Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Strange New Worlds, Season 1: The Serene Squall

 Strange New Worlds, Season 1
"The Serene Squall"
Airdate: June 16, 2022
7 of 10 produced
7 of 10 aired


The Enterprise heads to the border of Federation space in order to save a colony from... space pirates (?) at the behest of a Starfleet counselor (or something). But things turn out not to be what they seem, when the counselor turns out to be (SPOILER ALERT) not what they seem.

 What do you mean my plan is needlessly complicated, Spock?


Kevin: So the main problem for me is that this story isn't really a story, and that's the first time I've said that in the season so far. Other stories have worked or not to varying degrees, but this episode isn't really about anything. It's almost a back door pilot, in that its only goal was to introduce two new characters, Angel and Sybock. Angel was certainly more fun after the reveal. (Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!) I felt a disconnect to their humanitarian routine that now feels purposeful and less boring, so I can live with it. I think what worked for me, at least in a way that kept me from being just annoyed or angry, were the very Trek touches. Phasers on stun, marooned instead of killed. It's a sanding off of the rough edges that Star Trek usually does to its villains to help keep the story balanced. Disco or Picard would have had them rip out of one of Chapel's eyeballs and still want the audience to feel ambiguity. But as it is, they gave a me a character who lives outside the Federation and thus uses non-Federation means to achieve their ends but they were never a violent sociopath. Coupled with the preening in the captain's chair in a mesh jumpsuit, and I'm going to go, "Okay." They're not my favorite character or anything, and story wise, the episode is certainly the weakest narrative of the season, but I can't deny I am not dreading their return per se. They were melodramatically fun. Insubstantial, but fun. Sybock on the other hand, I am dreading further appearances of. It only accelerates the problem of how Kirk didn't know if literally everyone including Chapel knows. Also, Lawrence Luckinbill's performance aside, I literally hate this character and never want to see him again.

Matthew: I agree on the deficiencies of plot - this really just seemed like a contrived situation with no real point beyond introducing a villain character. I found Angel more annoying as a villain than as a somewhat nosy but ultimately nice counselor. The snottiness wasn't convincing to me as "hardened pirate leader." These are also the worst pirates I've seen outside of "Our Flag Means Death." Why did they ever follow Angel, who so quickly abandoned their crew when it suited them? Just what was Angel's plan, anyway, and did it involve intentionally getting shot with a phaser, but not badly enough to do real damage? How did this crew so quickly take over the Enterprise, but also so quickly lose it to "backdoor codes?" If they're such effective and fearsome pirates, why did they let Pike cook them chili for hours, listen to his obvious attempts to sow dissent, and so quickly mutiny? How did these hardened warriors fall so quickly to Nurse Chapel? How was Starfleet convinced that Angel was in fact Doctor whoever, and is there an actual colony to rescue? Did the real doctor also have face tattoos, or did some Starfleet Bureaucrat really fall asleep at the switch when they were handing out missions?

Kevin: Because the story is so light, the actual takeover of the ship felt way too easy, like Rascals easy. After the non-Tholian web, it felt like the should be more on their guard, and it seems weird that the plan was hope Spock unlocks the computer near you. He could (and should) have just left her in Sickbay and sealed the door. And I could hear Matt roll his eyes through spacetime at M'Benga's performance and lines giving no notes of the fact that his daughter is now in the hands of literal pirates. I know Matt, I know. 

Matthew: I mainly thought of it when Spock and Angel were in Sickbay, in the special room with the super secret transporter. Mainly, I was kind of bored and mildly confused by this episode. In significant ways it felt like Discovery - a bunch of stuff that happens, but not driven by any internal logic or realism. I gather I was supposed to be entertained by the witticisms and the twists. But I was not.

Kevin: My problems with the story aside, and they are many, I can't deny that SNW has achieved faster than maybe any of the other franchises clear relationships and chemistry and pleasure in the main cast. Una and Pike's relationship was clear and Pike's himbo boy scout routine felt credible and of a piece with the character we've gotten so far. And again, as silly as the story was, I enjoyed watching most of it, especially with regards to the main crew. They came off nice and competent but not weird hyper-geniuses. Again, it's kind of what I've been asking for since 2009. I just want to watch a bunch of nice, smart friends succeed at a difficult job. The only bum note in what could have otherwise been a lightweight offering is the inclusion of Sybock.

Matthew: If this were just declared to be an alternate universe or reboot, I could get over the incessant continuity assault.  Spock and Chapel made out on the bridge, which is never indicated in TOS. T'Pring and Spock broke up and got back together, and sealed the deal by doing the nasty yet again, which is never indicated in TOS. Sybock is known to members of Spock's crew, now, which is never indicated in Star Trek V. Look - these things flat out contradict TOS and the movies. This is simply the case. If the creators of this show would simply and definitively state that this is no longer "classic" continuity, I could forgive these amendments and let the stories sink or swim on their own merits. But they won't say it, and so I can't do it. On a larger tonal level, I was instantly put on guard by the fact that the entire "previously on Strange New Worlds" was given over to recapping Spock/T'Pring. Then the first 10 minutes or so were all relationship soap opera scenes. Call me old fashioned, but I want sci-fi stories to be the main feature of my Star Trek, not an afterthought to the "juicy" relationship scenes. It's as if Piller Filler has become 90% of the episode, instead of 10%. I love Piller Filler. But 40 minutes of the O'Briens dealing with their marital issues isn't my idea of a good Star Trek episode. If I wanted a relationship sitcom, I'd watch one. I wish they would let Star Trek be Star Trek for more than 20 minutes of an episode.


Kevin: So I really came to like Jesse James Keitel after the reveal. She was clearly having a ball and as silly as everything was, I can't deny she was fun. It was like watching the murderer in an episode of Murder, She Wrote just go hog wild after Angela Lansbury pins it on her. There were notes of TOS' (not Disco's btw) Harry Mudd in her performance. The writing went out of its way to make Angel Not a Sociopath with the phasers set to stun and marooning but not killing the real Doctor, and I can credit the performance for supporting those choices. They are the classic 'true neutral could turn into neutral good' we love in a pirate story and her performance came pretty close to selling me on it.

Matthew: I don't know. I sort of enjoyed "nice" Angel more than "snotty" Angel. Keitel's performance as Angel didn't give me credible leadership vibes - I don't know why anyone would follow them. Whereas as a counselor, I could see and accept them as being empathetic but a bit nosy and pushy. The fact that the characters were so different is a credit to the actor and a knock on the script - my feelings on radical character-altering "shock twists" are well established here. I have a hard time caring when your script wastes my time for 20 minutes only to undermine everything it spent time portraying on screen. I didn't know Angel well enough to be shocked by the reveal, and now that the reveal has happened, I both don't trust or care what the writers do next (see also: Lorca, Georgiou, Ash Tyler, Soji, Narek, Commodore Oh, Agnes Jurati...).

Kevin: I'm gonna give another shout out to Gia Sandhu's performance. She is selling the conflict with Spock and their relationship in a way I frankly thought impossible when they introduced her. I'm starting to coalesce around a thesis statement for this show and T'Pring typifies it: They are making decisions I would not have made, even would rather they did not make, but I can't deny they are executing the decisions in an interesting and basically largely satisfying way. Her presence is a retcon. So stipulated. The retcon having occurred, I can continue to choose to be angry, or just watch the show that's on, and doing that, on the strength of her performance, I find myself enjoying it.

Matthew: Indeed, I certainly don't begrudge the performance. The actor is charming, and she gives the "Vulcanness" a believable shade that generally fits with what I expect of the race.

Kevin: And I can't believe I'm saying this, but Ethan Peck's Spock is....good now. I really think it was the stupid story he got in Discovery that made it feel so far removed. Honestly, if you nix the Burnham story, I even get a little less mad at fleshing out the Sybock story. But in any case, for the past few episodes, his performance has felt much more of a piece with Nimoy's, while still not feeling like a mere impression.

Matthew: Yeah. I can see my way to allowing a Sybock story to be done if you didn't already do a different previously unknown sibling. But that's not the world we live in. So Spock has a double secret past. Which is twice as compelling as just one, right? Anyway, yes, Peck's performance is pretty decent here.

Production Values

Kevin: I want to praise this week not for its technical skill but its restraint. Watch the Enterprise navigate a debris field was actually really nicely shot. I got so burned by the chaotic camera of the other modern shows, that basically just following the ship feels like a revelation. Beyond that, everything here was pretty good. Mostly a bottle show on the Enterprise plus a rundown rusty set and an art therapy room. Nothing too memorable, but certainly solid.

Matthew: I have a hard time evaluating this episode from a technical standpoint because I was forced to watch it on my phone. The Paramount+ app is a steaming pile of sewer trash that is apparently just not functioning with Google TV devices at present. I guess I shouldn't complain too much, "Google" is a relatively unknown niche service, after all. Anyway, I found the lighting to be rather dark in a lot of scenes. I also didn't really have a sense of the pirate ship. Nothing stood out as being particularly good here. It was all just fine.


Kevin: Ultimately, I think this episode is pretty sloppy. Its only real purpose is to introduce the sure-to-be recurring villains of Angel and Sybock. This is another one of those times where if this show were not set in the Star Trek universe, it would unambiguously be pretty damn good. The episode was paced pretty solidly and even if the reveal was obvious a mile off, it was fun enough to watch. And setting the canon problems aside, the ongoing exploration of T'Pring and Spock's relationship is pretty solid. They are adults trying to figure out how their lives fit together, and that's dramatically fertile enough and has been enjoyable enough to watch so far. The only problem is constantly running checksums against canon. It's silly to introduce Sybock, but it's also silly that Sybock exists in the first place, so I can't entirely pin this to the writers of this episode. I'm actually kind of curious if they will hang a lampshade somehow on how dumb it is that Spock has an army of secret siblings. I'm not sure I would care even if they did. That said, the acting was good, and the Starfleet crew escape stuff was charming AF. And there was something about Angel's vamping post-reveal that felt tonally of a piece with TOS. I'm having a kind of weird quantum problem with this episode. Inside the four walls of the episode, this is a 3. It laid out its obstacles, stakes, and resolution with enough élan and clarity that it was basically fun to watch. In terms of what it presages for the future of the series, I get was closer to 2 territory. I'm not really interested in adding to a story I didn't care about last time. In the balance, I think this episode gets a 3, and I'll reserve my 1s and 2s for what they actually do with the development. If the goal was to introduce these characters, they succeeded. The fact that I fully expect to wish they hadn't bothered is tomorrow's problem.

Matthew: This episode was confusing, boring, and credulity straining. There was no real concept to the story, it was just an action plot with an unconvincing setup, and unconvincing villain, and an unconvincing resolution. I just accept its various assaults on continuity as par for the course at this point (which likely circumscribes the possible ratings I will hand out), but this fails on its own terms. I think it's a 2, for the weakest SNW episode yet by a goodly margin, and a total of 5.

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