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.
sooo I made a list..
– crew is mentally controlled in ways they would have detested and fought tooth and nail against if they could have, and this is not played as a bad thing or a trauma for them to deal with but as a fun dress up game for the viewer- the viewer is not led to sympathize with the crew’s ordeal, they are led to have fun with the dressed up puppets, the outer husks of the characters they supposedly care about.. because sparkly dresses and capes make it okay to mind-hijack everyone.
– In the classic holodeck trope, it is the characters themselves who are playing a game- but here this is not the case. The characters are not even there, really.
– as such, there is zero character development for any main cast outside of M’Benga (and arguably Hemmer). They might as well not be there.
– Since Hemmer is also memory-wiped, no main char other than M’Benga leaves the episode with any lasting character growth/development, making this a one-man episode. That seems like a waste.
– Entity can communicate but chooses not to. (you could argue that maybe it didn’t quite know how to until Hemmer reached out to it mentally, but even after that it’s communication is forceful and painful in nature)
– Entity is willing to effectively kill the entire crew to get what it wants. It traps the ship and takes the entire crew hostage, and threatens to keep them there forever. All other characters are possessed, which means their human consciousnesses would be forever on pause, they’d effectively be dead.
– Entity is oh-so-lonely, it wants company, and it senses a lonely child on the ship, Rukiya.
– Rukiya encounters the entity as a magical fairy-role-play play-date. This doesn’t seem like a good basis for a child to make the decision that follows later.
– The entity threatens to hold the entire crew there forever unless Rukiya gives up her physical form and joins it’s.. brain? It is a forced choice, in which a child with apparently limited information on her prognosis in the real world and not much information on what the entity has to offer has to make up her mind to leave her father and she literally is given only seconds to make that choice.
– Is this an episode about the right to euthanasia for terminally ill people? But is not her disease that is causing Rukiya’s suffering- it is loneliness. Unlike her disease, that is treatable without the need for space brain entities. She and her father could take one last trip to see loved ones, or go where there’s other kids her age. Even just for a while before returning to the nebula. Nobody thinks of this option, yet it seems so obvious.
– She is vaporized and her consciousness joins the entity/space-brain which has so far only shown itself to be willing and able to do harm and cause pain to the rest of the crew for it’s own gain.
– This could have been solved by the entity realising what it has done, freeing the enterprise and crew, letting Rukiya and M’Benga have more time to talk, and finally she could still decide to go back to the nebula if she wanted. But the entity does not allow such freedom of choice, instead it forever taints her ostensible decision with implied force, not to mention the rather manipulative way they “met”. It’s like the entity rolled up in a panel van and said “I’ve got candy” and this is somehow not framed as being foreshadowing for something creepy.
– Though able to sense emotions, it did not care about the emotions or pain or conscious lives of the rest of the crew, and was willing to use force to get what it wanted- the girl. Who is to say it was honest with the Rukiya? It certainly picked the most impressionable and vulnerable mind on the ship.
– Rukiya comes back all grown up and it turns out, she named the entity after her deceased mom. If you find one person who lost their mom as a child (but not so young that they can’t remember), and meets a mysterious stranger at age 10-12 or so, and calls that person by their deceased mom’s name (and not because that happened to be the person’s name), then I will eat my words- but for now, I am gonna claim that this heavily implies that she was mentally influenced, brainwashed or manipulated in some creepy way by that stranger. Anybody here have a deceased parent- tell me, would you name a nameless stranger after your dead parent? I feel weird just thinking about it.
– tying a big “everything is great now dad, that was the right choice” bow on the end of a murky ethical dilemma, nuff said.
– M’Benga does not seem to care for the safety of the crew. (Does not ask Ortegas to avoid harming others in the sword fight, does not check the passed-out crewmen either). Hemmer comes to awareness right afterwards with a headache and no idea why he is suddenly in the Dr’s quarters- and M’Benga does not tell him! They could have had him to break down in grief and explained his silence that way, but they don’t do that. (There was no way for M’Benga or the viewer to know if the crew could get hurt in the dress up game)
– And… M’Benga does not tell the crew what happened for a considerable amount of time, and this is not explained by him being in shock or similar. The first things Pike would have done when everyone woke up in random places with a memory gap would have been to get engineering checking all systems and get his CMO investigating and bioscanning everyone. And during that process the Dr. never said “I know what happened”. He cannot have been simultaneously so griefstricken that he was unable to say something, but also so able to function and do his work in a manner so that nobody even noticed something was up with him. As CMO he would have been in meetings discussing the 5 hour gap, giving his medical report! And he says nothing? He watches his friends try to figure out the gap and he says nothing? I’m sorry what..?
– when he finally does start unrolling the story to Una, she doesn’t go “what??? This whole time, you knew??” and toss him in the brig, which would be the only rational reaction if you woke up in a random place not knowing where you were and then spent hours trying to figure it out, right under M’Benga’s nose.
If your response to an entertaining hour of TV is to write a list of complaints to the manager, next time don’t watch and you’ll save yourself the hour and the time you spent on the essay.
Your review reflected my own views. A bit if a dud. A decent oremiss in there, but ponderously directed.
Crew plays “dressy up”.
No phasers, no photon torpedoes.
Only good thing is no time travel was involved and it wasn’t set on 21st century earth.
Waste of a Starship and budget. There aren’t enough episodes to waste one on a stupid sideshow.