A clash with a comet makes for a classic Star Trek tale and finally gives Cadet Uhura the spotlight.
One of the original sins of the 1960s Star Trek series is that it never gave Lt. Uhura all that much to do. Yes, she played secondary roles in a handful of episodes. But like much of the main cast outside the Kirk/Spock/Bones triumvirate, her opportunities to step into the limelight were few and far between. It can’t be overstated what a boon for representation it was having including a black woman on the bridge of the Enterprise in 1966. But the inspirational nature of her presence must be balanced against the fact that she was, more often than not, roundly underutilized.
There’s still drawbacks to including such a familiar character in a brand new show. Adding someone with a known destiny to the crew means a missed opportunity to expand the franchise’s roster. But if there’s a good justification for the choice, it’s the opportunity to give this Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) the focus and spotlight the character deserved when Nichelle Nichols herself manned the comms. “Children of the Comet” does just that, not only presenting a problem the young cadet is well-suited to solve, but diving into the character’s background and perspective in a way nearly unprecedented for Star Trek on television.
The problem fits well within standard Trekkie tropes. A comet is barreling toward a pre-warp civilization, and it’s up to the Enterprise to divert its path and avert planetary disaster. Only it’s not a comet! When the hurtling rock turns out to have shielding, the standard beam-down reveals it’s actually a sophisticated artificial device, one with mysterious controls and the ability to prevent our heroes from transporting back. To heighten the danger, a ship from a powerful race of “Shepherds” arrives to threaten Captain Pike (Anson Mount) and his crew for daring to mess with his people’s “sacred” celestial object.
So much of this comes right out of the well-worn (and well-loved) Star Trek playbook. If viewers had a nickel for every time Kirk and company found some advanced device from an ancient race floating in the void, they could afford their own Enterprise. The stranded away team forced to solve a puzzle to save themselves and avoid catastrophe is, likewise, a time-honored tale. And the hostile aliens with a different belief system, requiring a mix of diplomacy and guile to soothe, is a familiar chestnut as well.
Regardless, Strange New Worlds hits all of these beats well. Pike’s negotiations with a territorial zealot in particular tugs the heartstrings of anyone who watched Captain Picard smooth things over with a cornucopia of tempestuous aliens on the other side of the viewscreen. The dispute over whether the comet is a mere rock threatening to destroy millions of lives, or a divine object with a will of its own that must not be tampered with, is one of those classic “clash of civilizations” scenarios with plenty at stake. Once again, Pike’s low-key, commanding-yet-mildly-snarky approach to the situation calls to mind the commanders of old.
And yet, the best part of “Children of the Comet” has little to do with the crisis du jour. It’s the character story of Uhura. She recounts her personal history to her commander and senior officers during a meal at the captain’s table, one that feels suitably like a 21st century work dinner. In the process, she gets more shading in an hour than her Nicholsian counterpart received in twenty-five years of television shows and movies.
Unlike most cadets on the Enterprise, who are ride or die for Starfleet, Uhura’s not sure this is for her. In fact, she joined the service almost on a lark. Given her linguistic virtuosity, she’d planned to study at the University of Nairobi. But a tragedy that took the lives of her family members, including a mother and father who taught there, made the idea untenable. Instead, rudderless, she decided to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps and applied to the Academy for a sense of direction.
It immediately distinguishes Uhura as someone reticent about Starfleet in a way few soon-to-be-officers are. Most crewmembers are true believers, but Uhura’s someone with the talent to belong and yet the personal history to explain why she might not see herself as a lifer in the organization. The audience can appreciate the irony, given her known future, but it also adds intrigue to that future. A different starting place makes the journey from uncertain cadet to expert bridge officer more meaningful. Hell, the simple fact that she’s unfiltered enough to admit all this to her captain gives Uhura more personality and distinction.
She gets more shading in an hour than her Nicholsian counterpart received in twenty-five years of television shows and movies.
That matters when she goes on her first away mission with Spock (Ethan Peck), La’An (Christina Chong), and god help us, Sam Kirk (Dan Jeannotte). The things that always go wrong on away missions go wrong here. It’s up to Uhura to decipher a mysterious alien device that nearly killed her crewmate. While the wunderkind cadet has the linguistic skills to solve the problem, “Children of the Comet” does a nice job of conveying the sense that she nevertheless feels in over her head. In her first at-bat, she’s overwhelmed and far from the steady officer who would one day eat mysterious spatial anomalies for breakfast.
Enter Spock. Again, there’s a certain amount of cheese to pairing up two characters from The Original Series so soon. (See also: the beginnings of the Spock/Nurse Chapel flirtation.) But rather than being mere fan service, their interactions here are vital to Uhura’s well-plotted character arc. After the captain’s meal, Spock effectively tells Uhura, “If you don’t want to be here, make room for those who do.” On the away mission, he starts out with a speech about the risks and the skill needed in the moment that psyches out Uhura more than it helps her.
But from there, Spock offers his colleague a better “pep talk” about her capacity to accomplish what she’s been trained for in this situation. His encouragement not only helps spur Uhura to do her best work, as they collaborate to solve the problem, but helps forge a bond between them, something we saw scant glimpses of in the 1960s show. And in the end, he tells Uhura that whatever her doubts, her sharp thinking and problem-solving in a challenging spot, affirms that she truly belongs here.
It speaks to the strong, meat-and-potatoes T.V. writing at the heart of “Children of the Comet”. Great performances from Gooding and Peck make these scenes come alive. But they’re supported by the natural psychological trajectory at play. Spock’s trademark uncharacteristic laughter after escaping a tight spot pays off an earlier gag about not understanding why humans find it funny when everything goes wrong. Brief, wordless interludes of the planetary species in danger help the audience situate the stakes of the threat and put a human face (so to speak) on the life, terrors, and eventual joys happening down below. This is all the type of sound, nuts and bolts writing that 90s Trek all but perfected, and which Strange New Worlds revives with aplomb.
The same goes for Uhura’s solution to the problem of the day. One of the few details audiences did learn about the lieutenant in The Original Series is that she had a lovely singing voice and would even croon with Spock in spare moments. In that vein, this episode sets up during that captain’s meal that Uhura reflexively hums to herself when she’s nervous or contemplative. It’s that humming which spurs a reaction in the comet-controlling device. And some quick thinking and number-crunching allows her and Spock to sing a series of notes that let the device know they’re not hostiles so they can beam away. It’s a clever way to build on one of the parts of Uhura’s character longtime viewers already know, but use it in a novel situation.
From there, the season’s second episode rounds things out in a solid fashion. Uhura not only gains the confidence of a commanding officer, but confidence in herself. Evasive maneuvers and a clever ploy let Spock do his part too. Shrewd command decisions from Pike and Number One (Rebecca Romijn) assuage the concerns of the Shepherds. And despite the crew’s skepticism about the claims of the comet’s protectors, the hurtling rock not only shed materials that help improve the ecology of the nearby planet, but transmits info suggesting it somehow knew all this would happen.
The brave officers finding the right combination of luck and inner strength to save the day is a Star Trek classic. Commanders negotiating with prickly locals who view Starfleet as interlopers and finding creative solutions is just as venerable a trope. The mysterious object in the reaches of space that our heroes think they’ve figured out, but which also points to a universe wilder and more complex than what they think they know is a trademark of the 1960s original.
Still, if there’s one place where Strange New Worlds moves the ball forward in the early going, it’s turning the duly-loved but under-featured Uhuru into a full-fledged, well-rounded character. Giving her the focus, and tying her personal story to the latest challenge of the Enterprise, elevates the famous figure and gives her the T.V. spotlight she’s so long and so richly deserved.