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Star Trek: Strange New Worlds blends high art with hijinks in its most fun episode

A body swap, some romantic silliness, and a chance for senior officers to play hooky buoy a lighter outing for the series.

Star Trek should be fun. Yes, it should also be serious sometimes, heady, and even challenging. But under the big tent of the United Federation of Planets, there should still be room for the occasional bit of outright zaniness.

In that spirit, “Spock Amok” is true to its title. The episode combines the drama of Spock’s return to his home planet from The Original Series with the madcap irreverence of Daffy Duck’s most famous short from legendary animator Chuck Jones. The mix of those two sensibilities emerges via a Freaky Friday-style body swap misadventure between paramours, a pair of stiff senior officers expanding their horizons with a wild game of “Enterprise Bingo”, and the freewheeling romantic entanglements of one Christine Chapel (Jess Bush).

There’s plenty of moving material here, but with its fifth outing of the season, Strange New Worlds is content to cut loose. Especially after the high-stakes and high-drama of last week’s Gorn skirmish, it’s nice to have a more relaxed and convivial cooldown, where the audience can see the characters when they’re off the clock.

With that low-stakes vibe, “Spock Amok” has an almost sitcom-like quality to it, in a good way. Spock (Ethan Peck) and T’Pring (Gia Sandhu) have a lover’s quarrel over work-life balance. Una (Rebecca Romijn) and La’an (Christina Chong) resemble stuffy bosses who jointly learn how to cut loose. Nurse Chapel offers a network laugher-esque “I’ll never be tied down!” proclamation that belies her hidden attachments and attractions. These dynamics are simple on the surface, but there’s a reason workaday classic T.V. writers returned to these beats again and again. They’re relatable and, with their simplicity, feature plenty of room to play around.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Episode 5 Recap
Ethan Peck as Spock of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS. Photo Cr: John Medland/Paramount+ ©2022 CBS Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Despite a looser approach, the story includes plenty of thematic heft. The Spock-T’Pring relationship is characterized by multiple dualities. Spock is torn between his human side and his Vulcan side; his duties to Starfleet and his obligations to his culture; and his desire to be a good officer and his desire to be a good partner.

The dramatization of these ideas is a tad silly. Most body swap stories are, after all. T’Pring-as-Spock is called upon to return to a sensitive diplomatic negotiation that only Spock can conduct. Spock-qua-T’Pring is, just as conveniently, called upon to persuade a Vulcan criminal to accept rehabilitation when he’ll only speak to “T’Pring.” Regardless of the contrivance, the goofier tone helps these narrative twists succeed, and Strange New Worlds uses the off-the-wall scenario to good ends.

There’s a delightful sense of farce to two reserved Vulcans accidentally exchanging katras and not being able to switch back. The dry delivery of concerns about “hijinks” and the awkward but reserved tone when they pretend to be each other in front of Captain Pike (Anson Mount) helps such silliness land. With human characters, especially those inclined to wink at the camera, these sorts of shenanigans could easily come off as too broad. But with stoic, logical beings caught in a profoundly illogical situation, their flummoxed but dignified aura through it all only aids the humor.

It helps the import of their body-switch land too. T’Pring fears that Spock values his Starfleet duties more than her, or worse, that she’s just another “duty” on his to-do list. Spock fears that, given his parentage, T’Pring might view him as too human to meet her approval. In true Star Trek tradition, the way those fears are realized is fantastical, but the root of their insecurities is relatable.

[The exaggerated premise is] built around real emotions and concerns, which helps “Spock Amok” thread the needle of drama and comedy.

Worrying about a partner prioritizing work over your relationship, or fearing that some part of your upbringing or identity will rub them the wrong way, is a familiar anxiety. As exaggerated as the premise is, it’s built around real emotions and concerns, which helps “Spock Amok” thread the needle of drama and comedy.

The clever homages to classic Trek don’t hurt either. This outing features a wonderful callback to the famed ritual combat scene from The Original Series’ “Amok Time”, which featured T’Pring’s debut as a character. An opening dream sequence brings back the props and setting of that iconic incident. And composer Nami Melumad does a superb job arranging and integrating the famed TOS fight music into the proceedings.

Spock’s nightmare even gives the character the opportunity to indulge in a proud franchise tradition — fighting your own doppelganger. The stand-off provides him with an opportunity the prior series typically reserved for Kirk. And it also creates some nice symbolism for Spock’s inner turmoil as a purely human version of the Starfleet officer does battle with a purely Vulcan incarnation.

The 1960s homages aren’t limited to combat, though. Spock receives playful relationship advice from none other than Nurse Chapel. Their flirty interludes are catnip for fans who’ve been shipping the two since 1966. In keeping with the genre flexibility of the episode, the pair’s interactions are romcom reminiscent. Chapel coaches up Spock to help woo and reassure his fiancée, while clearly harboring a bit of a crush herself.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Episode 5 Recap
Gia Sandhu as T’Pring as Jess Bush as Nurse Chapel of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS. Photo Cr: Marni Grossman/Paramount+ ©2022 CBS Studios. All Rights Reserved.

And yet, Christine wants nothing serious at the moment, or protests as much, with the sense that she may be holding out for the right partner. Even as Nurse Chapel ends a purely physical relationship when her “casual” beau wants to take things to the next level, some great acting from Bush hints there’s more running through her mind in terms of romance than she lets on. Helping Spock through problems both romantic and metaphysical brings the two closer, and a few conversations with Lt. Ortegas (Melissa Navia) as a confidante suggest there’s more going on there too. It’s a low-stakes, human story, which fits nicely within “Spock Amok”’s more relaxed aims.

The same goes for Una and La’an’s misadventures. Strange New Worlds already nodded toward a shared history between the two. Seeing how easily the pair click and complement one another as a pair of duty-bound dorks who revel in running extra diagnostics is endearing as all hell. Both officers are stiffs, something their colleagues recognize, but they’re adorable in how they both relish their devotion to duty.

Still, it’s just as fun to see them try to break out of their stodgy “Where Fun Goes to Die” reputations. The goofy risks the writers take in the name of checking off boxes for “Enterprise Bingo” produce no shortage of charming montages. The performers have great chemistry together, and the sense of two sticks-in-the-mud cutting loose and seeing how the other half lives is a longstanding trope for a reason. Beyond the sheer comedy of it, there’s a greater idea at play — that coloring outside the lines can lead to joys and experiences beyond what a purely doctrinaire approach nets you.

That comes through in the culmination of the other key storyline in “Spock Amok”. A species with a valuable trade route is negotiating with the Federation, Klingons, and Romulans for the rights to it. The talks go poorly, with the aliens seemingly mirroring their Federation negotiators at every turn, be they Tellarite, Vulcan, or human. It’s a classic Star Trek problem — how to connect with some unknown race over some strategically important MacGuffin. The resolution is a tad rushed, but Pike creditably wins the day by recognizing their tactics and responding with “radical empathy”, an effort to see their point of view, which ultimately proves persuasive.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Episode 5 Recap
Melissa Navia as Ortegas of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS. Photo Cr: Marni Grossman/Paramount+ ©2022 CBS Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Therein lies the subtle theme of the episode — a willingness to take on someone else’s point of view that cuts across differences and open one’s eyes to new perspectives. Pike’s empathetic gambit convinces the aliens to fly the Federation flag, a sign of acceptance. La’an and Una’s willingness to test out the ensigns’ rule-breaking escapades leads them to witness a gorgeous solar barge from the hull of the Enterprise. Nurse Chapel’s willingness to counsel Spock through uncharted territory brings them closer than ever.

Most of all, Spock and T’Pring walking a mile in each other’s shoes allays their equal and opposite concerns. T’Pring starts the episode worrying about what Spock wants and where his priorities lay. But Pike gives a speech about how Spock’s status as an exemplary officer stems from the way he brings his Vulcan heritage to bear and sets aside what he really wants in the name of a greater good, showing where his heart truly rests. In the same terms, Spock-as-T’Pring tries to do his fiancée’s job of rehabilitating lost souls to the path of pure Vulcan logic and witnesses how much harder a betrothal to a half-human makes it.

In short, the Vulcan couple develops a new understanding of the sort of demands each faces, the ways in which their connection complicates that, and how much they both must truly want this to be able to set those responsibilities aside and work to preserve what they have together. Longtime Star Trek fans know the relationship is ultimately destined to fail. Yet, it’s strangely heartening to watch the couple overcome the base relationship insecurities that divide them, even through such ridiculous means.

Therein lies “Spock Amok”’s greatest twist. It is a profoundly irreverent, genre-hopping, unserious episode of Strange New Worlds. And yet, like so many brilliant outings before it, the episode uses its humor and lower-stakes stories to illuminate deeper truths about its characters and their connections. Seeing our heroes as people, and not just valiant officers patrolling the galaxy, is a must. But there’s no reason Star Trek can’t follow this episode’s lead and be tons of fun in the process.

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