This Star Trek: Strange New Worlds article contains spoilers.
The fact that Star Trek: Strange New Worlds features a character with the last name Noonien-Singh meant that we would eventually get an episode like “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” an hour that finally attempts to address the long-tail impact and trauma of growing up in the shadow of Khan’s bloody legacy. But, like so many other aspects of this show, the series found an unexpected way to explore this story—one that doesn’t rely solely on nostalgia to carry its plot but rather uses familiar elements to find something new to say about its characters and the larger world they inhabit.
To be fair, security officer La’an Noonien-Singh has absolutely been through it over the course of her life so far—heck, even just over the course of this series’ 13 episodes to date!—and it’s hard to know whether surviving a Gorn attack or being related to an infamous mass murderer has caused her more long-lasting distress. But “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” manages to center her emotional and psychological journey in a way that doesn’t feel exploitive, and offers some timely lessons on historical prejudice and its impact along the way.
“It’s something I’ve struggled with my entire life—being of Chinese descent and feeling ashamed of that because I was bullied for it,” Christina Chong, who plays La’an, tells Den of Geek when asked about her character’s complex relationship with her own past. “It’s not all of me, I’m also English, but it’s been there. And very much so as a child, I always felt ashamed of being Chinese, pushing it away and not wanting to embrace my culture and heritage. The almost…personalization of [La’an’s story] felt very linear to me.”
“Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” isn’t the first time we’ve seen Strange New Worlds confront the issue of La’an’s heritage. She struggled with her own anger over the revelation that Una—her mentor and confidant—was secretly a genetically modified Illyrian and more than one person over the course of the series’ run has raised their eyebrows at the mere mention of her last name, quietly judging her for a connection that’s little more than an accident of birth. Season 2 is the first time we’ve ever actually seen anyone—namely, Una’s Illyrian lawyer Neera—really sit down and actually spell out to La’an that she’s more than who she’s related to.
“I never told my parents I was bullied as a kid. I kept it inside,” Chong says. “And it actually takes people around you to accept you for who you are—or it did for me anyway—people who go ‘You’re amazing, how great that you’re from a Chinese background.’ You realize those other people were wrong, and it’s all just ignorance, racism, all those things… you start to realize it wasn’t something to be ashamed of.”
La’an’s complicated relationship with her family identity—as well as the Gorn attack that defined her childhood—means that her seemingly tough exterior masks a damaged and emotional core. And the tension that exists between these two aspects of herself is something that Chong says is particularly appealing as a performer.
“Playing her vulnerability against that badass kind of ‘I don’t need anybody’ energy is a push and pull that’s very interesting,” she explains. “It’s not just ‘Hey I’m here and I’m great,’ it’s not one note. People who are so standoffish, they’re the ones who need a big hug. And having that deep trauma, that deep vulnerability at her core, that can come out when needed. It gives me more to play with as an actor. “
In the season 2 episode “Ad Astra Per Aspera,” Neera tells La’an that her genetics are not her destiny, a lesson that we see play out in “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” when she’s given a chance to change the timeline by killing Khan before he ever grows up to cause her (and humanity) so much pain. But when push comes to shove, she can’t bring herself to harm a child, and that’s what ultimately makes her different than the man she shares a surname with.
“In that moment, looking into that boy’s eyes…he’s just a kid, he’s innocent,” Chong explains. “Things didn’t turn out well for Little Khan. [But] he wasn’t born like that. She’s not Khan—she can’t kill him. She has to save his life.”
That realization—that she can choose her own path and decide what kind of person she’s going to become without being beholden to her own genetics—is an important emotional catalyst that, in some ways, helps La’an make a sort of peace with herself she hasn’t managed to achieve before.
“That moment [when she declares herself as much a part of Khan’s legacy as his genocide and torture] really helps her,” Chong explains. “That’s when she [realizes] ‘No, I’m not going to do this.’ And that acceptance is going to help her grow and move on throughout the rest of the season.”
According to Chong, it’s James Kirk’s (from an alternate timeline) lack of reaction to her last name in “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” that finally helps her begin to let go of the identity others insist she wear.
“Kirk doesn’t judge her for who she is. He says ‘Who? Noonien who?’ He doesn’t know that she’s related to Khan,” she says. “Part of La’an’s journey [in this episode] is letting her guard down with him and having that connection and love develop despite where she’s from. That culminates in her accepting [herself] too.”
Despite an adversarial introduction, the two quickly form an intense, surprisingly charming bond as they explore the delights of life on mid-twenty-first-century Earth.
“I think they both felt they could be their full selves with each other,” Chong says. “The adventure that brings them together, all the things they go through, it just brings them closer.”
The “freedom” of that relationship is part of the reason its tragic end feels so exceptionally bittersweet. Kirk sacrifices himself in the name of helping La’an restore the primary timeline and, thanks to the technically-doesn’t-exist-yet Department of Temporal Investigations, she can’t even talk to anyone about what she’s been through.
“It’s heartbreaking!” Chong says. “The whirlwind of that romance and the loss, then coming back to the ship, going back to her quarters and not being able to say anything to anyone. And still kind of half-believing or hoping that maybe he does remember her…and he just doesn’t. He really is gone forever.”
”Well, we do know Paul is going to be in more episodes!” she laughs when asked about whether the La’an and Kirk of the primary Strange New Worlds timeline might have a chance to be together again. “I think we will see more of them but how, when? We don’t know. We don’t know if it’s going to be romantic or not. I would love there to be more Kirk and La’an stuff, but that’s up to the writers, up to Henry [Alonso Myers] and Akiva [Goldsman, the series showrunners].”
Whether or not a romance with this timeline’s Kirk is in the cards for her character, Chong says La’an’s emotional journey is far from over—and may be headed in a slightly more positive direction for the remainder of season 2.
“She’s growing,” she explains. “I think she now has obviously accepted who she is. That shame and that trauma are always going to be there for her on some level, but it’s not prominent. She is going to be more ready now, I think, for connection. For real connection. She’s seen it’s possible.”
In the final moments of the episode, La’an reaches out to the real Kirk, hoping against hope to find a remnant of the man she knew in the alternate timeline. She’s disappointed, but that doesn’t mean she won’t fight to find that relationship—or something like it—again.
“She’s lonely. She’s on that bed in that moment [after returning to the Enterprise]. And she’s the loneliest she’s ever been. But she’s a fighter and she’s not going to let it win. She’s going to open up and see what could come from, but it’s not going to be suddenly day and night. It’s going to be a slow build, but she’s [finally] going in the right direction.”
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 2 is streaming now on Paramount+.