A superb non-binary guest star helps prove the franchise’s old rhythms are still fit for modern times.
The beautiful thing about speculative fiction is that it’s malleable. Paramount isn’t only producing a glut of Star Trek again because it’s a known pop culture commodity. (Okay, that’s mostly why.) The franchise still has value after all these years because the idea of brave but complicated explorers journeying through space and crashing headlong into any number of intergalactic metaphors is a premise that adapts as well to 2022 as it does to 1966.
“The Serene Squall” may be the best case study for that idea. The notion of Spock as half-human and half-Vulcan opened all kinds of storytelling possibilities for The Original Series. It was a chance to explore prejudice on both sides of the human/Vulcan divide, to delve into the duality of man, and weigh reason against passion. The ways viewers could map contemporary issues and personal struggles onto the allegory of an outsider wrestling with his heritage helped make Spock the show’s breakout character.
In the present day, though, Spock’s difficulty in resolving the two sides of himself maps just as neatly onto notions of gender. Nobody ever makes the comparison directly, but subtext abounds when Dr. Aspen (Jesse James Keitel), a non-binary character, engages in a few heart-to-hearts (and, eventually taunting bits of oratory) with Spock (Ethan Peck) about how he doesn’t have to choose one part of his being over the other.
The double-meaning of their interactions elevates the series’ seventh episode. Taken purely as text, there is power in the way Dr. Aspen aids Spock with his venerable struggle. They point out how he covets the purging of emotion, while his feelings about his betrothed, his crewmates, and even a near-stranger, still move him in ways that not only help him win the day, but save the lives of those he cares about.
At the same time, there is power in hearing a non-binary performer speak about not having to choose among the different facets within you, instead embracing the multitudes of the self. That choice makes it easier to drape Spock’s dilemma of the soul onto those questioning their gender identity, suggesting that their choices need be no more mutually exclusive than Spock’s. As one of Strange New Worlds’ most memorable guest characters, who lives that truth, Dr. Aspen’s strong presence on the Enterprise makes the point nearly as well as Spock’s time-tested dilemma does.
Dr. Aspen comes aboard in the guise of assisting the crew with a humanitarian mission at the edges of Federation space. They claim to be a former Starfleet counselor who gave up their commission when they realized need and want don’t end at the Federation’s borders. The Enterprise’s efforts to assist some colonists in the “wild west” of space leads into a trap, where Dr. Aspen, Spock, and Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) must sneak around to thwart a band of pirates who take over the ship. Meanwhile Number One (Rebecca Romijn), Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun), and Captain Pike (Anson Mount) are captured and held on the marauders’ vessel.
Spock’s difficulty in resolving the two sides of himself maps […] neatly onto notions of gender.
In a strange way, Pike is wrestling with his identity too. In one of those famed Star Trek boardroom meetings, his lieutenants inform him he’s known as a “boy scout.” Again, nobody ever comes out and says it, but the implication is that Pike bristles against the label and takes more risks than he might otherwise during the crisis du jour in an attempt to shed it. That means answering a questionable distress signal that leads into the aforementioned trap, traipsing into non-Federation space despite being out of communications range with Starfleet, and, most notably, trying to escape imprisonment by fomenting a mutiny among his pirate captors.
The ploy is a little goofy, but also fun. In truth, Mount’s version of Pike has taken plenty of chances since his debut. Nevertheless, it’s entertaining to watch him parlay improving the Orion head honcho’s meal prep into suggesting that he takes too much lip from his subordinates while hinting to those same subordinates that their leader’s efforts to negotiate with the Klingons will get them all killed.
Despite the theoretically substantial stakes, it’s more of a silly subplot, with Una and M’Benga reacting in bemused disbelief to Pike’s gambit. The peril never seems especially potent, despite a bushy Orion with a brogue spouting threats and promising pain. Yet, it’s fun to see a looser story thread where the Captain tries to “boldly go” out from behind bars with a hardscrabble plot unfit for any merit badge-sporting Webelo.
The real meat of “The Serene Squall”, though, comes in the business on the Enterprise. The script’s big attraction is a mid-episode turn. For the first half of the proceedings, Spock bonds with Dr. Aspen. Together they ruminate on how the emotions of humanity can be just as useful and valuable as pure logic. Spock hints at challenges with T’Pring (Gia Sandhu) understanding his human side, and Dr. Aspen speaks of their Vulcan husband who perished when he refused to countenance an emotion like fear.
There’s a connection, even a gentle flirtation, between the two that comes with extra resonance after a late-breaking reveal. Their concordance is strong enough that the two fight to save each other’s lives in a desperate moment.
However, the twist comes when, with the help of Nurse Chapel, the three of them regain command of the ship via Engineering…for about thirty seconds. Suddenly, Dr. Aspen takes control and announces they’re not only one of the pirates; they’re in charge of the pirates. It’s a hell of a reveal. The supposed Dr. Aspen reveals that they are, in fact, the pirate captain Angel, who took on Aspen’s persona to lure the Enterprise into their trap, secure the ship, and use Spock himself for a prisoner exchange with their caged love.
Strange New Worlds deserves genuine plaudits for the committed representation here, in the franchise’s proud tradition.
Whereas Dr. Aspen was a demure, if forthright, dignitary and humanitarian, once the mask falls, Keitel is free to chew scenery and vamp with abandon. For all the highfalutin navel-gazing over what it means to have a foot in two worlds, there’s an even greater groundbreaking impact for Star Trek to have a fully-formed non-binary character and performer take center stage and show such range in the process.
To the point, Angel gets to follow in the footsteps of none other than Khan, whose trajectory they follow here. They get to be confident, conniving, incisive, and gleefully villainous. Despite being the antagonist, the script and Keitel play Angel as a three-dimensional person.
They are a sexual being, someone devoted to love despite their questionable methods, whose gender identity is a part of who they are, but not all that they are. Like Khan, occasionally the hamminess goes a bit over the top. But Strange New Worlds deserves genuine plaudits for the committed representation here, in the franchise’s proud tradition.
Beyond that boon, there is a poetic irony to the fact that Captain Angel pushing Spock to internalize those lessons about not having to choose between parts of the self helps him scuttle their scheme. The pirate leader meets up with T’Pring at nearby coordinates, threatening to kill Spock if she does not complete the prisoner exchange. Angel, who declares that for all their ill-gotten gains, love is the only thing that makes this cold universe bearable, reasons that T’Pring wouldn’t let her betrothed die, even if it meant ruining her career by releasing a prisoner in her care.
The catch is that Spock pretends he’s having an affair with Nurse Chapel, proving it via an electric kiss with roots that go back fifty years. It is, ostensibly a ruse, one to convince T’Pring not to cooperate or, to at least persuade Angel that the betrothal bond she was counting on is no more. And it works. Angel bails, and combined with Pike’s gambit, our heroes retake the ship, with a Sybok-silhouetted tease to boot.
But there’s more truth in the ruse than Spock might admit. When he and T’Pring reunite, she tells him she always knew it was a feint, because he would only undermine their engagement to save the day. She’s even glad his human side actually came in handy to pull off the “deception” of passion.
Likewise, a clearly affected Christine Chapel tells Spock he doesn’t have to explain himself or apologize because she too knew it was a ruse. She’s just as reassured that his Vulcan side came in handy since it let her know he would never chase after a human woman while he already had a fiancée. True to Angel’s pronouncement, both parts of him were necessary to succeed here.
Yet, in the quiet spaces and subtle looks, Spock reveals that his human side is not so easily quelled, and his Vulcan side is not necessarily so steadfast. These feelings, these attachments, these identities are each a part of him, and he can no more deny them than he can deny himself.
It’s a story true for so many who are far removed from these space explorers and half-aliens. The glory of science fiction in general, and Star Trek in particular, is that it’s a means to examine the breadth of human experience with the canvas of abstraction. Whether it’s passion or logic, human or Vulcan, male or female, the adaptability and force of the metaphor remain as strong and useful now as it was in 1966, as Strange New Worlds tailors these ideas once more, for our new world.