Saturday, July 22, 2023

Strange New Worlds, Season 2: Charades

 Strange New Worlds, Season 2
Airdate: July 13, 2023
15 of 20 produced
15 of 20 aired


A space anomaly turns Spock into a purely human version of himself. Hijinks of moderate hilarity ensue.


A Festivus for the rest of us!




Kevin: So is this a silly episode? You betcha. Do I love it? No, I wouldn't say that. Do I like it? I think I do. For being a silly episode, I think it manages to stay inside the lines. The comic hijinks are restrained enough to not make me actively roll my eyes. It's a matter of subtle gradation, but there's a difference between the comic awkwardness of Pike rapidly trying explain charades as some important human ritual and then being forced to watch them actually do it, which we didn't. This is becoming my refrain, but Spock retconning aside, this feels very much like a TOS episode, both visually and tonally. We have a sparkly noncorporeal being who made a decision that negatively impacts the crew and the crew has to try to convince them to undo it. So while it is certainly a lightweight episode, I think it still is at least closer to something like Rascals which, even though it had an absurd plot, was still effective for the character insights. So the question is now, how effective was this episode on the character interaction front?

Matthew: For me, the conceptual leap is not the hardest one to make.  This is solidly within the lines of established Trek tropes. And those tropes are tropes for a reason. Using functional magic to divide a character in the service of learning about them is fine and dandy. The leap I have to make is one of forgetting or ignoring TOS entirely, and treating this as its own entity with different characters who have different histories. This group of people does not become the group of people in "Amok Time." They just don't. Characters would have to forget things, entire emotional makeups would have to change (and not just via growth over ten years), it just doesn't fit. By the end of this episode, Spock has broken up with T'Pring (who he was never supposed to be with in the first place) and is doing the deed with Nurse Chapel. Is it a worthwhile story? Maybe, if a tad soap operatic. Does it fit with TOS? NOOOOOOOOO. There is no amount of mental gymnastics that will make it do so, and I am insulted that the producers of this show keep claiming it does. Stop. Just stop. And the claim that it does fit undercuts future stories, too. Does the Spock of "This Side of Paradise" make sense if he has already been split from his Vulcan half and lived as a human, consummating his apparent love for Nurse Chapel? Nope. Not by any stretch of the imagination. And that ends up being my standard - if you're going to break something, you need to replace it with something better. Is this better than "This Side of Paradise?" Nah.

Kevin: Strange New Worlds has done a lot of work on Spock's relationship to his Vulcanness, and this works with the previous episodes on this point. I think it is somewhat light, but still not 'bad' on any of these points. The main criticism I have is that this episode seems to be jumping the line on Spock's eventual growth displayed in moments like The Voyage Home. That said, I will congratulate the writers on restraining themselves from Spock telling his mother "I feel fine" at any point. That aside, the work is solid enough. We get an insight to Amanda's views on her Vulcan child and how she balanced her needs with his, and how Spock now feels as adult. That's relatable content. We view our parents one way as kids, and when we are adults, we can reexamine them with what we know now. And as much as it muddles continuity, Amanda feels of a piece with the calm reserve we see later in TOS. And I liked the attempt to thread the needle of what T'Pring's family would have agreed with the betrothal while still harboring such obvious anti-human bias. The husband wants to be closer socially or politically to Sarek, his wife resents that choice and makes sure everyone knows it. That's understandable enough. To the extent it still doesn't make sense, that is also of a piece with TOS. Why would Sarek choose to have a child with a human then resent their humanity? That doesn't make sense either. The bottom line for this half of the story, for me, is that we do get some nice, credible insights to Spock's relationship with his mother, and the comedy was solidly handled. Even the comedy of Spock's humanity made me laugh out loud several times. And I think what keeps this episode from being completely pointless is that his relationship with T'Pring has changed by the end of it, and for an interesting reason. She calls for a break not because of Spock's humanity but because he has not acted like he values T'Pring or their relationship, and she's right. The lady handled herself fine during the mind meld mishegas. She's in it for the long haul, and she can hack the absurdity that comes with all the sparkly beings the Enterprise encounters. Spock may have had a subjectively good reason for not telling her what was happening, but T'Pring was right to take that a meaningful problem, particularly in light of him bringing in all his coworkers on the hijinks. My one unsolvable complaint in this part of the episode is Amanda explaining the ritual to Spock. It wasn't clear from the episode that he had forgotten things that he should have known, only that he has feelings now. The way they wrote the scene was like he literally forgotten basic Vulcan culture knowledge, which is a different thing than I think the episode was otherwise doing.

Matthew: I quite liked Amanda in this story, and learning about her was the highlight for me. The way they juxtaposed Amanda's suffering for loving a Vulcan with Chapel's was also well done. Spock coming to realize his mother's pain brought a tear to me eye. With respect to Spock and T'Pring, I did like the emotional territory covered, even if these Vulcan rituals they've invented are eerily similar to the Festivus Airing of Grievances and Feats of Strength. Should Spock's motivations be questioned? No, because he shouldn't be seeing her for another ten years of whatever. But within this universe's context, are they valid questions to ask? Absolutely. Do you, a horny half-Vulcan who beds down our daughter outside of Pon Farr (don't get me started), really have enough emotional commitment to her if you are also committed to a Starfleet career? Great question. I thought the basic comedy beats of the Vulcan Mom-zilla berating her family worked. I don't understand how Pike has the time to make Vulcan canapes and serve them over the course of several hours, when last episode he didn't have 5 free minutes to bone his girlfriend, but whatever. I think the "Oh boy, I'm human" jokes went a bit far. Vulcan vegetarianism is a deeply held belief. Did his beliefs and experiences get edited out too, so that he could choose to eat bacon? That doesn't seem consistent with the rest of his behavior within this episode, since he clearly remembers past relationships and starship operations.

Kevin: The Chapel stuff also largely works, since it basically served to move that story forward. It, too, is a retcon. Chapel was always portrayed as having a one-sided crush on Spock, not a reciprocated but un-acted on attraction. That said, giving Chapel something to do more than pine after him is more interesting to me overall. So the story is lightweight, but by the end of the episode, we've explicitly clarified her feelings out loud and done something to move the status quo of their relationship. So, yeah, this is a story I wasn't eager to tell, but I can tell that the writers do care about it and are not just faffing about. They may have a picture of Spock in their mind that differs from ours and I wish they would just admit that, but I can't deny they have a clear picture or that they are not moving that story forward in a way that is enjoyable to watch. If nothing else, this episode was silly, but the end result was two main characters saying and doing things that clarified or progressed their relationships with important people in their lives. 

Matthew: I think we should have learned more about these aliens (I've forgotten their name because it was so dumb. The Kervorkians?).  How could they exist in the same solar system as Vulcan, who have had space travel for hundreds of years, without being discovered and interacted with? But the basic idea of a noncorporeal race being officious bureaucrats is a fine one. It precipitated a nice emotional scene for Chapel (misguided though I think it is if the producers persist in the claim this syncs with TOS). But... did they all just hijack a shuttle to go on a dangerous mission of women helping each other? Was Pike asleep at the switch? Is there a chain of command here?


Kevin: Ethan Peck is really coming into his own. It's a credit to his Vulcaness that his human bits read so differently. I think he deftly handled the bouncing between Vulcan, fully human, and human pretending to be Vulcan. Given that this is supposed to be about ten years prior to her appearance in TOS, I was ready to criticize the casting for Amanda being too young, but Jane Wyatt was 56 in her appearance in Babel, and Mia Kirshner is 48. People just take better care of themselves these days, I guess. That aside, I really like her. I think she is giving the same "still waters run deep" that Wyatt did, and I think she absolutely has a lovely rapport with Peck.

Matthew: Yeah, Spock's mom is a beautiful woman. Maybe too many Vulcan summers did a number on Amanda's skin over time in TOS (not that Jane Wyatt isn't a very attractive person in her own right). Her performance really worked for me, and delivered real emotion by the conclusion. Ethan Peck certainly showed his comedy chops with his human scenes, and did everything the script asked of him with aplomb.

Kevin: Jess Bush's Chapel feels the most distant of the extant characters from her TOS characterization, but I don't entirely care. Bush is fun and has verve and everything, and so far, I have always enjoyed watching her on screen, season premiere berserker episode notwithstanding. She has internal life and depth of feeling, and Bush is just a fun ball of energy on screen. Gia Sandhu was her usual very good self and I enjoyed the just-below-the-surface frustration with her mother that still read as Vulcan. Ellora Patnaik also did a fun Vulcan riff on the imperious mother-in-law. I think she was cribbing from Enterprise's portrayal of Vulcans (of which her character, age-wise, could have been) quite well and it didn't tip into unpleasant farce.

Matthew: Jess Bush was very good. I have never had a problem with any actor on this show, and she is among the best of them. All three Vulcans were very funny in their scenes. I really liked Michael Benyear's downtrodden Vulcan. I both laughed and empathized when he wanted to try the salty snacks but put them back in the face of his wife's withering disapproval.

Production Values

Kevin: For doing a riff on the 'sparkly being,' I think this actually works really well and fits with your Metatrons and Medusans pretty cleanly. Even for bewing a CGI extravaganza, I didn't mind it. It was supposed to be an unreal place and it looked like it. Beyond that, the episode was nicely spending Paramount's money while they can. The glamour shots of Pike's Vulcan hors d'ouevres looked great.

Matthew: Like the rest of their sets, the shuttle is absolutely cavernous inside. I've noticed an effect on the ship shot CG that I've grown to dislike - in the service of adding texture, they've gone overboard with the mosaic effect on the hulls. It now reads as, I don't know, rough? Sandpapery? Not elegant and streamlined. The Kervorkians' realm was clearly an LED projection room, but it looked neat, so I'm fine with it.  


Kevin: So we are back mining Spock and T'Pring's relationship for comedy, and the result is a pleasant, if insubstantial episode for me. The fact that Spock's status quo with both T'Pring and Chapel changes by the end of the episode keeps it from being completely throwaway. The stuff with the sparkly being felt like it fits in the universe we know, tonally if not literally in places. I was certainly entertained throughout, and that counts for a lot. This is not as good as last week, but I think it stays in the 3 range. 

Matthew: I guess I'm not going to punish this episode for not adhering to continuity. That's a global criticism for this series (it's completely left the plot at this point).  On its own merits, most of the emotional beats worked, and there are good performances. On the other hand, the pace dragged and it definitely did not feel like 60 minutes worth of plot - there was a lot of scene stretching going on. The story did not feel substantial enough for too many stretches. The previous episode was a thoroughly mediocre 3 for me, and this is not as good. So I'm going to go with a 2 for a total of 5. This needed either a stronger focus on the sci-fi element of the alien civilization, or a deeper exploration of humanness vs Vulcanness, beyond body-swap-style comedy.


  1. I caught most of the episode while it was on in the living room. It's a little bit like a sitcom in parts, but the actors sell it well enough that it gets a solid 3 from me.

    1. Their tendency to lapse into sitcom at the expense of the sci-fi story is one of my main beefs with the series as a whole. The second season has struck a better balance, though.

    2. I get the critique, and they have gone for wacky more often than other series, but after the 3 seasons of Discovery and 1.5 seasons of Picard I could collectively tolerate, I will take this overcorrection quite happily. The people on this Enterprise are nice and I want to spend time with them.

    3. I am firmly on record in favor of "Piller Filler." I just want a fully developed sci-fi story along with it. Which there's really no excuse not to deliver given the 60 minute run times.

  2. Looking forward to Strange New Worlds Season 2, hoping for more thrilling adventures, character development, and exploration of the Trek universe.