Warning: This Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 1, episode 8 review contains major spoilers – many of them set to stun. Boldly go further at your own risk…
With new episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi, The Boys, Ms. Marvel, The Umbrella Academy, For All Mankind, and many more debuting this month, there’s no shortage of quality TV vying for your eyeballs right now. Perhaps it’s for the best, then, that Strange New Worlds has just rolled out an installment that feels as missable as this one.
Aside from addressing one of the show’s most significant story arcs – namely the fate of Dr. M’Benga’s terminally ill daughter, Rukiya – this silly, self-indulgent story feels like a waste of an episode.
Your inner red alert siren starts screeching early on, as M’Benga opens up a Princess Bride-like storybook called ‘The Kingdom of Elysian’. Isn’t that kinda similar to the title of the episode, ‘The Elysian Kingdom’? Surely the writers wouldn’t plunge the crew into a live-action roleplay version of the book… would they?
A quick trip to the bridge – where a routine nebula survey is coming to an end – briefly lulls you into a false sense of security. Indeed, when Spock points out that the captain enjoying the uneventful nature of the mission might be tempting fate, everything starts to look a lot more promising. Then the Enterprise finds itself trapped by an unknown force, and Lt Ortegas is injured in the sort of set-quake that’s been afflicting Starfleet crews since the earliest days of the franchise. Could this be a proper Star Trek episode after all?
Er, no, because as soon as M’Benga arrives on the bridge to treat Ortegas’s injuries, he realizes he’s playing the king in what looks like a high school production of a fairytale drama. Is he suffering from hallucinations caused by his exposure to Chemical 3QND in a Sickbay explosion? Or have the writer’s room been overdoing the Romulan Ale and decided to do something very silly indeed? Star Trek has always relished the opportunity to get its crews out of uniform to indulge in a spot of cosplay. These adventures have rarely ranked among the franchise’s finest hours, but even within those parameters, ‘The Elysian Kingdom’ is one to forget.
Making the wonderful Enterprise interiors look cheap is quite a feat, but the episode achieves the impossible by filling familiar sets with plants and regal paraphernalia. As the bridge becomes a throne room and the transporter room is decked out as a prison, everything about the makeover feels half-hearted. Maybe it was a Covid or budget-related decision, but even in a storytelling context, it makes little sense that an entity strong enough to induce a collective hallucination didn’t work a little harder on the set dressing. Say what you like about Q, but at least when he dumped Picard and co in a Robin Hood adventure in ‘Qpid’ – Worf was not a Merry Man – he made some effort to invoke a convincing Sherwood Forest.
Unfortunately, the fictional ‘The Kingdom of Elysian’ rarely feels like a classic of children’s literature. The characters the Enterprise crew inhabit are too one-dimensional to entertain and it’s remarkable that a show that’s usually so effortlessly funny could become so lumpen when it goes all-in on a comedy episode.
Although the cast clearly relish the chance to try something different, not everyone is well served by their new personas. Melissa Navia has plenty of fun as the king’s all-action bodyguard while Ethan Peck makes a convincing evil wizard, but the usually brilliant Anson Mount seems completely out of his element as a cowardly court advisor. It’s an uncomfortable experience watching such an accomplished, charismatic performer struggle with such an unforgiving – and poorly written – role.
A degree of salvation – both for the episode and for the crew – comes in the form of Bruce Horak’s Lt Hemmer. Like M’Benga, the Andorian engineer is mostly unaffected by the collective pantomime around him, but his trademark world-weary humor lifts every scene he’s in. His telepathic abilities have allowed him to resist the powerful psychic force emanating from the nebula – even though the experience “felt as if my brain were being squeezed through my nose” – and he brings some much-needed scientific reasoning to the second half of the episode.
While it’s easy to explain away a holodeck malfunction – as in Voyager’s Flash Gordon-inspired ‘Bride of Chaotica’ – Star Trek’s other dalliances with cosplay require more creative thinking. ‘The Elysian Kingdom’ plays around with the real-life thought experiment known as a Boltzmann brain to justify everything that’s happened. It turns out that a consciousness lurking in the nebula had noticed Rukiya in stasis in the medical transporter’s pattern buffer, and tried to remedy her loneliness by recreating a familiar book – while also allowing her to shape her own ending.
Similar concepts have been explored on numerous occasions, both in Star Trek and other sci-fi stories, but here it brings some belated emotional resonance to an otherwise disappointing episode. M’Benga is faced with an impossibly heartbreaking choice: keeping Rukiya on the Enterprise in the vain hope of curing her condition, or letting her leave with the nebula entity to live a non-corporeal life among the stars. Babs Olusanmoku plays the moment beautifully, allowing his little girl to leave with an unknowable alien force, even though he knows it means he “won’t be happy anymore”. It’s slightly trite and simplistic when she returns as a grown-up moments later – telling M’Benga about the wonders she’s seen with a nebula called “Deborah” – but the confirmation that the choice was the right one provides some much-needed closure for her father.
One question remains, however: why did such an emotionally powerful story arc have to be resolved in such a lightweight episode? Giving everyone other than M’Benga collective amnesia about the incident – on top of the convenient wiping of the Enterprise’s computers – almost feels like a tacit acknowledgment that the events depicted in this episode shouldn’t be discussed again. So let’s just pretend ‘The Elysian Kingdom’ never happened, and get back to what’s otherwise been a wonderful season.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is currently airing now on Paramount Plus. For more, check out our guide to the Star Trek timeline.