[Apologies for delay: life stuff. I’ll get to the other episodes eventually]
The running thread of Dr M’Benga’s sick daughter, and his efforts to cure her, has been just that – a running thread. It’s come up in a couple of episodes, it’s been absent from a couple of episodes, but it’s been used to deepen our understanding of M’Benga and give Babs Olusanmokun the chance to act his socks off. Both of which have very much been achieved. Back in the sixth episode, the deeply unsatisfying “Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach”, M’Benga is able to get access to some advanced medical information which very much implied that his research would be ongoing. That episode didn’t give him a cure, but it gave him a path.
Thought that was going to be how the situation was resolved? Or give it somewhere to go? Wrrrrrrrrong! Nope, instead his daughter is going to disappear in a blaze of exposition, written out in an episode that really, really wants to be as funny as it thinks it is then pull off a dog-leg at the end to allow the drama of the episode to land. You may gather from that sentence that it does not manage to achieve either of those things. Instead, we have a Lonely And Powerful Alien Being who does Lonely And Powerful Alien Being things for reasons of the script. Before we get into the whole daughter-thing-slash-mysterious-being, though, let’s deal with the comedy side of things.
Now, comedy in Star Trek is a very hit-and-miss affair. This is, admittedly, something of an understatement. For every “The Trouble With Tribbles” there’s a “Profit And Lace”. For every “Bride Of Chaotica!” there’s a “False Profits”. And if you read that and think, “about even then” well, that’s because I haven’t even mentioned Lwaxana Troi yet. There’s so many more dud comedy episodes than there are successful ones. That’s partly because the scripts are often found wanting, and partly because given the “funny” script, cast members are inclined to go big. This is not always – or ever, really – a recipe for success. Going big is rarely the answer. But what, posits this episode, if we intentionally go big and thus give the stars a chance to just piss about for forty or so minutes before getting to the point of all of this? Thus, “The Elysian Kingdom” is born.
It is in the nature of first season stories that they stretch out and try different things to see what works and what doesn’t. The remarkable thing about Strange New Worlds is how often it’s been able to land on the “what works” side of the equation. Which isn’t to suggest that “The Elysian Kingdom” is a failure, exactly, though you’d be hard-pressed to call it a success either. What it actually consists of is about forty minutes of intermittently amusing material, followed by an ending that has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the story. What “The Elysian Kingdom” wants to do, it seems, is what “Shore Leave” did back in the first season of TOS – generate a fantasy comedy environment then gradually make it more and more threatening to up the drama, until there’s real danger to the crew. But the pacing is all wrong here. By the time we realize there’s any kind of danger it’s too late in the story for it to register, and in any case since that’s not what the conclusion of the episode rests on it all rather dissipates.
Which isn’t to say the comedy is a complete bust. Anson Mount gets to show off just how much of his performance of Pike is acting by instead embracing the role of a sniveling – and eventually treacherous – sidekick. He doesn’t get a lot of screen-time, but what he does get he really embraces with gusto (and that centre parting – I hope he got danger money for that). For anyone used to seeing him as the effortlessly in-control captain it’s quite the shock to the system. As one of only two members of the crew not affected by the storybook fantasy, M’Benga gets to put up with various iterations of the cast fulfilling storybook archetypes from the wicked queen on the throne to an archer of questionable strategic value (one of the comedy moments that really lands, to be fair). This he does with a sort of grudging acceptable which helps sell the absurdity of the environment as much as the drapes and flaming torches which suddenly bedeck the Enterprise.
Hemmer, who remains by miles the most interesting new character Strange New Worlds has come up with, is also immune to the alien being’s attempts at inexpensively re-enacting Dungeons and Dragons for no particularly good reason, which means we get lots of Bruce Horak’s barely-restrained frustrations, and a jolly good thing that is too. Hemmer and M’Benga make an unusual pairing but a surprisingly successful one, and them just jumping through one hakcy fantasy setting to another does manage to wring at least some – if not as much as the episode would like to think – comedy from the proceedings. Hemmer remains an incredibly pleasing presence on Strange New Worlds – sour in exactly the right way, which manages to enhance the audience’s appreciation of what’s around him rather than detract from it. Most of the crew are terribly earnest, and Uhura’s thus-far-not-quite-compelling doubts about being in Starfleet don’t have enough weight to carry much in terms of cutting against the all-in-it-together attitude of the rest of the crew. It’s good for her character and history, and it is appreciated, but it’s not very high up in the mix. Hemmer is far more successful in that regard, and this episode is a great example of how to use a character like that to good effect – give him plenty to do and a meaty role, then basically let him pass judgement on what’s going on. It works very well.
Right, the daughter thing. Let’s get it out of the way. It doesn’t work. The script really wants to be full of pathos and understanding as M’Benga finally lets of the daughter he has loved and cared for all this time, getting to see her as a grown woman, and having her express her gratitude for that. There’s lots wrong with this, but let’s be clear about one thing – none of it is Babs Olusanmokun, who works so hard to make any of this land. His grief, his eventual understanding of This Week’s Handy Entity, his decision to let his daughter go – all of it is carries off with great aplomb. M’Benga hasn’t been the most used character in Strange New Worlds, but a little goes a long way and he’s simply fantastic here.
But the decisions around the fate of his daughter are just baffling. What was the point of the thread of her cure being searched for, if she was just going to et written out here? And why isn’t her fate layered into the episode more? While God-Like Entities turning up for Reasons are very much in line with what TOS would do, this one is especially spurious. Because we know nothing about the entity at all and spend hardly any time with it, the sense of loneliness that apparently engulfs it is completely abstract – it’s just something we’re told about rather than something we experience and thus gain a connection with. Sure, the shenanigans in fantasy-land are meant to represent that, but since they’re played strictly for laughs that doesn’t come across at all. The vast, empty loneliness of the creature is mostly represented by its desire to run away with a young girl because she’s broken but like reading a bit. It’s not great.
There’s also the moment M’Benga decides to let his daughter choose whether to go with the creature or not. It’s meant to be a big, heartfelt moment as he releases her and lets her be her own person. Except… she’s a child. He’s her parent. Shouldn’t he be making those kind of decisions for her, since she’s… you know. A child. Not even a normal child running about the ship and learning stuff, but one who lives in the transporter for most of her time, seems to experience nothing except her father reading her stories, and has no frame of reference for what’s actually happening (or about to happen) to her. It mostly makes it look like M’Benga’s given up and just wants done with the whole thing. It works out in the end, but very much more by luck than judgement. The word “handy” may usefully be deployed here. Again, Babs Olusanmokun is great in the moment, but his performance very nearly occludes what is, in fact, a pretty terrible moment. And then off the child and the entity go together, in a scene that’s meant to be touching yet resembles Bender’s encounter with “God” in Futurama as much as it does anything else. And at least that episode was genuinely funny.
And so that plot thread is neatly wrapped wrapped up with a bow, sent on its way, and that’s pretty much that. There’s a little capper, just in cause you were worried that abandoning a child with a complete stranger might not be the best approach, and we’re reassured it all worked out fine. Which is nice. What a frustrating way for that story to be resolved. And “frustrating” is a fair summary of this episode. It’s not bad, the first twenty or so minutes are fun – before you realise that’s all this episode is going to consist of – and most of the actors look like they’re having a blast. That helps a bit. Then comes the Big Emotional Beats and the whole thing just goes splat. There were better ways of resolving M’Benga’s daughter plot. There were better ways of handling the comedy. There were better ways of doing a fantasy-setting in Star Trek. And that’s it in the end – this simply should have been better.