Warning: Spoilers for "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds" season 1, episode 8
The inaugural season of "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds" has had its share of genre-bending episodes, from the silly, sitcom-like "Spock Amok" (S01, E05) to the scenes of Captain Pike cooking the crew a luxurious meal in "Children of the Comet" (S01, E02). The eighth episode is no different, veering into fantasy territory throughout a lighthearted episode that nonetheless packs an emotional punch.
This week, the USS Enterprise is on a routine [survey mission] of the [Jonisian Nebula] but when it tries to leave the nebula, it's unable to do so. Spock (Ethan Peck) detects a minor synchrotron flux emanating from inside the nebula and suddenly the whole ship jolts forward sending many of the crew, including Dr. M'Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) flying, or at the very least, severely stumbling. Moreover, the doctor is in the turbolift at the time it happens. When he arrives at his deck and the door makes that signature squeak as it opens, the good doctor is confronted by something very strange. Very strange indeed.
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The bridge has been redressed to look like a medieval throne room and everyone it seems is in cosplay. It takes a few minutes for the doctor to make the connections, but it seems the ship has transformed into the children's fairytale book he has been reading to his daughter Rukiya (Sage Arrindell) throughout the season so far, "The Kingdom of Elysian" by a fictional writer named Benny Russell.
Interestingly, this fictional author was portrayed by Avery Brooks (as Captain Sisko) from the "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" episode "Far Beyond the Stars" (S06, E13).
As for the rest of the crew, Captain Pike (Anson Mount) is Sir Amand Rauth, a cowardly weasel attempting to constantly win favor with the King, or even just whoever is currently in power. Science Officer Spock (Ethan Peck) is Wizard Pollux, the guardian of the forest, or in this case, deck six. Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) is Lady Audrey, a wise medicine woman sympathetic to the King. Lt. Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong) is Princess Thalia, an incredibly annoying and spoilt princess.
Cadet Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) is Queen Neve, a deliciously evil individual intent on overthrowing the King. Lt. Ortegas (Melissa Navia) is Sir Adya, bodyguard and ever-faithful servant to the King. And Lt Cmdr Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn) is Z'ymira the Huntress, a mysterious, mostly-neutral warrior princess who fights against evil.
It marks a welcome return to Trademark Trek Tomfoolery™ and at first, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the whole episode will be in this fun format, with no secondary plot set in the real world, as it were. But, as the story unfolds, we realize this isn't the case and while, in its entirety, this is still very much a solid installment, the two very different elements needed to make it work are so different, that they jar a little bit.
That's not to say the highlights aren't great. Anson Mount clearly enjoyed playing his fairytale alter ego, as did the whole cast we would guess. There's also a great little touch where Hemmer (Bruce Horak) is in the turbolift with Pike/Sir Amand Rauth, who naturally assumes that Hemmer, who is blind, has normal vision (because his other senses are so well attuned). It's a small detail, but one that shows attention has been paid to details. Moreover, each character's alter-ego reveal is brilliant and even Lt. Ortegas/Sir Adya finally has a chance to show that her character is more than just a cheeky chappie.
However, Hemmer is slightly different because he is able to block out whatever it is that's causing this pantomime to seem real onboard a Federation starship. Between himself and the doctor, they need to get to the bottom of whatever is going on. Through deliberation and deduction, M'Benga notices his daughter, Rukiya, is nowhere to be seen. She's normally stored in the Enterprise transporter buffer, but she's been removed somehow. So, they set out to find her while a power struggle for the Elysian Kingdom continues between the King's forces and those of Uhura/Queen Neve.
The doctor (whose first name we also learn is Joseph) locates her in his quarters, where she explains the nebula that the ship was attempting to pass through is sentient. (Nerd Note: The principle of a Boltzmann Brain is mentioned in passing; this is a theory that postulates it might be more likely for a single brain — and as such a single consciousness — to spontaneously form in a void, complete with a memory of having existed in our universe. The hypothesis is used in cosmology to test assumptions about thermodynamics and the state and development of the universe. In "The Next Generation" episode "Imaginary Friend" (S05, E22) the USS Enterprise-D also encounters a non-corporeal lifeform in a nebula that caused a little girl's fantasies to come true.)
It seems the mysterious entity, that Rukiya has named Debra, scanned the Enterprise and found Rukiya stored in the transporter buffer and understood and empathized with her feelings of loneliness. And it's at this point that the episode takes a dramatic turn for the emotional. Watching this installment for the first time, one almost assumes everything would return back to normal, once some sort of dialogue had been established with…er, Debra. But it doesn't.
Knowing that Rukiya's time was running out, since she could really only remain in the transporter buffer for so long and the terminal illness she was suffering from would eventually take its toll, M'Benga reluctantly agrees that the best thing for his daughter is for her to join the nebula/entity/Debra, which she does. Naturally, there's lots of emotional discussion and a lot of metaphoric comparison to the events of the story and what is transpiring in the real world now, but ultimately, it's a happy ending, albeit an emotional one.
The first eight episodes of "Strange New Worlds" are now available to watch on Paramount Plusas is the entire second season of "Star Trek: Picard." Season 4 of "Star Trek: Discovery" is also available on the Paramount streaming service in the US and on CTV Sci-Fi or Crave TV in Canada. Countries outside of North America can watch on the Pluto TV Sci-Fi channel. Paramount is available in the UK and Ireland both as a standalone service and as part of the Sky Cinema subscription for the UK cable provider.