This Star Trek: Strange New Worlds review contains spoilers.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Episode 4
Another week has passed, and another knockout episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is officially in the books. At the risk of sounding like an effusive fangirl—which let’s face it, I think I might be at this point—is there anything this show can’t do? Hopeful adventure? Check. In-depth character exploration? Check. And now, a high octane, tension-filled horror fest, that manages to reinvent a classic Star Trek: The Original Series villain as something truly menacing and monstrous while allowing almost every one of our favorites a moment of true, genuine bravery in the face of their fears.
Reader, I truly just love this show so much. And there’s so much that’s awful in the world right now—I’m writing this review on the night of the Uvalde school shooting and Gene Roddenberry’s dream of a better, kinder universe feels so very far away from us at this precise moment in time—and, sure, a science fiction television program probably isn’t going to change any of that horror in a tangible real way, but I can say with some certainty that shows like this, that embrace hope and empathy and compassion, or try to anyway, even in the face of the worst sorts of odds and darkest moments feel more necessary than ever right now. It’s what’s helping get me through, for what that’s worth. Which maybe isn’t much. But it’s something.
This week, the Enterprise is en route to deliver an atmospheric processor upgrade to a remote colony. But when they arrive, they discover the outpost has been attacked and essentially abandoned, the surviving colonists having fled to a cargo ship nearby. All standard rescue mission stuff, if with a more distinctly horror movie vibe than normal, what with the flaming wreckage and lack of power. Things take a much darker turn when a ship appears and attacks the deep space transport tube bringing injured survivors to the Enterprise. It’s the Gorn, and the way everyone reacts to this news, it’s essentially as if someone announced that Ghostface or Michael Myers had suddenly appeared—they’re a real bogeyman, an intergalactic scary story come to life.
Continuing the trend of the series’ first three installments, “Memento Mori” is essentially a La’an episode. Her voiceovers frame the hour and her unique experience as one of the few survivors of a Gorn attack provides a necessary perspective on how dangerous they truly are. (Let’s face it, Pike is the sort of person who would 100% try to negotiate with anything, no matter how bad their species is supposed to be, so she’s a needed balance here.) The fact that La’an is still so traumatized by her experience with them—given everything else we know about her and her ability to compartmentalize emotions—says something truly horrifying about what kind of monsters they must be.
It’s rare that we get a villain in this franchise that’s truly full-on evil. (Even the Borg—my go-to favorite Star Trek Big Bad—have been somewhat defanged by the most recent season of Star Trek: Picard.) So there’s something marvelously poetic about the possibility of making Pike’s recurring nemesis the most purely evil creature in the Trek world. He’s such a relentless hero figure, a guy who believes in the power of everything the Federation stands for and wants to see the best in every species he meets, no matter how alien they might be. The Gorn….don’t care about any of that. How will Pike deal with an enemy that essentially goes against everything (kindness, compassion, empathy) he values, that doesn’t operate from a moral perspective that he understands? And how far is he willing to go to defeat them?
Despite the constantly looming threat of the Gorn—and La’an’s palpable if somewhat repressed fear—Strange New Worlds smartly never shows us their take on these creatures (which, let’s be real, were not exactly bone-chilling monsters in The Original Series what with the spangly jumpsuits and 1950s Godzilla movie vibes ). By leaving the Gorn to our imaginations—at least for now—the show allows us to fill in the gaps with our own ideas about what scares us most, all while managing to remain canon-compliant (for now) that the Enterprise had never “met” them. But, mostly, isn’t it always that little bit more frightening when you can’t clearly see the thing that’s chasing you?
“Memento Mori” is also Strange New Worlds’ most action-oriented episode yet, featuring ship-to-ship combat, dramatic surgery without the benefit of high-tech 23rd-century medicine, and crew members willing to pay the ultimate price to save each other. (And spoiler alert, all the sets look properly fantastic.) While Pike and the bridge crew are trying to come up with a way to escape the Gorn ships, Hemmer and Uhura (who picked the worst week for her engineering roration) are trying to prevent a deadly explosion in the cargo hold, and M’Benga and Chapel are basically triaging patients in sickbay using what they refer to as “ancient” science. (Love to be ancient!!)
It all feels very much like a submarine thriller, a sort of Strange New Worlds version of the Original Series “Balance of Terror” episode that originally introduced the Romulans. (Except without the final reveal of the enemy at the end.) From the flickering lighting to the groaning, creaking sounds of the ship’s hull slowly buckling under the increasing pressure from the brown dwarf, it’s claustrophobic and oppressive in a way that would be frightening enough without the whole being hunted by a vicious murdering alien race thing.
Pike is in his most charmingly hot hero mode this week: Determined, firm, and dedicated to keeping his crew calm and fully invested in the fight to save their own lives, he’s essentially the Platonic ideal of a Starfleet captain come to life. True, there are several moments where we, as the audience, have to wonder if he’d take insane risks like purposefully skirting the edge of a black hole if he didn’t feel some level of preternatural confidence that his death wasn’t waiting for him there. (And he exchanges some quick glances with Spock that make me wonder if the Vulcan might be wondering the same thing.)
But I suppose you could also argue that just because he saw the moment he’d become disfigured and paralyzed as a fixed point doesn’t mean that he couldn’t get hurt before then does it? Either way, I’m not entirely sure it matters, since Pike is also the sort of man who just trusts his crew wholeheartedly and the strength of his belief in them is honestly enough to make those of us watching along at home believe in them too.
At one point, Pike tells his bridge to get creative, that they’re the best of Starfleet, and that they can do anything because of that. And, honestly, at this point, I think he’s probably right.