Season 2’s debut sidelines the senior officers for a Spock-centered adventure that pays tribute to his Vulcan bearing but also his undeniable humanity.
Spock is not your typical Vulcan. He steals starships. He goes on renegade missions to rescue his friends. He makes decisions not based on pure reason, but rather under the influence of a good hunch. He brokers peace over a solid quaff of Klingon blood wine. And most of all, he loves, even when it’s not practical or, indeed, logical to do so.
That is the thrust of Strange New Worlds’opening salvo as it embarks on year two of its mission. Captain Pike (Anson Mount) is off searching for help for Number One (Rebecca Romijn). That leaves Lt. Spock (Ethan Peck) in command of the Enterprise. Naturally, what’s supposed to be a quiet babysitting job while the ship’s only half-manned in dry dock turns into an expected adventure when Ensign(!) Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) gets an unusual distress call from none other than La’an (Christina Chong), emanating from a far-flung planet at the edge of Klingon space.
A normal Vulcan would address the problem in due time. They would obey the direct orders from Admiral April to stand down and otherwise stay put. Spock, on the other hand, has just enough human passion in him to pull a Star Trek III and, well, steal the Enterprise.
His misadventures as the bad boy of the pointy-eared set make for an entertaining entree to the new season. His skullduggery also allows the show to introduce Pelia, the new chief engineer played by the legendary Carol Kane. She injects a sparkling joie de vivre into her scenes, with a wry, playful sensibility that lightens the mood, and a long-lived backstory that hints at intriguing things to come. The game of Grand Theft Starship that follows is Strange New Worlds at its most fun, with Kane at her comic best, an amusingly meta interlude about Spock’s “thing” to say from the big chair, and the usual dose of skyward shenanigans.
There’s more drama to be had too, though. When Spock and company reunite with La’an, they discover that a group of rogue dilithium miners are plotting to reignite the Klingon-Federation war, because the increased demand it created was good for business. Of course, hijinks ensue there too (some involve Klingons who look closer to The Next Generation-style designs rather than Discovery’s knock-off orcs). But thwarting the miners’ scheme, with all the near-misses, hand-to-hand combat, and interstellar fireworks that come with it, is the order of the day.
In truth, it’s the weakest part of the episode. The “war is good for the bottom line” premise is sound and timely, but there’s not much substance to the exploits on the planet-of-the-week. La’an shows her mettle, managing to out-bravado a pack of Klingon operators. Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) and Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) are kidnapped onto a Federation ship that’s been commandeered by the plotters to restart the war but use some power juice to fight their way out. And meanwhile, Spock and the rest of our heroes must stop the bad guys from sparking a new conflict without accidentally sparking on themselves.
It’s all largely fine. At the dawn of its second season, Strange New Worlds knows exactly what it’s doing and how to pull it off. But the choppily-edited, slow motion action scenes are pretty lackluster. There’s a dim, antiseptic vibe to many of the big set pieces. And as a prequel, the actual stakes of these ostensibly life-or-death situations end up being pretty low.
What’s more, “Broken Circle” still takes pains to remind you that this series is connected to things you already know and like. It’s not enough for Spock to take on his first command of the Enterprise, however briefly. This is also the origin story of him playing the Vulcan lute as a form of therapy.
At the dawn of its second season, Strange New Worlds knows exactly what it’s doing and how to pull it off.
It’s not enough for him and Nurse Chapel to have complicated romantic feelings for one another. The show also teases us with the prospect of Christine embarking on an archeological fellowship, where she’ll presumably cross paths with Roger Korby. Pelia can’t just be a cool new humanoid alien with an entertaining and eccentric energy. She’s also an old friend of Spock’s mom. Despite its merits, SNW does still suffer from occasional bouts of prequelitis.
And yet, as is so often the case in Star Trek, the biggest stakes at play here are personal ones, apart from the explosions of the week or the canon connection du jour. We can be reasonably sure that, barring the usual sci-fi kerfuffles, our heroes will survive. We can be reasonably sure that the Enterprise will escape the planet unscathed. We can be reasonably sure that a second Klingon-Federation war won’t erupt, even if the final scene teases a looming Gorn conflict to spark viewers’ imaginations.
What we can’t be as sure of is whether acting commander Spock will fire on a rogue ship to avert a war, however logical it may be to do so, when he knows Nurse Chapel is aboard and his personal feelings may be seeping into the equation. The tension in “The Broken Circle” doesn’t come from who will or won’t make it out alive. Instead, it comes from the inner turmoil this choice inflicts on the half-human, half-Vulcan, when two sides of his psyche are at war with one another.
Commendably, the episode honors both sides of its iconic protagonist. Spock cannot ignore his duty. Although he waits until the last possible second, Spock ultimately does give the order to destroy the Starfleet vessel that’s been commandeered by the miners for ill-use. And yet, when M’Benga and Chapel succeed in their inevitable daring escape, he becomes emotional on the floor of the transporter room, all but begging Christine not to die.
These are not the actions of a garden variety Vulcan. They are, instead, the product of a person who is as much his mother’s son as his father’s. The conceit at play in this realization of that idea is the notion that the events of “All Who Wander” awoke something within Spock. The charged atmosphere forced him to tap into his emotions, unleashing the deeply personal feelings he’d kept under wraps to this point, in a way that rendered them incapable of simply being stuffed back into the bottle.
Whether he wants to acknowledge it or not, his heart races when Nurse Chapel walks into the room. Whether he wants to admit it or not, he needs an outlet like his lute to channel those emotions and give them space. And as he seems increasingly willing to accept, for the moment at least, he is a different breed than his comrades on either side of the human/Vulcan divide. That is his burden, but also his strength in moments like these.
As its second season begins, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds knows with confidence who its most prominent legacy character is. While the adventure that draws that into focus is more solid than sterling, as a moving dedication to Nichelle Nichols affirms, the series has its heart in the right place. And whether under the command of Pike, Number One, or Spock himself — the ship, and the show, are in good hands.