An avalanche of of new sci-fi content of late (“Severance,” “The Orville: New Horizons”, “For All Mankind”) has prevented me from reviewing the previous Star Trek: Strange New Worlds episode “Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach,” and while I enjoyed it, I also think it borrowed quite a bit from the late sci-fi legend Ursula K. LeGuin‘s story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”; almost beat-for-beat in moments. The situation reminded me of TOS Star Trek’s “Arena,” which gave a story credit to author Frederick Browne mid-production, when producer/writer Gene L Coon was made aware of the similarities to Browne’s same-titled short story. Similarities to Le Guin’s work notwithstanding, “Lift Us…” was a good example of what Star Trek does best–holding a mirror to suffering in our own world; in this case, the plight of exploited children to support an upper middle-class. Not an exceptional episode, but a solid installment.
With past (and future) apologies for skipping the occasional episode review now and then, let’s take a deeper dive into the waters of “The Serene Squall,” written by Beau DeMayo, Sarah Tarkoff and directed by Sydney Freeland. This episode offers a tongue-in-cheek premise that embraces nearly every pirate cliche in the book, while simultaneously creating some very effective character moments for Spock (Ethan Peck) and the reimagined Christine Chapel (Jess Bush)–who is easily one of my favorite characters in this show. The episode also attempts to reconcile a long-taboo piece of Spock’s family history…
“The Serene Squall.”
The episode opens with the personal log of Spock’s fiancée T’Pring (Gia Sandhu), as she chronicles her challenging work with patients at the Ankeshtan K’til rehabilitation facility. There, she works to place emotional Vulcan criminals back onto the ‘true’ Vulcan path of logic and self-control. She also details the difficulties of maintaining her long-distance relationship with her fiancé Spock (Ethan Peck), whom she sees infrequently.
T’Pring then shares a video chat with Spock aboard the Enterprise, where she discusses various books she’s been reading on human sexuality (“Tropic of Cancer,” “Fear of Flying,” “The Argonauts”), causing a flustered Spock to nearly choke on his tea. Spock then tactfully suggests that they might read these texts together. Realizing she’s caused him embarrassment, T’Pring explains that she was reading these texts only to better understand his human half. For her surprising sensitivity, Spock is grateful.
Note: These two have such an interesting relationship that I almost hate to think of it ending in a violent divorce eight or so years later (see: TOS’ “Amok Time”).
Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) meets a distracted Spock in the ship’s corridors, where she tries to engage him in conversation about the ship’s “very sharp” guest, Dr. Aspen. Joking about their guests’ ‘blades for hands,’ Chapel finally gets through to Spock, who asks her (in a hushed tone) for more of her advice regarding his relationship with his fiancée. Feeling she overstepped her boundaries by offering her previous relationship advice to Spock, Chapel simply tells him not to be smarter than the truth. She also teasingly reminds him to always listen to her, “Because…“ Pompting Spock to answer, “… you are completely charming and I am missing it?” A smug Chapel smiles. “Progress,” she quips.
Note: You could solve the world’s current energy crisis by bottling and selling the palpable chemistry between Ethan Peck’s Spock and Jess Bush’s Chapel.
Captain Pike (Anson Mount) is serving dinner in his quarters for his senior officers and their guest, Dr. Aspen (Jesse James Keitel), who is there to brief them on their mission. Several transports filled with some 200 Federation colonists have been stranded at the edge of non-Federation space for 26 days, with some of those colonists facing starvation and dehydration. Pike confidently assures Aspen that the Enterprise will do whatever it can. Aspen good-naturedly teases Pike about his reputation as a “Boy Scout”, to which First Officer Una Chin-Riley deadpans, “It’s actually in your file, sir.” Una then mentions a reputed pirate ship in the area known as the Serene Squall, which has become legendary in this sector for raiding humanitarian aid missions. Comparing this region of space to the lawlessness of America’s Old West, Pike then asks Dr. Aspen about their experiences as a counselor on Starbase 12, a post the doctor left to run humanitarian aid missions along the border reaches. Aspen mentions, with more than a tinge of resentment in their voice, that those who needed assistance most weren’t always lucky enough to be Federation members.
Note: The nonbinary character of “Dr. Aspen,” as played by nonbinary actor Jesse James Keitel, is casually referred to using ‘they/them/their’ pronouns. Aspen is not the first openly-nonbinary character in Star Trek (Discovery’s “Adira” has that honor), but it’s nice to see the crew doesn’t have any awkwardness or fumbling over preferred pronouns, nor is there any speechifying regarding the character’s sexuality; it’s accepted as matter-of-factly as Spock’s ears or Pike’s hair (the latter of which could have its own spinoff series, so help me).
Arriving at the coordinates of the lost ships, the Enterprise finds a debris field, with no apparent life signs. Dr. Aspen says the colonists had nothing worth looting, but Security Chief La’an Noonien Singh (Christina Chong) suggests that the 200 colonists themselves might’ve been abducted as potential slave labor to the highest bidder, including the Klingons, since slavery is all too common outside the protection of the Federation. Pike asks how long a signal would take to reach Starfleet Command and back. Over two days is the answer. Realizing that going into non-aligned space would be their own risk to take, Pike decides the colonists’ welfare outweighs the possible dangers. The “Boy Scout” decides to take the Enterprise in, dropping subspace relay drones along the way, almost like a trail of breadcrumbs.
Detecting a distress call from an asteroid field dead ahead, Aspen cautions that it might be a trap set for the Enterprise, but Pike has to that chance in order to answer a Federation distress call (the poor guy learned nothing after Talos IV). Advising Helm Officer Lt. Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia) to take them in slowly, she asks, “First date? Second date?” Pike pithily answers, “Blind date.” Ortegas takes his meaning–proceed with caution. As the ship carefully maneuvers through the asteroids, it accidentally strikes one, triggering a weblike pattern of blue energy beams which immediately ensnare the starship. As the energy field begins to constrict around the Enterprise, it’s up to Spock to take a guess as to which of two possible targets is generating the energy field. Aspen watches intently as a visibly stressed Spock makes an educated guess. La’an targets Spock’s recommended asteroid and fires–it’s destroyed.
Note: The energy net thrown around the Enterprise in the asteroid field is similar to the TOS’ classic “Tholian Web” from that same-name episode. The visual similarity to the Tholians’ preferred method of capturing ships is so evident that it’s almost surprising to imagine how the future-Spock would fail to recognize its function when he sees it.
Meanwhile, a curious Aspen asks Spock about his stress in making a guess. Spock tells them that making guesses is acting on incomplete information. Aspen recognizes the answer as typically Vulcan, but reminds Spock of his human half, which Spock dismisses as a matter of genetics; he was raised on Vulcan, so it shouldn’t matter. Aspen notes that where we are born is simply a matter of geography. Spock is taken aback by the insightful observation.
Later, the Enterprise comes across what appears to be a possible third colony ship. Sensors reveal the presence of roughly 200 life signs in one section of the vessel, with another 30 scattered throughout the ship. It would be appear the 200 missing colonists are being held captive in a cargo hold. With the Enterprise just outside of the less-advanced vessel’s tracking sensors, Pike decides to form a boarding party of six, led by himself and La’an. Wearing tactical armor and armed with phaser rifles, they set coordinates for the ship’s cargo hold and beam down. Inside of the darkened ship, they proceed towards an abandoned cage ahead, and a trap is immediately sprung. Armed pirates leap out from every darkened corner and cargo container. A fire fight ensues, but the boarding party are outnumbered and outgunned. With communications to the Enterprise suddenly jammed, Pike and his landing party find themselves trapped. The captive boarding party is then ‘welcomed’ aboard the infamous Serene Squall…
Back on the Enterprise, Chapel is in the ship’s corridors when she hears weapons fire. Instantly realizing the ship has been boarded by pirates, she makes her way into a Jeffries maintenance tube, where she hopes to avoid capture and warn others. Reaching another deck, she runs into two armed pirates–so she quickly plays the helpless nurse. At just the right moment, she uses her hidden hypospray to sedate the first pirate, before actively disarming the other, and rendering him unconscious as well.
Note: Have I mentioned how completely amazing this spirited version of Nurse Chapel is? I can’t (and don’t want to) imagine her devolving into the repressed, pining woman we see later on in TOS Star Trek.
Meanwhile, the bridge has also been boarded by pirates. A quick-thinking Una immediately locks down the main computer with her access code. A firefight breaks out, with Ortegas and Una grabbing hidden phasers from beneath the helm and captain’s chairs. Hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned by the tenacious pirates, the bridge is lost. After nerve-pinching several pirates, Spock valiantly sends another one flying across the deck with his superior Vulcan strength. He then grabs an unconscious pirate’s rifle, recognizing that his primary duty is to get the civilian Dr. Aspen to safety before attempting to retake the ship. As they abandon the bridge, Aspen is stunned in the shoulder by one of the pirates, just as Spock helps them into the bridge turbolift, using his stolen rifle to cover their retreat.
Note: Spock hurtling a space pirate across the room like a bag of lawn clippings was a rare reminder of Spock’s superior Vulcan strength. The scene reminded me of a similar moment from “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock” when a reborn and rapidly aging Spock angrily hurls an aggressive Klingon soldier a good five meters across the Genesis Planet, knocking him out cold as he lands on a rock.
Aboard Serene Squall, Pike is interrogated by a green-skinned, red-haired, long-bearded Orion pirate named Remy (Michael Hough), who is trying to gain the access codes to disable the Enterprise’s locked computer. Resisting attempts at physical coercion, including a punch or two, Pike simply smiles and goes on a charm offensive–even offering to cook Remy’s ragged crew a nice hot meal, so that they can discuss their options over dinner. A female pirate, whom Pike provokingly recognizes as “the smart one,” suggests to Remy that with Enterprise immobilized, there’s no harm in accepting the captain’s offer. Remy caves, allowing Pike to make dinner for he and his fellow pirates.
Note: Anson Mount’s Pike uses his megawatt charisma as a well-placed weapon in this episode, and it’s a giddy joy to behold. Pike’s seemingly innocuous offer to cook a warm meal for Remy’s malnourished crew is his way of probing for weakness within the ranks of Remy’s pirates. That any self-respecting pirate would actually allow–let alone trust–a prisoner to cook dinner is taken with a grain of salt (no pun intended), like most of the pirate hijinks of this story.
As the rest of the malnourished pirates clearly relish Pike’s tasty stew, Remy only grudgingly offers that it is ‘edible.’ Pike suggests to Remy that it’s okay for two enemies to give each other a compliment or two. Speaking within earshot of Remy’s gang, Pike also mentions that Remy’s plan of selling the Enterprise and its crew to the Klingons would make both the pirates and their prospective buyers wanted enemies of the entire Starfleet. Pike’s well-placed point sends a few shudders among the pirates, who were only thinking of a quick score. Appealing to Remy’s vanity, Pike also mentions that a man as smart as he would know better than to attempt to make a deal with the ruthless Klingon Empire. Desperate to save face, Remy’s confidence begins to erode, and his fellow pirates take notice–picking up his scent of uncertainly like trained dogs. Point Pike.
Note: Is it too early to say that Pike may be my favorite Star Trek captain of all time?
Spock and Aspen manage to reach sickbay, where Spock treats their injured shoulder. Trying to access a computer terminal, Spock is grateful that Una’s security lockdown is holding for the time being. Aspen suggests they should try to reach an escape pod, but Spock states that the Enterprise must not be allowed to fall into enemy hands. Sensing Aspen’s deeper fear of being captured by the pirates, Spock asks them if they know more than they’re letting on. Aspen then tells Spock of their Vulcan husband, who was on an aid mission in this region when he was attacked and captured by the Serene Squall. Aspen’s frustrated Vulcan husband blamed himself for the mission’s failure–wishing that he’d reacted with anger instead of logic, which might’ve prevented their capture. This self-doubt eventually drove the two of them to leave Starfleet. With time running out, Spock then grabs a pair of phasers and hands one to Aspen. Aspen says they are not a fighter, but Spock disagrees. The two head to the Engineering section in an attempt to retake the ship.
Note: That Aspen had a Vulcan husband not only explains their unique insight into Spock’s present state of mind, but also to Spock himself, as we learn the identity of Aspen’s Vulcan husband later on.
Back aboard Serene Squall, Pike is tossed into the cage along with the captured bridge officers Una and Ortegas, along with Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokukun). Pike tells Una that he’s convinced Remy to sell the Enterprise to the Klingons. Una stares in disbelief until Pike explains that Remy wants to sell the ship, but the rest of the crew are against it. Realizing the captain is sowing a mutiny, an enlightened Una exclaims, “Just like Alpha Braga 4!”
Note: I like when the characters use this kind of shared-mission shorthand with each other, as we saw Chapel and M’Benga do when she raced to capture an alien who escaped from sickbay in the first episode of this series (“Just like Delta Scorpii 7!”). It’s a clever way to imply history between the characters without too much lengthy exposition.
Spock and Aspen reach Engineering, where they are surprised to see the ever-resourceful Nurse Chapel already there, along with several unconscious pirates. Point Chapel (again). Chapel is trying to send an emergency distress signal but can’t bypass the computer lockout. Spock quickly overrides the lockout codes with his own, redirecting control of the ship from the bridge to Engineering. He then seals the room as well, ordering Chapel to work on communications while Dr. Aspen works on regaining transporter control.
Suddenly, they hear the sound of the massive Engineering doors unlocking as control is then rerouted back to the bridge! Spock and Chapel then turn to see Aspen leveling a phaser at them. “Dr. Aspen” then identifies themself as Captain Angel–the commander of the Serene Squall, which has now successfully captured the Enterprise.
Note: The revelation of Captain Angel was a genuine surprise I honestly didn’t see coming. Under the guise of “Dr. Aspen,” the intelligent, cunning Captain Angel even gained Spock’s confidence as well. Actor Jesse James Keitel expertly manipulates audience sympathies and expectations with a disarming and intellectually-enlightened performance. Unfortunately, Captain Angel’s colleagues aboard the Serene Squall leave a bit more to be desired in the areas of intelligence and cunning.
Arriving on the bridge with Spock and Chapel, Captain Angel makes themself at home in the captain’s chair, mocking Spock for his hurt feelings. Spock tells them his only concern is for the Enterprise, nothing more. Trying out the ship’s powerful phaser weapons, Captain Angel is delighted. With communications restored, Angel then opens a channel to the Vulcan rehab colony at Ankeshtan K’til. Angel speaks directly with administrator T’Pring, demanding the immediate release of an inmate named Xaverius in exchange for her fiancé Spock’s life (at least Angel’s earlier claim of a Vulcan husband was true). With T’Pring reluctant to release her prisoner and risk dishonor, Angel makes their point by firing a phaser set to stun directly into Spock’s back.
A Vulcan ship arrives at the arranged coordinates to make the exchange of Xaverius for Spock. With T’Pring appearing on the main viewer, a recovered Spock quietly tells Chapel to follow his lead. Spock then attempts to convince T’Pring that he’s been unfaithful to her, ‘confessing’ that he’s having an affair with Nurse Chapel. Spock then passionately kisses Chapel in full view of T’Pring. Seemingly convinced, T’Pring tells Spock that their engagement is off. This deception of Spock’s has bought valuable time, as the Enterprise is caught in a sneak attack by the Serene Squall, which has (temporarily) been commandeered by Captain Pike. Disabling the Enterprise’s weapons and drive systems with Ortega’s skillful phaser targeting, Pike then tells Captain Angel to “Get the hell out of my chair!”
Control of the Enterprise is regained, as the crew of the Serene Squall are taken into custody. Back on the bridge, Pike then launches into a dreadfully bad pirate impression (“matey,” “arrr,” “walk the plank”). A deadpan Una demands that he stop at once.
Note: This is one of the funniest moments in the series to date; a wry commentary on the inherent silliness of the episode’s ‘space pirates’ premise.
With the ship fully restored, Spock manages to see T’Pring aboard the Enterprise once more. Assuring her that his kissing Chapel was only an act, she replies how impressed she was with his gambit–which saved her reputation, and her prisoner’s safety. T’Pring admits to Spock that his human half served him well in this crisis, allowing him to kiss Chapel with an authenticity that might’ve been impossible for a full Vulcan to muster. Given their rare chances to be with one another, Spock suggests this might be a logical time to perform a ‘re-bonding ritual.’
Note: Actually, this version of T’Pring sees a lot more of Spock than was ever suggested in TOS Star Trek. Theodore Sturgeon’s “Amok Time” strongly implied that Spock and T’Pring were engaged in childhood and hadn’t seen each other until their arranged wedding in that story. In Strange New Worlds, Gia Sandhu’s T’Pring has practically become a semi-regular. This subtle rewrite of canon doesn’t exactly cause me a lack of sleep, as I’ve come to accept each new iteration of Star Trek as a subtle rewrite of the overall lore.
Later, Spock goes to sickbay to thank Chapel for her help with his deception. Chapel, who clearly felt something a bit more in their ‘act,’ tells him it was just something between friends, as far as she’s concerned. She knows Spock is a decent and honorable man who would never cheat on T’Pring (sure, Christine; tell that to Leila Kalomi in TOS’ “This Side Of Paradise”). Chapel then takes the opportunity to ask what Spock knew of the Vulcan prisoner, Xaverius. Spock tells her that he believes Xaverius to be the assumed name of the outcast son of Sarek, the Vulcan ambassador. Remembering that Sarek is the name of Spock’s father, Spock confirms Chapel’s suspicion; the prisoner at Ankeshtan K’til is a person whom Spock was told to avoid at all costs–his own renegade half-brother, Sybok.
Note: This was a bold move; welcoming the near-universally reviled “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” back into the Star Trek fold. Star Trek V was a movie that even Gene Roddenberry himself famously dismissed as non-canonical back in 1989. It also ties Sybok to the renegade emotional Vulcan movement seen in Star Trek: Enterprise’s “Fusion.” Just as the current Star Wars streaming series have attempted to better integrate the prequel and original trilogies, it seems that Paramount+ is attempting to do a similar integration with the lone outcast of the Star Trek movie canon. As I said in my 2018 review of Star Trek V (emboldened link in this paragraph), I loved Lawrence Luckinbill’s portrayal of Sybok; I just hated that the character was written in as Spock’s brother. However, the reveal of Xaverius’ true identity in this episode held surprising gravitas, and I’ll gladly eat my words if Strange New Worlds finds a way to redeem this previously terrible idea.
On Ankeshtan K’til, T’Pring enters Sybok’s cell with her assistant Stonn (Roderick McNeil). Bearded and wearing familiar robes, Sybok is looking out the window, and begins to turn when he hears them enter…
Note: At Ankeshtan K’til, we also see that one of T’Pring’s colleagues is a male Vulcan named Stonn (Roderick McNeil)–Spock’s future rival for T’Pring’s affections in TOS’ “Amok Time.” Never buy your meat where you make your bread, T’Pring…
Summing It Up.
With an admittedly silly space pirates’ main story serving as a means to an end, the strength of this otherwise forgettable story comes from the valuable insight it gives to Spock, T’Pring and Chapel, as well as a tantalizing coda with Spock’s half-brother Sybok, who’s under T’Pring’s care in a Vulcan rehab facility. Sybok has long been held in Star Trek canonical limbo. Even Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry officially renounced Star Trek V’s canonical status back in 1989. Now the franchise is finally, if only teasingly, embracing this controversial bit of Spock’s family history.
Of course, the dirty space scoundrels (no relation to Han Solo) also give Anson Mount’s Pike an opportunity to pour on the charm with a ladle, as Starfleet’s famed Boy Scout uses his renowned cooking skills (and charisma) to sow disaffection within the pirate ranks. Of course it works, because Pike is charming as hell–the man can cook, has the hair of a Greek god, and does a hilariously bad pirate impression. What’s not to love? Guest star Jesse James Keitel also gives an effectively duplicitous performance as Captain Angel, who spends most of the episode masquerading as Federation counselor “Dr. Aspen.” What I found less convincing is how this pirate captain was apparently beamed aboard the Enterprise on their word alone, with absolutely no verification of credentials whatsoever (not even a photo ID). Was there at least a photo of the real Dr. Aspen on record? I realize trust is a big deal within the Federation, but the Enterprise was about to enter pirate space, so that might’ve been a wise precaution.
Once again, the day is saved by the quick thinking and resourcefulness of Jess Bush’s amazing Nurse Christine Chapel–a legacy character from TOS who is given so much more energy, wit and courage than we ever saw during her appearances in TOS. Chapel is so good in Strange New Worlds that I am perfectly willing to accept the entirety of this show as a new universe, just so that Nurse Chapel never has to become the unfulfilled doormat who spends so much wasted energy pining for Spock in TOS. Yes, we see the seeds of attraction to her “friend” Spock flower with this episode, but I hate to think this attraction of hers goes unrequited so many years later. Chapel deserves better. In fact, this Chapel’s so good I wish she’d just get her MD and take over Dr. M’Benga’s sickbay right now.
Overall, “The Serene Squall” offers a tongue-in-cheek pirates’ story that exists mainly to serve up some delicious character moments. This episode even sets the stage to redeem “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier,” arguably one of the most irredeemable movies of the Star Trek movies. The rich characters at the core of this series serve as its best defense against any less-than-stellar storytelling. This also reiterates the wisdom of Star Trek’s long-held episodic format–if a main story isn’t particularly strong, at least the characters aren’t married to it for the remainder of a given season.
Space pirate silliness notwithstanding, I enjoyed “The Serene Squall” much more than I anticipated. Delicious character moments, along with an intriguing twist ending, made it much more than the sum of its parts.
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!
4 Comments Add yours
I liked the episode. I also saw the Aspen/Angel twist coming a mile away.
I liked the episode too. Even though these SNW episodes can make us look back so much differently on classic Trek, it’s easy to get passed that because of how much we can enjoy thanks to the better depth for Chapel, Uhura, M’Benga and in some cases even for Spock.
Anson Mount’s Pike has Kirk’s charisma, quick wits, and resourcefulness without Shatner’s cocky swagger. Pike seems like he has all of Kirk’s best qualities, without the Shatnerian overtones. I’ve only seen the guy in seven episodes so far, and he’s already on the way to becoming my favorite captain! Of course, it helps that Mount grew up on TOS, so he absorbed the best parts of Kirk when he was still a child and can channel them easily, while adding his own best qualities to the mix.
I have mixed feelings about their adding Sybok to the series. On the one hand, of course no culture is monolithic, and Star Trek has had a tendency to treat all members of a culture as nearly identical, which has always been a bad idea. So giving us a Vulcan who transgresses against his culture’s deepest values could be very interesting. My fear is that the transgression will be shown to be the “right” path, with the clear implication that Vulcans are wrong to adhere to logic and should be more emotional, like us.
I do Vulcans the courtesy of believing that if they decided they needed to suppress their extra-strong emotions in order to prevent chaos and bloodshed, they must have actually needed to do that in order to have a peaceful society. So when we see Vulcans who’ve forsaken logic, I want to see Vulcans whose uncontrolled emotions wreak havoc and prove by their behavior that the logical Vulcans are right. But usually emotional Vulcans are presented as people who’ve done the right thing, in becoming more like humans.
I like Vulcans the way they are. They don’t need to give us a flagrantly emotional Vulcan to make them interesting; I find Vulcans plenty interesting when they’re being their lovably repressed selves. 🙂 I hate it in general when they try to make Vulcans more human, like by giving them prejudices, since prejudice is wildly illogical. And I want to see Spock and T’Pring being appropriately Vulcan by stroking fingers and saying “Live long and prosper,” not acting like humans in kissing and saying “Good-bye.”
Do we have to make everybody just like us? Can’t Star Trek allow its aliens to be alien? *grumble* *whine* *sigh*
IF they write Sybok well, it could be interesting. I just hope they don’t use him to try to dismantle what’s good about Vulcans.
That is a serious problem with alien races in Star Trek. Too much human-centricity can deprive us of the fascination with the galactic diversity that was more popular in shows like Babylon 5 and Farscape. It would indeed make Sybok’s recreation a lot more challenging.