It's early in the season, but I've identified a trend in this series that I fervently hope continues. Plot-wise, the stories are "one and done"--a problem to be solved in this episode, which of course harkens back to Ye Olden Days before season-long plot arcs. But character-wise, there seem to be continuing character arcs: there were a couple of scenes in this episode dealing with Christopher Pike's ongoing dilemma, the horrific future bearing down on him less than a decade away, which he is still struggling to accept. (At the end, he's pulling up the pictures of the cadets he will save--who are young kids at this point--and memorizing their names. Which is noble and selfless and certainly in line with Pike's character, but as Number One points out: "What if you're wrong? What if you got that message so you could save those kids and that's it? What if you don't have to ruin your life, too? How do you know you can't make a different choice? One that saves all of you? What if your fate is what you make it?" Those are reasonable objections to make...only we already know it won't happen, that his fate is pre-ordained by fifty years of canon. Which is really too bad.) I fervently hope this trend continues, not only for Pike but for the other characters.
I also hope this season will take turns spotlighting the main cast. This episode was Nyota Uhura's, and sold me on Celia Rose Gooding's portrayal of the young linguistic "prodigy." She starts out unsure if her place really is in Starfleet, and ends the episode still feeling that way to an extent. Of course, we know what will happen, but with this show it's the journey and how it explores the characters along the way. This is true of Pike and Spock and seems to be true of Uhura as well. The new characters introduced--such as the grumpy, smug, smart-ass Andorian engineer Hemmer--are a bit less constrained to already established canon, and thus have greater opportunities for expanded character arcs. If that's the direction this show is going to take, I for one will jump up and down and cheer.
The plot of this one is classic Star Trek: a comet is going to crash into an inhabited planet--the native species is pre-warp and cannot help themselves--and Enterprise has to stop it. But this comet is not your typical Halley's. It has a structure built into it which contains what seems to be an alien navigation "egg," perhaps holding an artificial intelligence, and it also has a high-powered ship with a crew of fish-eyed beings called Shepherds following it. Said Shepherds worship the comet as a god, M'hanit, and demand that Enterprise leave it alone. But Pike can't do that, because just before the Shepherds showed up a landing party consisting of La'an, Sam Kirk, Spock and Uhura (on her first away mission) have beamed over to try to gain information to change the comet's course, and naturally are trapped there. So it becomes a game of cat and mouse between Pike and the Shepherds, who are all caught between rescuing the landing party, saving the planet, and following their "god" in whatever it chooses to do.
Along the way we find out more about Nyota Uhura in this one episode than all the previous decades of Star Trek. She knows 37 (!!!) languages--as she explains: "In Kenya, we have 22 native languages. I found early that if I wanted to be understood it's best to communicate in someone's own tongue, so I learned them." She also talks to Spock in Vulcan, and tells off Hemmer in Andorian. A prodigy? That's a bit of an understatement. She also relates that a week before she was due to attend the University in Nairobi, her parents and older brother were killed in a shuttle accident. She went to live with her grandmother, who had been in Starfleet, which is how she came up with the idea of joining, or as Pike says, "You ran away to Starfleet?"
This all comes out during a barbeque dinner Pike holds for members of the senior staff and others. Walking with Uhura down the corridor afterwards, Spock is none too pleased by her admission: "Starfleet has been a lifelong dream for many, myself included. If it is not your path, you might consider making way for someone who wants to walk it."
(Spock still has a bit of the more-Vulcan-than-Vulcan rod up his ass in this episode. During the general conversation in Pike's quarters, as Pike tells a funny story of something that happened when he was an ensign and everyone laughs, Spock notes: "I've never understood the human inclination to laugh at others' misfortunes. It feels impolite." Pike replies with an observation that sort of becomes the running theme of the episode: "Sometimes, Mr. Spock, things go so badly that you just have to laugh." He also fails to read the room when the landing party is stranded on the comet and Uhura is trying to figure out the navigation egg, giving her a piss-poor "pep talk" she immediately calls out: "Was that actually your version of a pep talk?" to which he replies, "Yes. I've been working on them.")
The heart of the episode is the scenes on the comet where Uhura is trying to figure out how to talk to the navigation egg (after the landing party is stranded there by Sam Kirk's idiotic attempt to touch the egg--it seems that family has a genetic predisposition to touch things they shouldn't. Sam Kirk promptly gets knocked on his ass and spends most of the episode lying there unconscious) and she realizes it communicates via musical notes, which is a neat callback to the original series. She and Spock sing a series of notes which unlock the force field the comet had put up around itself, which enables the landing party to be beamed back aboard Enterprise. This gets them out of that pickle, but doesn't help things with the Shepherds--their ship attacks Enterprise, which is woefully outmatched. But Spock comes up with a way to keep the comet from crashing into the planet, and we are treated to an exciting sequence where Enterprise loops and dives among the chunks of rock and ice that make up the comet's tail, with the Shepherds' ship coming right along behind firing. Hotshot pilot Erica Ortegas (she could probably give Kayla Detmer aboard Discovery a run for her money) manages to avoid both those obstacles, and parks the ship at the front of the comet. Pike then shuts everything down except life support and pleads for help to the Shepherds, saying they will no longer touch M'hanit. It's a gamble--the alien ship could have easily blasted them out of the sky--but the Shepherds start to tow Enterprise away from the comet. This frees Spock to take a shuttle and skim the comet's surface, using the shuttle's heat shields to melt just enough ice from the comet to change its trajectory. (Although why the Shepherds didn't see this and object to that action as well, since it amounts to carving a chunk away from the face of their god, is left as an exercise for the viewer.) The comet loops by the planet and continues on its way, but the water vapor deposited in the atmosphere by the melting ice will permanently change the planet's climate, enabling, as Spock says, less aridity, more plant growth, and greater societal advancement. (And indeed, we see the natives holding up their hands in amazement as it begins to rain. I just hoped it didn't flash flood their settlements.) So M'hanit "brought life" after all, at least the Shepherds thought so: "You have seen the glory and mercy of M'hanit," the Shepherd leader tells Pike. Pike acknowledges that there's been a miracle (which was a fine bit of disassembling from the captain) and the Shepherd says, "And so we shall not part as enemies."
After it's all over, Uhura makes a report to Pike, Number One and Spock where she reveals she decoded the musical notes emitted by the comet--or more precisely the controlling egg, I suppose--and discovered what it was trying to say: it meant no harm and also had foreknowledge of Spock's actions. "It knew its fate, you might say." Personally, I could have done without that, but it does tie into Pike's character arc. Also, we see another scene with Uhura and Spock walking down the corridor, and he has changed his mind about her: "I understand you did not come to Starfleet the way most of us have. That you are not sure you wish to stay. But, having observed your actions on the comet, I am certain, should you choose to, Starfleet would be fortunate to have an officer like you."
This episode was quite strong, and a lovely exploration of Uhura's character. It's also a story of optimism and the joy of exploration and learning about an alien artifact and culture. Whoever is running this show has a fine grasp of the Star Trek ethos (far better than the guy who all but ruined Season 2 of Picard) and I am very happy with it.