The following review contains Star Trek: Strange New Worlds spoilers.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 2 Episode 5
After several heavy episodes dealing with topics ranging from death and memory loss to an alternate timeline set in a bleak, Starfleet-less future, it was definitely time for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 2 to lighten up a bit. Thankfully the season’s mid-point episode, “Charades,” is an entertaining romp, full of laugh-out-loud funny moments that let almost every member of the series’ main cast flex their comedic chops. (Every single scene of Anson Mount in Pike’s kitchen is basically gold, is what I’m saying.) Yet, it’s also a surprisingly thoughtful and emotional hour in which Spock, accidentally turns human, confronts a variety of internal and social struggles, and seems to take some important and necessary steps toward deciding what kind of person, partner, and Starfleet officer he ultimately wants to become.
Ethan Peck has always been one of Strange New Worlds’ most potent secret weapons, taking on the almost impossible task of playing a character so thoroughly connected to other performers and somehow managing to make his interpretation feel both fresh and deeply necessary to our understanding of who Spock is. And “Charades” is possibly Peck’s best episode to date, an hour that allows him to stretch his wings as an actor in many different directions. It’s easy to forget sometimes, particularly because most of the Star Trek shows in the franchise at the moment aren’t terribly interested in fun as a concept—we love you, Lower Decks!—how delightful a low stakes episode that really only wants to make us laugh can be. Peck’s physical and verbal timing throughout this installment is fairly incredible, as he plays a Spock drowning under the combined weight of all the hormones, hunger, and rage that come along with being forced into what is essentially a human adolescence by well-meaning aliens who are trying to fix whatever their extra-dimensional tractor beam broke inside him during a shuttle accident.
From his constant snacking to his intense, irrational dislike of Sam Kirk and his utter lack of understanding when it comes to social cues and physical boundaries, Peck gets to play the kind of big emotional swings his character is usually not allowed to acknowledge, and his face—normally so calm and stoic—is a non-stop meme generator of eye-rolls and over the top reaction shots. By the time we get to the part where he’s playing a Vulcan who’s been turned human pretending to still be Vulcan to pass the stringent series of tests that come along with his official engagement dinner and differentiating between them all with the smallest of facial tics, you’ll probably be mad all over again that sci-fi actors never get any respect during awards season (or maybe that’s just me).
But, like so many other Strange New Worlds installments, this hour is also a story that wrestles with deeper emotional issues than it appears at first glance. Peck has worked hard to position his Spock as a character who sits somewhere between Leaonard Nimoy’s and Zachary Quinto’s versions, a young man who’s still trying to figure out what it means to be half human and half Vulcan, and to carry the judgments and expectations of both his people with him while still never feeling completely at home in either culture. The return of Discovery’s Mia Kirschner as Amanda Grayson adds a welcome extra layer to her son’s complicated emotional experience, if only in the ways it reflects the different but no less difficult choices she’s made to bind herself to a culture that openly dislikes and belittles her simply for loving Sarek. (The scene where Amanda tries to be as gentle as possible in fulfilling the terms of the ceremony that requires her to openly belittle her future daughter-in-law is such a lovely and quietly powerful commentary about how she chooses to live her life.)
But, to be honest, I’m still not entirely sure about how I feel about the Spock/Chapel/T’Pring triangle. To the show’s credit, it’s done a rather remarkable job of creating a situation in which all characters and relationships involved in this story are compelling and easy to root for. Rather than make T’Pring a roadblock to Spock’s greater happiness or a cautionary tale about living a life driven by duty, Strange New Worlds has instead reimagined her as a genuine partner for him, a likable woman in her own right who honestly seems more than capable of making him happy. Gia Sandhu has put in the work in just a handful of brief appearances to make T’Pring a three-dimensional figure with real layers—her appearance this week is as much about her difficult relationship with her overbearing mother as it is her engagement to Spock—and even though I know their courtship is technically canonically doomed, part of me wants them to figure out a way to work things out despite all that. They’re such a good team!
On the other hand, Peck and Jess Bush also have great chemistry, which means we really are spoiled for choice in terms of Spock’s romantic options. There’s something strangely tragic about the fact that at the moment, they technically are canon compliant if you assume that a painful break-up in which Spock ultimately chooses his engagement with T’Pring is why Chapel spends so much time pining over him in The Original Series. (Even though it’s hard to see this version of Chapel doing the whole unrequited love thing.)
But part of the problem is that Chapel is one of the few Strange New Worlds characters we haven’t really gotten to know all that well on her own—or, at least, gotten to know outside of her connection with Spock. Part of the reason that the season 2 premiere was so compelling was that it gave us some much-needed backstory about Chapel’s experience during the Klingon war and her relationship with M’Benga before their time on the Enterprise. Season 2 does at least seem to be leaning into her interest in ancient medicine and archaeological space history, which helps, but it’s probably well past time for a Chapel-centric hour that doesn’t have anything to do with her messy Vulcan almost-love affair.
The hour ends with Spock and T’Pring on a break, Spock and Chapel in a clinch, and a lot of questions about where our favorite Vulcan goes from here. But, since, Strange New Worlds has done nothing but surprise me when it comes to the unexpected depth and deftness of this storyline, I’m willing to see where it all goes.