Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Strange New Worlds, Season 1: Memento Mori

 Strange New Worlds, Season 1
"Memento Mori"

Airdate: May 26, 2022

4 of 10 produced

4 of 10 aired


The Enterprise comes to the rescue of a colony planet and finds itself pursued by the relentless and mysterious Gorn.

Pictured: Dr. M'Benga, not remembering his Deep Dark Secret



Matthew:  I'm going to split this review into four parts (which is an indication of how overstuffed things are here yet again), but I want to preface it by saying that I have trust issues with this creative staff. I don't trust them, and there are little nagging reminders that, no matter how much I may enjoy what is on the screen at any given time, their worst tendencies are lurking at the turn of every page of script. OK, so story 1, which I take to be the main focus of the episode: La'an's experience with the Gorn. This was a pretty nicely rendered emotional arc for her character, symbolized neatly by her unwillingness to wear a commemorative badge at the beginning of the episode, and her change of heart by the end. The story had nothing to do with her Kahn-ness, which really raises the question of why she's a Kahn descendant at all. Her loss of her brother was well rendered, although I question how 1. he had the time to compile a complete guide to Gorn light signals, and found the paper and writing materials to do so, and 2. why he had to sacrifice himself except for drama's sake. At many points in this episode, I needed to sort of turn my brain off and say "you like this character. Just enjoy their story." I definitely had to do so when the shuttle used light signals to trick the Gorn into destroying their own vessel. The logic was very threadbare... and don't they have windows? I absolutely loathed the Burnham reference in the mind meld scene. The galactic pinkie-swear to forget Burnham and Discovery was perhaps that show's worst sin, and bringing it up here tells me that this creative staff do not acknowledge it as such, which diminishes my (already piss poor) level of trust in them. Also, the Gorn's plan to use intelligent, heavily armed humanoids as baby food seems.... needlessly complicated.

Kevin: If I recall correctly, the shuttle had maneuvered near the Gorn ship to camouflage the signal as coming from the Gorn ship that was eventually destroyed. It's a hand-wavy solution but it was sufficiently interesting for me to do said hand waving. I liked the elements of the story that paid off this character's big secret from previous episodes. Her clear PTSD symptoms are credible and I bought all of her emotional reactions, and it's even tied to an ultimately very Trek-y message: that she can rely on the people around her and those connections make her stronger not weaker. I also like that even when she was disagreeing with the captain, no one was shouting. It's a small thing, but everyone, even in times of a horrible emergency, still acted liked professionals. More than anything, I enjoyed this part of the episode for credibly fleshing out the internal emotional life of La'an and making the whole ship feel like a real workplace.

Matthew: The bridge story was prime classic "submarine warfare" Star Trek. The writing team clearly knows that their Pike actor is a man of immense charm, and they dramatize his command style very effectively, His admonition to inspire as well as be realistic is well rendered, and I legitimately felt his anguish at the death of crew and his relief when the shuttle bay crew radioed back alive. I liked the black hole angle, and was impressed that they didn't detonate their warp drive to escape it. One aspect I disliked was that very little lip service was paid to trying to make peace or find common ground with the Gorn. I get that they want a tense submarine warfare drama. But the episode was long enough to support a more nuanced take on destroying "enemy" vessels.

Kevin: He does try hailing them and Pike is clearly in favor of a non-violent response and that's what makes La'an redline, so I don't think anything gets broken. I read this as more as the tone when the Dominion was introduced. The dramatic tension comes from "What if this is the one time that talking won't work?" Beyond that issue, the pacing and tone are great for me. It works like Balance of Terror or Starship Down. The tension builds well and I bought the escalating sense of disaster that makes the black hole Hail Mary feel earned both in set up and resolution.

Matthew: Then we have the shuttle bay story. This was a pretty straight re-do of the Geordi/Crusher scene in TNG "Disaster," which is fine by me. Competent people doing non-magical things to fix a problem with a ticking clock is perfectly cromulent drama. Hemmer is a well crafted character and he is showcased to great effect here. Uhura, who shouldn't be Uhura, is written well, too. Why is the shuttle bay door hanging wide open when they are in a brown dwarf and the "lower decks" (which apparently do not include the shuttle bay) are being crushed?  Quiet, brain!

Kevin: This was my favorite part of the episode. I really enjoyed just about everything that happened. The characters were presented with a crisis and both responded in a way consistent with their established characters. The best part is the subtlety on display. Hemmer is grumpy, but not an asshole. Uhura is presented as basically competent but inexperienced. She neither forgets how to tie her shoelaces in panic or magically discovers she is a genius savant at this. She was nervous in a way that was consistent with her relative inexperience and worked through it to save the day. Along with the bridge stuff, it really underscores that the ship is staffed by actual people with jobs rather. I agree that it would be easier on the broader story if Uhura were literally any other character, but ultimately, I find this less annoying than Spock's addition to Discovery since Uhura has comparatively little character development in the series and movies that was not being implied by Nichols' acting. So to the extent we are adding character history, it's telling a story for the first time, and is so far consistent with the Uhura we'll see in TOS.

Matthew: The worst vignette by far was Sickbay. The "give that crewmate my blood" drama felt forced. Why doesn't M'Benga say even a single word, or even cock an eyebrow, about losing power in Sickbay, when his daughter's survival is entirely dependent upon maintaining power to the transporter buffer keeping her alive? They literally told us in the last 5 minutes of the previous episode that Sickbay must never lose power... and in this episode Sickbay loses power. Do they remember their own stories? Because I do. And if Sickbay does have a completely independent power source, shouldn't he use it to save dozens of lives? If this episode had addressed any of these questions, I would be rating it more highly. The problem with freighting every single character with trauma porn backstories is that, if the viewer remembers them, it either raises incessant questions of why they aren't impacting the proceedings (Pike should be a massive risk taker, M'Benga should go apeshit to preserve his daughter, Una should be noted as "not human" during surgery), or it necessitates the writers ignoring them for the convenience of the current plot. This kind of cavalier treatment of even this show's continuity puts me on permanent yellow alert.

Kevin: This is the weakest part of the episode and I sincerely hope they resolve or at least advance this thread in a meaningful way before the end of season one. It is kind of an elephant in the room for this character and any scene in sickbay, and even if it does pay off, like you say, it does kind of crowd in on us watching the doctor do anything else.


Matthew: Three performances really stand out for me. Anson Mount's Pike really had me feeling along with him as he made command decisions. Christina Chong totally sold her character's emotional journey, despite my reservations about the story itself. She has a lovely (if inexplicable) accent, and her face is capable of subtle shading that indicates a real internal life for the character. And Bruce Horak's Hemmer creates an alien presence that will be an obvious fan favorite - truly different, but charming and internally consistent. He's sort of like Stamets, but actually likeable, and Saru, but actually interesting.

Kevin: Mount is really spectacular in this episode. His care for the crew really shines in a way that is not treacly. I agree that Chong is really doing a great job giving a character internal life that could be a cardboard cutout for trauma. I like Horak's Hemmer too. He is thiiiis close to having me appoint him the successor to the Rene Auberjonois Chair for Being a Loveable Curmudgeon. I also want to highlight Celia Rose Gooding again. It's just delightful watching her. She really nails the warmth and energy of her predecessor without feeling like an impersonation, and I just always am delighted to see her just be on screen and exist. I think good science fiction works best when the characters in it are at their most recognizably human because it gives scope and stakes to the story elements, and she just exudes that quality in buckets. And again, she just nailed a presence that says "I am young and inexperienced but also well-trained and naturally competent" in a way that makes her success in the episode feel both earned and satisfying. I also want to give a shoutout to Melissa Navia's Ortegas. She is just great in the part and clearly having a ball. Even without an episode about her specifically, she just radiates a developed character that I want to hang out with. I sincerely hope when she gets her own episode, we find out that both her parents are alive and well and she had an uneventful childhood.

Matthew: Nope. She's got an abusive holographic ex stashed on her tricorder who only talks to her on even numbered stardates. 

Production Values

Matthew: Beyond the standard stipulation for movie quality effects, there are a few highlights and "huh?" moments for me. The Brown Dwarf was really treated more like a nebula than a gas giant for me. I know it was being consumed by the black hole, but it just never read as "quasi-stellar body" to me. It was just "brown cloud." The black hole looked great, though. The Gorn ships had a neat design which recalled the TOS shape but updated it. 

Kevin: The lensing around the black hole was really what did it for me this episode. This is more of a writing thing, but it makes sense here, listening to the characters discuss the actual effects of a black hole and incorporate it into a strategy was just delightful.

Matthew: We got to see more of the Enterprise sets and... they're very busy and full of lights and stuff, but mainly I am distracted by their size. This bridge must be three times the size of the TOS set. It's cavernous. And speaking of cavernous, the shuttle bay must be ten times the size of the one on the original show. This sort of scale brings back unpleasant JJ Abrams memories for me.

Kevin: I don't mind the size, per se. They are not as distracting as the Abrams sets, and again, look like real places and not a glorified Apple Store. I suppose they made their own bed by choosing to dramatize this era where we have 79 episodes of examples, but I like looking at it. I think they managed to maintain the primary colored charm of the original but filmed for a show that is 16:9 and HD instead of 4:3 and barely SD. This falls into the bin of "They made a decision I would not have made but that does not mean they executed that decision poorly." And I am fine with the shuttle bay being huge. It should be huge. It's a hangar and a runway. It should be massive. It was just that wasn't feasible in other iterations until now.


Matthew: I am vacillating between a 3 and a 4 here. I was pretty thoroughly entertained - it was several well done character vignettes on a skeleton of a story that required turning off my brain in several spots.  The narrative was yet again overstuffed, and if one vignette had been excised (Sickbay was by far the weakest), the others would have had more room to breathe. As indicated above, nearly every vignette was riddled with "huh?" moments - and of course other Trek stories have these sorts of flaws. They just seem to pile up in greater numbers in Kurtzman Trek. My hatred for the past 6 seasons of shows also has me in an uncharitable frame of mind, but the charming actors and halfway decent stories are starting to lower my defenses. Overall, I think this was a solidly entertaining episode, but like the Enterprise, it was creaking under the weight of unnecessary story freight (the various Deep Dark Secrets referenced above). As such, I'm at a 3 here. It almost got there, but problems of the show runners' own choosing dragged it back. 

Kevin: I think this makes it into a 4 for me. I get all of Matt's questions, and they definitely hold it back from a 5. But in the moment, I was enjoying this episode. I cared what happened to these characters. Even the quick note of Kyle sealing the bulked behind him had a genuine punch that did not read as cheap. I care about these people already. I am eager to watch next week in a way I haven't been for a live action Trek series since the 90s. They have, as far as I can tell, finally found the fairway in capturing the tone of "smart friends who work together to solve problems" that is the hallmark of the Trek I love the most. Even if subsequent plot developments diminish that, and I get Matt's fear that they might, it doesn't mean they didn't at least do it once. For doing a taut and entertaining action based episode that did not break to the tone of the world, but instead highlighted that this cast is full of good actors portraying characters I believe are part of the Star Trek universe, this earns a 4. That makes a total of 7.

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