La’an’s trip to the past and her team-up with none other than Captain Kirk gets at big questions both historical and personal.
Hitler’s nephew changed his name to distance himself from his monstrous uncle. His descendants made a pact not to marry or have children out of concern for the hardships their offspring would face, given their family’s checkered past. The progeny of other high-ranking Nazis wrestled with their family legacies similarly. Some went so far as to sterilize themselves. One descendent, the grandson of the first commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, spoke of his struggle to “carry this guilt, this burden, to try to come to terms with it.”
That intro may sound a little severe for what amounts to a “Would you kill baby Hitler?” episode. But those are the thoughts that haunt La’an Noonien Singh (Christina Chong) throughout this story. Every choice she makes in “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” is informed by her own struggles from sharing a family tree with one of Star Trek history’s monsters.
To be the descendant of the infamous Khan Noonien Singh is a burden. It angers La’an. It holds her at a distance from friends and would-be confidantes. And on a chance trip two hundred years in the past, it lurks in the back of her mind as she debates whether to save humanity from a bleak future or save herself from this original sin.
Despite such monumental stakes, most of the season’s third episode centers more on entertaining time-travel hijinks than grave moral dilemmas. A dying temporal agent tasks La’an with preserving the timeline. Before he kicks the bucket, he sends her off to a grim future where the Federation never existed. Earth is isolated from its galactic neighbors, and the Romulans have all but decimated our Vulcan neighbors.
Sounds grisly, right? Except the trip to this unfortunate alternate universe allows La’an to partner with none other than Captain James T. Kirk (Paul Wesley) of the USS Enterprise. Through a quirk of tug-of-war and future technology, La’an and Kirk accidentally travel together to the Earth of the 2020s. As usual for Star Trek’s “back to the past” stories, they must find the inflection point where things go awry to save the future.
The bulk of that time-shifted jaunt is tons of fun. “Tomorrow” has plenty of charming meta gags about such temporal romps: from Kirk struggling with 21st-century automobiles instead of being an instant expert on them, to jokes about Toronto doubling as New York City in film and television, to nods toward Jim’s ability to beat Spock at chess.
Every choice [Singh] makes in “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” is informed by her own struggles from sharing a family tree with one of Star Trek history’s monsters.
Adding to the fun, the long-lived Pelia (Carol Kane) makes another appearance and remains a freewheeling comic delight. Even apart from the humor, there’s action in the form of car chases, practical dilemmas like how to obtain suitable clothes and necessary cash, and the ongoing hunt for the divergence in the timestream to keep our heroes moving.
But the most endearing part of the episode is the unexpected-yet-inevitable Beatrice/Benedick dynamic between La’an and Jim. Paul Wesley is still settling into his iconic role. But even though he doesn’t yet feel much like William Shatner’s Kirk, he’s amusingly roguish and disarming in a way that still serves the story. (And hey, we can write off any differences in vibe to the alternate universe shenanigans). Chong and Wesley have good chemistry together, with a barbed banter that belies a certain playfulness in their roles. Their back-and-forth helps make the fun more fun and the adventure more engaging.
That adventure eventually leads to them figuring out the hitch in the temporal giddyup. After a couple misdirects — including the destruction of a bridge rife with the symbolism of international cooperation and a cold fusion reactor that suggests technological advancement — they eventually discover the truth.
Their erstwhile conspiracy theorist ally turns out to be a secret Romulan assassin from the future, coming to stifle humanity’s progress so that the Federation doesn’t stand in the way of her people’s empire. Her mission turns out to be eliminating Khan and thereby averting the future Trekkies already know. It’s one full of terrible damage to the Earth and its inhabitants, but where something profound and worthwhile eventually rises from the ashes. It’s a neat twist, one that ties well-known Star Trek history together with the personal concerns of La’an and her traveling companion.
There are, however, a few notable knocks against this answer to the central mystery. From the fanservice side, as with Kirk’s last appearance on Strange New Worlds, it’s a little convenient that any diversion from the timeline fans know and love must somehow lead to abject disaster. That said, it’s worth appreciating the fig leaf the Romulan assassin places over how the official date of the Eugenics Wars has fluctuated in canon over the years. The just-vague-enough retcon nicely covers the contradictions that popped up once real life caught up with far-flung predictions from the 1960s.
More philosophically, as with last week’s episode, I continue to have qualms about the unfortunate implications that follow from the “Humanity needed Space Hitler to rise and force massive devastation onto the world for us to find the resolve to forge a better future” lesson, given the real-life analogs at play.
And on a pure storytelling level, the tragedy at the heart of the piece is founded on a romance that blossoms very quickly. When the assassin kills Kirk with a simple bullet, La’an is devastated. It’s the emotional crux of “Tomorrow.” Only, the catch is that the pair’s heartsick romance develops rather rapidly, and La’an’s deep attachment to Kirk feels a bit rushed.
Still, it works as a subtle tribute to the way Jim Kirk himself would often fall madly in love on a single-episode basis in the 1960s series. More to the point, La’an’s sudden openness to connection arises plausibly for reasons beyond the performers’ natural chemistry.
This trip to the past is freeing for her for the same reason a similar visit in Star Trek: Picard was for Seven of Nine. In this reality, La’an is not the descendent of the infamous Khan Noonien-Singh, either in the eyes of Kirk or the wider world, which is freeing. Whatever the perils of this timeline, it’s one where La’an can be unburdened, open, and vulnerable with someone in a way she can’t at home. There is a natural guardedness when you anticipate that others will judge you on name alone. As much as La’an is devoted to restoring the proper timeline, there is an allure to preserving this one, to holding onto what she’s found here already in a place where she can be an individual unshackled by her ancestor’s infamous crimes.
Which is what makes it meaningful when she gives up that personal paradise for the greater good of humanity.
Like so much of the best of Star Trek, it is a choice that roots the wide-ranging and philosophical in the intimate and personal.
In the end, La’an stops the threat she was warned about. It comes at the cost of Captain Kirk’s life, but she stops the assassin. Yet, it only makes her ultimate decision harder. Having neutralized the immediate threat, she must decide for herself whether to kill Khan at a time when he’s merely some helpless, innocent child.
Bound up in that choice are a plethora of grand, galaxy-defining decisions. Do you act to prevent the mass devastation that Khan will perpetuate, even if he’s yet to do anything wrong? Could you stomach a world where Earth is isolated from its interstellar neighbors and the Romulans are ascendant? Would you help ensure the universe where the James T. Kirk you fell in love with will still exist?
But the biggest question is the hardest one. Do you rid yourself of the psychic baggage that has weighed you down since childhood? Or do you secure a brighter, better future for humanity at great personal cost? Like so much of the best of Star Trek, it is a choice that roots the wide-ranging and philosophical in the intimate and personal.
Strange New Worlds is an optimistic show at heart. So, of course, La’an chooses the personal sacrifice, the burden of her name, to protect a child who’s yet to do anything wrong and assure the future that she, and we, hold dear. She’s wounded by the loss of her Kirk and the existence she might have had without all this baggage. She nobly resigns herself to living with the curse that the real-life descendants of history’s monsters know all too well.
And yet, in the book My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me, Jennifer Teege offers a different view. Teege is a black woman who discovered that she is the granddaughter of Amon Göth, a Nazi butcher made all the more infamous by the depiction of his sadism in Schindler’s List. Teege struggled with that shocking discovery but ultimately resolved, “There is no Nazi gene. We can decide for ourselves who and what we want to be.”
That is the truth La’an lives, even if she’s not yet able to fully embrace it. Her decision speaks to a certain acceptance of her legacy, an understanding that, as Neera told her last week, her genetics are not destiny. La’an’s choices, what she does regardless of her unfortunate inheritance, are her own. Whatever Khan has done, whatever future his presence did or didn’t assure, is not binding upon her.
She is a Starfleet officer — a being of compassion and decency. Her very existence, her actions to save humanity’s greater future, are a bulwark against the darkness. And they are a reminder that she, and all of us, are more than our names, more than the legacies we inherit, good or bad. We are, instead, what we may yet choose to become.