One of the most impressive things about Nichelle Nichols — among a great list of impressive things about Nichelle Nichols — is how she managed to do a huge amount with generally very little screen time. One of the the reasons that Uhura works as an actual character is because of what she invested in the role. She always went way above and beyond what what actually on the page, and in doing so brought her to life. Uhura developed into an easy-to-like character who had her own strengths and abilities far, far away from snide, ignorant jokes about how the only woman on the bridge of the original Enterprise was apparently a receptionist.
But despite this it’s still fair to say that, of the original core cast, she got the least amount of attention. Even Chekov got more, and he’s only in two of the three original seasons of the show. The TOS movies corrected this a bit — somewhat intermittently — but it’s not until 2009, and the Abramsverse movies that the character really started to get her due. Strange New Worlds wastes no time at all following up on that approach, putting Uhura front and centre in “Children Of The Comet”. The question is – does “the prodigy” work as a bridge-level cadet?
Very much so, as it turns out. Celia Rose Gooding is simply superb at channelling the character, both of a piece of the Nichols version of the character but not stuck doing an impression of her. “Children Of The Comet” is a very traditional Star Trek story but, as with last week’s opening episode, the story is only really part of the point. Comet drifts into inhabited system, crew want to save local planet with its pre-warp civilisation, can’t because comet is occupied by people more advanced than the Federation, etcetera etcetera. Feel free to call up memories of “For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky” (and, as a small aside, that really is one of the best titles a Star Trek episode has ever had). But just as the point of that episode was exploring McCoy’s approach to mortality, so this one is about Uhura’s place in the world.
Or rather, her place on a starship. This is her very first landing party, as she explores her own insecurities about being in Starfleet, questions why she’s there, and discovers — not, presumably, to anyone’s great surprise — that in fact she does have a place on the Enterprise. There’s also plenty of juicy backstory, and indeed this episode gives Uhura more actual background than pretty much every other episode and movie put together. We hear of her upbringing, her family, what motived her to join Starfleet, and why that might lead her to question where she is right now. It’s all good, pulpy, solid character work and through it all Gooding simply excels. Even, it has to be said, where she basically has to sing the episode’s resolution at a big pillar of crystal with Spock, which, you know — probably not the easiest acting challenge in the world. Gooding brings Uhura to live with a vividness and likeable believability that completely sells the idea of this being an earlier version of the one we all know and love from the original show. It’s a fantastic achievement and she deserves all the praise in the world.
For the rest of the episode, we’re treated to another round of Star Trek classic ingredients, mixed up in interesting enough ways that it never — quite — feels derivative, but instead simply of a piece with what’s come before. It’s interesting, in fact, to see the Enterprise tasked with nudging the comet out of the way of a pre-warp civilisation so said civilisation can be saved. This is in marked contrast — you could even see it as a direct rebuke — to Into Darkness, where Kirk tried to save a civilisation in a similar manner, yet had to do it via subterfuge and ended up losing his command as a result. That was a stupid choice then (there must have been plenty of other ways Kirk could get busted down a rank) so it’s good to see Strange New Worlds taking an alternative path.
And we have some interesting wrinkles to the story here too, which shows some proper effort being put into the episode and demonstrating why it’s not just a greatest-hits remake. The “shepherds” who occupy the comet are, from the point of view of the Starfleet crew, mystical and religious, following their belief that the right thing will happen because of their faith. In contrast, the Enterprise crew’s plan to break up the comet, via Spock in a pleasingly-unredesigned shuttle, puts their faith firmly on the side of science, as we might expect. Yet, thanks to Uhura decoding the music, they discover that the comet not only expected the interference prior to it happening, but in breaking up it also seeded the planet below with water, improving conditions for the race that lived there. Then off on its merry journey through space it goes.
What’s so fascinating (sorry) about that is that neither side of the science/religion debate is proven to be wrong. Both points of view are allowed to stand. The comet people were right, and so were the Enterprise crew. While this isn’t unique to Strange New Worlds — Voyager’s “Sacred Ground” is similarly ambiguous, to say nothing of DS9’s Prophets — it’s incredibly refreshing to see this presented in a way that’s clear and not overburdened with explanations (in point of fact, there’s very little bafflegab here). How and why did the comet “know” that Spock’s shuttle plan would result in the outcome they wanted? It doesn’t really matter because that’s not the point. It’s about allowing the tenets of those faiths, religion and science, to stand not as mutually opposed contradictions but instead to be seen as both having value.
There’s a respect there for both approaches, and that respect, as much as anything else, is why this seems to fit so very easily into the classic Star Trek mould, while at the same time still feeling modern. Kirk wasn’t always respectful, and neither is Pike, as we saw with the opening episode’s gunboat diplomacy. But he could be, and that respect really mattered in the original series. To get that balancing act right is incredibly difficult, especially without coming off as patronising or “two-sides”-ing it, yet it’s handled with grace and elegance. To see something so intangible reproduced so well in Strange New Worlds gives great hope for the future.
Every cast member is shining so far — Anson Mount continues to absolutely excel as Pike, and there’s just so many details to his character that resonate so well. Oh, and major props to the series for having Pike just tell Number One and Spock about his future-death-witness thing, rather than having it be Some Great Secret that will Have To Come Out. Nope, just deal with it already. That, too, feels incredibly refreshing. Number One continues to be great, another character with practically nothing in the tank (this time from the original pilot) but who’s already proving to be a great addition. All the other characters are given something to do so we check in with them without pulling focus from Uhura’s story or the leads, and nobody is anything less than great.
That’s two episodes down, and so far things are going great guns for the new series. Basically, this episode is straightforwardly fantastic, and Strange New Worlds is really proving itself. The episodic storytelling is really working for the show, but layering in details like Pike trying to make peace with his future fate give enough emotional connective tissue for episodes to resonate. Far, far away from the Curse Of The First Season that dogged both Discovery and Picard, Strange New Worlds is showing that there’s always room to do things differently. Time will tell if it can keep up this quality, but so far this is effortlessly the best of the three CBS/Paramount+ live-action shows. Let’s hope it stays that way.