Star Trek: Strange New Worlds review, Episode 202: “Ad Astra Per Aspera”

Ethan Peck as Spock and Yetide Badaki as Neera in episode 202 “Ad Astra per Aspera” of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+
Ethan Peck as Spock and Yetide Badaki as Neera in episode 202 “Ad Astra per Aspera” of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+ /

Hear that whirring sound? That’s Gene Roddenberry spinning in his grave over the direction that Star Trek: Strange New Worlds has taken this week.

The legendary showrunner of the show that kicked off the Star Trek franchise famously had a set of rules for writing the show that ensured that the United Federation of Planets was always portrayed as a utopia, free of things like war, money, and racial prejudice. Although those rules have fallen by the wayside over the years, I can’t think of another episode that’s broken them quite so hard.

This is not a criticism. We’ve known for over 30 years that some of the best Trek stories are about the cracks in the Federation’s utopian facade. Still, previously this has meant a single rogue malicious agent or someone taking desperate measures in desperate times. I don’t think Star Trek has ever shown racial prejudice to be alive and well, as well as institutionalized in the Federation. It’s a bold move to upend 55 years of canon.

To recap, last season’s finale saw Number One/Una Chin-Riley arrested for lying on her Starfleet application. It was revealed last season that Commander Chin-Riley is Illyrian, and Starfleet does not admit Illyrians. This is because Illyrians genetically modify themselves, while the Federation banned genetic modification after the eugenics wars (1992 to 1996; you remember).

Last week, Chin-Riley and Pike discussed a hotshot lawyer who wouldn’t return their calls. This week we met that lawyer, and boy is she something! Actress Yetide Badaki (Bilquis in American Gods) completely steals the show as Meera. A million drag queens will be born watching her chew the scenery with line readings reminiscent of Joan Crawford, Eartha Kitt, and Kristen Chenoweth. And then there are those asymmetrical power suits and that sharp haircut. I expected her to proclaim “don’t f*** with me fellas, this ain’t my first time at the rodeo.

We first meet Meera when Captain Pike turns up at her office, refusing to leave until she sees him. Unfortunately for Pike, she’s set up shop on a planet where humans cannot breathe the atmosphere, and he has to wear an oxygen mask. “I can wait all day” he tells her secretary, who cooly shoots back “I don’t think you can,” seeing his oxygen supply is at two percent. In a power move to end all power moves, Meera lets him in and turns on the air supply just as his oxygen runs out.

It turns out that she and Chin-Riley were friends, but she resents Una for joining an organization that rejects their kind. But she agrees to take the case on the condition that she gets to use it as a soapbox and put the Federation on trial for discriminating against Illyrians.

This becomes the central conflict of the episode. Admiral Robert April represents the Starfleet brass. After a testy cross-examination by Meera, he grouses to Pike that he thinks highly of Chin-Riley, but that he didn’t get a chance to say that on the stand. Even the other Enterprise crew members who are watching the trial on TV have their doubts about Meera’s strategy.

The crew members watching from the sidelines gave us some great character moments, such as Spock apologizing for an “emotional outburst” that was indistinguishable to everyone else from a quiet conversation. That’s what I love about this version of Spock; Leonard Nimoy had an uncanny ability to play an emotionless alien with warmth, humor, and humanity. Ethan Peck’s Spock feels like the same character.

Then there’s La’an Noonien-Singh’s fruitless attempts to find out who ratted out her friend and mentor. Her dedication to the investigation tells us so much about who she is. Her investigation ends when Meera deduces that she’s worried she’ll face the same kind of scrutiny as Una, due to her family history (her ancestor Khan Noonien-Singh was the genetically modified big bad of the Eugenics Wars). Meera tells her that she has nothing to be ashamed of. That sounds like a pep talk, but it’s also such a  soul-piercingly accurate assessment of tough girl La’an’s innermost insecurities. She leaves asking, “why do I feel like I’ve been hit by a shuttle?”

Should Star Trek: Strange New Worlds change what the Federation is?

Star Trek has done several courtroom episodes, including Next Generation episodes like “The Measure of a Man,” “The Drumhead,” and “The First Duty,” and the Deep Space 9 episode “Rules of Engagement.” Most of them are great; they give the actors the chance to chew the scenery and make impassioned speeches about truth and justice. In Badaki, Star Trek has found its best scenery chewer since the 90s. The scene where Chin-Riley takes the stand is as compelling as watching Picard had his crew take on the Borg.

So was changing the nature of the Federation a gamble that paid off? In the context of this one episode, I’d say unequivocally yes. In the long run, only time will tell. Perhaps this will be the next great Star Trek debate. But here’s why I am optimistic. They took away our utopia, but in return gave us something potentially more interesting, and definitely more relevant and relatable.

It’s right there in the name of the episode: “Ad Astra Per Aspera”; Starfleet’s motto, which is Latin for “through hardships to the stars.” As Chin-Riley points out, there’s a double meaning to the phrase. On the one hand, it means that one must endure hardship to reach the stars. On the other, it means that when one has reached the stars, they have come through and are above the hardship. Starfleet is an institution devoted to rising above, to being something that the downtrodden can look to.

This is where the whole episode comes together. It’s made clear throughout that Starfleet isn’t that interested in punishing Chin-Riley. They’d be happy to make the matter disappear in exchange for a dishonorable discharge. But to Chin-Riley, Starfleet is not just a career, it’s a vehicle for rising above the hardship of prejudice that she’s dealt with all her life. A discharge from Starfleet is more punishment than they realize, and it’s not a punishment she’s willing to accept, not for simply for being what she is.

Contemporary human society is imperfect and corrupt. Every single one of us watching at home is a part of a deeply flawed society. But there is no hope without institutions within that society that, while far from utopian, represent utopian ideals. Institutions like Starfleet. This is why I believe that this new interpretation of the Federation is not abandoning classic Star Trek ideals. If this change portends a darker, grittier Star Trek, that would indeed be disappointing, but I don’t think that will happen; Strange New Worlds isn’t that kind of show.

Next. Black Mirror season 6: All episodes reviewed and explained. dark

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