Strange New Worlds episode 8 squanders the chance an energy being with the flair for the fantastical provides to cut loose.
As Trek tropes go, “A random energy being possesses the crew” is one of the most fun. The excuse of some overwhelming psychic force gives the actors a chance to stretch their legs, show some extra range, and have more fun than the stuffy confines of portraying a dignified officer allows for. If the takeover turns the hour into a genre-skirting romp, so much the better.
But you have to commit to the bit! Strange New Worlds episode 8, “The Elysian Kingdom” follows in the tradition of silly Star Trek possessions, turning the crew of the Enterprise into characters from a high fantasy children’s book. Yet the show, and its players, are strangely subdued through most of the format-bending excitement. As a result, this flight of fancy makes for an unexpectedly dull hour of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.
The series’s eighth episode focuses on Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun). When the ship ventures into a mysterious nebula, the good doctor suddenly finds his crewmates transformed into larger-than-life figures from his daughter’s favorite story. He and Lt. Hemmer (Bruce Horak) are the only ones unaffected and must find a way to restore their fellow crewmates to their proper states.
But there’s not very much at stake. Sure, the folks aboard the Enterprise yak about swords and sorcery rather than physics and phasers, but no one’s in much real danger. The ship seems fine, despite being surrounded by the weird spatial phenomenon of the week and draped in medieval bric-a-brac. The doctor and chief engineer have few clear goals or objectives beyond the amorphous “change the crew back” mission. So “The Elysian Kingdom” ends up feeling strangely inert for an episode so steeped in fantastical atmosphere.
The lack of immediate peril doesn’t have to be a bad thing. An urgent threat and a ticking clock are both hallmarks of the franchise, but you can sacrifice a little narrative urgency by substituting it with fun. The chance to see staid Starfleet officers ham it up in pulpy genre fare can be an attraction all its own, without the need for much in the way of dramatic plotting.
Unfortunately, only a few members of the Strange New Worlds cast take advantage of the opportunity to go full bore here. Christina Chong chews scenery with delightful abandon as a prissy, puppy-packing princess, a far cry from the no-nonsense Lt. Noonien-Singh. Likewise, Celia Rose Gooding steps convincingly into the role of the archetypal evil queen, preening and threatening with an outsized abandon beyond the typical professionalism of Uhura.
Yet, almost everyone else feels like they’re merely playacting. It’s not as though there isn’t room for each of the performers to run. Captain Pike (Anson Mount) transforms into a cowardly chamberlain. Ortegas (Melissa Navia) becomes a pugnacious knight. Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) is a mystic healer. Spock (Ethan Peck) turns into an evil wizard. And Number One (Rebecca Romijn) steps into the role of a roguish huntress.
Each could ham it up with gusto with such wildly different personalities. Unfortunately, none of them comes off like the mysterious energy being of the week has actually possessed them, to where they’re genuinely inhabiting these personas. Instead, most of the cast plays like they’re grown-ups who volunteered for their kid’s middle school play: game but not exactly disappearing into the roles. The whole escapade has a Disney Channel Original Movie vibe, and the fingers-crossed energy from the players involved is a big reason why. The episode is more of an unfettered outing for the costumers than the actors.
Part of the problem, though, comes down to Hemmer and Dr. M’Benga. Both are fairly serious, unruffled presences aboard the Enterprise. That approach could work when injecting the characters into a colorful world of childhood fantasy. They could be the straight men to all the lunacy around them. But for the most part, the duo’s reactions to all the wooliness around them are so dry, so muted, and so nonplussed, that they diminish the impact of all the strange things going on around them.
The whole escapade has a Disney Channel Original Movie vibe, and the fingers-crossed energy from the players involved is a big reason why.
Despite sporting a lark of a premise, Strange New Worlds episode 8 also moves with a languid pace and overstuffed runtime, which doesn’t help the energy or the humor. The most fun in the episode comes when Hemmer breaks from such stolidity and tries to play along with the wackiness. His comments about “the magic of science” are a little too on-the-nose. But his declarations of “Abra Cadabra!”, threats to the evil queen, and a mystic “spell” to transport their enemies to the cargo bay invoke a joie de vivre that’s missing from the rest of the episode.
M’Benga, on the other hand, has no such moments of glee or goofy glory. He’s a tough character to put into focus for an episode like this one. Olusanmokun gives one of the more grounded, down-to-earth performances in Strange New Worlds. That approach suits him well when playing a doctor facing life-or-death situations and personal trials. But it makes for an odd fit in a looser, more heightened episode like this one, where the contrast leaves him feeling out of place and tonally wrong for the proceedings.
That said, his performance style is perfect for the episode’s capper. It turns out that the nebula is, in fact, a freestanding consciousness. That consciousness communed with M’Benga’s daughter, Rukiya (Sage Arrindell) while she was in the transporter buffer. The nebula related to Rukiya’s loneliness and brought the hijinks from her storybook to life to keep the duo entertained. Dr. M’Benga eventually finds his daughter in his quarters, hears this explanation, and must explain to them both the child and the being why they must restore the crew to their natural state.
That explanation is fine. The godlike-being-of-the-week harnessing the mind of a child is pretty standard stuff, and details like Hemmer’s psychic abilities allowing him to be its conduit add a bit of flourish. The real meat, however, comes when Dr. M’Benga must make a grave choice. It turns out the nebula can cure his daughter’s terminal illness, but only if she stays within this space. The doctor must decide whether to keep his child or save her.
It’s an oddly serious dilemma to append to such a silly, over-the-top episode. The tonal whiplash is real, even with a connection between the goofy side and the poetic side of Rukiya’s favorite story. The two parts of the episode don’t fully belong together
Taking the last act as its own thing, though, Olusanmokun more than delivers when M’Benga chooses to let his daughter “write her own story” and let her go. The mechanics are a little wonky. Inquisitive viewers might wonder why the doctor wouldn’t choose to join her in some fashion or ask for a shuttle so they can stay behind together.
But read as the more poetic than practical idea as it is, M’Benga deciding to let Rukiya fly from the nest forever, rather than risk her dying in his care, is poignant. The fact that she comes back moments late, having aged via space magic, and tells her father that she’s not only happy but named the nebula after her mom, plays as a little cheap and rushed, but the commendable spirit is there.
It doesn’t save Strange New Worlds episode 8 from being the series’ first real dud, though. The emotional punch at the end is muted given the janky path to get there and can’t make up for the air of merely playing charades that permeates all the would-be buffoonery. The miscalibrated tone and stilted attempts at humor mark the episode as a firm misfire, even if it ends on a high note. Mind-controlling energy beings and personality-bending trips are part of the fun and fabric of Star Trek. But unlike this episode, they require the characters, and the show, to play these parts to the hilt, rather than just play pretend.