Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Strange New Worlds, Season 2

My DVD of Season 2 of the best Star Trek series of the current millennium arrived by mail last week, and I've watched every episode twice already. Boy, am I a fan.

This season introduces a new chief engineer on the USS Enterprise: Pelia, a member of the Lanthanite tribe that are virtually immortal, and that lived undetected among humans for thousands of years. She's played by comedy legend Carol Kane as a sort of direct opposite to the late Hemmer, who was killed off at the end of Season 1. You'll see Bruce Horak a couple times in this season, however; primarily in Uhura's home video footage and, um, hallucinations, but also playing a Klingon commander.

Meantime, Paul Wesley comes back several times as James T. Kirk. When he appeared in Season 1, it was as an alternate-timeline Kirk whose encounter with the Enterprises nobody but Pike would later remember. But now he appears, first in another alternate timeline, then as his prime universe self, establishing some important relationships for the Original Series canon.

And finally, casting wise, Martin Quinn turns up in the season finale as Montgomery Scott, Lieutenant junior grade – and it's Pelia who we first hear calling him Scotty. Here to stay? Hard to tell. The season ends with a cliffhanger, don't cha know.

An ongoing theme in this season of Capt. Pike-Trek is love and how it challenges the development of multiple characters. Pike is in a relationship with fellow captain Marie Batel, which is tested at multiple points throughout this season's 10 episodes. Spock's engagement with T'Pring hits a speed bump, leading to an affair with Christine Chapel that has trouble of its own. (There's also a tease of Christine's eventual engagement with Dr. Roger Korby, depicted in the TOS episode "What Are Little Girls Made Of?") Also, events during this season involving Jim Kirk open up a vulnerability in La'an that will break fans' hearts over and over. The first time alternate-timeline Kirk leans in for a kiss, I almost hissed, "Don't toy with her, Kirk." But he does worse than toy with her, and coming to terms with that back in the prime timeline forms a major part of La'an's story arc for the remainder of the season.

Here's a brief rundown of the episodes. In "The Broken Circle," we find the Enterprises divided, with La'an still on leave, Una under arrest for being genetically modified and Pike off looking for a lawyer to defend her. This leaves Spock in command, and when Starfleet denies his request to follow up on an urgent distress call from La'an, he decides to steal the Enterprise from spacedock, complete with an inspection engineer (Pelia) who considers it the best fun she's had in 100 years. They end up on a planet jointly administered by the Federation and the Klingon Empire, trying to protect the fragile peace while a group of yahoos tries to reignite the recent war. The main theme of the episode seems to be that Spock isn't your average Vulcan. It's hard to tell which is more entertaining to see: Spock's agony on seeing Christine in mortal peril, or his obvious "Klingon hangover" after negotiating peace with the Klingon commander over a barrel of blood wine. "Ad Astra Per Aspera" is the courtroom melodrama in which Una is tried for the Federation crime of being an Illyrian, and lying about it on her Starfleet entrance application. It plays as one of Trek's politically relevant episodes, addressing the issues of "othering" and marginalizing people on the basis of race – apparently something humanity hasn't outgrown as of the 23rd century. "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" is La'an's time-travel adventure to 21st century Toronto with an alternate-timeline Kirk. Romantic sparks fly between them, partly because he doesn't blink at the name "Noonien-Singh" (which, frankly, should have been a much bigger clue). Pelia also gets an entertaining backstory in this episode. "Among the Lotus Eaters" takes the Enterprise back to the planet where Pike lost three crewmen – the incident Jeffrey Hunter-era Pike was mourning in original Trek pilot "The Cage." The planet in question turns out to be a new kind of nightmare that will likely give lots of viewers the willies, on a level they've never gotten from Trek before.

"Charades" flips the tone to broad comedy, with a weird alien encounter somehow turning Spock fully human. While I appreciate the laughs, which come in swarms, I have to admit that this is the type of Spock treatment that strains my willing suspension of disbelief. Surely, after a lifetime of learning Vulcan mental discipline, simply having his Vulcan DNA removed wouldn't instantly change Spock into a petulant human teenager. A little genetic jiggery-pokery couldn't possibly erase his knowledge, experience and deeply ingrained character. But so it does in this episode, and with his hateful mother-in-law-to-be coming on board to judge him (along with a comically spineless father-in-law, his longsuffering fiancee and his own dear mom) there couldn't be a worse time for it. The upshot ends up being a catalyst for an all-too-brief romance with Nurse Chapel.

"Lost in Translation" is the Uhura-centric episode where the hardworking ensign starts showing signs of burnout, if not downright mental illness. Though there turns out to be a sci-fi explanation for it all, for a while the episode is about dealing with grief and seeking help for mental health issues. "Those Old Scientists" (note the initials) is a comedy-gold crossover episode involving characters from Star Trek: Lower Decks. First Boimler, then Mariner come through a time portal, and their silly antics threaten the integrity of future history while also hitting important points on the character arcs of Spock, Chapel, Uhura and Number One. "Under the Cloak of War" is a war-is-hell, PTSD episode centering on Chapel and M'Benga, who witnessed a pivotal battle in the Klingon war and who are therefore unequipped to deal with a pacifist, Klingon ambassador who, in his previous role as a general, gained the nickname "Butcher of J'gal." This episode goes super-dark and has a mindblowing plot twist at the end, which could leave viewers pondering and debating ad infinitum.

"Subspace Rhapsody" does either the inevitable or the inconceivable, depending on your point of view: it turns the Enterprises into the cast of a Broadway musical. Of course, a subspace anomaly is behind it all, and figuring out how to prevent it from destroying the entire Federation becomes a matter worthy of (and, coincidentally, requiring) a Grand Finale. The tunes are actually pretty good, particularly the solos by La'an and Uhura.

Finally, the briefly teased threat of a war with the Gorn sneaks up and bonks everyone over the head in the season finale cliffhanger, "Hegemony." It also proves to be the episode that puts the Pike-Batel and Spock-Chapel romantic subplots to their ultimate test. You get to see adult Gorns for the first time in this series, including a killer zero-gravity, space-suited combat scene between Spock and a hero Gorn. It's the one where Scotty enters the storyline, and it faces everybody with the kind of danger that leaves you calculating which characters could get killed off without affecting franchise continuity. And now, you may commence biting your nails until Season 3 airs.

Here are my Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) La'an subspace-transmission stalks prime-universe Kirk after she gets back from her time escapade, only to verify that he isn't the Kirk she fell in love with in 21st century Toronto ... and oh, boy, does that hurt. The kind of hurt that keeps on giving, such as in the musical episode when she tells him all about it and confirms, all over again, that he isn't her Kirk. That guy doesn't have to lift a finger to break her heart, and I felt so protective of her because her vulnerability was so powerfully portrayed. (2) Boimler tumbles out of the time portal at the feet of the Enterprises and, before passing out, says, "You look very realistic!" A line that works on multiple levels. I really got a kick out of watching Jack Quaid, as a live actor, physically embodying the animated character he has heretofore only voiced. Despite being disproportionately tall, he really pulled it off. (3) M'Benga lays down that mindblowing plot twist before his final grapple with Ambassador Rah. Like, wow. And the ambiguity over what actually happened in that scene has already triggered a debate between me and my dad. Solid stuff.

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