Strange New Worlds jumps into its second season with an efficient and action-filled outing that packs a solid amount of Star Trek into a single episode with a 52-minute run time. The episode's efficiency is so convincing, in fact, that it almost single-handedly makes the case for a permanent return to standalone storytelling amid the usual sea of serialization in current-day live-action Trek. (This includes even Picard's heralded third season, which had its own share of stalling and padding.)
One key here is that even though it's a standalone, it's still a part of many other ongoing threads. The episode references numerous storylines from last season — and even before that — with a key plot point being the aftereffects of the Klingon war waged in Discovery's first season. Meanwhile, we also have some brief (but incomplete) follow-up to Una's outing as a genetically engineered non-human from the end of last season, and the ongoing emotional instability of Spock and how that plays into the complicated feelings he has for Chapel.
There's a way to build upon previous outings and expand upon the larger tapestry while still telling self-contained stories, and Strange New Worlds has found the sweet spot that is similar to the one often employed by Deep Space Nine (although DS9 was a bit more serialized, especially in its later seasons).
Take, for example, the Una storyline, set up in the opening minutes, which has Pike leaving the Enterprise for a three-day excursion to track down the one lawyer (he hopes, against all odds) that may be able to get Una out of legal trouble for her falsified Starfleet records without requiring her resignation. It's a thread set up for a future episode, and we don't see Pike or Una again for the rest of the episode. Spock and the rest of the characters take over.
The plot goes into action when La'an, on a months-long leave of absence, contacts the Enterprise and asks for assistance on Cajitar IV, a dilithium mining planet in contested space between the Federation and Klingon Empire. The planet is governed under a delicate arrangement that allows each power access to the world on alternating 30-day intervals. This planet made its dilithium miners rich during the war, but peacetime has curbed their profits. La'an has uncovered a plot by a syndicate of Klingon and Federation conspirators called the Broken Circle, who intend to restart the Klingon/Federation war so they can profit from a new spike in dilithium demand. This plot involves the underground construction of a fake Starfleet vessel using stolen Federation technology that can be used in a false flag operation to attack the Klingons. This is a simultaneously clever and straightforward storyline.
This is set against the backdrop of the rest of the Enterprise crew on shore leave while the Enterprise is docked at Starbase 1, where Admiral April is stationed. Uhura was officially promoted to ensign during the hiatus. Chapel is considering a two-month fellowship on Vulcan. And Spock finds his emotions have been uncorked by recent events, and he's having trouble getting them back in the bottle. (This week in unexpected origin stories: M'Benga gives Spock his famous lute as a method of relaxation to help with his emotional struggles. When Chapel enters the room, it sends Spock's vitals surging.)
Once La'an's message comes through, Spock decides to steal the Enterprise from the starbase (after April forbids the mission as too risky), so he can sneak the crew onto Cajitar IV without being detected by the Klingons, which would be in violation of the treaty. In the process, we're introduced to Commander Pelia (Carol Kane), an eccentric engineer who is not fooled by the phony warp core breach Spock tries to use to get the ship out of space dock. She said she once taught a course at the academy on warp core breaches, which is hilarious because it finds the truth in the absurdity of the idea that this particular emergency is so frequent (as seen in the previous annals of Star Trek) that it would need its own dedicated training course. (I'm on the fence as to whether Carol Kane's hammed-up performance and bizarre accent are effectively strange or just plain strange, but at the very least, they're explained: She's actually a Lanthanite, who is extremely old and used to live among humans as an observer long before Starfleet was a thing.)
We're also introduced to "the thing" Spock comes up with as a saying on the bridge to order warp speed. He lands on, "I would like the ship to go. Now." Call it a Thing Without a Ring. This series has had no qualms about using humor — sometimes awkwardly in some of the more unsuccessful first-season episodes — but this showcases the best way of doing it, by keeping it naturally in the mix among everything else.
Once on the planet and reunited with La'an, the crew attempts to get to the bottom of the Broken Circle's plot. This involves La'an delivering Starfleet phasers in an undercover operation (after a drinking contest with Klingons where she proves her mettle), and M'Benga and Chapel being abducted by the Broken Circle (not part of the plan) where they're forced to provide medical assistance to the syndicate's wounded enforcers. Realizing the stakes, M'Benga and Chapel take a drug that turns them into super-soldiers, which allows the two of them to take on practically an entire platoon of Klingons. The extended fight sequence provides the one obvious example of excess in the episode, as it goes on and on at implausible length.
A new character trait is established here, which hints at a dormant darkness that lies beneath M'Benga's usually calm exterior, with its origins arising from the things he experienced in the war. (M'Benga has the berserker drug in his medkit on purpose, has used it before, and apparently carries it around all the time as a tool of last resort.) Trapped in the fake Federation ship as it takes off and prepares to engage the Klingons in its false flag mission, M'Benga and Chapel must get a message to Spock and the Enterprise, warning about the impending attack while trying to figure out how to escape.
This leads to some starship VFX pyrotechnics and fancy maneuvers as the Enterprise attempts to destroy the rogue ship, as well as a death-defying act of desperation as Chapel and M'Benga attempt to escape before the ship is destroyed by flushing themselves out an airlock with no EV suits. It's a testament to the episode's assembly that the action and character beats work alongside each other so effectively.
And when Spock destroys the ship and saves Chapel from near death, there's a character core for him that tells a complete arc about his emotional state. (As in the Kelvin films, it seems that Spock as a younger man was still coming to grips with his feelings, and which he will get a better handle on with age.) Hell, even the would-be hard-headed Klingon captain, who is not inclined to believe the tall tale that Spock has just told him to explain his violation of the treaty, turns out to be shockingly reasonable after his initially stern skepticism, and agrees to drink blood wine with Spock to smooth things over and close the book on the matter.
To show that SNW still has some modern-day streaming DNA in its bones, it ends with an ominous discussion between the admirals, which explains how Spock saved Starfleet from possibly facing a "war on two fronts," as they've detected some alarming Gorn activity in a remote system. Clearly, we will be seeing some more about that.
But for now, "The Broken Circle" tells a nice, entertaining, self-contained, continuity-embracing storyline that mixes plot, action, and character in a very nicely balanced package and starts off SNW's second season on solid footing.
Like this site? Support it by buying Jammer a coffee.