Thursday, July 6, 2023

Strange New Worlds, Season 2: Ad Astra Per Aspera

Strange New Worlds, Season 2
"Ad Astra Per Aspera"
Airdate: June 22, 2023
12 of 20 produced
12 of 20 aired


Captain Pike tracks down legal representation for his first officer's trial for lying on her Starfleet application about her genetically engineered status.


Surely this trial will set a precedent that will ring through the ages.



Matthew: Strange New Worlds is a pretty good show. It has charming actors being generally nice, whizzing around the universe in their spaceship helping people. So why am I so irritated by it? I've put my finger upon the two main reasons. First and perhaps foremost, its prequel nature leads to its constantly retelling and undermining already existing Trek stories. Second, its abbreviated nature lends a certain rushed or unfinished quality to the world. This episode, which I will state at the outset is pretty good, suffers from both ailments. Here, we have the hoary old courtroom episode, which has been done many times. But this time, we are revisiting a legal issue already explored: genetic engineering and membership in Starfleet/The Federation. DS9's "Dr. Bashir, I Presume?" already explored this question, doing a better job of it in my opinion, and is set more than a hundred years later in continuity. So did the events of this episode have no effect whatsoever? It becomes hard to care about the events in front of us, then, which is a problem of many, many prequels.

Kevin: So this is becoming my macro position on Strange New Worlds: I agree with Matt's critiques but don't entirely care. I've maintained that more fundamental than my issues with whatever tone or continuity changes made to modern Trek, Discovery and Picard simply weren't good shows, even if they weren't otherwise clashing with canon, and that's the bigger problem. Enterprise was much more faithful, but also boring, and even after a pretty great season 4, the show still lands "below average" for me. Essentially, Strange New Worlds is so enjoyable to watch that I am willing to extend a fair amount of latitude. To borrow the courtroom drama saw, "I'll allow it." More broadly, I feel like the problems, particularly with prequel/continuity fall into a 'conception' not 'execution' problem. They made a choice that I would not have made, but they've made it, and I'm trying to judge it for itself rather than against the show I wish they had made (post TNG/DS9/VOY but delete Nemesis, if you're wondering). If the conception problem is that big a deal, I just won't watch. If it's one thing nuTrek has beaten me out of, it's being a completist for Star Trek. This is a long way of saying, I get Matt's point, but golly if I'm not just delighted while I'm watching the show. 

Matthew: So let me explain what I mean by "unfinished" or "rushed." The Illyrians here do not feel real, in the way that, say Captain Kirk, or Julian Bashir, or The Doctor, or Data feel "real" in their courtroom dramas. The series has done nothing to establish why the Illyrians engage in this modification beyond saying it's a "ritual" or a "tradition." They have also done nothing to establish why someone might reasonably be worried about such modifications, which makes the Federation position seem simply bigoted - which doesn't fit with its portrayal in other "Prime Timeline" media. Why did the Federation grant membership to a colony in which basically 50% of adults would be "illegal" Illyrian? Who can't pass?  Why can't they pass? Does everyone get a "glowing immune system," (which sounds utterly useless) or do some kids get a third arm or twelve fingers or an extra eyeball? Or, you know - super strength? Impervious skin? Something actually useful? Why would anyone choose an augmentation that would not allow them to "pass?" Does the glowing immune system provide any advantages, and if so, why couldn't Una's broken leg just heal? I feel like I'm asking obvious questions, all of which should have been answered by more careful storytelling. They rushed this. There should have been a prior episode demonstrating their plight and also demonstrating good faith objections or concerns about their genetic practices. Without doing so, the Illyrians just feel like "generic group who are victims of discrimination." This blunts the ability to tell a good sci-fi story, and it makes the Federation feel one-dimensionally villainous, which I am not a fan of at all.

Kevin: I agree again. The major problem is that I don't really have a sense of the Illyrians just living a normal day for them or why or how their genetic modifications are important to that. It's a lot of tell not showing. We got a couple of seasons of Data being an android and everyone's friend before we called his personhood into question so there were some more stakes, not just on the emotional front. It almost felt like the Illyrians were the 'alien of the week' rather than some more durable part of the universe. The episode still largely works for me for reasons I'll get to below, but this element is definitely a hurdle the episode had to overcome. Another episode spent on regular unleaded Illyria and not the will o' the wisp Illyrian colony really could have paid dividends. One last critique, and it's admittedly petty, I want to know why they were named Illyrians. I assume it's just that the name sounds cool, but it's also a real place on Earth, now the modern Balkans, so every time I hear the name it just keeps summoning late Roman history. Not a problem, really, just a question.

Matthew: OK, now that I've griped, there are things that work well here. The character interactions between our main crew are all charming and effective. Pike's scenes trying to convince the lawyer to join the case were well done. The crew's testimony as to Una's character felt earned based on prior episodes and mostly worked (perhaps not as well as testimonials to character in other trial episodes, but still pretty good). Captain Batel's jousting with Pike was really excellent, and he should have more interactions with people who are equal in rank to him. The courtroom debates had competent and at times eloquent dialogue (though I wish they had allowed the prosecution to build a better case than "Remember when Khan existed that one time?") All in all, it was a fine character outing, and Una herself benefited quite a bit, when describing her planet's social divisions. I just wish the larger plot ideas had been present with greater effect and that we had been shown the struggle more than we were told about it. I also felt like pretending Una asked Pike for asylum (which I am pretty sure did not happen) was kind of a cheap way out. The case is open and shut in terms of the statute, and I would have preferred an episode dealing with convincing legislators to repeal an immoral law to one dealing with courtrooms injecting themselves into matters better suited to legislatures (too soon, Star Trek...).

Kevin: For all the reasons Matt articulated, I was prepared going in to at least be disappointed in the episode, but the character work is not just what saves it, but, for me, elevates it. Because the characters in the room were visibly experiencing something important, I went along for the ride. The character and relationship work was showing rather than telling. Moments like Ortegas and Una doing a scavenger hunt last season really pay off here since I buy the relationships and the stakes for our characters. It wasn't just musical cues, I legitimately bought everyone's relationship and stakes for this one. On the law side, this was actually one of the better procedural episodes. Una got a lawyer with a law degree, and not just any available Starfleet officer. That lawyer had not slept with any material witness. Batel did sleep with Pike, and in the real world that would be a HUGE conflict of interests that she would at least have to disclose, and I can hear you saying 'But this isn't 21st century US law blah blah" but even just using simple logic, it would call into doubt the credibility of a system where such obvious conflicts of interests were allowed unexamined. Beyond that, this even had a minimum of "I read a John Grisham novel once" dialogue and procedure. The closest was April's entire testimony being stricken because her lawyer pointed out an obvious hypocritical application of the rules. Not only was the lawyer right to puncture Starfleet's own faith in its adherence to the rules, she didn't step out of line in either tone or content. The judge seems to have stricken the testimony because now everyone was upset, which is not a reason. Beyond that bum note, this was better than a lot of TV law, and maybe that also helped my general feeling of good will. As for the asylum technicality, again, I kind of respect it as a piece of inspired lawyering, rather than mere trickery. Sometimes a judge wants to rule for you and you just need to give them a reason. I buy that the judges didn't want to punish Una personally because everyone likes her but 'rules are rules, etc." So she gave them a rule that lets everyone go home. Beyond the legal minutiae, the closing argument was actually quite moving for me because I think it sits nicely with the other impassioned speeches about justice we get in courtroom episodes. More than locating a technicality, I found it to be appeal to all the law at once, and not just the section you think has been transgressed. A ruthlessly logical application of the law often leads to illogical, unjust results. It's the job of a fair and just system to be able to see the big picture. Especially as I sit here having my rights stripped away from me by pompous blowhards who pretend they are just 'calling balls and strikes,' I found the reminder that justice is not found in arithmetic applications of statutes to be quite moving. Yes, she broke a rule. But if the rule is bad, or at least unnuanced, that's is properly the problem of lawyers, not the individual. I do think the episode could have better developed the basis for the Federation's fears, not just Khan, but the events of Enterprise. I wasn't a fan of bringing the Augments back, but it's at least a recent more credible example of why the Federation views them as a threat. But overall, having gone in expected some two-dimensional preaching, I found myself pretty affected.


Matthew: I have no reservations about any performances here. To a person, the main crew (sans Carol Kane?) was excellent. Anson Mount didn't get a big speech scene (to my surprise) but was still effective behind the scenes. Christine Chong is really a very good actor, and gives her character a barely restrained temper which really works. I even liked the comic relief scene of Lt. Ortegas and Dr. M'Benga watching Spock from afar. A very strong outing from the starring cast.

Kevin: This is the highlight, and I acknowledge that for me, it is carrying a lot of water for a script that needed another pass and another episode in lead up. It just never got treacly or forced. All of these people have been on screen enough to make me care about them, and I know I keep banging this drum, but Una and Ortegas having a fun day at the office is just the gift that keeps on giving. Romijn in particularly did fantastic work acting like she knew the backstory even if the writers didn't put it on screen. It's a tough job to evoke that kind of discrimination without feeling like a homily, and she really sold it. I agree the supporting story wasn't fully developed, but I bought her recounting of her life.

Matthew: The guest cast was similarly excellent. Nicky Guadagni cut a fine figure (strikingly reminiscent of Norah Satie) as the judge. Adrian Holmes really nailed Robert April (I kind of wonder why they didn't make the show about him and go earlier, thus sidestepping continuity issues, but I digress). And of course Yetide Badaki was excellent as the lawyer.

Kevin: Badaki should get an Emmy for this episode. She was amazing. She gave the character layers and an internal life. I like how she portrayed an active anger at Starfleet while still trying to appeal to its better nature. She just instantly painted a complete picture of this character, and her work in the closing argument was great.

Production Values

Matthew: I stipulate to the quality of sets here, and was pleased that none were the sort of nondescript caverns that some of the ship sets have strayed into. I think one thing that stood out here was costumes. The dress unis looked nice, up to and including the higher ranked stuff. And Counselor Ketoul's outfits were on point.

Kevin: They did a nice job recreating the shiny, bejeweled outfits of TOS without making them look cheap or silly. Ketoul's outfits delighted me as well. They were unusual enough to not look like they just bought them, but the lines and color blocking made them look professional. This is easily a franchise-wide high for me when it comes to Trek civilian wear. If I were her, I would have walked off set in that blue and silver number under my coat and if they caught me, just launched into an impassioned speech about justice until they let me keep it.

Matthew: It was kind of low key, but the colony world Pike visited had a really nice look to it, as did the law office set. Only the floating chair seemed pointless, in amongst so many tasteful and nice to look at designs.

Kevin: It managed to look like a modern city with enough differences to look different, but not just a generic gray field of skyscrapers. The design team is really hitting it out of the park this week. 


Matthew: My lack of involvement with the Illyrians, due to knowing practically nothing about them besides their one trait (they are genetic augments), prevents me from really engaging with this episode intellectually. But the performances and visuals were undeniably very good. Yet again, a story told on SNW retells an already existing tale, and kind of undercuts it. I'm at a 3 on this. It's fine. But the larger problems with the series (elucidated above) are holding it back.

Kevin: So, like I said, I get all of Matt's complaints, and he is not wrong, but while watching the episode I was generally and increasingly delighted. The legal maneuvering felt pretty grounded and the character work soared. If this were on the back of a great episode set on Illyria where I saw rather than just heard about their cultural practices, this might be an easy 5. However, this episode pleasantly surprised by managing a pretty solid variation on what could have easily been a bland homily on discrimination. If nothing else, it reaffirms that SNW is populated by nice nerds who care about doing a good job, and I have been loudly demanding that since 2009. I am happy to have it. This last thought didn't fit anywhere else in the review, so I'll say it here. I'm also glad this plot line has been resolved so quickly. Sure, it needed that one more episode of backstory, but if we aren't doing that, this plot line is now happily closed. I wasn't a huge fan of it when it started, and I was genuinely worried we would spend more than the first two episodes of a ten episode season on it. Instead, it is wrapped up, and on a pretty above average note for me. I honestly did not expect to like the resolution of this story when Una got arrested at the end of season 1, but I'm happy it's done and done pretty well at that, at least for me. This gets a 4 for me, for a total of 7.

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