This Star Trek: Strange New Worlds review contains spoilers.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 2 Episode 2
Though Star Trek: Strange New Worlds has technically only aired 12 episodes to date, it has the confidence of a much older series, deftly shifting between genres and subverting familiar storytelling tropes in unexpected ways. From bodyswap romantic comedies and children’s fairytale fantasies to creepy body horror and even a shot-for-shot remake of a classic The Original Series episode, this show seems to delight in finding new ways to tell familiar stories, and the franchise is all the better for it.
The second installment in Strange New Worlds season 2 circles back to the storyline most of us probably thought the premiere would handle, and what follows is basically a courtroom procedural, a Star Trek does Law & Order riff that sees Enterprise First Officer Una Chin Riley face the legal consequences of her decision to hide her true species from Starfleet—and the forbidden genetic modifications that go with it.
As an episode, “Ad Astra Per Aspera” accomplishes several distinct goals. It continues the second season’s focus on what might be termed the series’ supporting cast. (While Anson Mount’s Captain Pike at least appears on screen for more than 5 minutes this week, he still has relatively little to do beyond look frustrated and worried by turns.) It finally gives Rebecca Romijn the showcase episode we’ve wanted for Number One since she first appeared on screen back in Star Trek: Discovery season 2. It brings the story of Una’s season 1 arrest to a satisfying conclusion. And, in doing so, it enthusiastically embraces the best of the franchise’s open-hearted, progressive politics, exhorting Starfleet, the Federation, and even the viewers at home to work toward becoming the best versions of themselves.
There’s a certain corner of the internet that seems to be rather frequently (and loudly) inclined to lament the idea that Star Trek has somehow “gone woke” in the past five years, as though Gene Roddenberry’s original vision of a better tomorrow wasn’t always explicitly about the idea of infinite diversity in infinite combinations, or the many ways embracing our better angels actually requires quite a lot of deliberate and genuinely difficult work and self-reflection about both who we are and who we want to become. Star Trek, at its best, is aspirational television, not because of the cool aliens or futuristic space tech, but because of its characters, who may run the gamut in terms of personality, background, and even species, but who all represent a world in which we should all strive to travel hopefully, to lead with empathy, and to serve something greater than ourselves.
If that all sounds like a Starfleet recruitment video, it’s probably because, in large part, this episode does too, ultimately serving as a showcase for both Starfleet and the Federation’s ability to look inward, to course correct, to admit its own errors. (Even if the changes those admissions deem necessary will take decades to come to fruition and often require a hefty external push to happen.) Yes, Una essentially escapes her dishonorable discharge and sedition conviction on a razor-thin technicality, but her release means she has still played a role in advancing rights for Illyrians and other genetically modified species along the way. She will, after all, be an Illyrian openly serving in Starfleet, and that’s got to count for something, doesn’t it?
The hour fills in much of Una’s backstory, from her childhood days hiding basic injuries from the prying eyes of non-Illyrian neighbors to the reasons behind her desperate desire to join Starfleet in the first place. Her belief in the idea that, yes, space exploration requires hardship (the ad astra per aspera of the episode’s title) but the promise of what’s beyond the stars can ultimately deliver us from anything—from prejudices, from our struggles, from our fears— is beautiful, and so on the nose for this franchise it’s almost painful.
Former American Gods standout Yetide Badaki puts in a remarkable guest turn as Una’s take no bullshit lawyer Neera, who is as interested in exposing Starfleet’s hypocrisy on which rules its leaders are okay with breaking—and who it is that gets to break them without consequence—as she is in actually seeing her client go free. Badaki and Romijn have fabulous chemistry as former besties (or maybe something more, I wasn’t entirely sure on that point!) whose relationship was essentially torn apart by the fact that Una could pass as non-Illyrian and her friend couldn’t.
Neera not only gets the episode’s best outfits but several of the best monologues about justice, even if I do sincerely wish the show had poked a little more deliberately at whether Una’s “asylum” claim would have ever worked out for any hidden Illyrian officer who wasn’t basically the ultimate model minority. (Most of the council didn’t necessarily seem as though they wanted to actually convict her in the first place, and even the head prosecuting attorney seemed more eager to use Una to bring down Pike.) But, if Law & Order has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes you have to give the jury a reason to do what they want to do already, and darned if Neera doesn’t seem to understand that from the start.
“Ad Astra Per Aspera” is hardly the first time that a Star Trek series has used its science fiction setting full of alien cultures to explore the prejudices often faced by those in marginalized groups, who are persecuted or shunned for whatever factors deemed to be sufficiently “other,” or forced to hide some vital aspect of themselves to blend into the larger society. This isn’t even the first time that Strange New Worlds has wrestled with the fallout from the Eugenics Wars or the impact that the defeat of Khan and his Augments had on the way people view species that practice genetic modification. (Though I think it is the first time it’s brought up La’an’s discomfort with her own infamous family name quite so directly. Here’s hoping we continue to pull at that particular narrative thread as the show goes on!)
The beauty of Star Trek has always been the way it uses its far-flung adventures to speak to universal truths, even if it’s unlikely Una’s specific court case is going to suddenly shift public opinion in a way that rights all the wrongs that have been done to her people. But her relationship with her crew, who are all not only proud to serve with her, but to claim her as their own—as mentor, friend, or family—does matter.
And it’s lovely to see just how much she matters to the crew of the Enterprise, who is so unabashedly supportive of her and so deeply uninterested in all the things that their superiors insist are supposed to matter about who and what she is. From Pike, who spends his leave traveling to a planet full of poison air to fight for his first officer’s best chance at legal success to the thoughtful, sincere testimony offered by Spock, M’Benga, and La’an, this hour is a great reminder of not only why this little crew that could is such an outstanding ensemble, but the ways that sometimes simply standing up for (or even just next to) those you care about can be a truly radical act.