Since Star Trek returned to television in 2017, I’ve been mostly enthusiastic about the new generation of shows. I’ve written extensively here on Fanbyte about my experience of watching Discovery, a show that I enjoy despite it being a frequently cringey experience, and I’ve warmed significantly to both Lower Decks and Prodigy since I reviewed their early episodes. (In contrast, my opinion of Star Trek: Picard has never been lower.) But as much as I’ve been watching each release with interest and amusement, I have to admit that I haven’t been having as much fun as I want to be having. I like these shows, but what I’d like to do is fall in love. Now, after a few weeks of flirtation and courtship (and not without disagreement), it’s finally happened: As of the latest episode, “The Serene Squall,” I’m officially head over heels for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.
Did Strange New Worlds win me over with a dense philosophical epic, or a rich character study? No, although the series has inspired in me some deep thought and an attachment to the crew over the past month or so. What finally took me over the edge is yet another silly-ass adventure episode, in which the Enterprise crew encounters goofy space pirates as well as Star Trek’s best new antagonist in over twenty years. Still, while their primary occupation is showing the audience a good time, writers Beau DeMayo and Sarah Tarkoff and director Sydney Freeland still load the episode with great moments of character and germs of progressive thought.
Spoilers ahead for the episode.
This Prescription Just Says “Be Gay, Do Crimes”
The Enterprise takes aboard Dr. Adler (Jesse James Keitel, Queer as Folk) a former Starfleet counselor who has left the service to pursue humanitarian work out on the fringes of Federation space. Adler asks for the Enterprise’s help tracking down a colony vessel that’s gone missing on the other side of the Federation border in an area of space that’s a hunting ground for a merciless pirate ship called the Serene Squall. While onboard, Adler takes an interest in Spock, who has been struggling to reconcile his human and Vulcan halves since his Freaky Friday incident with his fiancée back in “Spock Amok.” In an impromptu, informal therapy session, Adler suggests that he’s looking at this all wrong, that trying to be either human or Vulcan is an unnecessary choice, that maybe he’s neither.
This would be an interesting exchange on its own, but there’s a cool added layer of subtext to the conversation: Dr. Adler is nonbinary, and though it’s not referred to directly apart from their use of they/them pronouns, it immediately lends them a great deal of authority on the subject. Spock doesn’t have to choose to be either one species or another any more than Adler has to choose one extreme of the gender spectrum. Spock is a character upon whom fans (and creators, but mostly fans) have interpreted through a queer lens since the 1960s and this scene would almost certainly be read that way even if it didn’t involve a textually nonbinary character portrayed by an openly nonbinary actor, but it’s way better that it does. It’s an example of Strange New Worlds doing the work of incorporating queerness through both representation and allegory. Queer people are present on screen and behind the camera (this episode’s director Sydney Freeland is transgender), and it automatically enriches the text, whether or not gender or sexuality is the explicit “topic of the week.”
Adler is a fun character to begin with in the way that they challenge Spock, both before and after the Enterprise becomes hijacked by pirates and the two of them team up to try and retake the ship. One of the episode’s preoccupations is Spock’s embarrassment about sexuality, which Adler has no compunctions against playing with. Spock is already worked up after his fiancée T’Pring (Gia Sandhu) reveals she’s been studying Earth texts about sex to try and accommodate his human desires, desires he has never actually expressed. (In actuality, it seems that T’Pring is now a little turned on by her partner’s potential for unbridled passion.) There are also sparks flying between Spock and his friend Nurse Christine Chapel (Jess Bush), which he will likewise never acknowledge even though she cherishes his honesty. Adler senses that Spock’s hackles are up and subtly pushes his buttons, though it’s unclear at first whether this is out of professional curiosity, personal attraction, or a projection of their feelings for a lost Vulcan lover from their past.
But the episode kicks into a new gear with the reveal of Adler’s true intentions. Here comes the big spoiler of the episode: Dr. Adler is actually the pirate Captain Angel, commander of the Serene Squall, and friends, they are here to Ham it the Fuck Up.
Drink Up, Me Hearties!
It has been ages since Star Trek introduced a truly memorable new antagonist, especially if you don’t count the antihero Emperor Philippa Georgiou. Prodigy’s Diviner and Drednok are cool enough, but I don’t even necessarily mean a new menacing species or galactic threat, I mean that there hasn’t been a great new foil who can drop in on a starship crew and make trouble for an episode since the mid-1990s. Even before small-scale villains became a casualty to serialization, late Berman-era Treks Voyager and Enterprise had a hard time establishing fresh recurring baddies. Strange New Worlds has just ended the drought with the vampy and charismatic Captain Angel, the sort of rogue who you could easily trot out for an adventure once a season. Jesse James Keitel makes a stellar debut as the devilish pirate, aided by a light and funny script and pitch-perfect costume design led by Karen Lee. When Angel (as Adler) first changes from their cool but casual baggy ensemble into a form-fitting black unitard, it strikes as a bit odd, but then there’s a long precedent of Starfleet counselors wearing skin-tight catsuits. When they turn heel, it’s a smack-on-the-forehead moment. Complemented by an eyebrow tattoo and cool jewelry, it’s so obvious in hindsight that they’ve been dressed as a space pirate that I felt stupid for not seeing it coming, just as Spock certainly does. But if there’s one easy shorthand for how well Keitel owns her scenes (it’s she/her for Keitel, they/them for Angel), it’s this: Angel sits in the Captain’s Chair, and it fits perfectly.
It helps that the entire episode wears a healthy sheen of camp, to almost the same extent as the wacky romcom episode from two weeks ago. It’s sort of a mirror image of “Spock Amok,” in that instead of having a very silly dilemma that the characters are forced to take seriously, it presents a seemingly serious dilemma that the characters are so prepared for that they can kinda just have fun solving it. While Angel and their boarding party try to unlock the Enterprise’s computer, most of the crew is held captive aboard the Serene Squall. Pike, totally unflustered, springs into a plan to free his shipmates.
Step One: Cook dinner for their captors.
While the tone of the episode stretches Captain Pike’s boyishness beyond its usual limits (a scene in which Pike does a bad pirate impression could definitely go) it’s so much fun to watch Pike, wearing an apron over his away team tactical vest, play the pirate crew against each other with the confidence of Bugs Bunny. This subplot ends with Pike behind the wheel of the pirate ship, which has a literal fucking wheel, while the riled-up pirates bang on the doors and windows behind him. Cartoon rules are in effect, and it’s glorious.
But Pike’s extra roguishness in this story doesn’t come out of nowhere, it’s seeded in the episode as a response to Captain Angel’s influence. Early in the episode, Angel (as Dr. Adler) playfully teases Pike for his reputation as “Starfleet’s Boy Scout,” which means that Pike spends the rest of the episode trying to prove that he’s cool, actually. First, Pike plays the maverick hero, defying regulations and heading into pirate-controlled space without backup, which plays right into Angel’s hands. What Angel doesn’t count on is that he’d continue to lean into his “bad boy” side by being a lil stinker for the rest of the episode. This is Pike at his most Kirk, his version of the famous “Fizzbin” mind games of The Original Series. It’s funny and silly, but it also shows us a facet of our main character that we didn’t know he had.
Take Me to Church
After spending most of the episode winning Spock’s trust, Angel seizes on an opportunity to take full control of the Enterprise and enact the next phase of their plan. While stealing the Federation flagship and kidnapping her crew is a lucrative prospect on its own, it’s not actually Angel’s primary aim. Their true goal has been to capture Spock, not because he’s a Starfleet officer, but because he’s engaged to T’Pring, who is in charge of a rehabilitation center for Vulcan prisoners. Angel’s Vulcan lover, who they had implied was killed by pirates, is actually an inmate at T’Pring’s facility, so Angel arranges an exchange: free their man or Spock dies. T’Pring is prepared to give in to the ransom, which would mean throwing away her career, so Spock gives her an out. Interrupting Angel and T’Pring’s negotiations, Spock steps forward and confesses that he and Christine Chapel have fallen in love and are having an affair. Chapel corroborates his story, and the two share a long, passionate kiss on the bridge of the Enterprise in order to sell the ruse. No one actually buys it, but it allows T’Pring to save face, break off their engagement, and leave with her honor intact.
Pike and company arrive shortly thereafter in the commandeered Serene Squall and retake the Enterprise, though Captain Angel escapes to menace the crew another day. The fallout from the Spock/Chapel kiss is managed fairly easily, with T’Pring congratulating her fiancé on his play-acting. Spock is relieved that he hasn’t hurt her, but is quietly confused by his own feelings. When he goes to check on Chapel, later, she’d rather not discuss it at all. Spock is an honest guy, after all, and wouldn’t go chasing after another woman while he’s otherwise engaged. If there was something between them, they could talk about it. She can count on his honesty, right? Right, Spock? Right, Spock?
Jess Bush has become the surprise MVP of the Strange New Worlds cast, delivering a terrific performance every time she’s called upon. Her Nurse Chapel bears little resemblance to the character originated by Majel Barrett Roddenberry on The Original Series, and frankly, that’s a good thing. Where the classic Chapel is little more than a lovesick lackey, the new version is lively, exciting, and complicated. She’s the cool one, an adventurous flirt with crazy eyes, but she’s not exclusively that. To date, she’s the crew member who feels the most like a real person. Her friendship brings out the best in Spock, but it’s also beginning to cause her pain, as she finds herself gradually falling for the strangely sweet stoic.
For the two to get together would be unexpected to both of them — she prefers no-strings flings with people she can avoid afterwards, he craves a traditional Vulcan marriage — but the feelings are there regardless, and it’s hardest on Chapel. She doesn’t have the veil of logic to hide behind or a committed relationship with which to distract herself. The storytellers complicate this further by gradually evolving T’Pring from a xenophobic nag to a truly loving and accepting partner, just in the Vulcan idiom. Neither we nor Christine get the luxury of hating her for taking Spock off the market. (This frustration may be part of what leads to Christine’s involvement with Dr. Roger Korby, her ill-fated fiancé from TOS.) Even knowing how it ends, this is the sort of love triangle a person could get obsessed with.
Though Captain Angel’s plan is foiled, we still get to learn the identity of their incarcerated love, a Vulcan with close ties to Spock who has renounced logic and embraced emotion. Only in an episode this campy could Strange New Worlds dare to reveal that the man Angel loves and is dead set on rescuing is none other that Sybok, Spock’s half-brother from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, considered by many to be the worst Star Trek film of all time.
Even I, a viewer who would prefer Strange New Worlds not occupy itself with prequels or sequels to existing canon, can’t help but be impressed with the boldness of teasing an ongoing storyline based on one of the dumbest chapters of Star Trek lore. And, happily, they have introduced an exciting new character who will doubtlessly play a part in it. If you have no investment in Sybok, you don’t need any, at least not yet. You can look forward to the return of Captain Angel, and to the soap opera nonsense that’s bound to occur when they break Spock’s wicked half-brother out of lockup. Things are bound to get silly again in due time, and while Strange New Worlds has the flexibility to manage multiple tones, silly is where it lives and breathes.