After last week’s attempts at more moral complexity didn’t quite hit the mark, this week Star Trek: Strange New Worlds re-centered on what’s worked for it in the past: a camp, tropey bit of action hung around a central member of the Enterprise crew. This time, Ethan Peck’s Spock took the limelight again — and although this was a little more self-serious on the surface than the last time that happened, we still had a lot of fun along the way.
Mostly, because this was perhaps the second most fun alternative episode premise you could hang a Spock/T’Pring episode on than “accidental body swap shenanigans,” really: space pirates!
“The Serene Squall” opens with the revelation that Spock and T’Pring are still undergoing some learning phases in their courtship. Having shared their katras in “Spock Amok” to gain an unexpected level of understanding of each other, now it’s time for T’Pring (returning guest star Gia Sandhu) to make Spock deeply uncomfortable about his long-distance relationship by recounting all the reading on human sex that she’s been doing while he’s away. It’s a fun comedic moment, but it sets the stage for what’s going to be the heart of the episode — Spock still trying to reconcile his nature as half-Vulcan and half-human, and his struggle with feelings all over the place isn’t helped when he turns to Nurse Chapel for advice as the two make their way to a meeting, with clear sparks flying between them (even if Spock is a little too distracted to truly notice, as she mocks him).
The meeting is for the Enterprise’s latest mission: they’ve been tasked with helping a group of Federation colonists out on the border of the utopian civilisation’s space, where, well, things are not really as utopian as the Federation’s ideals would like to think they are. Working with an independent aid relief worker named Dr. Aspen (guest star Jessie James Keitel, who steals the show for reasons we’ll get into soon enough), the Enterprise finds out it’s suddenly on less of a relief mission and more of a rescue one when hundreds of colonists turn out to have been captured by a pirate vessel called the Serene Squall, destined to be sold into slavery beyond Federation borders.
Coming off last week’s myriad twists and layers being awkwardly peeled back, this is once again a refreshingly straightforward narrative for Strange New Worlds, and all the better for it. From the get-go we know what the Enterprise is up against, and what we are as an audience too: you’ve got your Space Pirates, you’ve got your Spock/T’Pring emotional drama, and away you go. The strength in this simplicity is enhanced even further by layering in Jess Bush’s Nurse Chapel into the mix, who finally gets plenty to do this episode and really sells the personal conflict between herself and any lingering feelings she has for Spock beyond friendship, setting the stage for some of the eventual relationship status quo we go on to see in the original Star Trek.
Not to contrast this week and last week’s episode too much, but what also worked? This episode has just one twist instead of like three negating each other! After Pike leads an away team over to the Squall to try and find the colonists, the Enterprise finds itself under assault in a trap, as the pirates beam aboard and begin taking over the ship. After some fun action of the crew repelling the invaders — and a delightful action sequence for Chapel when she gets momentarily caught sneaking around — it’s revealed that Dr. Aspen isn’t Dr. Aspen at all, but Captain Angel, the true leader of the Squall crew who’s been hatching a dastardly plan to lure the Enterprise way. Keitel was already having a bunch of fun in her role before this, but with the reveal of Captain Angel they come to the fore as perhaps the best guest star Strange New Worlds has had so far. Fabulously dressed in a sort of sci-fi punk pirate laced jumpsuit, vamping it up from Pike’s chair on the bridge, her complete and utter joy to be playing this camp pirate queen cackling about their plans while still feeling like a credible threat to Spock and the captured Enterprise crew leaps off the screen.
This fun is matched aboard the Squall too, when the captured away team, Pike in particular, decides to lean into the comedy as well and play dumb in an attempt to get the remaining pirates to stage a mutiny against Angel’s temporary replacement in command, an Orion named Remy. It’s a rare opportunity that Anson Mount has had on the series so far to just kind of be a goofball, and yet it’s an incredibly charming turn, balancing a fine like between feeling like you’re watching people have a ton of fun but making the stakes still feel somewhat real. Plus, it just works: this is the crew of the Federation’s flagship vessel, and as clever as Angel is, their crew is still a bunch of greedy pirates. The Enterprise team knows it can dance around these folks even with their backs against the wall, and so the cockiness and general humour on display feels earned.
It all comes to a head when Angel reveals their true plan: they don’t want the Enterprise, they want Spock, specifically, knowing that they can leverage his life as a prisoner exchange with T’Pring, using the Starfleet officer to spring a former lover from the Vulcan facility T’Pring works at rehabilitating Vulcans that have chosen violent emotionality over logic, known as the V’tosh ka’tur. The plan is foiled, but seemingly at a cost, when Spock stops T’Pring from giving into her feelings for him with a hell of a gambit — publicly breaking off their engagement by revealing an apparent affair with Nurse Chapel. Naturally, things are eventually revealed as a hoodwink even if Sandhu in particular does a really great job of at least layering in a feeling that T’Pring is genuinely hurt by this moment (including watching an, uh, extended makeout scene on the bridge between Spock and Chapel). Yes, by episode’s end it’s revealed she logically deduced the ruse and is just a very good actor, but it adds to the drama between herself, Spock, and now Chapel in a really interesting way.
Without that layer, this could’ve felt like a peculiar retread of “Spock Amok,” and in some ways it is — tempered even further by the fact that if you are indeed a diehard Trekkie watching Strange New Worlds, you know where all this is going to go by the time of the original Star Trek. And yet, it still works, even if it’s a little less effective at mining the Spock/T’Pring relationship, because like “Spock Amok,” “The Serene Squall” is a really fun adventure anchored in simple, effective storytelling that gives this re-investigation of Spock’s interiority time to breath. That, and once again, it cannot be overstated just how much the fun of this episode works because of Jessie James Keitel just having a total blast with her performance — even when hoodwinked by Spock and T’Pring and unable to free their partner, their getaway from the Enterprise has me filled with hope Angel will show up again at some point in the future.
And they might do, because with the day saved and the Enterprise out of the pirate’s hands — and even with the lingering possibility of Chapel really having feelings for Spock, in spite of his renewed relationship with T’Pring and their conversation about remaining very good friends after all’s said and done — “The Serene Squall” throws one last curveball that had me hooting and hollering in delight. The final moments of the episode, narrated by Spock’s chat with Chapel, take us back to T’Pring’s work at the V’tosh ka’tur rehab facility on Vulcan, where it’s revealed to us — and through Spock, to Chapel — that the true identity of Angel’s partner is none other than Sybok, son of Sarek, Spock’s secret half-brother from The Final Frontier.
It’s… so much. On the surface, it’s very funny that Star Trek in its contemporary form simply cannot save itself from exploring Spock’s Secret Siblings (oh hey, the other secret three s’s of this episode!) between this and Burnham on Discovery. But it’s also just an incredibly deep cut move for Spock’s arc on Strange New Worlds. Sybok’s a deep cut Trek reference mostly because people simply do not want to remember Star Trek V at the best of times, but the potential to re-visit the character in the wake of Spock’s relationship with Michael — and now Strange New Worlds’ examination of the struggle he feels between human emotionality and Vulcan logic — offers a chance to do what is otherwise a frankly absurd, kind of bad part of Star Trek’s history the justice an idea such as this deserves.
Strange New Worlds’ strength in this debut season, as “The Serene Squall” continues to prove, is in relishing this episodic, on-to-the-next-thing nature, but with Sybok in the picture? This has to be something we’ll be revisiting again. Going right back into Spock and T’Pring’s relationship this episode so soon after “Spock Amok” already felt like a hint the show was laying down some continuing roots to go alongside its episodic explorations, but with Sybok being teased, it feels like more Vulcan drama is definitely on the way. At the very least, I want more opportunities to laugh at the idea that Spock told Nurse Chapel and, potentially, even more members of the Strange New Worlds crew about his stupid half-brother but kept him a secret from Kirk and Bones by the time of The Final Frontier. We can but dream!
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