Star Trek: Strange New Worlds has stood out from the current pack of space sci-fi television (and Trek shows in general) by embracing camp with open arms. In just the past four weeks, SNW has given us a screwball romcom, a goofy pirate adventure, and with its latest installment, a whimsical fairy tale. In the tradition of the holodeck episodes of the Next Generation era and Original Series classics like “A Piece of the Action,” “The Elysian Kingdom” lets the cast try on some silly outfits (well, silly in a different way) and play a new set of characters in a quasi-period setting. As a fantasy romp, it’s a blast, but the episode struggles to incorporate a cool sci-fi angle or to give its ending the emotional pathos it deserves.
Spoilers ahead for the entire episode.
When he’s not occupied with his duties as the Enterprise’s Chief Medical Officer (or fly fishing in a silly bucket hat), Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) works tirelessly to find a cure for cygnokemia, a terminal disease that has afflicted his young daughter, Rukiya (Sage Arrindell). In order to slow her deterioration, M’Benga keeps Rukiya suspended in time within a transporter pattern buffer, releasing her occasionally to read to her from her favorite fairy tale, The Kingdom of Elysian. While the Enterprise studies a seemingly unremarkable nebula, M’Benga suddenly finds that the ship and crew have been dressed up as settings and characters from Rukiya’s book.
The real memories and personalities of Captain Pike (Anson Mount) and company have been repressed, and they have taken on specific roles from the fairy tale, with M’Benga cast as the heroic King Ridley. At first, he believes that he’s hallucinating after inhaling some chemicals from an experiment, but he realizes that something else is afoot when he discovers that Chief Engineer Hemmer (Bruce Horak), a latent telepath, is also unaffected. Together with the fictional characters loyal to King Ridley, M’Benga and Hemmer must figure out how to set things right again while also contending with the evil Queen Neve, portrayed by Cadet Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding).
“The Elysian Kingdom” feels descended from Nineties Trek “holodeck malfunction” episodes, which give the main cast opportunities to show off their range by playing totally different characters. Like in Deep Space Nine’s excellent “Our Man Bashir,” which drops an unwitting away team into a James Bond pastiche, most of the crew doesn’t know they’re in a fantasy, while those who do are forced to work within the rules of the fiction in which they’ve found themselves.
In both cases, the “casting” is based only on which crew members bear the most physical resemblance to the characters in the source material, leading to some fun contrasts in personality. Disciplined security chief La’an Noonian-Soong (Christina Chong) is now the totally useless Princess Thalia. Kind and bright-eyed Uhura is now a merciless tyrant who threatens to execute anyone who stands between her and the Mercury Stone, a mythical weapon of untold power. The entire cast is clearly having a ball in their new roles, but it’s Anson Mount who steals the show as Sir Roth, the king’s sniveling, treacherous chamberlain who every single other character regards with total disdain.
This episode is also indicative of the way Strange New Worlds carefully balances the amount of time and attention paid to each character throughout the season. This is Dr. M’Benga’s first turn as the undisputed lead of an episode, and it works both as a stand-alone story and as the payoff for his weeks of setup in the B-plots of other episodes. M’Benga doesn’t have the biggest personality, but he’s a warm, sympathetic presence and a solid “straight man” for the wackiness of the episode.
The other character who gets to remain himself for the story is Hemmer, who despite being a main cast member has missed out on a few episodes this season, making him the series regular with whom we’re least familiar. Here, we get to expand on the glimpses of Hemmer that we’ve gotten so far, seeing that he may be gruff and demanding, but he’s also playful in an “old theater professor” sort of way. Of the brainwashed characters, the one who receives the most screen time is Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia), who currently enjoys a similar status to Sulu on The Original Series: she has a lot of personality, but so far the story is never about her. Here, she plays the brash and quick-witted knight Sir Adia, who is a distinct person but the same brand of fun, and therefore the time spent with Adia doesn’t feel like time taken away from Ortegas.
A Head in the Clouds
Unsurprisingly, the force responsible for the fantasy turns out to be the nebula itself, a non-corporeal consciousness that M’Benga and Hemmer theorize might be a Boltzmann Brain. The Boltzmann Brain is a physics thought experiment that I, frankly, barely understand, but here’s the basics as I’m capable of explaining them: Because the probability of our universe existing in its exact current state is infinitesimal, it’s about as likely that a random assemblage of particles in space just happened to take the shape of your brain, including all of your memories of a universe that does not actually exist, up to and including reading this sentence. (Said accidental brain would exist for only a fraction of a millisecond, so, nice knowing you.) As I understand it, the Boltzmann Brain is sort of a proof for Occam’s Razor, demonstrating that astronomical probabilities can lead to some absurd theories if you don’t also apply some common sense. All of this is to say that using the Boltzmann Brain concept to explain the alien presence in this episode is sort of a misappropriation. What we actually have here is your garden-variety non-corporeal space being the likes of which appears routinely on Star Trek, absolutely an example of the simplest explanation being superior to a complex one.
In truth, though it’s great when Star Trek employs real scientific theories, often it just uses scientific-sounding terms as if they’re magic words. (Go back through the Rick Berman era and count the number of times the writers totally mangled the concept of evolution.) There’s a running gag in this episode in which Hemmer, who remains self-aware but nevertheless throws himself into the role of Castor the Wizard, wows his medieval companions with his mastery of this strange discipline called “science.” They expect him to have magic powers, and he delivers by wielding his advanced gadgets with a little extra dramatic flair. It’s good fun, except when the storytellers attempt to impress the audience with their own scientific knowledge, they turn out to be pulling a similar trick, coming up with a neat fantasy and then throwing a superficial layer of “science” on top of it because that’s what we expect to see from Star Trek. Name-dropping the Boltzmann Brain makes the story seem more science-based, but it’s a serious stretch of the theory in question and not at all essential to the story. It’s only there to satisfy the audience’s desire that Star Trek have a foundation in reality, without actually providing one. Personally, given the choice between a sloppy, potentially misleading scientific explanation of the magical space being or no explanation at all, I think I’d prefer if writers Akela Cooper & Onitra Johnson simply owned the fantasy this week and reserved the cool physics theories for stories in which they’ll actually get explored.
“The Elysian Kingdom” doesn’t really benefit from a hard sci-fi anchor. It’s a play on fairy tales, and also basically a fairy tale itself. The Enterprise has fallen under a spell, and M’Benga must build a party and quest across the ship/realm to find a way to break it. There’s also a feeling throughout that all of this is just pretend, which adds to the fun. The Enterprise isn’t actually transfigured into an enchanted kingdom, holodeck-style, it just has vines, tapestries, etcetera draped over the existing sets as if the crew was throwing an elaborate costume party. When M’Benga makes a reference to some anachronistic piece of tech, like the ship’s computer, characters in the fantasy will act puzzled, but also correct him, like a server at Medieval Times being asked for the WiFi password. (“Com-pew-ter?” says Pike/Sir Roth. “You must mean the Oracle.”) It’s cute as hell and the tone of the episode totally supports it, especially once it’s revealed that the entire illusion is being ruled by the imagination of Dr. M’Benga’s pre-teen daughter.
Not All Tears are an Evil
While the Enterprise is studying the Jonisian Nebula, it — or, rather, she — has been studying it back. She discovers Rukiya in the transporter buffer, recognizing her as another lonely being in need of company. Together, they transform the ship into the land of Rukiya’s favorite book, casting her father as the hero and herself as the embodiment of the Mercury Stone, the story’s McGuffin. Dr. M’Benga catches onto Rukiya’s involvement in the narrative when he notices that the story has been altered to incorporate her favorite non-canonical romance: Sir Adia and Zymirah the Huntress, played by Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn). Once he realizes that this entire adventure has been about Rukiya, not himself, he seeks her out and finds that she’s been watching and enjoying the show this whole time. His being awake and himself for this experience has evidently not been an accident, nor is her role as the Mercury Stone, the prized possession that King Ridley must give up at the end of the story. Through the telepathic Hemmer, the energy being explains that she can cure Rukiya’s terminal illness, but only if she remains in the nebula. In a parallel to Ridley’s fateful decision, M’Benga chooses to allow Rukiya to be transformed into a non-corporeal being, leaving her in the care of her new friend.
The tearful goodbye adds some punch to the episode without totally breaking the fairy tale atmosphere — in fact it plays right into its. The stakes have the all-or-nothing simplicity of a children’s book, and are defined by a blue man in silver wizard’s robes speaking in two voices to a father and daughter dressed in royal finery. Rukiya happily dissolving into a being of pure light is a sweet but sad moment befitting a fantasy novel, as well as a natural way for the episode to return to real life, leaving Dr. M’Benga to process his complicated adult feelings. His daughter is safe, but he might never see her again or really be certain that he’s made the right choice. However, the storytellers give us mere seconds to ponder this loss before having Rukiya return, now a grown woman (Makambe Simamba) who has spent relative years in the nebula with the being, who she has named Debra after her (previously mentioned) late mother. Adult Rukiya explains to her father that she’s living a wonderful life here and that she’s certain that they’ll meet again one day.
While I would likely have enjoyed a surprise family reunion in some future episode, giving Dr. M’Benga and the audience this instant closure robs us of a good cry in the present. Like anyone else, I like a happy ending, but we already had one, and it was a happy ending with an asterisk, which I would argue is the best kind. Now, it feels less like M’Benga has seen his daughter off to the Undying Lands and more like he’s sent his kid off to college. Yes, he’ll still miss her; Yes, it’s still bittersweet, but it’s definitely less profound. Is it fair for me to complain that an episode patterned after a storybook ends with a “Happily Ever After?” Probably not. But, for as much fun as I had with “The Elysian Kingdom” in general, I would have preferred if they’d let a tear roll all the way down to my chin before drying my eyes.