Strange New Worlds: Season 1, Episode 4 – “Memento Mori”

Let’s get the most obvious things out of the way first. Yes, as with the previous episodes of this series there is little here that could be called original. Yes, as with the previous episodes of this series, there’s a focus on a single character while giving the rest of the crew enough to do. Yes, as with previous episodes of this series, the question is whether the redux of familiar ingredients is enough to justify the existence of this episode. So… does it?

Yes, although it’s an ever-so-slightly qualified yes. There’s probably no need to rattle off the list of previous Star Trek episodes this draws from, but let’s do it anyway – “Balance Of Terror”, “Year Of Hell”, “Disaster”, “Starship Down”. Now, it probably won’t surprise anyone to discover that all those episodes are pretty much top-tier. There’s the submarine-manoeuvrings of “Balance of Terror” reflected in the descent into the brown dwarf. There’s the “the ship is fucked” of “Year Of Hell” as the Enterprise is, well, fucked. There’s the “trapped in the cargo bay and running out of time” from “Disaster” (with bonus the-ship-is-fucked points). Except this time it’s Uhura rather than Crusher fighting with recalcitrant engineering systems that don’t want to behave themselves. Though, as a curious sidebar, both Uhura here and Crusher in “Disaster” are accompanied by blind characters. Anyway, finally there’s “Starship Down” as the the starship is, er, downed by a far, far more powerful enemy, the Gorn here rather than the Jem’Hadar. So that’s all cosily familiar.

The other things those stories have in common, though, is that they’re all action-based rather than exploring Star Trek‘s more philosophical bent. Action Star Trek is definitely one of the defining modes of TOS, and since Strange New Worlds draws so heavily from TOS it’s pretty much one that it’s vital for it to nail. And it pretty much does that. This is a successful recreation of all the elements that go into making those previous Trek episodes so successful. The plot itself is pretty straightforward – rescuing some beleaguered colonists the Enterprise comes under attack from a more powerful ship and runs away, trying to out-think and out-fight the other vessel. That’s basically it. La’an is our character focus du jour this time out and… well, actually that’s where the slight qualification comes in.

Because of all the characters we’ve been faced with so far, La’an is the one that has struggled to come into focus the most, and that remains true even after this episode which highlights her. We get plenty of backstory, which gives Christina Chong something to get her teeth into as we find out about her previous encounters with the Gorn, her now-dead brother who seems to have sacrificed himself so that she could live, and so on. It’s all… fine, but none of it is really remarkable, or even all that engaging. Part of the problem is that so far La’an just hasn’t been all that interesting. The Noonean-Singh part of her character is just dead weight – not that much is made of that here, but it’s hard to care all that much about it one way or the other. Unfortunately, the Khan legacy comes across mostly as “La’an is pissed off all the time” which… yeah, that probably would be the case, but it’s fairly dull to watch week-in, week-out. And Chong isn’t bringing all that much to the role. She’s not bad, but she’s not doing a lot other than playing the material as-is.

Compare and contrast, then, with Hemmer, who’s really figured out how to make the material he’s given sing. Bruce Horak is just brilliant, finding new ways to make his role work every week. There’s a great physicality to his performance – subtle, but enough that it really sells not only his sight limitations but how he’s relying on other senses to do the work of the one he doesn’t have. His rather acceptingly-weary, “the door’s blocked, isn’t it?” after the explosion in the cargo bay is a lovely delivery, but more than that it works well because it allows his disability to matter – that is, he can’t see what’s happening – but it’s neither a restriction nor his only defining character. As a result, the character feels incredibly real, but Horak goes above and beyond that to ensure that we really get a fully developed individual. It’s a great performance.

Which is as well, because “two people who don’t get on have to work together to solve a problem” is about as hackneyed a plot beat as you can get. “Memento Mori” gets away with it, though, by at least taking the time to have a couple of scenes of Hemmer and Uhura together, as he tests her on her knowledge. Beyond just establishing what’s going on, it at least establishes some base-line of respect between the characters so it’s not leaning too hard on the idea of them being opposites. Of course, Celia Rose Gooding continues to sell the hell out of Uhura, which helps a fair bit as well, and she and Horak have a good rapport which goes way beyond the usual clichés of the situation.

For the rest… well, you know the other thing that connects that list of episodes at the start of this review? They are all absolutely terrific fun. And so it proves to be with “Memento Mori”. There’s just something incredibly satisfying about the way Star Trek is able to deliver on episodes like this. Pike is a fantastic captain to have in charge and Anson Mount continues to find interesting way of playing the character like Kirk, but also not like Kirk, which gives Pike his own distinctive flavour. He has a confidence, charm and authority that really makes it easy to understand which this captain, of all captains, has been put in charge. He’s not shown to be flawless – the death of a crew-member (one who saves Kyle in the process) clearly hits him hard. His tactic – “dive, dive, dive!” – wasn’t wrong, exactly, but it still cost someone their life. And it’s also simply great to see the tactical side of Pike, which isn’t one we’ve yet had much exposure to.

Yet that ever-so-slightly qualified “yes” remains. This really is a fantastically fun episode to watch, but there’s also an ever-so-slight nagging feeling that the quality of the production is making up a lot of ground for the script. Because this really does look utterly incredible for a TV-series. The science-accurate black hole is a real stand-out, but every special effect is amazing, every ship shot eye-popping, every explosion looks and feels real. That makes it very easy to get drawn into the episode and overlook the aspects which are probably moving beyond time-worn and into retirement. But if you have to have an episode that relies on visual spectacle then make no bones about it – this is the one to have. The docking tube is a nice touch, excellency realised, and the spinning Gorn ships pleasingly different from more typical Star Trek design. Explosions and fires on the bridge feel real – compare and contrast with the Rammstein-stage-prop fire that gouts out of Discovery‘s bridge every time they come under fire – and there’s a visceral realness to this which really makes it all land.

So if this isn’t quite a wholehearted recommendation, it’s only in the same way that last week’s episode wasn’t either. There’s just one too many familiar elements here for everything to quite ring true, and focussing on La’an as our character-of-the-episode more exposes that character’s shortfall than it does give us more insight into her (though obviously we do get that as well). The mind-meld stuff is pretty standard, a lost sibling and sacrifice feels rote, and Chong needs to do better when it comes to bridging the gap between the standard material and making the character come alive. Yet this is also an episode that it’s impossible to feel too churlish towards because it all just works and carries itself along on a rather giddy air of confidence. Basically, it’s just very hard not to get swept up in the whole thing. It’s terrific fun, it shows Strange New Worlds really nailing one aspect of Star Trek it needs to get right, and it very much keeps up the momentum of the series. If this is the worst we’re going to get over these ten episodes then Strange New Worlds is in a very strong place indeed.

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