Thursday, September 21, 2023

‘Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ races to its end with a spot-on ‘Aliens’ riff

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The following article contains: significant spoilers for all who err.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds has never been ashamed to tip his hat to the stories he builds on, some more obvious than others. This week’s episode, All They Who Wander, might as well have ‘Screw it, we’re just going to do Aliens† Luckily it’s so good you don’t have time to worry about the xeroxing from James Cameron’s 1986 original. This is the best episode of Strange New Worlds but still, raising the bar, and stakes, for next week’s final.

We begin with the welcome and now familiar sight of the Enterprise crew loitering around the Pike captain’s table. It’s so lovely to see the crew spending time together and having fun as the show spends the hours showing that these people generally like each other. Ensign Duke is promoted, while cadets Chia and Uhura are expelled when they finish their conscription on the Enterprise. But the levity is pierced, first by Uhura, who is still unsure if Starfleet is right for her, and second by an ominous message from headquarters. A Federation starship has gone missing while investigating an unstable planet, and Pike must look for it.

But the Enterprise already has an urgent mission to deliver power supplies to starbase K7, so Pike decides to launch a shuttle rescue mission. dr. M’Benga, Chapel, La’an, Spock, Hemmer, Lt. Kirk and Duke, as well as cadets Uhura and Chia join him. Number One and Ortegas meanwhile take the ship on its original course, meaning this is the fifth or sixth installment of this series where Number One is barely visible. Perhaps Rebecca Romijn negotiated far fewer film days a week, given her higher profile than the rest of the cast.

When the shuttles reach the planet and land in the shadow of the crashed USS Peregrine, it’s not long before the episode turns into horror. Corpses lie on the ground and the ship itself is covered in the kind of bloodstain that results when someone tries in vain to cling to the ground while being dragged away. And despite the fact that this is another episode mainly shot on the standing enterprise setssmart lighting and direction make them look all the more like the sinister LV-426 from Aliens

Then there is Newt Oriana, a young girl who has learned to survive previous Gorn attacks by becoming partially feral. Much more than the flat Memento Mori, this episode is designed to rehabilitate the Gorn from the comic rubber suit seen in the 60s and the clumsy CG from the early 00s† Now they are the Trek version of the eponymous Xenomorph, complete with acid bile, quadrupedal motion and body horror reproductive process. It’s worth noting that this isn’t the kind of episode to watch with your kids, especially when the blue-shirt Cadet Chia succumbs to a chest infection.

Marni Grossman / Paramount+

It also helps that the Gorn is rarely seen properly, despite some excellent creature design, the shadows are always a better way to experience a villain like this. In the episode’s conclusion, the crew sees a alien3style chase down hallways as they lure the Gorn to a trap. Choosing to shoot from the Gorn’s perspective also helps amplify the sense of fear and tension as our crew is being stalked from all angles.

But the best moments are when the crew, locked in the infirmary, start to feel the propellers turning. La’an starts berating Oriana, the child she sees so much of herself in before Dr. M’Benga snaps at her to leave his daughter… his patient alone. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Kirk starts lashing out at Spock for his lack of empathy, not long before Spock unleashes his own emotions to trap the Gorn. And, best of all, this all feels totally deserved and character-wise, because we’ve seen how these people got these particular scars. Finally, the promise of emotional continuity comes through as we begin to see the Enterprise crew nearly break under pressure.

Of course, we have to give extra praise to Hemmer, who is paired up again with Uhura for some grace notes. The fact that even Uhura has given them a compound name (Hemura!) says how delightful it is to watch the pair interact with each other. And when Hemmer reveals that the blob of alien spit he received earlier in the episode means he’s also full of Gorn eggs, that’s a huge blow. I have a feeling Hemmer was already a figure we’d fallen in love with, and his departure hurts, even if he’s a graceful, alien3-like swan dive dead for a broadcast. Give Bruce Horak his own spin-off or something, please.

(I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to point out that the deaths of Duke, Chia, and Hemmer means we’ve had a yellow, blue, and red shirt in a single episode. Hacky stand-ups will have to look for a better punch line for their Star Trek jokes in the future.)

I also feel like I was remiss in not giving enough credit to this cast, and especially Jess Bush. Bush often has to sell a lot of things in her limited screen time and does so with ease. Here, as in The Serene Squall, she shows Chapel adapting to survive against a threat, selling it so well.

The episode ends with a lot of fallout, Uhura decides to stay on board after Hemmers goodbye encourages her to settle in. La’an takes leave to try to reunite Oriana with her family, and Spock’s emotional outburst has scarred him. Pike, meanwhile, should be headed for trouble, given how freely he handles his life, knowing his future is already set in stone. But then again, this all feels deserved in a way that previous episodes haven’t quite achieved, and I’m excited to see how we get to the final from here.

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