I will get to the finale of Picard Season 2. Really I will. Eventually. But since I've been so disappointed with the season so far, I thought I would try the premiere of Strange New Worlds first, to serve as a bit of a palate cleanser.
I'm glad I did. If this show carries through with what's in this first episode, it's going to be fantastic.
We first met Captain Christopher Pike, the younger Spock and Number One (who gets a name here, Una Chin-Riley) in the second season of Star Trek: Discovery, and the three of them made such an indelible impression that this show was greenlit. We then saw the three of them, as well as the incredible set that makes up the Enterprise's engineering room, in a couple of the between-season Short Treks, and I thought, "They wouldn't have built that set just for a ten-minute mini episode and not do anything else with it." And sure enough, shortly afterwards this show was announced, along with the info that it would be more episodic instead of the usual modern season-long arc.
The episode opens "three months, ten days, four hours and five minutes" after Discovery jumped into the future, and Pike is still dealing with what he learned (namely, his gruesome future less than a decade from now). Enterprise is still in spacedock, and he's retreated to Bear Creek, Montana, where he's grown out his hair and beard and is having a lady friend, a fellow captain, sleep over (who he then cooks breakfast for). She knows something is wrong, but Pike refuses to talk about it or answer his insistently beeping communicator. After she leaves, Pike goes for a horseback ride (in the snow?) and is interrupted by a shuttle swooping in, bearing Admiral Robert April, the previous captain of Enterprise. He informs Pike a first contact mission to Kiley 279, headed by Una, has gone bad, and Starfleet has lost contact. He's pulling Enterprise out of spacedock early and is ordering Pike back out there to figure out what's going on.
Meanwhile, Spock has taken advantage of the three-month downtime to return to Vulcan and meet his bonded bride, T'Pring. Apparently an additional step has to be taken now that the two are adults (which would make sense) and T'Pring officially asks Spock to marry her (although she expresses reservations about him "gallivanting across the galaxy with Starfleet"--this and other snippets of dialogue does a good job of laying out the motivations for her subsequent actions). They're about to make love when Spock's communicator chirps. T'Pring asks him not to answer it; Spock says he took an oath, and T'Pring retorts that he has also taken an oath to her. Spock says, "Matrimony and duty can complement each other," to which T'Pring replies, "I remain skeptical." At any rate, Spock answers and Pike explains what is going on. (After an amusing bit where Pike asks, "Spock, are you naked?" and T'Pring acidly interjects over Spock's shoulder, "He was about to be.") Of course, Spock immediately says he will come and "T'Pring will understand," and T'Pring just as quickly calls him on it: "I won't chase you across the galaxy just to get married." She's clearly not going to take any guff from Spock, and I do hope we see more of her.
With a shave and a haircut (and six bits), Pike returns to Enterprise. As the shuttle pilot notes, it's "all scrubbed up and good as new," to which Pike mutters, "Wish it were that easy." Spock meets him in the transporter room, and while they are on their way to the bridge we learn it's been the aforementioned three months since Discovery season 2. On the bridge, we meet some of the new cast members, including the acting Number One, La'an Noonien-Singh, the helmsman Erikah Ortegas, and the "prodigy," Cadet Uhura on communications rotation.
After briefing the crew (which provides the perfect excuse for a long tracking shot showing off the gorgeous new sets) Pike orders Enterprise taken out, and we see he's still having flashbacks to the horrific future vision of himself. He goes into the ready room, and Spock follows, saying he "doesn't want to overstep," but he has noted that since Pike went down to that Klingon moon, he "returned a changed man." Pike then tells Spock what he saw. Spock urges him to use the knowledge of his fate "to be the man you most essentially are--the captain."
(This very well acted scene also answers a question about the Original Star Trek episode, "The Menagerie." We were never told just why the protocol-bound Spock--and he's even more so here, in his younger years: rigidly wedded to Starfleet policy [he spends quite a bit of time in this episode arguing with La'an and objecting to her suggestions], not having very much of a sense of humor, and in most things more-Vulcan-than-Vulcan--broke all sorts of rules to get Pike to Talos IV. Now we know: Spock knew what Pike faced, and knew the Talosians could provide a way out. Spock probably started drawing up his plans shortly after Pike told him what was going to happen.)
Enterprise pops out of warp to find Una's ship still in orbit but empty, and no subspace chatter. The Kileans have no signs of local space colonization, but they also possess a warp signature. La'an calls this a "red flag" and suggests activating the deflector shields. Spock objects, but Pike does it anyway. It's a good thing, as almost immediately afterwards "plasma torpedoes" are launched from the surface but are deflected with minimal damage. Spock analyzes the warp signal variance (with his usual refrain of "Fascinating," to which Pike remarks, "I'm all ears"--one of several dry humorous shots the captain gets off) and realizes it's not a warp drive but a "warp bomb," which sounds more than a little handwavey, but we'll let it slide. Una may not have realized this, as Enterprise's sensors were upgraded just before they left. La'an wants to retrieve their people and she and Spock argue again, with the latter objecting that such a move would clash with "General Order 1" (which gets renamed to the more familiar "Prime Directive" at the end of this episode). Coming up with a solution, Pike says, "Let's go to the doctor," who is of course Dr. M'Benga and his nurse Christine Chapel, "on civilian exchange from the Stanford Genome Project." Christine is going to temporarily alter their DNA so they can beam down to the planet and not be detected. This process is very painful, and La'an doesn't want the sedative. (Here and in a later scene we get quite a bit of her backstory, and she's an interesting character. I'm also glad to see that so far the other characters look like they're going to be featured on a bit more of an equal basis along with the three leads. This is my biggest complaint about Discovery, that the bridge crew is so underused.) After their transformation--which is the usual snake-patterned bumpy foreheads--Pike, Spock and La'an beam down to see what's going on. Native clothing, tricorders and universal translators are programmed into the transporter to materialize with them, which leads to a genuine laugh-out-loud moment: they appear in an alley, and Spock looks down to see the "native dress," at least for him, consists of long socks and short shorts. This leads him to exclaim in genuine clipped Vulcan outrage, "Captain, where are my pants?" (I would love to see the bloopers for this scene. I bet it took a while for them to get it right.)
They have arrived to find the society in the midst of a civil uprising (and the footage used here was apparently from a protest in Ukraine, which caused a bit of a stir). Seeing some scientists about to enter said building, La'an takes them down to get their clothing and badges, and suggests they be beamed up to Enterprise and kept sedated until the mission is over. This is done. Once the two natives are in Sickbay, Chapel realizes Spock's genetic changes are already deteriorating and she needs some Kilean DNA to stabilize him. Unfortunately, the Kileans wake up sooner than they should and one of them bolts out the door, leading Chapel on a merry chase through Enterprise's corridors. He runs into the turbolift where Uhura is on her way to the bridge, and there's a nice little scene where the "prodigy" uses her communications expertise to calm him down. When they reach the bridge, Chapel, who has used sickbay's emergency transporter to get there ahead of them, knocks the man out and gets her DNA sample. Transporter Chief Kyle has to use this on the fly to apply some sort of "eye salve" to Spock's alien eyes to enable him to pass a scan--I'm envisioning this as a thin film of DNA coating Spock's eyes--and the three are able to enter the building.
They find the cell where Una and her crew are being held, and since it's at such a deep level that the building's shielding will not permit transporter beams to penetrate, they try to walk out. Spock's genetic alterations start wearing off, unfortunately just as they meet up with another group on the lower level. (He claps his hands over his ears and yells in pain as he changes back, which is another thing the older Spock assuredly did not do.) A fight breaks out, and they subdue the group and run for the elevator.
Inside, Pike demands, "How did these people get warp!" since they're in no way ready for first contact, and the truth comes out. When Discovery opened up the wormhole in Season 2 and fled to the future, all the ships fighting to guard her passage lit up space. The Kileans saw all those warp signatures with their telescopes and was able to reverse-engineer them (in 3 months? no wonder the Federation is nervous) into a matter/anti-matter reactor. But instead of using it to explore space, one of the factions is going to use it to crush their enemy. Pike realizes that no matter what General Order 1 says, the civilization has already been influenced and corrupted, and the only choice remaining is to "influence it well." He orders everyone back to the ship and keeps Spock, the obvious alien, with him. When the elevator doors open on a group of gun-toting security people, he says, "Take me to your leader."
Pike tries to talk to this leader, emphasizing "negotiation and debate" with their enemy, and gets nowhere. "Your rules are not my rules," she says, and since she has the bigger stick now, if "spilled blood is the price, so be it." As they are taken away, Pike snaps to the communicator resting on the table: "Emergency communication from Captain Pike. Enterprise to lower orbit. Full visibility. Show 'em what you got." Sirens immediately go off, and we look out the window to see Enterprise descending into view. This forces the factions into meeting to figure out what to do about the aliens, but naturally they start arguing instead.
Back on the ship, Pike, Spock and La'an are watching this, and we get more of La'an's backstory--which, in a neat twist, ties into what is happening on the planet and also into Pike's personal dilemma. In the past, the Gorn captured her family's colony ship and took it to one of their "planetary nurseries," where her family members were slit open, fed on alive and used for breeding sacks for the Gorn to lay their eggs. La'an stated flatly, "Not believing you're going to die is what gets you killed," and asks, "Do you know the last thing they felt?"
Pike: "Surprise. Because up until the last moment, they couldn't imagine dying."
This sparks an idea. He asks Uhura for access to the historical database, and tells her he needs to punch a signal down to the planet. He then beams into the middle of the negotiations, interrupting the arguing factions with a wry, unapologetic "Hi" (Anson Mount nails this, as he does every line he's given) and giving them a lesson in Earth history, from civil war (started with, ironically enough, "Stop the Steal" footage) to the Eugenics Wars to World War III. "What we gave you," he says, "is the means to exterminate yourselves. And from the looks of you, you're going to do it." He lays out their choice: "Go to war with one another, or join our Federation of Planets and reach for the stars."
Now I doubt a simple speech from an alien captain--not even Jean-Luc Picard, which Anson Mount doesn't try to be: he has a softer, more laid-back and nuanced delivery--would be sufficient to overcome decades and/or centuries of internal strife, but I'm willing to let this go too. Because we're shown some optimistic, uplifting scenes of the Kileans doing just that: putting aside their differences and indeed reaching for the stars.
Back at Starbase 1, Admiral April informs Pike, Spock and Una that "getting the Federation High Court not to throw you all in jail almost took more pull than I have," but since the Federation cannot officially admit that Discovery is gone, they also cannot officially reveal how the Kileans got their warp technology. Una requests permission to return to Enterprise, and April asks Pike: "You planning on keeping the chair?" And Pike is.
Back on the ship, Pike gets a chance to restate the Enterprise's mission once more (the same phrases used in the opening credits), and in a delightful bit of cadet enthusiasm, Uhura bursts out: "Cool!" Then, after a beat, an embarrassed, "Sir." We haven't seen much of what she can do yet, but this new actor sells the vision of a young, inexperienced Uhura.
This is an excellent start to the new series. It's well-written, well-paced and adds some lovely touches to the more familiar characters. After the disappointing slog of Picard season 2, I needed this, and I'm eagerly looking forward to the rest of the season.