With “Memento Mori,” Strange New Worlds Goes USS-571

Strange New Worlds is easily the most approachable new Star Trek series of its generation, so far requiring no previous experience with the franchise or even a linear viewing order. So, it’s funny that the most natural way for me to discuss the show has been in comparison to other Star Trek series, often in a flattering light. It’s a consequence of Strange New Worlds being an evolutionary rather than revolutionary installment of the long-running space opera — it’s repeating itself, but doing a really good job at it. “Memento Mori” riffs on one of classic Trek’s favorite genres, the submarine duel, while infusing it with modern Trek’s main preoccupation, childhood trauma.

Full spoilers ahead for “Memento Mori.”

Under Pressure

One great early episode of the original Star Trek is “Balance of Terror,” in which Kirk’s Enterprise is on the hunt for a Romulan vessel that can turn itself invisible. Only the ninth episode of the series to be produced, “Balance of Terror” established that Star Trek would treat its space combat like naval warfare, a battle of wills, patience, and deception with gadgets like the Romulan cloaking device reintroducing the obscurity of deep water to the otherwise transparent starscape. It’s a style of action that the franchise has returned to periodically, in films like The Wrath of Khan and Nemesis, and in standout television episodes. Deep Space Nine’s “Starship Down” is the most direct ancestor to this week’s new Strange New Worlds, which likewise sees the heroes’ starship diving into a gas giant to evade a superior enemy force. There, all the complications of submarine warfare come into play — gravity, depth, density, fluid pressure and dynamics — plus the added dangers that come from operating a craft in an environment for which it was not designed to function. It makes for some riveting space action, especially on this show’s ample VFX budget.

Of course, it’s not just the vessel that’s under pressure, it’s the crew as well. Like “Starship Down,” “Memento Mori” splits the crew into multiple locations across the ship to tackle parallel crises. Where “Starship Down” isolated characters on different decks of the Defiant and forced them to confront personal conflicts that had been stewing for four seasons, “Memento Mori” does the same to help us get to know its new ensemble a little better. On the bridge, pessimistic acting first officer Lt. La’an Noonian-Singh (Christina Chong) learns that a commander must demonstrate faith in her crew — If it takes a miracle to survive, then it’s her job to make them believe that they can achieve one. Cadet Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) is trapped in a cargo bay with a wounded Chief Engineer Hemmer (Bruce Horak) and a damaged piece of equipment that will blow up the whole ship if she can’t learn how to fix it. And as the casualties pile up in sickbay, a power failure forces Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusonmokun) and Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) to brush up on their “archeological medicine.”

“Memento Mori” gives every member of the main cast a role to play in the story, a habit of the series that is quickly establishing them as one of Trek’s most engaging ensembles. A new viewer could get a strong impression of each regular from this hour alone. Dr. M’Benga, Nurse Chapel, and Commander Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn) get the least substantive subplot, but they also had the meatiest roles in the previous episode, so they don’t feel neglected. It’s also the second time in three weeks that Uhura has had to step up and learn fast because her supervising officer is incapacitated (the writers are going to have to find new ways to get the young cadet involved in the action), but this time the subplot is more in the service of getting to know Hemmer, a character who hasn’t had been at the center of an episode yet. And even if she’s still the show’s least-developed principal, Ensign Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia) still gets moments to show off her hotshot pilot swagger. Not every episode should have to juggle so many characters, but it’s particularly valuable while we’re still getting to know them, and when the stakes are set at the entire ship, it’s great to see the entire ship involved. 

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

I’m Wide Awake, It’s Gorn-ing

While the whole ensemble is busy, “Memento Mori” still continues the series’ pattern of rotating a new crew member into the spotlight with each episode. This time it’s La’an Noonian-Singh in the hot seat, as she faces down her greatest fear: the Gorn. When La’an was just a child, her colony ship was captured by a Gorn hunting party, who fed her entire family to their young. Gorn tradition is to spare the last survivor of any given hunt, so La’an is one of very few humans to have seen the Gorn and lived to talk about it. Roughly 20 years later, as chief of security aboard the Enterprise, La’an is investigating a colony whose population has gone missing and recognizes the signs of a Gorn trap. Her recollections and reflexive caution come too late to save Enterprise from their first devastating salvo, but her experience is invaluable to helping her crew evade the Gorn’s pursuit. To even the odds, she’ll have to unlock repressed memories of her captivity with the help of Lt. Spock (Ethan Peck).

Confronting trauma is, without a doubt, streaming-era Trek’s go-to subject. Discovery’s Michael Burnham has not one but two defining childhood disasters which guide much of the show’s early years, and the most recent two seasons are about unpacking shared societal trauma and inconsolable grief, respectively. The season of Picard that just wrapped up is about the titular character confronting a painful memory from his youth that instilled in him a lifelong fear of intimacy. La’an’s personal story in “Memento Mori” explores the topic with a few of the same tired devices — hallucinations of a lost loved one, the implication that everything you need to know about a character was established by a single incident in their past — but it’s also a lot less weepy, despite its incredibly grim circumstances. La’an credits her survival in the Gorn hatchery to her never looking back. It kept her alive then, and it’s kept her safe ever since. Now, she finds herself in a situation where revisiting her packed-away memories becomes a practical necessity, and asks Spock to use his psychic abilities to fast-track the process. It’s a matter of survival, and the fact that she achieves some personal emotional growth out of exploring her traumatic memory is just a side-effect. Confronting her demons is framed as an incremental step for her character, rather than a transformative one, which keeps the story from becoming overly melodramatic.

La’an also faces a related professional challenge. As acting first officer during the Gorn crisis, La’an must learn to temper her pessimism in front of the rest of the bridge crew. Accepting the likelihood of death may be a useful disposition for her, personally, but it’s not an encouraging outlook for a leader. As the situation with the Gorn becomes more and more dire and the Enterprise herself begins to strain under the atmospheric pressures of the gas giant, the last thing that Captain Pike needs is his XO undermining his inspirational speeches. True to Pike, his course corrections for La’an’s command posture are pretty gentle, and he also tries to meet her on her terms, talking about emotion as a practical tool. He’s not asking her to believe in miracles (though he does, personally), he’s asking her to faith show in the crew because they need to see it. Confidence from her can help produce better outcomes for everyone. By the end of the episode, La’an still hasn’t caught Pike’s relentless optimism, but surviving an improbable second encounter with the Gorn may have left her slightly less of a doomer.

I would not go as far as to place “Memento Mori” on a pedestal next to “Balance of Terror,” which remains the high water mark in Star Trek submarine thrillers, but I do think it holds up next to “Starship Down,” and that says something. Discovery and Picard have their highs and lows, but they also enjoy the advantage of being so different from the franchise’s golden era that they avoid direct comparisons with what’s come before. Strange New Worlds goes nose-to-nose with the classics and still looks like a contender. It’s way too soon to guess whether or not this new series will earn a place among Star Trek’s best, but it’s enough to get me wondering: Can they go the distance?