Friday, July 7, 2023

Strange New Worlds, Season 2: Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

 Strange New Worlds, Season 2
"Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow"
Airdate: June 29, 2023
13 of 20 produced
13 of 20 aired


La'an has her day interrupted by the appearance of a temporal agent, who whisks her away to an alternate time line in which Kirk commands the Enterprise, then back to a 21st century past in which they must restore history.

Sweet, skinny pants are back in!



Kevin: So the hurdle for this episode is two-fold. First, we have covered so much of this ground before. Starfleet officers as fish out of water on modern Earth. Relitigating everything about the Eugenics Wars. Distant forces manipulating the timeline. Second is the naked fan service and attending continuity issues. This episode could have easily been a bland retread of a bland episode of Enterprise. Instead, a light and confident hand at the till kept this puppy moving a nice, brisk pace from start to finish. On the plot side, I like that there is no preamble. The teaser is largely devoted to establishing La'an's state of mind, which it does, and then throws us practically in media res into the time travel plot. I found this an order of magnitude more effective that similar scenes with Daniels' appearances on Enterprise since there was no vague speechifying, and even casual viewers are easily able to clock what is going on from the agent's clothes, injury and cryptic (and blessedly brief) final words. La'an clocks it just as quickly, so we all feel smart. Even stuff like Kirk (a tad quickly, sure) coming around to saving La'an's universe over his own because Sam is still alive there works and they had the actual conversation. It's also nice that Kirk defends his world for its accomplishments, and sure there aren't sunsets, but there are at least hot dogs. It's a nice layered implication that alt-Kirk's is inferior to ours, sure, but it's not some hellhole. I'm happy whenever they minimize the number of hellholes in my Star Trek.

Matthew: I went into this episode ready to hate it, for reasons that should be clear to any reader of this blog. But... I loved it. About the only issues I have with how things unfolded are the ones you mention, with some plot developments being a bit on the quick side. But they are bolstered by effective acting and good, economical writing. So I was fine with alt-Kirk coming around to La'an's timeline, and them falling for each other.  I very much agree that this was more effective than ENT's time travel yarns (with the possible exception of "Carbon Creek") and it is because they anchored the timey-wimey plot bits to an effective piece of emotional exposition and development for the La'an character. I still think it's a bad and dumb idea to make her related to Khan (as it is bad and dumb to have every story beat tied to something fans already know). But darn it if she didn't win me over, and this is a credit to both writing and acting.

Kevin: What really makes the episode work for me though is that it is fun, and I don't think it is dumb fun. Occasionally silly fun, yes, but not dumb. The episode book ends with La'an experiencing and ultimately acknowledging her isolation. It means all the shoplifting and hot dogs serves that character growth rather than just being a fun exercise for the writers. I believe that Kirk is charming and if anyone could puncture my protective PTSD shell, it's James Tiberius Kirk pouring on the charm. This episode is not piggybacking off of decades of friendship the way Voyage Home did, but this felt a lot closer to that than pretty much any post-Voyager Trek time travel outing. The shoplifting scene was predictable but nicely executed. Even the Pelia stuff came off without a hitch. She loaded Chekov's gun in the teaser, fired it in Act II and retired from the screen. She wasn't even a magic elf who had all the answers. Again, I think I can build a case that at each decision point, the correct decision was made by the writing team. A lesser team would have given into the temptation to have Pelia tag along for further hijinks and witty asides and they wisely leave her in Vermont. Their interactions were so brief that I'm not even sitting here wondering why she didn't recognize La'an on sight in the premiere. It was that good. 

Matthew: The dovetailing of Pelia's off-hand remark with the time travel plot was clever. Do I think they had enough time to do all the searching of academic departments they said? No, not really. Do I care? No, not really. ONLY the watch really irked me - the physics seem really shaky (especially since fusion reactors do not emit any appreciable radiation, and radiation at the level to influence a watch at thousands of feet would almost certainly sicken people). The episode played like a deftly written fish out of water time travel story a la Star Trek IV combined with a (gasp) ethical quandary time travel story a la Yesterday's Enterprise. I agree that the comedy beats served character, and the emotional beats, although perhaps attenuated by coming only 13 episodes into the series, functioned pretty darned well.

Kevin: On the fan service front, again I just get a sense of a firm but flexible hand on everything. The choice to make it an alternate Kirk resolves any potential continuity issues before they can occur. Our Kirk is safe from this story, even if it were bad. The fan service was more homage than beating one over the head. We know Kirk likes chess from TOS and there's that scene from A Piece of the Action where he hustles the gangsters. Put two and two together, you get alt-Kirk hustling people at chess. A less confident writer would have given this Kirk glasses to pawn or something. The Temporal Cold War stuff was all handled quite nicely, by oblique reference only. Even the throwaway line about how the temporal brinksmanship delayed the Eugenics Wars by thirty years made me laugh out loud. With the proviso that NO ONE EVER DO ANY FOLLOW UP ON THAT LINE OF ANY KIND, I absolutely loved it. It, again, was a perfectly lightweight way to reconcile what TOS tells us about the Eugenics Wars and the fact that I lived through 1996 without there being any. Like the joke in Trials and Tribbleations about Klingon forehead ridges, it was a nice joke-y nod to a real-life continuity problem THAT AGAIN REQUIRES NO FOLLOW UP DO YOU HEAR ME WRITERS' ROOM?

Matthew: This episode basically comes out and explicitly declares that everything going forward is an alternate time line, which as you know I am resolutely in favor of. So I'm going with it. Nothing in this show or any other Kurtzman Trek will ever be, or, in my opinion, ever was, related to TOS-ENT. This episode told me so. This is an alternate time line in which temporal cold warring has moved Khan from the 1990s into the mid 21st century. Everything that proceeds from this point is non-prime-Trek. And you know what? That allows me to actually enjoy it. I have no faith of course that future episodes will be this good. Too much water has passed under that bridge. But I have now started to form a reservoir of... good will. It's weird. Don't push me on it. 

I want to address a larger criticism of Kurtzman Trek here, if only to demonstrate how this episode surmounts it. Picard Season 2 was essentially the same story. But what did they do with it there? They stretched it out to 10 episodes, crammed it with every possible reference they could think of (and got most of them wrong), made everyone hyperviolent and profane, strained for ham-fisted social commentary without nuance, and then forgot what story they were telling halfway through and tried to put everything through a blender in the last episode or two. This, with a very similar premise, is the opposite of that. They tied this story to one character's emotional journey, held it to one episode, made very light references that were not necessary to understanding or enjoying the plot, and used a restrained level of violence and humor. It's astonishing how simply avoiding the obvious mistakes of Kurtzman's awful season-long Storytelling Barf Bags can clear the air and just allow us to enjoy something. 


Kevin: Once again, the acting is the highlight of the episode. Chong and Wesley have chemistry for days. We praised Chong's performance last week and she earned another round of accolades from me. She deftly handled quickly realizing what was going on and acting confidently in character with that realization. I absolutely bought her growing attraction to Kirk. I bought her vulnerability in reaching out at the end of the episode. She really knocked this one out of the park.

Matthew: I absolutely loved Christine Chong here - this delivers on all the promise she has shown in prior episodes. She has really good comic timing as the reserved "straight man." Her acting alone turned a car chase (which was so execrably bad in Picard Season 2) into an amusing character study. She was believably vulnerable, she delivered the sense of fatalism and duty that the episode had built up by its end, and the romance worked. A+.

Kevin: I liked but largely reserved judgment on Paul Wesley in his appearance as Kirk last season, but here I will be more effusive. He has surpassed Chris Pine for me in nailing the right balance of charm and confidence of Shatner's performance. Shatner's hammier moments and general mocking of nerd culture have eclipsed his general, actually very good performances in the popular imagination, but I couldn't help but see the thread between Wesley's iteration and the suave confidence of Shatner's. While being it's own performance, they really feel connected. I absolutely would have kissed him too, La'an. 

Matthew: Yup. Second best Kirk with a bullet (so to speak). I kind of wish he had been given just three or four more lines of debate over which time line to preserve, because what he did give us was great. And yes, he has the Kirk charm. It was really evident in the hot dog and chess scenes.

Kevin: This is as much about the writing as the acting, and it could go south at anytime, but two episodes down, and I like Pelia. There. I said it. Accent work aside, Kane is a delight who was clearly having a ball talking about robbing the Louvre, and she played the two different versions just different enough to make sense. Carol Kane is pretty much always going to be the sauce and not the steak in a story. She's too much to stay on for too long, but if they keep using her so precisely, I may ultimately be able to let the accent go. 

Matthew:  Indeed, this was way better than her previous outing, and I very much agree on the "small doses" prescription.

Production Values

Kevin: The obvious episode that springs to mind by way of comparison is Enterprise's Carpenter Street, and it just blows it out of the water. Downtown Toronto looked great, and it was clear this wasn't some back lot. They apparently wanted to go to NYC but couldn't afford it and chose to film in Toronto as Toronto rather than as a disguised NYC, and that was really smart. It makes Earth bigger and it meant they didn't have to do unnecessary work to disguise their location. The bridge explosion was well achieved, and again for being an action episode, there was a surprising minimum of graphic violence. The gun shots were the worst, but most of those were at a pretty far distance. My only real complaint is the needle drop when Kirk starts driving. I know it's probably supposed to be some nod to Star Trek 2009, and honestly if were just what was playing in the car, I could have bought it, but I can't stand any more modern rock as the background music. It just pulls me out. That said, I was again expecting a mini-Fast and Furious sequence, and it was actually a pretty light hand at some aggressive but not ridiculous driving.

Matthew: Absolutely agreed on the Toronto location shooting. Was their hotel room a little luxurious for some pick-up chess in the park? Sure. But everything else was cinematically on point, from locations to establishing aerial shots to costumes and tech - and I don't think they overdid the car chase. I was kind of sold enough on the plot and the chemistry to forgive it. Instead of filling in for creativity (as I believe it did in the Abrams modern music interludes) it actually enhanced the scene for me.

Kevin: And this is a production note if ever there was one: La'an left the loaded gun in little Khan's room. That's not quite as bad as the coffee cup in Game of Thrones, but it most certainly a goof.

Matthew: That thought definitely occurred to me. Presumably it will be removed by his caretakers.  AND they didn't feel the need to shoehorn in yet another Brent Spiner appearance.


Kevin: For the sharp intake of breath I took when I realized we were doing another time travel to modern Earth, and with Kirk no less, this episode, like last week, really exceeded my expectations. The episode lacks the flab of the Daniels/Temporal Cold War stuff of Enterprise. The humor is used with a light confident hand with the set up and pay off of the Pelia stuff. And the chemistry between the episode's leads is undeniable. Even for taking another swing at the Eugenics Wars era, it focused most of its attention on La'an rather than the temporal mishegas. Everything just goes down so smoothly that I don't really pause to think about any logic problems or even the fact that we have been down this road so many times before until after the episode is over. And even to the extent I do find it to be a tad repetitive, the end of the episode was apparently something of a breakthrough on La'an acknowledging her loneliness, and I'll take all kinds of wacky adventures that resonate in a character's emotional arc. I think only the fact that we keep going back to the same well of Khan and the early 21st century is what holds this back. I want some new stories from these apparently capable writers. So, it's not perfect, but it is very good, and a well deserved four from me. 

Matthew: Hold onto your butts, folks. I think this is a 5. I agree it is not perfect, but it swept me away in an emotional story, it had intellectual elements I enjoyed, and it effectively cordoned off Kurtzman Trek from the Star Trek that I grew up with, that I love, and that I could not stand the desecration of by the last 6 years of awful, world-breaking storytelling. It was clever, smart, and full of heart. And it actually felt like Star Trek - which this series has done on occasion in fits and starts before this, but had always dragged me out of the feeling by crapping on continuity. Now, when La'an argues for the Federation utopia, I can almost see it along with her. Will the show retreat back into dumb action schlock and gratuitous violence? Probably, given the setup for a Gorn War. But let's not get honked off in advance, and just step back and appreciate that for one brief shining moment, a new Star Trek episode was actually really, really good. What's that feeling I used to have? You know, the opposite of loathing? Anyway, that makes our total a 9.

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