This week’s episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds takes a rare look at the human half of the stoic, self-identifying Vulcan science officer, Spock (Ethan Peck). Like last season’s “Spock Amok,” “Charades” sees Lt. Spock feeling not quite himself, at a particularly bad time—as his Vulcan fiancée and prospective in-laws come aboard the Enterprise to visit.
Watching the trailer, I wondered how the late Leonard Nimoy would’ve relished such an opportunity to explore the human half of his character; if nothing else, simply for the chance to work without the pointy ears and eyebrows for once. Despite his unemotional nature, the deadpan character of Spock can make for a terrific comedic character (“Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”), but exploring the character’s human side promises a whole new dimension.
Time to play “Charades”…
“Charades” was written by Kathryn Lyn, Henry Alonso Myers and was directed by Jordan Channing. This comedic episode, with a few genuinely moving moments here and there, was largely preceded by spoiler-filled trailers, photos and clips which gave away the ‘big reveal’ of this episode. As I tend to do in-depth reviews for this site, spoilers will be unavoidable, including visual ones, so if you haven’t seen the episode and wish to be surprised? I recommend you stop scrolling and don’t read any further.
The story opens atypically with a log entry from Nurse Christine Chapel (Jess Bush), as the Enterprise heads at ‘sub-impulse’ speeds to the Vulcan system to explore the outlying moon of Kerkhov, home to a mysteriously vanished civilization. An anomalous energy reading has been detected in the moon’s vicinity, as well. Chapel is using her downtime to prepare for a fellowship interview to the prestigious Vulcan Science Academy. Her shipmates take turns quizzing her on potential interview questions, including one from Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) regarding Dr. Dr. Roger Korby, a revered professor of “archeological medicine”; a field of interest for Chapel. We also things getting a bit weird between Chapel and Lt. Spock (Ethan Peck), as both attempt to downplay their obvious attraction to each other.
Note: As longtime Star Trek fans know, Chapel will get the opportunity to study under Dr. Korby, and will become his future fiancée as well (TOS’ “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”). Longtime Trek fans also know that Korby will suffer a tragically dehumanizing fate later on.
We then cut a log entry from Spock, who is becoming better at controlling his emotions following a recent incident, thanks to the therapies of Dr. M’Benga. Working with Captain Pike (Anson Mount) on one of his chef’s meals for the crew, Pike offers some herbs for Spock to smell, but his science officer reveals that Vulcans use nasal suppressants around humans, as most Vulcans find human bodily scents unappealing. We then see ship’s anthropologist Lt. Sam Kirk (Dan Jeannotte) holding a briefing about the mysterious lost culture of Kerkhov, leaving a few crumbs on the table from a snack—which an irked Spock quietly wipes off the table afterward. Things get more complicated when Pike tells Spock that both his mother Amanda and his fiancée T’Pring’s parents are coming aboard, since the Enterprise is in their home system. A distracted Spock is then told he will be flying a shuttle out to Kerkhov, and that he will have one passenger; Nurse Chapel.
Note: Of course. Pairing up the only two people on the ship with an awkward mutual crush…
Alone together on the shuttle, Spock and Chapel awkwardly try to make smalltalk. As they fly closer to the moon, the sight of the swirling energy anomaly orbiting Kerkhov breaks the tension between them. A proximity alert goes off, as Spock loses control of the shuttle. Caught in the whirlpool of the energy vortex, Spock turns the shuttle “into the skid” to reduce stress on the outer hull. As Spock and Chapel are pulled into the anomaly, they lose consciousness…
Note: Was Spock really the only person who could’ve flown that shuttle? Sounds like they needed more of a seasoned pilot than a science officer, since Chapel was taking readings on the phenomenon just fine by herself.
From blackness, we fade into the Enterprise sickbay from Spock’s temporarily bedridden perspective. Spock sees Chapel, M’Benga and Pike standing over him, as he wonders aloud what has happened? Pike tells Spock that there’s been an accident, and that Nurse Chapel is alright, but that he suffered an ‘injury.’ He learns that aliens from the anomaly apparently healed Chapel and repaired the shuttle, but weren’t so successful with him. Feeling strange, Spock rises from bed to reveal his now-rounded ears and eyebrows, with wavier hair. The aliens somehow extracted all of Spock’s Vulcan DNA, leaving him fully human. A confused and emotional Spock exclaims, “What the f—?”
Note: Of course, the idea of somehow decoupling a being’s DNA along racial lines is ridiculous and even vaguely racist, but for the purposes of this lighthearted character examination, it’s one of those things you have to swallow. Star Trek has a long history of ‘splitting’ characters’ DNA along impossible 50/50 lines, such as the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ sides of Captain Kirk in Star Trek TOS’ “The Enemy Within” (an even more ambiguous divide) or the Klingon/human engineer, B’Elanna Torres in Star Trek: Voyager’s “Faces.” This admittedly silly storytelling device is only being used here to explore character facets, not to make authoritative statements on racial/species identity. It does make me wonder why Spock never bothered to mention this experience of his when trying to better understand Kirk’s condition in “The Enemy Within.”
First Officer Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn) and Security Chief La’an Noonien Singh (Christina Chong) conduct a thorough investigation of the returned shuttlecraft. Una realizes the shuttle has not only been repaired, but has been given a “deep cleaning” by the unknown aliens of Kerkhov. La’an then notices a innocuous-looking piece of distinctly alien technology left on the control console. They bring it to the bridge…
Note: Is there some reason why Una and La’an are using flashlights to forensically examine the shuttle? The shuttle’s been repaired and ‘deep cleaned,’ yet the lights don’t work…?
On the bridge, Ensign Uhura (Celia Gooding) very quickly determines the alien tech is a ‘calling card’ with a specific subspace frequency to open a channel to the alien beings who created it. Pike, thrilled at the possibility of a first contact, orders a channel opened. On the screen, a whirling cloud of inter-dimensional energy identifies in a female voice as “Yellow” (Anjuli Cain) of the Kerkhovians. When Pike tries to ask what was done to Spock, Yellow abruptly answers “Damage was repaired” per their code, and that no further thanks or contact is necessary. Pike tries to explain Spock’s current condition, but Yellow says Spock came with “mixed instructions,” and that he is whole now. Since Chapel was the only other occupant of the shuttle, the Kerkovians mistakenly assumed she and Spock were both human and that Spock’s DNA was corrupted somehow. As the xenophobic Kerkhovians end communication, M’Benga realizes Spock is stuck in his current human form.
Note: I realize that Uhura is a linguistics’ expert (post-2009 “Star Trek,” anyway), but I have to wonder how she knew exactly what the alien device’s function was after a brief look? What did she use as a linguistics primer? Were there common symbols? This leap of logic stretches credibility, even for a sci-fi/fantasy series such as “Star Trek.”
In sickbay, Spock is given the bad news, while struggling to understand his current condition. The newly human Spock involuntarily smiles, before swiftly lapsing into anger, as he runs the full gamut of emotions. Sniffing himself, Spock is also worried if he smells more human. Dr. M’Benga likens Spock’s current emotional state to adolescence, since Spock isn’t used to his body’s newfound bombardment of hormones and stimuli. Clearly unable to meet with T’Pring’s family in this state, Pike promises Spock he’ll postpone the meeting. Spock replies with an exaggeratedly nautical-sounding, “Aye aye, Captain!”
Note: M’Benga’s use of adolescence as a metaphor for Spock’s inexperience with controlling his human body hand-waves a lot of my issues with Spock acting so out of control throughout most of this episode. Personally, I would’ve enjoyed seeing Spock’s emotional awakening as a slower and more subtle experience, but given the limitations of an hour-long episode, playing it broadly is arguably more economical.
In the Enterprise’s lounge, an off-duty Spock suddenly finds himself more popular at Una, Uhura, La’an and Ortegas’ table, as he’s finally able to fully understand and embrace their sense of humor. Spock laughs uproariously at a joke of theirs, prompting a surprised cascade of guffaws, giggles and howls from his shipmates, who enjoy seeing this lighter side of their science officer.
Note: As much as I’ve come to appreciate Ethan Peck’s interpretation of Spock, I would’ve loved to have seen the late Leonard Nimoy afforded this opportunity with his version of the Spock character. Yes, we’ve seen Spock show emotion before (TOS’ “The Naked Time,” “This Side of Paradise” etc) but it would’ve been interesting to see Nimoy attempt to play the character without the aid of enhanced ears and eyebrows, as well.
Once again assisting Captain Pike with cooking a meal for the crew, the formerly vegetarian Spock gets his first taste of bacon, which he finds delicious. We also see Spock attending another of Sam Kirk’s briefings on the Kerkhovians. Sam once again leaves crumbs on the otherwise spotless table, prompting Spock to lose his temper, demanding that Sam Kirk clean up his mess! After the incident, Spock is coached by La’an regarding his emotional adolescence. Spock is now ashamed of his behavior towards Sam.
Note: In the TOS episode, “All Our Yesterdays,” we saw Spock repulsed at the prospect of eating “animal flesh” in order to stay alive in the frozen wastes of the planet Sarpeidon. Now we’re expected to believe the fully human Spock simply ‘forgets’ a lifetime of revulsion with eating meat? Spock may have lost some DNA, but did he lose his memories and instincts as well? “Charades” seems to automatically associate being human with being carnivorous, and that’s simply not the case. Along with myself, I’ve known quite a few vegetarian humans in my lifetime.
Feeling intense survivors’ guilt, Chapel works tirelessly in the sickbay labs to find a way of recreating Spock’s Vulcan DNA, but to no avail. She’s already exhausted M’Benga’s own research into the matter, with no results. M’Benga tells her she can’t neglect her own life, reminding her of the interview for the Vulcan Science Academy fellowship. Realizing she’s already late, Chapel bolts from sickbay. Activating a monitor, Chapel greets a sour-faced Vulcan named Durik (Ryan Taerk), who isn’t pleased by her tardiness. Despite Chapel’s credentials and vast field work aboard the Enterprise, Durik isn’t impressed. The Vulcan terminates the interview. Encountering a smiling Spock in the corridor afterward, Chapel says that her interview didn’t go well. Spock sympathizes, telling her that “Vulcans can be jerks!” He then takes Chapel in an uncharacteristically warm hug. A surprised Chapel appreciates this new side of Spock, even if it feels a bit strange to her.
Note: Durik reminds me of the more outwardly racist Vulcans we’d previously seen in Star Trek: Enterprise, before their supposed reform in the mid-22nd century. I find it hard to believe a culture whose motto is “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations” (IDIC) would be so intolerant of even minor differences between human culture and their own. It’s not…logical.
On the ship’s intercom, Pike then calls Spock to the transporter room—his human mother Amanda (Mia Kirshner) is beaming aboard. Amanda’s husband Sarek still refuses to meet with his son after their falling out over Spock’s decision to join Starfleet (TOS’ “Journey to Babel”). After the graceful Amanda materializes on the transporter platform, Pike apologizes that her friend Pelia (Carol Kane) isn’t aboard; the ship’s long-lived engineer is out scouting for new sources of dilithium.
Note: Mia Kirshner reprises her role of Amanda Grayson, Spock’s human mother, from season two of Star Trek: Discovery. Kirshner inherited the role from the late Jane Wyatt in TOS Star Trek’s “Journey to Babel” and “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.” The role of Amanda was also played by popular Gen X actress Winona Ryder (wearing subtle age makeup) in 2009’s “Star Trek”-reboot. New Enterprise engineer Pelia (Carol Kane) name-dropped Amanda as an old friend of hers in the recent Strange New Worlds’ episode, “The Broken Circle,”
Spock enters the transporter room wearing a dark blue tuque (with a Starfleet emblem, of course) to cover his rounded ears and eyebrows. Wondering aloud why her son is wearing the ridiculous hat, Spock angrily yells at her to drop it. Calmly, patiently, Amanda asks her son to take the hat off. Amanda is shocked to see Spock’s features are now fully human. Embarrassedly, Spock manages a weak “Hi, mom.” Brought up to speed on Spock’s accident and resultant condition, Amanda then gets to work in preparing him for the V’Shal ritual due to take place once T’Pring and her parents arrive. Amanda also reminds Spock that if he postpones, the wedding will be called off. With the help of the Enterprise crew, Amanda offers to coach Spock on how to act more Vulcan, with hilarious results (“You look constipated”). With genetic alteration not possible, Dr. M’Benga offers to fit Spock with temporary prosthetic ears and eyebrows to pass as his former self.
Note: Spock’s blue tuque/cap is a clear nod to the one the character wore in TOS’ “City on the Edge of Forever” when he and Kirk went back in time to 1930s New York City to prevent Dr. McCoy from accidentally undoing history. Spock also wore similar caps to blend in with the humanoid civilizations seen in “Bread and Circuses” and “Patterns of Force.” Fitting Spock with prosthetic ears is also an in-joke at the makeup process actor Ethan Peck endures during filming of this series.
Ahead of her parents, Spock’s betrothed T’Pring (Gia Sandhu) is then beamed aboard the Enterprise. Immediately she notices something “strange” about Spock’s appearance, which he quickly attributes to his recent shuttle accident, for which he’s still receiving regular therapy and treatments. Amanda warmly welcomes T’Pring, with whom she gets along easily—a far cry from T’Pring’s own mother, T’Prill, with whom the younger woman ‘debated’ for three hours over which dress to wear. Spock stifles a chuckle, after T’Pring makes a black-humored quip about certain parents “eating their young.”
Note: Spock is still unable to tell T’Pring what happened, which is strange. You’d think Spock explaining the aftereffects of his ‘accident’ would be a much easier admission after he and T’Pring have literally swapped souls. Fortunately, the writers remember Spock’s reluctance to tell the truth, as it comes back to bite him, later on.
T’Pring’s parents are then beamed aboard. T’Prill (Ellora Patnaik), as her daughter warned us, is insufferably intolerant. T’Pring’s father, Sevet (Michael Benyaer), seems a bit more open-minded, and even eager to try some of Captain Pike’s specially-prepared Vulcan delicacies. Sevet enjoys the slightly bolder flavor of Pike’s appetizers, but his enthusiasm is quickly dampened by his controlling wife. As the first phase of the V’Shal ritual, T’Prill and Sevet are required to try some of Spock’s hot tea that he’s personally brewed. Carefully hiding his newfound human pain with gripping both sides of the heavy hot kettle, Spock carefully serves the tea…which T’Prill finds “acceptable.” With that first hurdle now jumped, Spock and T’Pring hold holds.
Note: Once again, I ask; where’s the IDIC philosophy with these post-reformation Vulcans?
Running out of options to cure Spock, Chapel suggests flying a shuttle back to Kerkhov to once again negotiate with the inter-dimensional aliens living within its energy vortex. Recognizing the danger of what she’s asking, Chapel seeks the help of friends Ortegas (“I’m Erica Ortegas and I fly the ship!”) and linguistics prodigy, Uhura. They agree to join her on this dangerous flight, which previously caused a shuttle to crash. As Ortegas steers the shuttle closer to the anomaly’s perimeter, Uhura suggests wedging themselves in the doorway—comparing the vortex to a turbulent surf with a calm ocean beneath. Taking them closer, Ortegas says, “Hold onto your butts!”
Note: Given that the moon of Kerkhov is within Vulcan space, I’m curious about two things: why doesn’t the moon have a more Vulcan (and less Russian) sounding name, and have the Vulcans themselves ever attempted to explore the anomaly and learn what become of the Kerkhov civilization?
The next phase of the V’Shal is the “awareness ritual,” which is like a human group therapy session, where those involved express what they like and dislike about others within the group. As Amanda and T’Pring bond even closer, T’Prill unleashes more of her verbal venom, telling prospective son-in-law Spock that he’s a disappointment to her. T’Prill reminds Spock that many Vulcans would devote themselves fully to a woman like T’Pring, instead of leaving her alone for months at a time. Struggling to contain his anger, Spock excuses himself to “use the bathroom.” Once alone, Spock rages aloud—screaming at the walls while throwing imaginary punches. Fighting a losing battle with his own demons, Spock calls to Dr. M’Benga in sickbay, who tells him that Chapel and a team have returned to Kerkhov…
Note: Meanwhile, M’Benga, the ship’s Chief Medical Officer, remains aboard like a potted plant, while his head nurse takes a shuttle to heroically save one of his patients. I like M’Benga, but this is not one of his better episodes. Granted, Chapel is more personally involved, but shouldn’t the CMO be just as passionate for all of his patients?
Chapel, Ortegas and Uhura awaken inside of the inter-dimensional realm of the Kerkhovians. For a moment, the trio wonders if they’re dead, as they’re surrounded by fields of glistening energy in a surreal nether space. Chapel asks to speak with “Yellow,” the Kerkhovian Pike spoke with earlier. Yellow appears, wondering why Chapel and the others aren’t satisfied with their earlier arrangement. Chapel insists a mistake was made when they put Spock back together. Chapel attempts to define friendship to Yellow, who tells Chapel that Spock diverted shielding to protect her during the crash. Stunned by this revelation, Chapel explains why Spock is so important to her personally, despite his engagement to T’Pring. She receives encouragement from Uhura and Ortegas, who insist now is not the time to be coy. Chapel states that the new Spock is admittedly easier to be with, but he’s not the person she misses. She then asks, “Can you please put him back?”
Note: A nicely written scene that encapsulates what Star Trek is all about—humanity going out into the universe, encountering very different sorts of beings who will inevitably force us to take a good look at what defines us as humans (or humanoids), reexamining the value of friendship and love. Admittedly something of a cliche in Star Trek, but it still works.
As T’Prill grows impatient to begin the mind-meld phase of the V’Shal, Pike tries to buy Spock more time by insisting on a ‘sacred’ Earth custom known as charades. Sevet is genuinely curious about this human ritual, as his wife grows increasingly exasperated. Meanwhile, Spock is using the excuse of another round of needed post-accident ‘treatments,’ just as Chapel returns to the Enterprise with the cure in hand. Injecting Spock, she tells him that his outward features will take longer to transform, but that he will begin to feel like his old self very soon…
Note: The title “Charades” is more about Spock pretending to be something he’s (temporarily) not for the benefit of his traditional, prospective in-laws. In some ways, this is Star Trek’s answer to 1978’s Franco-Italian drag farce “La Cage aux Folles” (remade in 1996 for the US as “The Birdcage”), where a longtime gay couple masquerade as heterosexuals in order to win over their son’s fiancée’s conservative parents.
With Spock feeling more “Vulcan,” he returns to perform the mind-meld phase of the V’Shal by melding with his mother, Amanda. As he touches her mind, Spock tells the guests she’s recalling a typical day at school when he was a boy. With T’Prill declaring the dinner portion of the ritual cancelled, Sevet quietly asks Pike if he can take some of his food to go. Grudgingly, T’Prill admits that Spock has completed the steps of the V’Shal ritual. Forcing T’Prill to examine her own bigotry, Spock pulls off his prosthetic ears and confesses he was fully human during the entire ritual—something she claimed was impossible for a mere human. As Amanda stands proudly by her son, Spock says that Amanda proves humans are strong simply through her unwavering support. An incensed T’Prill and her reluctant husband leave. Later, as Spock escorts his mother Amanda to the transporter room, he wonders why she chose to remember a day at school where he was finally accepted by Vulcan children. Amanda says it was because Spock was truly happy that day, even if she was shunned by the Vulcan mothers. Spock reassures her that such judgement was their weakness, not hers. Spock then meets with his captain for another Earth custom—commiseration.
Note: Spock’s removal of his prosthetic ears also brings the finale of “La Cage aux Folles” to mind, as drag queen Albin removes his wig, forcing fiancée Andrea’s conservative parents to realize that families come in many varieties.
Alone in his quarters, Spock and T’Pring share a tense moment. She’s displeased with him for not telling her, his fiancée, the truth about his condition. She feels he doesn’t trust her. Realizing she’s not entirely wrong, they mutually agree to take time apart from their relationship.
Note: I’m glad the writers followed through on this very important plot point, which examines some of the cracks in Spock and T’Pring’s relationship (see: TOS’ “Amok Time”); namely a lack of trust and communication. Even after exchanging personalities—an experience that should’ve brought them much closer—the trust just wasn’t there.
Chapel receives a call from Durik, who denies her fellowship, dismissing her as not ready. Collecting herself, he tells Durik that she went into inter-dimensional space today, and convinced aliens to help her repair Spock’s DNA. His interest piqued, Durik asks for her logs on the incident. She tells him that he can read all about it in her published paper someday. She then tells the arrogant Vulcan that he and his fellowship aren’t ready for her.
Alone in his quarters, Spock decides to thank Chapel personally. As his door opens, he’s surprised to see her standing there, about to ring the chime. Inviting her in, he tells her he’s taking time away from T’Pring. When she asks him how he feels about that, Spock says that Vulcans do experience emotions—more powerfully than humans, in fact, which is why they’ve had to learn to suppress them. Chapel then passionately kisses Spock.
Caught off guard, the ever-analytical Spock asks, “What does this mean?”
To which she says, “I don’t know. Shut up!”
They continue to kiss…
Note: This ending saddens me more than anything else, since we know that all of this passion between Spock and Chapel eventually fades and dies. Nothing will ever come of it. It’s too bad, as I really enjoy these fresh interpretations of the classic Star Trek characters.
Summing It Up
“Charades” is sure to be a future fan favorite for those who “grok Spock” (that reference carbon dates me, I’m afraid). In some ways, the story is similar to last season’s “Spock Amok,” another Spock-centric story which saw Spock (Ethan Peck) and T’Pring (Gia Sandhu) temporarily switching minds (aka souls or ’katras’).
Instead of walking a day in T’Pring’s shoes, however, this episode sees Spock gaining more insight into his own mother, Amanda (Mia Kirshner), as he comes to understand the pain she endured as a human raising a half-human son in the less-than-accepting culture of Vulcan. So much for “Vulcan IDIC,” right? We see here, as we also saw in “Star Trek: Enterprise,” that Vulcans can (sadly) be as racist as any humans at their worst. The only Vulcan in this story who emerges unscathed is T’Pring’s father, Sevet, who shows some appreciation for humans (and their cooking), even if he’s not as vocally supportive as he could be.
Spock’s emergence as fully-human is played a bit more broadly than I might’ve wished, but this is explained away by other characters as his own emotional equivalent of adolescence, since raw, unfiltered human emotions are a new experience for the typically repressed, half-Vulcan Spock. Given that context, Spock’s overindulgence in emotions and new sensations makes more sense. This is not unlike Spock’s ‘rebirth’ in “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” where the psychically-unscrambled Spock’s return from the dead was also played largely for laughs. Personally I would’ve preferred to see Spock trying things like bacon and human jokes with a bit more subtlety, but given that the episode is only an hour long, I get why these bits had to be played for maximum effect within the allotted running time.
As important as Spock’s arc is, “Charades” is as much a Christine Chapel (Jess Bush) story, too. At first, we see Chapel seeking other career opportunities, as she grows increasingly uncomfortable serving on the same ship with a man she’s fallen in love with, yet who remains emotionally out of reach. However, this version of Chapel (unlike her pining future self in TOS) comes to know her own value and self-worth by the story’s end. This younger, more driven Chapel also takes point on finding Spock’s cure, while Dr. M’Benga seems to sit on his thumbs and give up. We also see what might compel her to study ‘archeological medicine’ under future fiancée Roger Korby (TOS’ “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”), since gaining Spock’s cure from an ancient culture no doubt stoked her curiosity about that admittedly niche-sounding field. Chapel is the true MVP of this episode.
“Charades” is an enjoyable deconstruction of Spock, while also greatly affirming the character of his savior, Nurse Christine Chapel. For both its humor and surprising insights, it’s a terrific episode. The only thing leaving a bitter aftertaste is knowing that Spock and Chapel have no future together. A part of me wishes that Star Trek: Strange New Worlds could be presented as another divergent reality instead of a straight prequel, as it’d like to imagine these versions of Chapel and Spock making it work someday…
Where To Watch
Where To Watch“Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” is available to stream exclusively on Paramount+. The first season of “Strange New Worlds” is also available for purchase on BluRay and DVD from CBS/Paramount, and is available for purchase wherever you can still buy physical media (Amazon, BestBuy, Barnes & Noble; prices vary).