The second episode of “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” is available to stream on Paramount+. Written by Henry Alonso Myers, Sarah Tarkoff and directed by Maja Vrvilo, “Children of the Comet” showcases a character we Star Trek fans have known for nearly 56 years; Nyota Uhura (Cecelia Rose Gooding). As originally played by Nichelle Nichols, the character made her first appearance during Star Trek’s debut on September 8th, 1966 (“The Man Trap”). Since then, we’ve followed Uhura through three seasons of Star Trek The Original Series (TOS), two seasons of The Animated Series (TAS) and nine feature films, yet there is much we didn’t know about this groundbreaking character… until now.
As a pioneer of representation, Uhura broke barriers; a Black woman, serving as communications officer on the bridge of a futuristic spaceship was a bold step for the largely white-bread television population of the mid-1960s (this was just the Civil Rights Act passed in 1965). While Uhura deserves notice for simply existing, the character often had little more to do than operate a switchboard and quip, “Hailing frequencies open.” We gleaned a few things about her over the years–her first name was Nyota, she loved to sing (as does Nichols), she enjoyed an occasional teasing flirtation with Mr. Spock (which became a full romance in the Kelvinverse movies), she spoke Swahili, and she was more recently established as a linguistics prodigy (which contradicts a throwaway gag in “Star Trek VI”). That was pretty much it. In the 55 years we’ve known this iconic TOS character, she was more fleshed out in our imaginations than she was onscreen.
“Children of the Comet” sees the character going on her first away mission, and receiving a few gentle hazings from a mischievous Lt. Ortegas, new Chief Engineer Hemmer, and even Mr. Spock. We also learn a great deal of her backstory as well…
“Children of the Comet.”
A Cadet’s log from Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) chronicles her tour of duty aboard the USS Enterprise, as the ship trails “Comet 2260-Quentin” in the vicinity of planet Persephone III. The cadet is invited to the captain’s cabin for dinner with an assorted mix of junior and senior officers. Uhura’s invite was given by casually-attired helm officer, Lt. Ortegas (Melissa Navia), who tricked Uhura into wearing her dress uniform–a harmless bit of cadet hazing.
Cadet Uhura, still new to the ship, nervously makes her way through the guests, offering the expected greetings to her colleagues, until she notices the new Aenarian Chief Engineer Hemmer (Bruce Horak)–whose race is naturally blind–chopping vegetables. She offers to assist, and Hemmer suddenly stops chopping. A nearby Spock (Ethan Peck) informs her that she’s offended Hemmer. A flustered Uhura stammers an apology, and puts her foot squarely in her mouth when she says she only wanted to help, because of his sight-impairment.
Note: The Aenar were first re-discovered (after being relegated to myth) in the 22nd century set Star Trek series, “Enterprise” (2001-2005), where the Andorians reunited with their long lost Aenarian siblings, much like the Vulcan/Romulan reunification we later saw in Star Trek: Discovery, S3.7: “Unification III”. Actor Bruce Horak, who plays Hemmer, is legally blind as a result of childhood cancer, which gives his character an even greater authenticity, as well as another opportunity for Star Trek to add to its rich history of diverse casting.
A curmudgeonly Hemmer tells her that the Aenar (an offshoot of the Andorian race) have extremely keen senses which compensate for their lack of eyesight, including telepathic ability, which is demonstrated when he easily catches an airborne carrot quietly tossed to him by Mr. Spock. Uhura, once again, is being hazed by her superiors. She teases them back in both Aenarian and in Vulcan–touche. As she walks away, Hemmer says to Spock, “I think I’m going to like her,” to which Spock raises a Vulcan eyebrow and says, “Indeed.”
Note: Spock takes a mentoring role with Uhura in this episode. We see traces of that relationship in TOS as well, when he randomly compliments her abilities in “Who Mourns For Adonais?” and in other episodes. They even flirt a bit in “The Man Trap” and in “Charlie X,” when she teasingly serenades him in the Enterprise recreation room. This flirtation is further explored in the Kelvinverse movies, where Spock and Uhura are officially an item for the duration of those three films (2009-2016).
Meanwhile, Captain Pike (Anson Mount) is the chef, and he engages Cadet Uhura in some casual talk about her background. We learn she speaks 30-some languages (a trait carried over from 2009’s “Star Trek”). We also learn Uhura is from Kenya (like Dr. M’Benga), and that her parents both taught at university there. Sadly, we also learn that Uhura was orphaned when her parents and brother were killed in a shuttle accident. Looking for a place to belong, she “ran away to join Starfleet” (Pike’s words). Asking where she sees herself in ten years, Uhura isn’t sure that Starfleet will be her permanent career choice. Pike reminds her that many would give anything to be in her place, and she understands, but she’s still uncertain Starfleet is her true calling.
Note: The dinner scene is a nice way to fish for character information without feeling like clunky exposition. While we learn a lot about Uhura’s background–more than we have in the previous 55 years of Star Trek–we also manage to work in some development for Pike as well, who struggles to finish the sentence he asks of Uhura; “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” Pike is keenly aware of his own tragic fate within that same timeframe. Foreknowledge of his future still haunts the captain, and manages to play a minor part in this episode, as well–proving Star Trek can still do ongoing threads within standalone stories (“Deep Space Nine”).
Later, Pike and his senior officers learn that the comet they are currently following is on an apparent collision course with Persephone III, a drought-plagued planet inhabited by a primitive, pre-warp tribal race known as the Deleb, whom we see periodically throughout the episode. The Deleb have no countermeasures to this crisis, and Pike turns to his people for answers. His Number One, Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn) suggests they nudge the comet out of the way by attaching discreet ion thrusters delivered by photon torpedoes. As Ortegas fires the torpedoes, something very unexpected happens–the comet deflects them with what appears to be an advanced shielding system. Pike is perplexed.
Note: Ion propulsion has a long history with Star Trek; initially mentioned in the classically bad TOS episode “Spock’s Brain” as a sign of advanced engineering, the technology was developed for real use with NASA/JPL’s Deep Space 1 probe (1998-2001), making flybys of the asteroid Braille and Comet Borelly, using negatively-charged ions for propulsion. The development team behind JPL’s ion drive admit that it was the Star Trek episode that initially inspired their research into using ions for slow-but-steady exhaust for unmanned interplanetary probes. While slower than chemical propulsion, ion drives (first conceived of by German rocket scientists Hermann Oberth & Wernher von Braun in the 1930s) use very little fuel relative to conventional chemical rockets.
After receiving painful injections from Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) to inoculate against the “ridiculous amount” of deadly cosmic rays on the comet’s surface, Cadet Uhura braces herself for her first away mission, along with Lt. Spock, xenobiologist Lt. Samuel Kirk (Dan Jeannotte) and Tactical Officer La’an Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong). Before they beam down, Uhura notices that Chapel was flirting with Spock, who was oblivious it, of course–foreshadowing Chapel’s later crush on Mr. Spock that we see in TOS. They beam down to the comet’s surface and immediately find an access way into an inner chamber…
Note: Name-dropping Lt. George Samuel Kirk, older brother of future Enterprise captain, James T. Kirk, was a running gag meant to defy expectations in the previous episode.
Note: Perhaps the only character of Strange New Worlds delightful ensemble I’m not quite in love with is Tactical Officer Lt. La’an Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong). Once again, she unflinchingly bears the painful injections, and proceeds to get snappy when leading the landing party. Her dour humorlessness and cliched stoicism make her a two-dimensional character. Yes, Singh’s tragic backstory with the Gorn destroying her family explains much of it. However, as we just learned, Cadet Uhura also has a tragic backstory, and yet we don’t see the boulder-sized chip on her shoulder that we see on Lt. Singh. Given the Enterprise’s, er, regretful, history with red-shirts? I can’t say I’d mind too much if this character moves on at some future point…
Inside the chamber, the away team discovers there’s breathable atmosphere, and so they decide to remove their helmets (never a good idea in an alien atmosphere) and continue their investigation. At the center of the eerie, clearly artificial chamber is a large, glowing egg-shaped device that seems to pulse with energy. Eager Lt. Kirk decides to take a metaphorical roll of the dice (a la Yahtzee) and approach the ‘egg.’ For his trouble, he is zapped by a defensive field, and his heart stops. Thinking quickly, Spock is able to restart Kirk’s heart, though he still requires medical attention.
Lt. Kirk’s unwitting action against the ‘egg’ has caused it sever their contact with the ship, leaving them unable to beam back. With Lt. Kirk stabilized for the moment, Uhura continues her investigation…nervously humming a Kikuyu song from her native Kenya, which she hummed earlier over dinner. Spock sensing her nervousness, attempts a “pep talk.” The attempt isn’t a smashing success. As the lighting in the chamber brightens in synch with Uhura’s humming, Spock realizes that the intelligence behind the comet responds to music. Uhura then urges Spock to hum along with her, and it registers an even greater response.
Note: The design for the ‘egg’ chamber seems loosely inspired by “ALIEN” (1979) as well as director Ridley Scott’s prequel, “Prometheus” (2012). This horror/sci-fi inspiration adds a fitting eeriness to the set, which aids the viewers’ initial unease.
The misinterpreted ‘attack’ by Lt. Kirk also summons a large alien ship to the region of the comet as well. Pike orders Number One to arm weapons, just as the alien vessel open fire on the Enterprise. Outgunned, Pike attempts to establish communications, and the ship’s lifeforms are identified by the universal translator as “the Shepherds.” The Shepherd leader (Thom Marriott) appears onscreen and identifies the comet as a ‘he’ named M’hanit, and the self-appointed Shepherds will protect it as it continues its mission.
Note: The Shepherd makeup is sufficiently alien and extremely well-crafted. Kudos to the motion-picture quality work done by Olga Kirnos and her talented team.
When Pike tells the Shepherd that the comet will impact at Persephone III, the Shepherd says that M’hanit is one of the divine “givers of life,” and that its trajectory must be accepted on blind faith. This doesn’t sit well with the more secular Captain Pike, who threatens to destroy the Enterprise, which will obliterate the comet as well, given its proximity. The Shepherds back off for the moment, as Pike considers his options.
Note: The Enterprise doesn’t have a great track record with beings either pretending to be gods, or divinely appointed servants of gods.
Number One, manning the communications station, begins receiving some unusual harmonics from the comet, and it’s a song–the same Kenyan Kikuyu song that Uhura hummed during the captain’s dinner. The away team has clearly established contact with M’Hanit.
Note: Very cool moment as the M’hanit begins resonating with Uhura’s Kikuyu song. It has a vibe similar to 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” which saw humans and extraterrestrials communicate through musical notes, as the film’s aliens attempted to teach humans a tonal vocabulary. Communication between intelligences through music was also established by TOS in the episode “The Paradise Syndrome”; more on that in the summary below.
Una also realizes that the comet has dropped its shields. Seizing the opportunity, the away team are beamed back to the ship, and Lt. Kirk is rushed to sickbay. I’m pretty sure dangerous assignments like this one eventually prompt George Kirk to take that cushy job at the Deneva Research Station… although that assignment ends badly, too (“Operation: Annihilate!”).
Note: Rebecca Romijn’s “Number One” (aka Una Chin-Riley) doesn’t have a lot to do in this or the previous episode, however she still gets some great moments acting as confidante to her captain in both stories, much like we saw in Pike’s earlier relationship with his former ship’s doctor, Boyce (John Hoyt) in the original Star Trek pilot, “The Cage”, which technically serves as a pilot for Strange New Worlds, making Strange New Worlds the longest pilot-to-series pickup in television history.
With the comet still on an impact trajectory to Persephone III, Pike and his senior officers formulate a plan. Lt. Ortegas puts her reputation as the best pilot in Starfleet to the test when she implements a wild series of evasive maneuvers, and draws fire from the Shepherd’s superior weaponry. Pike then shuts down major systems, save for life-support, and feigns distress. Opening a channel to the Shepherds, Pike tells them their weapons have disabled his ship, and that he needs a tow if he’s to clear the comet’s path. The Shepherds, not without mercy, lock onto the Enterprise, as a shuttlecraft quietly launches from her shuttle bay…
Note: The creative evasive maneuvers implemented by Ortegas are visually well-realized; for once, evasive maneuvers don’t simply mean pitching or yawing a little bit–this is Han Solo-level stuff.
The shuttlecraft is piloted by Spock, who, in keeping with Pike’s promise to the Shepherds, isn’t (technically) touching the comet’s surface; by channeling heat distribution to her outer hull, the shuttle is able to create fissures on on the comet’s surface, causing a large icy chunk to splinter off and vaporize in the planet’s upper atmosphere. The fracturing of its surface gives the comet just enough push to clear it from impact. Contact is temporarily cut off, and the crew is worried if Spock survived–until an uncharacteristic laugh is heard from the stoic Vulcan’s shuttle (“Sometimes things go so badly that you just have to laugh”).
As an added benefit, the enormous chunk of water ice entering Persephone III’s arid atmosphere has seeded it with an unexpectedly large dose of water vapor–ending the planet’s long drought, and subtly tempering the climate for sustained agriculture. Persephone III is saved, and the Shepherds are unaware of the Enterprise’s clandestine interference.
Note: The lost communication with Spock’s shuttle reminded me of a similar moment in TOS’ “The Immunity Syndrome”, when Spock piloted a shuttle into an immense, life-draining space amoeba, which nearly killed him. And to those who say the laugh was out-of-character? I beg to differ; this is a younger Spock who is less in control of his emotions. He’s only a few years removed from the Spock who smiled at singing alien plants (“The Cage”) and who’d often shout when distressed during early episodes of TOS.
At a post-mission debriefing, Number One finds evidence that the shuttle’s success was preordained by M’Hanit itself. Earlier communications translated by Uhura from M’Hanit‘s ‘music’ reveal that a chunk of ice matching the exact measurements of the piece that Spock severed with the shuttle was part of M’Hanit‘s plan all along. The comet never intended to strike the planet, as the Enterprise’s interference was counted upon. This is not lost on Pike, who is certainly no stranger to the concept of preordination.
Spock and Uhura leave the briefing together. He reminds her of the many who dream of being in Starfleet. Uhura apologetically interrupts him, saying that she knew she didn’t deserve to be on that mission. Spock finishes his sentence–telling her that if she decides to remain in Starfleet, they’d be fortunate to have her.
Note: Now that is how you do a pep talk, folks…
In his cabin, Pike and his de facto counselor Una are having another of their heart-to-hearts. Una says no one could’ve predicted the outcome, and Pike agrees. She then reminds him that receiving a message about the future isn’t the same as understanding it. Pike realizes they’re no longer talking about the comet. Una encourages him not to throw his life away, suggesting there may be a chance of altering his fate, somehow. After she leaves, Pike asks the computer to call up files on a group of Federation citizens–the names of kids who will be the very same Starfleet cadets he saves in the future...
Note: And that is how you do arcing threads within an episodic format, folks…
Summing It Up.
The intelligent comet M’hanit may have been created by “the Preservers” (TOS’ “The Paradise Syndrome”), a mysterious race of unseen aliens who seed life across the galaxy–sometimes bringing endangered life forms to new worlds, or improving conditions for life on promising planetary prospects, as we see with the Deleb in “Children of the Comet.” The aliens in this episode are not specifically referred to as “Preservers,” though they communicate through complex musical forms, very similar to the musically-based Preserver language Spock deciphers in “The Paradise Syndrome”.
If the aliens who created M’hanit are indeed the same TOS Preservers, then “Children of the Comet” creates something of a paradox–why wouldn’t Spock simply recognize the Preserver’s music-based language he sees later in “The Paradise Syndrome”? Wouldn’t he remember it from the earlier mission with Uhura? Why didn’t Spock seek Uhura’s help in translating that language? Perhaps his memory of the M’Hanit mission is what prompted Spock to apply music to the Preserver language, who knows…
That minor nit aside, this episode is all about Uhura, and Celia Gooding really runs with it. Gooding gives the role a naïveté and innocence we’ve not seen in previous incarnations of the character–certainly not the uber-confident Cadet Uhura (Zoe Saldana) we saw in “Star Trek” (2009). While other characters weren’t given a lot (or any) screen time this week–specifically new chief engineer Hemmer (Bruce Horak), and Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun)–it’s a safe bet we’ll see more from them down the road. The characters of Strange New Worlds seem exceedingly vibrant, even with relatively little screen time.
The return to Star Trek’s tried-and-true episodic format has been a breath of fresh air for this series. If one story idea doesn’t work, the audience isn’t stuck with it for an entire season–it’s simply onto the next one. The format also opens opportunities for a variety of stories, instead of one grueling, patience-taxing arc. Here’s hoping Discovery and Picard can find their way back to episodic storytelling for their next seasons as well. In the meantime, these first two episodes of “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” have been a joy to watch, and I look forward to seeing where this fresh mix of classic-and-new characters find themselves in the weeks ahead.
Where To Watch.
“Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” is streaming exclusively on Paramount+ in the United States, and can be streamed on Crave in Canada (it will also air on CTV’s Sci-Fi Channel). Paramount+ will also be unveiled in the UK on June 22nd, and in other European markets later on, so all of Paramount+’s Star Trek content, including “Strange New Worlds”, should soon be accessible to overseas fans as well. Hopefully all fans everywhere will soon enjoy this new incarnation of Star Trek. Live long and prosper!