Following the last two lighter episodes, I thought the remaining episodes of the season would be heavier and darker.....and wow, was I ever right with this one. It's the darkest episode of the season. But it's also one of the best.
The Gorn have been the running antagonist of the season, and in this episode we got to see them in their computer-generated glory. Of course, this being CGI and not the cheesy bipedal 60's suit, they were a lot more menacing. The head design was pretty similar to the adult Gorn seen in the original series' "Arena," but the babies are apparently more quadripedal, at least in the early stages of their development. They also grow terrifyingly fast, which is why they attack and eat anything around them, including each other. This and other facts about Gorn hatchlings are used by La'an to save as many of the crew as she can.
Obviously this scenario owes a lot to Alien, including the hatchlings bursting out of the body of a hapless blue-skinned guest star. In fact, I suppose this episode could be construed as Star Trek's version of Alien, albeit without the greedy murderous corporation. So I guess La'an would be....the Ripley analogue? If so, Christina Chong does a good job of it, including her cathartic shriek when she smashes the frozen hatchling at the end.
The setup is simple: Enterprise is on the way to deliver vital time-sensitive supplies to Deep Space Station K-7 (which hasn't gone all tribble-ley yet), when another priority one mission comes in: the Peregrine, exploring beyond Federation space, send out a distress call and makes an emergency landing aboard a Class L (icy) planet. Since Enterprise cannot divert from her primary mission, Pike tell Una to complete that and he will take a landing party to see what happened to Peregrine. He words this as "taking the kids [meaning the cadets, including Uhura, who have come to the end of their rotations] on the station wagon for one last road trip." (Which is fine for the viewer, but made me wonder how anyone born and living in the 23rd century would even know what a "station wagon" is. This scene was delightful, however, as Pike holds his briefings in his quarters over breakfast or some other meal, and in this one even made Spock do the dishes.)
On the planet where Peregrine set down, they find the ship intact and the crew dead, and killed in a messy, brutal fashion. There are two survivors, a human girl, Oriana, and the aforementioned blue-skinned alien the magical universal translator apparently can't talk to (which leads to one of the few humorous moments in the episode, as La'an says, "Uhura, do something," and Uhura blurts out, "That's not how linguistics works!"). But the logs from the dead captain tell the tale: the Peregrine picked up three castaways on a Class M Planet, these two and an Orion...and the Orion was infected with Gorn eggs. Oriana says "the monsters are all gone," but we soon find out that's not true. The blue-skinned alien starts wheezing and gasping in Sickbay, and four hatchlings bust out of him.
From then on it's a race to kill the hatchings before they pick off the landing party. The landing party works together to use the awakening ship and the Gorn's hatred of cold to their advantage: they lower the temperature in sections of the ship at a time, and use a fast-running Uhura and La'an to lure the hatchlings to one particular section. Much of this is shot from the viewpoint of the Gorn, their eyes seeing a greenish background and a running white bipedal form. The remaining hatchling is lured into the cargo bay (which is open to the planet's surface), and both Hemmer and La'an hide in the hexagonal storage units we've seen in the Enterprise's corridors before, with the hatching shrieking and slobbering its green mouth-ooze on the hatch. Hemmer sprays the hatchling with liquid nitrogen, and once it's immobilized La'an climbs out of the hexagon and smashes it to bits.
That's not the final shoe to drop, however. We've already had our two sacrificial "redshirts," two cadets, set up in the opening scene, where one is made Lieutenant and another is commended on her graduation. And since we know that the several series regulars in this episode aren't going to die just yet, we think everyone else is safe. Only they aren't. When one of the hatchlings came upon Hemmer and Uhura in engineering, it sprayed him across the face with its acid....but as La'an knew and Hemmer realized, that acid also included eggs. And so Hemmer, after dispensing some final words of wisdom to a weeping Uhura, walks out the back of the open cargo bay and plummets to his death.
Please don't say, "Hemmer, we hardly knew ye," because we did, and it hurt. He was only in, what? Four, five episodes and a handful of scenes? But the writers did such a good job with him, showing first his egotism and arrogance and later his vulnerability through his interactions with Uhura and M'Benga, that this was very much not a "redshirt" death. And even in his final scenes, he continued to gently advise Uhura, telling her that she shouldn't turn away from her gift for creating bonds: "Of course the people you care about are going to cause you pain. It will hurt, but the love it yields will far outweigh the sorrow." And since the last shot is of Uhura going to the bridge and looking and the communications station, we are left with the strong inference that this is what will cause her to decide to stay in Starfleet.
There are a couple of other important emotional moments in this episode: to lure the hatchling to the trap prepared for it, Spock has to unleash his Vulcan rage, which he does to the point he can't control it afterwards. At Hemmer's funeral, he abruptly leaves and Christine Chapel follows him to see him smashing his fist into the bulkhead. Facing a Vulcan's fury could be a scary thing, but Chapel doesn't flinch: she tells him his anger and pain doesn't make him weak, it makes him human, and hugs him. There will be repercussions from this, or at least I hope so, as it seems too important a character moment to be dropped, even for a more episodic series like this one. La'an also comes to a turning point, as she discovers some hints as to where Oriana's family might be and asks Pike for permission to take extended leave to pursue them.
With only one episode left, this first season of Strange New Worlds has been, in my opinion, a rip-roaring success. We just need more Una Chin-Riley going forward, as out of all the regulars, she has been the least served.