Star Trek: Strange New Worlds – Season 1 Episode 8

Jun 23, 2022 | Posted by in TV
Strange New Worlds

“The Elysian Kingdom”

Star Trek: Strange New World puts the crew in an altered state where they play roles from the pages of a storybook.

Something that’s becoming apparent about this show as it progresses is that one of the aims is to update what The Original Series was doing in a way that’s palatable for modern audiences. In theory, lessons have been learned from the many episodes of this franchise to determine what works and what doesn’t. In the excellent Futurama episode “Where No Fan Has Gone Before” Fry described The Original series as being “79 episodes, about 30 good ones”. That quote sticks in the mind because there’s some truth to it. Storytelling was of the time and some of it wasn’t good. The same applies to all Star Trek shows as well as everything else on television. The reason it’s a relevant consideration, in this case, is that this style of episode could be considered one of the missteps that should remain in the past.

Strange New Worlds

Rock, paper, scissors, wizard, Spock

Of course, that’s simply my view and there will no doubt be many viewers who enjoy this episode for a variety of reasons. Allowing the actors to cut loose and play radically different roles for an episode is something that has been baked into Star Trek since it started. Anything is possible when exploring unknown corners of the universe and this sometimes inspires writers to come up with ideas that are more abstract than a typical episode. Star Trek has largely leaned away from the absurd since its relaunch in 2017 and endless arguments could break out over whether that’s the right decision or not.

Absurdity is something I’ve always struggled with in the context of this franchise. This episode evokes memories of episodes like “Catspaw” in The Original Series or “Masks” in The Next Generation where science fiction explanations are given for rampant lunacy to play out. Sometimes it works though, a great example is “Bride of Chaotica” in Voyager or “Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang” in Deep Space Nine so my curmudgeon view isn’t an absolute. It’s impossible to define why absurdity works for me in some instances but not others though I could make a case for why the latter two episodes are far superior to the former two. Perhaps I’ll do just that in another article someday.

The premise of this episode is that an entity living inside a nebula alters the Enterprise and the crew to conform to imagery and characters found in the storybook M’Benga reads to his daughter. It’s a fantasy book containing royalty, magic, betrayal and other hallmarks of that genre. M’Benga takes on the role of the King and is one of two characters aware of who they really are. The episode follows his point of view as he tries to navigate this bizarre situation and restore normality to the Enterprise.

Strange New Worlds

The career path on the Enterprise is unconventional

This sort of episode is one that is probably more fun for the actors than it is for a chunk of the viewers. It’s clear that everyone involved fully commits to the material and has a great time doing it. Anson Mount gets to play a coward along with a snivelling traitor, Melissa Navia gets to play a badass guardian who fights with swords, Ethan Peck plays an evil wizard, Christina Chong plays an over-the-top Queen type complete with a small dog as a companion, Celia Rose Gooding is an evil Queen and so on. There’s no faulting the actors who do an excellent job playing against type and dialling up their performances to underscore how ludicrous the situation is.

It’s notable that some of the lowest-ranking characters are in positions of power within the fantasy. Uhura being the evil Queen and Pike being a servant of the King are obvious examples of this. Ultimately it means very little because the actors aren’t playing their characters so there are no opportunities to actually comment on it but it seems like a deliberate choice. Perhaps if everyone retained their memory then jokes could be made about it being fun to boss the Captain around or similar.

The memory loss is one of my major issues with this episode. For most of the characters, these events are meaningless because the memory of them isn’t retained meaning there is no opportunity for anything to be learned. None of the alterations are saying anything about the characters so there’s nothing to analyse. The possible exception to this is Spock who is an evil wizard keeping familial ties secret; something Spock is known for doing. Spock being the evil brother in this scenario when the previous episode ended with the revelation that he has an incarcerated brother is arguably relevant but the lack of reflection renders the observation meaningless.

Strange New Worlds

Is this really happening?

Even though the situation was fantastical, the danger was still real. It’s possible that lives could be lost if the wrong decisions are made but there was no actual sense that a credible threat existed at any point. M’Benga simply meandered through the plot of the book he had been reading to his daughter and any complication was easily solved. The deliberate comedic slant makes it difficult to take any of the supposed jeopardy seriously and uneven pacing kills the momentum of the storytelling.

I fully recognise that everything I’ve said above can be dismissed by those who thought the episode was fun and enjoyed seeing the actors playing different roles. That’s perfectly valid and definitely the intention when making the episode. It is unashamedly what it sets out to be and viewers are invited to engage with it.

The episode does excel in the resolution of the ongoing plot around M’Benga’s terminally ill daughter. M’Benga’s response to Rukia’s desire to alter the ending of the story as the book presents it and his insistence that that can’t be done acts as a metaphor for his dwindling hope. He’s buying time for Rukia by keeping her inside the pattern buffer so that she is on pause. Time still ticks away when he frees her for short bursts to read her a story before sending her back in so he doesn’t have infinite time to solve the problem. His log entry indicates that he is nearing the end of the available time and the situation is more desperate than it ever was. His biggest fear is that the end of Rukia’s story is as indelible as the ending of the book no matter how much both of them want to change it.

Strange New Worlds

There’s always a sword fight

Thanks to the intervention of a mysterious entity, Rukia has the opportunity to change the ending of the story and M’Benga picks up on this. It opens him up to the possibility of her fate not being a certainty though the link between the fantasy playing out in real-time and the terminal condition isn’t as strong as it needs to be. The two are connected on a conceptual level but one doesn’t entirely inform the other. Rukia is the magical object that is required to defeat the evil Queen but there’s far from a definitive link that closes off that aspect of the plot. Considering the bulk of the episode is spent on it, having it discarded so clumsily is jarring and further cements it as a distraction to fill time while the actors dial-up their performances.

M’Benga is presented with a choice when given the facts of the situation. If the Enterprise and crew remain in an altered state then Rukia’s illness will be gone and she can live a long life. The alternative is to return the ship and crew back to normal but bring back Rukia’s illness. M’Benga never considers leaving the Enterprise and crew forever altered in order to save his daughter. The choice is a continuation of Una’s reminder that his responsibilities as a father are important but so are his responsibilities as chief medical officer. He is torn between the two roles and there is no third alternative where the best of both aspects is available to him. It never comes across that he is tempted to leave the Enterprise stuck as a representation of a fantasy storybook so the choice itself never feels like a difficult one but presenting it early on and having that become relevant is to be commended on some level.

It turns out that there is a third alternative but it means losing Rukia in a different way. The entity offers to take her consciousness and allow her to live out her life among the stars. Rukia does get a say but ultimately M’Benga has to choose whether to let her go. Letting her go is a confirmation that he will be unable to save her life using his medical expertise so it’s a morbid decision between watching her deteriorate and die or never seeing her again but be comforted by knowing that she is living life and doesn’t have to suffer. They say goodbye and Rukia ascends to a different plane of existence, returning briefly as an adult to tell M’Benga that she’s happy and that he made the right decision. It’s very moving and an emotionally satisfying conclusion to this arc. M’Benga does succeed in a way even if the solution is out of his hands. Rukia is happy, healthy and living a life of adventure. It isn’t explicitly covered but it could be a commentary on parenthood where every parent has to accept that they eventually have to let their children go and live their own life. Rukia does this at a younger age than most but M’Benga accepts it and gets to see that letting her go isn’t something he has to worry about.

This is the emotional underpinning of the episode but the coverage is too sporadic to make it the focal point that it should have been. Allowing their parting moments to play out without intervention from the absurdity that preceded it was a good decision as it allowed M’Benga’s choice to have heft but the drawback is that the episode itself wasn’t coherent as it failed to balance the moving emotional beats with the awkward comedy.

Strange New Worlds

They grow up so fast


Verdict

An uneven episode that fails to balance moving emotional beats and an awkward comedic plot that prioritises absurdity over believable stakes. This sort of episode is one that is probably more fun for the cast than it is for a chunk of the viewers. The actors clearly have a lot of fun playing against type and it’s notable that lower-ranking characters are placed in positions of power. Ultimately it means very little as there is no opportunity to actually comment on the character shifts. M’Benga is the only one to retain memory of these events so there is nothing to be learned from these events for almost everyone involved. None of the alterations are saying anything about the characters so there’s nothing to analyse. Even though the situation was fantastical, the danger was still real. It’s possible that lives could be lost if the wrong decisions are made but there was no actual sense that a credible threat existed at any point. The deliberate comedic slant makes it difficult to take any of the supposed jeopardy seriously and uneven pacing kills the momentum of the storytelling. Despite any shortcomings, it is unashamedly what it sets out to be and viewers are invited to engage with it.

The episode does excel in the resolution of the ongoing plot around M’Benga’s terminally ill daughter. M’Benga’s response to Rukia’s desire to alter the ending of the story as the book presents it and his insistence that that can’t be done acts as a metaphor for his dwindling hope. Thanks to the intervention of a mysterious entity, Rukia has the opportunity to change the ending of the story and M’Benga picks up on this. It opens him up to the possibility of her fate not being a certainty though the link between the fantasy playing out in real-time and the terminal condition isn’t as strong as it needs to be. M’Benga is presented with the choice to leave the Enterprise in an altered state and cure his daughter or return everything to normal including her illness. He never considers leaving the Enterprise and crew forever altered in order to save his daughter. The choice is a continuation of Una’s reminder that his responsibilities as a father are important but so are his responsibilities as chief medical officer. He is torn between the two roles and there is no third alternative where the best of both aspects is available to him. It never comes across that he is tempted to leave the Enterprise stuck as a representation of a fantasy storybook so the choice itself never feels like a difficult one but presenting it early on and having that become relevant is to be commended on some level. It turns out that there is a third alternative but it means losing Rukia in a different way. Rukia does get a say but ultimately M’Benga has to choose whether to let her go. Letting her go is a confirmation that he will be unable to save her life using his medical expertise so it’s a morbid decision between watching her deteriorate and die or never seeing her again but be comforted by knowing that she is living life and doesn’t have to suffer. They say goodbye and Rukia ascends to a different plane of existence, returning briefly as an adult to tell M’Benga that she’s happy and that he made the right decision. It’s very moving and an emotionally satisfying conclusion to this arc. It isn’t explicitly covered but it could be a commentary on parenthood where every parent has to accept that they eventually have to let their children go and live their own life.

Overall
  • 4/10
    The Elysian Kingdom - 4/10
4/10

Summary

Kneel Before…

  • the actors clearly having a lot of fun playing against type
  • fully committing to the absurdity
  • the moving conclusion to the M’Benga/Rukia terminal illness plot
  • a commentary on parenthood where very parent has to accept letting their children go

 

Rise Against…

  • the relentless absurdity of the plot
  • the comedic slant making it difficult to take the jeopardy seriously
  • uneven pacing
  • the alterations saying nothing about the characters
  • only M’Benga retaining memory of the events meaning there is nothing to be learned
  • the link between the fantasy plot and the terminal condition not being as strong as it needs to be

 

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6.22/10 (9 votes)

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