plans to keep releasing a Trek practically every week from now until doomsday, another franchise burnout is probably inevitable, but if Strange New Worlds or other future episodic dramas only make up about a fifth of the output, then it’ll continue to feel special for a good while longer.
Or not. I don’t know the future.