"Children of the Comet" might be the purest, truest episodic Star Trek experience since CBS/Paramount started rolling out new Trek series in 2017. That's not to say this is amazing or groundbreaking, because, again, like the pilot, it traffics in things that have been done on Trek plenty of times in the past 50-plus years. But it does them well, with showmanship and class and a minimum of fuss.
I don't want to overpraise a show for not falling into all the traps of Discovery and Picard, but I also want to give credit where it's due, and this is due its credit for being solid sci-fi (and very good Trek), and very balanced in the way it handles plot and character. This tells a story. We're only two episodes into this series, but my optimism is running high.
The episode is a showcase for Cadet Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding, getting lots to do after her lower-key introduction last week), a linguistic expert with some tragedy in her past. She gets mildly hazed by Lt. Ortegas (Melissa Navia), who tricks her into wearing her dress uniform to a casual staff dinner in the captain's quarters. The captain's dinner is a great venue for the series to break the ice among all the characters, including chief engineer Hemmer (Bruce Horak), a blind Aenar who appears to have a chip on his shoulder the size of "Melora," but which may be a joke.
When the captain asks Uhura where she wants to be in 10 years, she answers that she's not sure, and she's not even sure she wants to be in Starfleet. She had other plans before her parents and brother were killed in a shuttle accident, and Starfleet — despite her linguistic brilliance and capability — was her escape from the proximity of tragedy rather than her passion. (Spock, still developing his not-so-great bedside manner, suggests that if she doesn't have the passion for Starfleet, that perhaps she should make room for someone who does.)
The plot involves a comet on a collision course with a nearby inhabited pre-industrial planet, which is nothing we haven't heard before. The Enterprise attempts to deflect the comet, only to learn it's actually an alien device with shields. Pike, in an acknowledgment of General Order 1 that also takes an alternative position to the one seen in TNG's "Homeward," says, "The Federation doesn't interfere in the development of species, but we also don't just let them die." The away team, including Uhura on her first mission, beams over to find a strange cave with an egg-shaped alien structure in the center. George Kirk is critically injured when he gets too close and is zapped (in what's not the brightest move, I must say), and the away team becomes stranded and unable to beam back.
Things get more complicated when some aliens show up and announce they are the "Shepherds" for this comet, which they call the M'hanit, a centuries-old divine-like entity that travels through the galaxy and, they say, brings about life. The aliens come across a bit like religious zealots, and they threaten to attack the Enterprise if Pike interferes with whatever the M'hanit is doing, even if its will is to crash into a planet. This edges up to the line of Hard-Headed Aliens of the Week without quite crossing it, because even though their position is not unassailable, the aliens make a solid enough case from their point of view. Pike attempts to respect their views and defuse the tensions while also trying to protect his people and save the planet.
Pike continues to be great. He's just a pleasure to watch. Anson Mount manages to keep everything ... light. Easygoing with a slight touch of playful sarcasm, and yet always professional. That sensibility infects the whole show, and the tone is pretty much perfect. This has the Trek bonafides without ever coming across as self-important, and finding low-key humor in the margins. (Spock: "Nurse Chapel is not my girlfriend.") Crucially, the episode keeps the character mix balanced, giving everyone enough to do. Everyone feels like a person. Spock is young Spock, which is to say he has a mild grumpiness beneath all his emotional neutrality. He's trying to be better, as when giving Uhura pep talks when he thinks she needs it. The first one isn't great; the second one is better.
As sci-fi goes, this is pretty solid. The production design of the alien cave is excellent. Uhura discovers that the cave responds to music, and needs some help communicating, so Uhura and Spock do a duet. I love how La'an is having none of it.
Meanwhile, Pike has to deal with the aliens, which give us our requisite Trekkian space battle. There's a nice sequence where the Enterprise dodges torpedo fire by flying through the comet's debris field (and a later one where Spock does the same with a shuttle), and the episode shows off its visual effects, which have more weight and dimension than the ship sequences on, say, Discovery. It helps that the ship is the OG-1701 (a melding of TOS and feature film versions), and is so nice to look at.
The resolution proves interesting. The comet bypasses the planet after Spock makes a shuttle maneuver to coax it far enough off course. As it passes, it seeds the planet in a way that changes the climate and will enhance the capability of life. But data analysis shows that the comet knew and communicated in detail what would happen before it actually did. Spock's actions were necessary to save the planet, but for the comet, they were part of the larger, original plan. I was reminded of DS9's "Destiny," which also involved a comet and a sequence of events that involved alien observations that lay outside of time and allowed events to be seemingly preordained. (Incidentally, our first view of the comet here strongly evokes the comet from the DS9 title sequence.)
The plot ties very nicely into the personal stories for both Pike and Uhura. For Uhura, it gives her a first mission that allows her to use her unique skills and realize her value in Starfleet. For Pike, the idea of a preordained destiny hits close to home. The thing about Pike's disastrous future is that even if he were to try stopping it, doing so might cost the lives of several officers he's supposed to save but hasn't even met yet. And, in the best detail, he knows exactly who they are, even their names. He looks up their Federation records and we see they are all still children.
It's quite the burden. Pike could probably escape his destiny, but does he have the right? "Turns out, knowing your future takes the fun out of imagining it," he notes. But as Number One tells him, the future isn't written, and maybe he could find a way to save the kids and himself. It's an intriguing conundrum: cause, effect, fate, destiny. What to do about them if you're so sure of how it all plays out?
I must say: I enjoyed the hell out of this. Old Trek saws felt new. This is a universe, starship, and crew I already enjoy spending time with, because the tone, design, and characters are so spot-on. Just how long can Strange New Worlds retain that fresh starship smell?
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