Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Strange New Worlds, Season 1: The Elysian Kingdom

Strange New Worlds, Season 1
"The Elysian Kingdom"
Airdate: June 23, 2022
8 of 10 produced
8 of 10 aired


Dr. M'Benga must make a choice about his daughter's treatment when he encounters a strange fantasy world that plays out within the walls of the Enterprise.

 Children, our word for the day is "decolletage."


Matthew: This episode was an emotional roller coaster for me, but not in a wholly good way (I'm sure people will praise it to the rafters for how "emotional" it was). The emotions I experienced were nostalgia, familiarity, boredom, hope, and then disgust and incredulity. I will treat each of these in turn, with the strong warning that if you care about spoilers, this is not the review for you, go no further until you've seen the episode. The premise of this episode is a pretty classic Trek style story - an alien entity creates a fantasy world from one of the main characters' imaginations. We have seen variations on this theme from episodes as varied as "Move Along Home" to "Qpid." I have no issue with this trope whatsoever. I do question, however, the way it was executed here, making most of the characters unaware of the fantasy and acting completely out of character. Was it fun to see La'an Singh act like a giggly princess? Sure (especially given her decolletage). But it's a bit early to do it for everyone. The comparison that comes to mind is "The Naked Time/Now" from TOS and TNG, respectively. Those episodes have our characters acting silly and strange, but their behavior is informed by their established traits and gives us insight into them going forward. These characters do neither - Pike is not a sniveling coward, Uhura is not a rapacious evil queen, Spock is not a devious forest mage.... etc. etc. So it was hard not to feel a little bored by the fantasy proceedings here, since I knew they would have no impact on the character stories going forward. An episode like "Qpid" works so well precisely because it's hilarious to see Worf being annoyed by Geordi's lute playing, or to share Picard's discomfort at having his relationship made public. With that said, several of the character beats were still amusing and fun, mostly because of acting.

Kevin: If everyone were in a random fantasy character, I would agree, but I think anchoring it with M'Benga and Hemmer knowing who they are keeps the episode on track. The point of this story was not learning something about how the crew view each other or themselves. Indeed, I assume the 11-year-old who has never met any of them would not have any trenchant insights. I think this fantasy works better than Naked Time/Now if only for avoiding being cringing 80s sexist. Sure, the narrative point is "Isn't it fun to see Pike be a snivelling coward?" And the answer is yes. Yes, it is. I would rate this a notch better than say, DS9's Dramatis Personae since, like that episode, the base characters bore no relation to their alter egos, but here, everything just moved with more confidence and verve. Yes Uhura is not normally an evil ice queen, but is fun to watch it, and the fantasy setting helped paper over the thinness of the conflict, since fantasy, almost by definition, have thinly sketched, rote conflicts. If the episode tried to make hay out of the alter egos to say something about characters, I would agree with your point, but I think the episode clearly indicates that's not what it's doing. And taken on its own, beyond the fun of watching the characters act out of character, the homage to fantasy story telling largely worked on charm points. It was like watch Star Trek crossed with The Princess Bridge, and as a little confection, I think it worked fine.

Matthew: When this episode started with Dr. M'Benga reading a bedtime story to his daughter, my hope was kindled that we would resolve what has been a real albatross of a story hanging over this season. Well... have you ever heard the phrase "be careful what you wish for?" Settle in, I'm about to engage in a pretty detailed rant. The way this episode plays out, it is a "Boltzmann Brain" that has raided the daughter's mind to create a fantasy world based on that bedtime story. Now, I have studied Boltzmann brains in philosophy and my amateur physics reading - the concept is that, given enough time (on the order of trillions of years), random particle fluctuations will eventually coalesce into a consciousness, but then just as randomly fall out of said alignment. This presents two problems for the story we are given - one is that it is exceedingly unlikely that a Boltzmann brain exists at any given moment in our spacetime continuum (we're talking about nanoseconds out of trillions of years), and the other is that such an evanescent entity would not provide very much long term story motive (we'll get there). But things really come to a head as the episode barrels towards its conclusion. M'Benga's daughter Rukiya was apparently what attracted the entity, who shared her loneliness (fine and dandy, similar to an episode like TNG's "The Bonding"). Apparently, interacting with this being magically cures Rukiya's Space Leukemia. Yay! The difficulty, of course, is that only by staying with the entity will Rukiya remain cured. 

 OK, so here's the extremely problematic portion of the story choices on offer here. M'Benga, who has been working diligently to cure his daughter for years, apparently, leaves the decision over whether to stay with the entity up to his minor child - a child under emotional duress who has just been dazzled by the being's ability to create fantasy worlds that are much more entertaining than Sickbay. I cannot imagine a more grotesquely irresponsible parenting move. Add to this the fact that this unknown entity has just come into being, may well flit out of existence at any time, and has demonstrated a propensity towards using human crew members as playthings in a violent fantasy scenario without remorse. Further, add that M'Benga may well never see his daughter again. I submit to you that the human parent of any child would never, given this set of data points, as well as a demonstrated means of preserving their child's life until a cure for their Space Leukemia can be found, abandon them to an alien of unknown intent with such unknown prospects. Never. Not in a million years. Look - I think the people who will inevitably rhapsodize about how beautiful this choice is and how much it made them tear up and whatever will be filling in the blanks with their own ideas. The story as written and filmed simply does not: 1. establish that the alien is benevolent; 2. establish that Rukiya's prospects for safety or normal human development are strong ones; 3. establish that the alternative would be her certain early death; 4. establish that Rukiya has the emotional or intellectual maturity to make such a monumental decision for herself. Without these things established by the story, the choice as presented is monstrous. "The Bonding" presents a telling contrast - Picard acts in loco parentis for Jeremy Aster, forbidding him from leaving to join the alien being that will act as his surrogate mother. To do so would, in Picard's view, prevent Jeremy from developing as a human being in the manner he ought to. Jeremy is not left to decide for himself, because of his obvious lack of mature agency, because of the artificiality of the proposed situation, and because of his impared judgment and obvious conflict of interest. Another analogous story that springs to mind would be TNG "Lonely Among Us." What if Riker had just said "eh, let Picard stay in the cloud?" despite the very unclear prospects for his survival, and despite Picard obviously not being in control of his faculties when making such a "choice?" Now make Picard a child and make Riker his father.

So... yeah. The Sick Daughter story line is dispensed with. This is good for the show, because it has cast a pall on every prior scene featuring M'Benga. But now, we are left with a facially irresponsible and ethically indefensible choice made by his character (again, given what is actually in the story as presented, not in what we want there to be to make it sensible). If less time had been spent on the fantasy scenes and more had been spent on establishing the parameters of M'Benga's choice, things might be different. But I have to rate the episode as it stands, and I was incensed as this development occurred. 

Kevin: I think this is closer to "one draft away" than you are giving it credit for. The episode makes quite clear at the top that time is running out. I think the exact words are "months turned into weeks turned into hours." M'Benga clearly believes he is working against a clock and losing and is going to lose. I think a reasonable reading is either the disease progresses quickly enough, even through their brief story times, or that the pattern buffer is not a permanent solution itself. In either case, I think the episode does, at a minimum, lay out the choices as 'nebula or death,' rather than 'nebula or status quo.' It's not perfect, but I think that element is established. Where I think the episode does meaningfully fall short is that it doesn't really explore that part of the story. I think there is a solid case to make the M'Benga keeping his daughter is transporter suspended animation is not an ethical solution. She experiences a few minutes at a time with her father and nothing else. If anyone is watching Severance, she's basically the 'innie.' Her whole life, in that literally every moment of her conscience existence is that transporter bay. She experiences nothing but one long, stilted conversation with her father. No friends, no other relationships, no actual new experiences. What if he can't find a cure until he's a 100? There is a non-absurd argument to be made that he has extended her life indefinitely by reducing the value of experiencing that life to zero. Turning his daughter into Nora Freeze is arguably a fate worse than death. I'm not saying if I were a parent I wouldn't do the same, but the problem is there. If they had developed that thread more clearly, that denying her what childhood she could have is its own ethical dilemma, then the solution at the end of the episode becomes a little more understandable. Again, I'm not saying this is a 'good' solution. But it wasn't a good story line to start with. 

I also think as hokey as it was, and it was hokey I admit, having the adult version of his daughter show up works basically to resolve that issue. Would she have a good life? Check and double check. It's cheesy AF but in all honestly, I prefer it to leaving it an open question. So in the balance, I think the dialogue in the teaser establishes time is running out in a way that is beyond M'Benga's control, so some resolution was coming, and this was a resolution and I'm thrilled at the prospect of moving on and giving M'Benga something to do. Honestly, had the solution been to hide his daughter in a torpedo tube, I would have signed off to get this story off the books.

Matthew: I strongly disagree that "time is running out" was made clear by this script. But, moving on...


Matthew: Babs Olusanmokun cannot be faulted for his performance here. He didn't write the script, and he did a heroic job trying to sell his character's actions and emotions. He was also good as he tried to figure out the nature of the fantasy world he was stuck within. Bruce Horak was also very good as Hemmer, who was the other crew member left aware of the takeover (which makes very clearly the case that the other crew members should have been similarly aware). 

Kevin: Olusanmokun is a gifted actor and I'm thrilled he'll get to have other stories now. The man oozes charisma and chemistry out of every pore. I really enjoyed both he and Hemmer trying to figure things out. I also think it worked having only the two of them know what was going on since having to manage the crew was an additional wrinkle. Also, if Una knows what's going on, it shortcuts the story too early. Watching M'Benga and Hemmer suss out a solution was great, particularly when he realized it was focused on his daughter and not him. Hemmer using MAGIC should earn that man an Emmy. It was really just perfect.

Matthew: Of the fantasy-addled characters, I would say the standouts are Christina Chong's "Princess Thalia" and Melissa Navia's "Sir Adya." Chong was quite funny as a character who so radically contrasts with La'an Singh, and her energy was infectious, almost rescuing the fantasy sequences from boredom. And Navia cut a fine figure as the swashbuckling Sir Adya, very charming and quite proficient with a sword. Less successful for me were Anson Mount's sniveling aide, and Celia Gooding's dastardly queen.

Kevin: I think it's to Chong's credit that she has done such a good job established herself as La'an that there was a fair amount of comedy to mine in making her the ditzy princess. I actually loved them all up and down the line. It was scenery chewing in the best way. Everyone was having a blast and it came through on the screen. The strongest outside Hemmer and M'Benga was Sir Adya. I liked Anson Mount's toady and Gooding's ice queen. And I am really going to have to sit quietly for a while and deal with the implications of how attracted I am to Wizard Spock. I also want to shout out Jess Bush's line reading of "What are her 'do-puh-meen' levels?" while leaning in from the side of the shot. I laughed very loudly. 

Production Values

Matthew: This is really the first bottle show that I can remember in Kurtzman Trek. Have they finally burnt all of Paramount's money on screen? I didn't mind it at all, though, because the costumes and set re-dresses were excellent and visually interesting. The nebula was pretty mundane, however. 

Kevin: Everything really sang. There wasn't a bum costume or prop note. The integration was better than TNG's Masks by a country mile. The costumes were really fantastic in the level of detail. They have streaming money and they know how to spend it. Also, whoever did that to Anson Mount's hair is very good at their job but also needs to be destroyed for what they did to such a handsome face. 


Matthew: God, what to rate this mess? If they had not so completely and utterly face-planted the ending, I would probably be at a 3. The fantasy stuff was kind of boring and didn't really illuminate the characters, but it had its amusements. But they did face plant the ending, and in extremely dramatic fashion. How far does it bring down this episode? I think I'm at 2. The other live action shows have contained story and character choices just as inexplicable or offensive (e.g. Elnor's psychopathy, the Disco crew waxing rhapsodic about Emperor Georgiou), but those characters were situated within a grim, dour milieu that made me sad to be watching it. This is situated in a charming, brightly lit ship full of likeable people who (despite their deep dark secrets and traumatic pasts) are nice to one another and act like Starfleet officers most of the time. So as incensed as I was, I can't bring myself to hate this as much as I do, say, the Dead Baby Head in Discovery or the Eye Gouging in Picard. So a 2 it will be.

Kevin: So I don't think the fantasy stuff was boring. It was charming. It moved quickly and the core was still watching two Starfleet officers suss out the solution. It's not something I would watch every week, but as a "sometimes food" as Cookie Monster put it, I ate it up. Much like Cookie Monster, actually. It was fun. The world is on fire and we're sliding into political chaos that will only be broken when the planet ceases to be able to sustain this number of people on it. And despite that, this episode made me smile like an idiot. It had charm to spare and it was applied by a cast I have come to have great affection for very quickly. The solution to the Rukiya storyline is weak, I agree. I don't think it's the disaster Matt does, but I agree it's not good, either. But I think that's more because of the setup of the story. They painted themselves into a corner and weren't leaving without paint on their shoes. Was the solution messy? Oh yeah, but if I squint and write an extra scene on the ethics of suspended animation for them and pretend they filmed it, it's not a total garbage fire. And I am giving them credit for ripping the band aid off. No solution would be satisfying because it's a not a satisfying story. And honestly, they didn't even burn a whole episode to do it, just the back ten minutes of a story I otherwise enjoyed immensely. If nothing else, this episode leaves me with two unarguable facts: this crew is fun to watch do literally anything and M'Benga is now free to join them. This is a 3 for me, making a total of 5.

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