I’m still unsure if I can logistically review every new episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (SNW), as last week proved, when I was too busy covering and participating in the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim. While I did catch S1.4’s “Memento Mori” on my iPad in my hotel room, my take on it seemed to differ from the general consensus.
To be clear, I enjoyed it, yes, but it was very heavy viewing; a ‘submarine story’ in the tradition of TOS’ ”Balance of Terror”, with a focus on the unseen Gorn, who menaced the crew much like the great white shark menaced Amity Island in “JAWS.” We also learned a lot about the Gorn-induced horror suffered by Lt. La’an Noonien Singh (Christina Chong). Overall, it felt more in line with the knee-jerk, trauma-based character development I’m more used to seeing on ST: Discovery or even ST: Picard. It was good, but it left me with a bit of heartburn.
Well, SNW bounced back with this week’s “Spock Amok,” which was directed (with a lighter touch) by Rachel Lieterman, and written by Henry Alonso Myers and Robin Wasserman. Hell, even the dour La’an gets to laugh a little bit…
This week we see the Enterprise put into Starbase One at Jupiter for repairs, following last week’s destructive game of cat-and-mouse with the Gorn fleet near a black hole. The crew is authorized to go on shore leave while docked at the station, with its Earth-like bio-domes (seen in the first episode) providing an idyllic retreat from the confines of the ship. Most of the crew take their leave, but some stay aboard, to partake in sensitive negotiations with a new race.
Since this episode is about gaining insight and bending a few rules, I’m going to take that approach with my review/analysis, as well. Instead of a full, point-by-point synopsis, I’m going to review “Spock Amok” through its characters and the story’s impact on them.
The titular character of Mr. Spock (Ethan Peck) is the focus of the story, and his story links to the others’ as well. Beginning with a dream of ritualized combat between his human and Vulcan halves on his home planet, the human Spock is badly outclassed as his Vulcan half proves stronger. This is a rare and clever way to show us actor Ethan Peck out of Vulcan makeup–sadly, an opportunity never afforded for the late Leonard Nimoy.
A startled Spock awakens, and checks to make sure his ears are suitably pointed again. Even in his dreams, Spock is afraid of losing the Vulcan identity for which he’s so prided himself. Years later, in the TOS-era movies, we see Spock beginning to loosen the reigns a bit, as he more openly accepts his human half, and the role it plays in his psyche.
Note: The Vulcan dream sequence makes generous use of TOS-era composer Gerald Fried’s original combat music from the classic episode “Amok Time,” written by Theodore Sturgeon. Sturgeon also, perhaps coincidentally, wrote TOS’ first season story “Shore Leave,” which, like “Spock Amok” saw many of the Enterprise crew partaking in off-duty recreation as well. Fried’s combat theme for “Amok Time” was also hilariously mimicked by actor Jim Carrey in the dark and underrated stalker-comedy “Cable Guy” (1996). The set used in the dream sequence is also close (less budget-constrained) approximation of the “Amok Time” Vulcan set as well, which was described as a traditional wedding place for members of Spock’s family, dating back thousands of years.
Spock’s betrothed (not quite wife) T’Pring (Gia Sandhu) returns to meet her fiancé and is once again disappointed when a romantic dinner date is interrupted by the call of duty. Spock is to aid sensitive negotiations with the strategically important R’ongovians, who control a vital access corridor between Klingon and Romulan space. T’Pring is, once again, left disappointed, as she took time from her own work of meeting with a renegade Vulcan named Barjan T’Or (Alden Adair), whom she and her aide hope to rehabilitate back into logical Vulcan society. The duty-bound Spock leaves T’Pring in his quarters…silently fuming.
Note: Tor is part of the same ‘V’tosh ka’tur’ movement we first saw in Star Trek: Enterprise‘s season 1 episode “Fusion,” which apparently survived into the 23rd century as well. That movement sought to bridge the gaps in Vulcan philosophy by embracing forbidden concepts, such as eating meat, embracing emotions, and participating in the ancient practice of mind-melds–which, by the mid-22nd century, had become taboo in the more conservative Vulcan society of that era.
Returning late from the negotiations and missing dinner, Spock tries to make it up to T’Pring by suggesting they engage in the Vulcan “sharing of souls”; a ritual that is supposed to allow Vulcans to swap bodies with each other for a brief while, and see the perspective of the other. However, something goes wrong with the transfer, and the two are unable to switch back to their respective bodies. Hate it when that happens…
When Pike comes calling for Spock’s return to the R’ongovian negotiations, Spock and T’Pring decide to tell Pike the truth. He sympathizes, but the R’ongovians specifically requested to meet with Spock. T’Pring (Ethan Peck) decides to do her best in Spock’s body. Likewise, Spock (Gia Sandhu) is requested by T’Pring’s aide to meet with T’Or for his possible rehabilitation. Both Ethan Peck and Gia Sandhu convincingly play the body-swap without gender-stereotyping, which is aided by the characters’ mutual Vulcan stoicism.
Note: The episode’s title does a clever bait-and-switch with audience expectations; instead of a rehash (or pre-hash) of TOS’ “Amok Time” and its Vulcan pon farr story, “Spock Amok” unexpectedly redeems one of the worst TOS episodes, “Turnabout Intruder,” which preceded Disney’s original “Freaky Friday” (1976) by seven years. Body-swapping movies enjoyed a renaissance in the 1980s, with “All of Me” (1984), “18 Again” (1988), “Vice Versa” (1988), and “Dream a Little Dream” (1989). The Tom Hanks’ mega-hit movie “Big” (1988) was the “Jurassic Park” of the bunch, even if technically, it had the title character of Josh (Hanks/David Moscow) waking up as his older self–not swapping bodies with anyone else.
Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) isn’t the center of this particular story, but his intuitive skill as a negotiator saves the day, when he realizes the R’ongovians emulate the perspective of each species they encounter, as failed negotiations with the argumentative Tellarites proved.
Note: Who in the Federation diplomatic corps had the bright idea to send the naturally argumentative Tellarites to such a sensitive negotiation?
Pike later notices that the R’ongovians adopting the cool logic of the Vulcans when they negotiated with Spock/T’Pring. Pike, to the initial alarm of Admiral Robert April (Adrian Holmes), realizes he needs to be brutally honest with the R’ongovian lead negotiator Vasso (Ron Kennell) by listing all the reasons his race shouldn’t join the Federation. Pike clinches the deal by adopting the viewpoint of the R’ongovians, adding his voice to their doubts. It works. The R’ongovians then fly the Federation flag on their ceremonial solar-sail ship, following their successful negotiation with Pike.
Note: In this episode, Pike is wearing a new variation of the green wraparound tunic first seen on Captain Kirk in TOS’ seasons 1 and 2 (“Enemy Within,” “Court-Martial,” “Trouble With Tribbles,” et al). Pike’s leather-shouldered version is a bit more formal than Kirk’s all-cloth version, but is recognizably similar.
In a surprising and welcome twist, the most enjoyable subplot of “Spock Amok” involves “Number One” Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn) and Lt. La’an Noonien Singh (Christina Chong). I’ve had issues with the dour, humorless character of Lt. Noonien Singh, and this episode proved that this character can be fun if given half a chance. As the two officers say goodbye to the various shore leave parties beaming down to Starbase One, Una is surprised to learn that she has a nickname aboard the ship; “Where Fun Goes To Die.” Ouch!
With most of the crew on leave at the Starbase, La’an and Una roam the empty corridors…not-so-secretly rejoicing in having the entire ship to themselves. Their quiet is interrupted when ship’s sensors detect a security breach, and they break out their phasers to investigate. Who said they weren’t fun, right?
Note: While many enjoyed last week’s “Memento Mori” as La’an’s signature episode, I actually prefer the lighter side of the character that we see in this installment. La’an was in danger of becoming a one-note, defined-by-her-trauma sort of character; the kind we see boatloads of on Discovery, and more recently on Picard. I have no issues with characters having traumatic backgrounds, of course (we all do, to varying degrees) but I do have issues with characters who seem to be defined solely by those traumas and little else. TOS’ Captain Kirk was only a kid when he saw half of entire his colony wiped out by Kodos the Executioner (TOS’ “Conscience of the King”), but it was never mentioned beyond that one episode. So, it was very refreshing to see La’an put aside her trademark surliness and actually enjoy her life aboard a luxurious starship in a near-idyllic future.
The security breach was a pair of ensigns, Christina (Jennifer Hui) and Zier (Torri Webster) who were donning spacesuits for an unauthorized spacewalk along the outer hull of the ship. Number One chooses to play “good cop” with Ensign Zier, while La’an (naturally) chooses to play “bad cop” with Ensign Christina. Breaking Christina to tears (harsh much??), La’an learns that the two ensigns were following a checklist of off-regulation activities known as “Enterprise Bingo.” Una and La’an assign the two ensigns to work with Mr. Kyle, scrubbing every inch of the transporter pads clean. After the ensigns leave, the two senior officers dismiss this ridiculous idea of an Enterprise Bingo–until they decide to try it for themselves. With no one else aboard, who would know? And Una is eager to lose her nickname of “Where Fun Goes To Die”.
Note: Nice that we can see two women senior officers bonding over something that doesn’t involve reliving painful memories or emotional upheaval. As the great Cyndi Lauper once said, “girls just want to have fun.” It reminded me of Una and Spock singing and laughing while trapped inside a turbolift for hours in the Short Trek, “Q&A”. I also loved seeing Una & La’an living every fan’s dream (including mine) of roaming free and unfettered aboard the starship Enterprise; checking off all of those forbidden, fan-service items that each of us would want to do if we were in their places.
Watching La’an and Una go through the items on Enterprise Bingo was a genuine treat. This, in fact, might be the first time I really enjoyed the character of La’an, whose masochistic streak is finally given a proper outlet. First up on their list; using the transporter to see if chewing gum mid-transport allows the flavor to be recharged after transport (it does). We then see them setting their phasers to the lowest setting (‘sting’) for a quick draw contest in one of the corridors, where Una learns that the sting setting kinda smarts. Afterwards, Una and La’an are in the voice-activated turbolift shouting different destinations at the same time to see which one the computer follows. We infer other items on the lengthy list are partaken offscreen.
Note: SNW is the Star Trek prequel I sometimes wish we’d received back in 2017. I’m not dismissing DSC; it has some great characters, amazing production values, and its creation laid the groundwork for this series to happen. However, it’s been years since I’ve experienced such pure, unabashed joy in watching Star Trek; I don’t mean drama, or gravitas; I mean joy. I also never thought that La’an would be the character partly responsible for delivering such enjoyable ‘hijinks’ (as Spock might say) but here we are.
The final activity is the one Una and La’an caught the two ensigns attempting earlier; going out for an unauthorized EVA to sign the oldest remaining intact original piece of the Enterprise’s outer hull (named “the Scorch”). However, Una and La’an choose to forgo spacesuits, and do their spacewalk enveloped in an airtight, transparent forcefield.
Note: The idea of using forcefields for life support instead of EVA spacesuits was first seen in Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-4), although the crew wore personal forcefields in that series. Una and La’an’s life-support forcefield envelope is also similar to the one “V’ger” creates for Kirk and his team to exit the Enterprise during the climax of 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
After signing the “Scorch”, the two turn and enjoy a moment of awe as they watch the R’ongovian solar ship sail by with the Federation flag extended after successful negations with Pike are concluded. Without cumbersome spacesuits, La’an and Una are able to savor the moment without any filters–just the two of them, on the outer hull, enjoying the majesty of space as few can.
Note: This scene ends the Enterprise Bingo on a surprisingly poignant note, as seeing the various names on the Scorch makes us reflect on the vessel’s history; the USS Enterprise has already seen a long tour under first Captain (now Admiral) Robert April, before she was turned over to Captain Pike, and later Kirk (in TOS). I also wonder if “the Scorch” survived the dramatic refit the vessel undergoes in the aforementioned “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” Given the ship’s shiny new pearlescent hull plating seen in that film, I somehow doubt it.
Another character who is one of my favorites is the rebooted (and revitalized) Nurse Christine Chapel (Jess Bush) who’s gone from a sadly pining doormat in TOS to one of SNW’s not-so-secret weapons. Foreshadowing her future unrequited crush on Spock, she gives him relationship advice during a scene in a Starbase restaurant, after she dumps a would-be suitor who wanted to get serious with her. You can see flecks of future sparks between these two, as Spock seems to ‘get’ Chapel more than most, even after she half-kiddingly slaps him across the face for being an insensitive idiot by breaking his dinner date with T’Pring.
Chapel is rapidly becoming this show’s Guinan.
Note: Chapel’s full awareness of T’Pring does fly in the face of established TOS canon. Majel Barrett Roddenberry’s Nurse Chapel seemed genuinely surprised to learn that Spock and T’Pring were an item in TOS “Amok Time,” not to mention the earlier TOS episode “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” which saw Chapel asking, “Have you ever been engaged, Mr. Spock?” Yes, prior canon does seem to contradict this version of Chapel knowing all about Spock’s love life, but honestly, I don’t care; this Chapel is light-years beyond what the late Majel Roddenberry was allowed to do with her character, and she has great chemistry with the entire cast. I’d rather bend (or ignore) some canon than get rid of this new Chapel. Call it a new timeline, I don’t care.
Chapel even helps T’Pring/Spock deal with their situation regarding T’Pring’s meeting with a prospective rehabilitation client in one of the bio-domes–the previously ‘deviant’ Vulcan T’Or. Ill-prepared for the meeting, T’Pring/Spock brings Nurse Chapel for support, and the presence of a human incenses the already disagreeable T’Or, who spews some racist venom against T’Pring’s half-human fiancé Spock and his lineage, unaware that he is addressing Spock directly. T’Pring/Spock has had enough of it, and she cleans T’Or’s clock–knocking him to the ground with a single punch. T’Pring/Spock is grateful for Chapel’s support, though they ask that Chapel keep it under wraps for now, since it was a bit ‘too human’ a response. Chapel says, “I think it was the right amount.”
Note: We only saw a few hints of Chapel’s more colorful personality prior to SNW. In TOS’ “Obsession,” she visits a self-pitying security chief, advising him to eat, or he’ll be hauled into sickbay and fed intravenously. She teases Scotty’s thick accent in “The Lights of Zetar.” We later see Chapel and Uhura taking command of the ship in the TAS episode, “The Lorelei Signal,” when all the men of the Enterprise are under the spell of space-age seductresses who are lulling them into their deaths. As I’ve said before in my previous SNW review of “Ghosts of Illyria”, I hate to think of this gutsy young woman turning into the more sedate, conforming nurse that we see in TOS. I’d prefer SNW to rewrite canon than allow that.
Chapel is also instrumental in aiding Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) in a procedure involving space-leeches and cortical stimulators to (painfully) return Spock and T’Pring to their respective bodies. M’Benga is much more in-tune with Vulcan physiology than his eventual replacement, Dr. McCoy. So, in one episode, Nurse Chapel gives Spock relationship advice, helps him straighten out his situation with T’Pring’s prospective rehab client, participates in Spock/T’Pring’s recoveries, and she even tells a would-be suitor to get lost. It’s fitting that the final shot of the episode is hers, as she and her friend Lt. Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia) share drinks in the Enterprise’s swank new lounge…
Note: I remember reading in “The Making of Star Trek” by Stephen Whitfield, which stated that M’Benga’s backstory in TOS was that he served in a Vulcan ward, hence his familiarity with Vulcan physiology in “A Private Little War.” However, the procedure for the re-fusion of katras to their respective bodies was (according to “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock“) an ancient ritual only performed in “ages past, and then, only in legend,” according to Vulcan High Priestess T’Lar (Dame Judith Anderson). Seems a mite convenient that it be done instantly in sickbay with leeches and a pair of cortical stimulators. Once again, I’m willing to overlook it in favor of a good story, and “Spock Amok” certainly is.
Also of Note: Some of the regular characters were underused in this story. In addition to a barely-there Cadet Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding), we don’t see Engineer Hemmer (Bruce Horak) at all (though both Hemmer & Uhura had a nice story last week). Sadly, the humorous, slightly mischievous Lt. Ortegas (Melissa Navia) is once again reduced to being the ‘funny one’ who gets a few good one-liners and acts as occasional drinking buddy for those in need. Melissa Navia has real charm, and I hope she’s the centerpiece of a forthcoming episode soon. I also hope her future-revealed backstory doesn’t involve being the sole survivor of a burning orphanage, or successfully landing a damaged medical shuttle after the paramedics and pilot (as well as her parents) all died. Not every character’s background has to be so deeply rooted in trauma. As a viewer, I’d like to get to know Lt. Erica Ortegas, preferably sooner than later. Don’t make her another version of TOS’ Mr. Sulu–George Takei deserved better, and so does Melissa Navia. End of mini-rant.
Amok, Amok, Amok.
“Spock Amok” tweaks Nurse Chapel’s canon a bit, but it also tweaks the titular character’s, as well. Despite its lavish recreation of the sets and even the fight music of TOS’ “Amok Time,” there are a few head-scratching inconsistencies as well. Spock was very tight-lipped about his fiancée T’Pring–let alone his family life–with most members of the TOS-era Enterprise crew. Even Captain Kirk didn’t know that Spock was engaged, or that Ambassador Sarek of Vulcan was Spock’s father (until he came aboard the Enterprise in “Journey to Babel”). So naturally it seems a little strange to see Spock getting intimate relationship advice so casually and openly from Nurse Chapel.
There’s also the matter of Spock and T’Pring’s getting together aboard the Enterprise. When I was younger, I was under the impression (from the dialogue in “Amok Time”) that Spock and T’Pring were in an arranged marriage; that their minds were locked together at the age of seven, and that they’d not seen each other since. In fact, there’s a scene in “Amok Time” where Spock is gazing at an image of T’Pring as a little girl on a video monitor in his quarters. This fixation on the child-image of T’Pring would be very strange (and disturbing) if Spock knew T’Pring well into adulthood.
Much like Spock’s own conflicting human and Vulcan-halves, the old school Star Trek nerd in me sometimes has difficulty reconciling canon nitpicks with this smartly updated series, so in the end I choose to give such issues a hand-wave. Nitpicks aside, I can easily reconcile SNW’s version of Star Trek as canonical within a new Star Trek continuity.
At the end of the day, each new iteration of Star Trek is a subtle (or not-so-subtle) reboot of sorts; what matters most is if they entertain us or not, and “Spock Amok” certainly did the trick for me.
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 go live 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 most international fans as well. Live long and prosper!