A few months ago, while reviewing the Star Trek: Discovery episode “All In,” I commented on how modern era Trek has isolated the many flavors that have made the franchise so rich for the past half-century and siloed them each into their own series. Discovery and Picard are tonally distinct from each other, but both are serialized dramas with massive stakes and as such have little room for silliness or camp, which have always been part of the Star Trek formula. (Their best efforts are “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” and “Stardust City Rag,” respectively, but they’re both about as dark as they are silly.) Sure, you can always look to animated sitcom Lower Decks for goofy comedy set in the Star Trek universe, but that doesn’t scratch the same itch precisely because it is silly by default. The joy of a silly Star Trek live-action episode is that it stars the same characters who are usually found handling crises of galactic import. It brings them down to earth, giving us permission to have a bit of fun at their expense. That’s the recipe that produced classics like “The Trouble with Tribbles,” “QPid,” and “Bride of Chaotica!” They each put their respective leads in embarrassing situations, and that only makes them more endearing, more human.
That’s why it’s so delightful that, just halfway through its first season, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds has given us a light comedy episode that’s so unashamed to be silly that its title is a reference to a Chuck Jones cartoon, which still manages to be about something. In fact, the low stakes and playful tone allow writers Henry Alonso Myers and Robin Wasserman and director Rachel Leiterman to push the show’s message about empathy without seeming pompous or preachy. It’s also a terrific contrast to last week’s heavy and violent episode, providing some valuable texture as well as some harmless fun.
Is There a Vulcan Word for “Hijinx?”
Last week, the Enterprise narrowly survived an encounter with the Gorn, losing seven crew members and taking serious structural damage. That means a return trip to Starbase One in Earth orbit, where Captain Pike (Anson Mount) takes on some lighter duties and the rest of the crew enjoys some shore leave while the ship is repaired. For Lt. Spock (Ethan Peck), being recalled to Earth means a chance to patch things up with his fiancée T’Pring (Gia Sandhu), who he parted with abruptly in the series premiere in order to rejoin the crew of the Enterprise. T’Pring makes the trip from nearby Vulcan to see him, only to find that he still has duties to perform and has failed to make sufficient time for her. After an argument, Spock tries to make up for his negligence via the Vulcan equivalent of a grand romantic gesture: a “soul-sharing” ritual that would briefly intermingle their minds and allow them to better empathize with each other. When the ritual goes sideways, the couple ends up accidentally swapping bodies. Naturally, they’re each called away to an untimely work emergency and spend an afternoon in each others’ shoes, gaining a better understanding of the obstacles their partner faces in their careers and within their relationship.
To begin with, this is a refreshingly low-stakes dilemma for a modern live-action Star Trek episode to have. Even the crises that Spock and T’Pring have to manage while assuming each others’ identities are relatively small, with T’Pring as Spock participating in a diplomatic negotiation and Spock as T’Pring attempting to convince a Vulcan criminal to return to the homeworld. Even to the two of them, this is just a really weird, embarrassing incident that they’d like to put behind them as soon as possible. Much of the comedy derives from the way they express their frustration through the flat affect of Vulcan stoicism. Both Spock and T’Pring find this situation wholly unacceptable, but their version of freaking out is remaining very still and exchanging increasingly fast, increasingly pointed, and increasingly precise pitter-patter. It’s an alien comedy of manners, as two deadly serious characters attempt to solve a deeply silly problem with a number of goofy solutions which they have to play straight. (“There is one more chant I’d like to try. We might need a gong.”)
But what makes this body swap particularly funny is how it avoids many of the obvious jokes. First, a gag like this might typically be used to allow a pair of actors who play wildly different characters to perform caricatures of each other. (Star Trek has even done this sort of thing before, when Jeri Ryan played the Doctor in Voyager’s “Body and Soul.”) At first the joke is that T’Pring and Spock are so similar that their swapping actors almost doesn’t matter. However, the more time the audience spends with Ethan Peck and Gia Sandhu in their opposite roles, the more obvious the differences between their characters become. This is a far more subtle acting challenge, and a more valuable character study. As the couple gains a better understanding of each other’s challenges, so does the audience. This is particularly to the advantage of T’Pring, someone who even experienced Star Trek viewers don’t know very well and haven’t had as many opportunities to sympathize with.
Correct Me If I’m R’ongovian
Hammering home the episode’s theme is a pair of other subplots, one of which could slide into a dramatic episode with almost no finessing, and one that could be a Lower Decks B-plot with zero changes. The diplomatic emergency to which Spock must attend involves Captain Pike negotiating with a delegation from the R’ongovian Protectorate. The R’ongovians share a border with the Federation and both the Klingon and Romulan empires, and all three are courting them for an alliance. Pike, along with his former CO Admiral Robert April (Adrian Holmes), Spock, and an observing Cadet Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding), are charged with winning them over. After seeing footage of the R’ongovian Captain Vasso’s adversarial meeting with the Tellarites, Pike thinks he’s in for a rough negotiation, but Vasso seems to lighten up the moment they meet and they get along swimmingly. Later, when Vasso and his aide chat with Spock (but actually T’Pring), they exchange mechanical Vulcan debate-speak. But despite everything seeming to go well, the R’ongovians are still not inclined to ally with the Federation. Playing a hunch, Pike arranges a final meeting during which he argues against an alliance, listing all of the reasons why the R’ongovians might be hesitating.
This turns out to be what Captain Vasso has been waiting to hear. He’s been meeting each of the Federation’s negotiators on their terms, but had yet to have this gesture returned. Vasso doesn’t need Pike to share his concerns or to ignore his own interests, Vasso only needs Pike to demonstrate a willingness to sincerely consider his perspective and the context in which he’s making his decisions. Knowing that Pike (and by extension, the Federation) understands his values, Vasso is willing to accept the risks and agree to an alliance. The scenario’s solution is a bit facile and it’s played with the show’s customary earnestness, but it works, particularly because it’s nestled amongst a bunch of much sillier subplots.
The episode’s other outright comedic storyline follows security chief La’an Noonian-Singh (Christina Chong) and first officer Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn), two sticks in the mud who plan to skip shore leave and get some work done. Una learns that she has a reputation among the crew for being rigid and humorless, but when she and La’an catch two Ensigns breaking the rules to complete an illicit “Enterprise Bingo” game, they decide to play it themselves. Una justifies this by her need to keep in touch with the crew, La’an by the desire to understand “criminal behavior,” but really they’re just inventing an excuse to have some fun and call it work. Is it weird that “Enterprise Bingo” is actually just a checklist, not a Bingo card? Yeah. Does it suck that Una and La’an abuse their authority to goof off while punishing underlings for doing exactly the same things? It sure does! But, for the duration of this episode, Strange New Worlds has adopted the elasticity of a cartoon, and earns itself some extra leniency and suspension of disbelief.
Punch the Clock
Often, seeing how a character handles a life-or-death struggle is how you discover what they’re really made of. But, in ongoing action-adventure series where characters face mortal stakes on a regular basis in their professional lives, those sorts of tests are less revelatory over time. What becomes more novel is what these stalwart heroes do when they’re not at work. Classic Star Trek series are pretty good at showing our characters on their off-hours just unwinding and having interactions that are not relevant to the plot, as is Lower Decks. Discovery has let Paul Stamets and Hugh Culber enjoy some simple moments of domestic normalcy, but even after four years I have no idea what Michael Burnham does for fun, apart from having space adventures. Strange New Worlds has wasted no time showing us that its characters are not just plot machines with specific dialogue quirks. They have interests beyond derring-do.
“Spock Amok” doesn’t show us every character’s everyday lives — Pike and Uhura are only seen at work, Ortegas doesn’t get a subplot, Hemmer is totally absent — but most of them get at least a little something. Spock isn’t just a brilliant scientist with a complicated relationship with his home planet, he’s also kind of a shitty romantic partner and is trying to be better. This immediately puts him into a situation that most people have been a party to in one way or another in their lives. It makes him more real, and it subtracts nothing. Nurse Chapel isn’t just a quirky nurse with crazy eyes, she’s also frustrated that the ground rules she tries to lay down for no-strings sexual relationships keep being bent or broken. Dr. M’Benga likes fly fishing and owns a stupid Gilligan hat. These things matter! Watching a television show week to week fosters a quasi-social relationship with the regular characters and it’s natural to want to know the same sorts of things about them that you would about the people you see all the time in recurring social situations. Whether it’s in outright silly episodes or just scattered across serious stories through rituals like Pike’s dinner parties, casual moments help to create enduring, memorable characters.
Barring some reservations about the reductive centrism of the series premiere, I’ve truly enjoyed each episode of Strange New Worlds so far, but it’s this silly-ass fantasy romcom that has me the most excited and hopeful for the future of Star Trek. I love grand, galaxy-spanning adventures. I love tear-jerking drama, and space battles, and philosophical quandaries, but all of these things are richer when they’re contrasted against the everyday nonsense of life. You need Jim Kirk playing chess, you need Deanna Troi waxing poetic about chocolate, you need M’Benga’s terrible hat. There’s no loud without quiet, no excitement without calm. I don’t want Star Trek to be only silly, any more than I want it to be only thrilling, or only cerebral, or only emotional. I want it to be all of these things, but this is the part that live-action Trek has been missing the most, and I’m very happy to see it prioritized so early and so successfully.