Warning: This Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1 Episode 8 review contains major spoilers, many of them ready to stun. Boldly go further at your peril…
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 eyes right now. It’s perhaps for the best, then, that Strange New Worlds just released an installment that feels just as strange as this one.
Aside from tackling one of the series’ most significant story arcs, namely the fate of Dr. M’Benga’s terminally ill daughter Rukiya, this goofy, self-indulgent story feels like a waste of an episode.
Your inner red-alert siren starts screeching early on, when M’Benga opens a Princess Bride-style storybook called ‘The Kingdom of Elysian’. Isn’t that a bit similar to the episode title, ‘The Elysian Kingdom’? Surely the writers wouldn’t plunge the team into a live-action RPG version of the book…or would they?
A quick trip to the bridge, where a routine nebula survey is coming to an end, briefly lulls him into a false sense of security. In fact, when Spock points out that the captain enjoying the quiet nature of the mission might be tempting fate, everything starts to look a lot more promising. The Enterprise then finds itself trapped by an unknown force, and Lt. Ortegas is injured in the kind of earthquake that has been plaguing 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 at the bridge to treat Ortegas’s injuries, he realizes he’s playing the king in what looks like a high school production of a fairy tale drama. Is he suffering from hallucinations caused by his exposure to the chemical 3QND in an explosion in the infirmary? Or has the writer’s room been overdoing the Romulan Ale and decided to do something really dumb? Star Trek has always relished the opportunity to get its crews out of uniform for a cosplay spot. These adventures have rarely been ranked among the best hours of the franchise, but even within those parameters, ‘The Elysian Kingdom’ is something to forget.
Making Enterprise’s gorgeous interiors look cheap is quite a feat, but the episode accomplishes the impossible by filling familiar settings with plants and stately paraphernalia. As the bridge turns into a throne room and the transporter room dresses up as a prison, everything about the makeover seems lukewarm. Maybe it was a covid-related or budget-related decision, but even in a narrative context, it makes little sense that an entity strong enough to induce a collective hallucination hadn’t put a little more work into set decor. Say what you will about Q, but at least when he left Picard and company on a Robin Hood adventure in ‘Qpid’ (Worf was not a merry man), he made an effort to summon a convincing Sherwood Forest.
Unfortunately, the fictional ‘The Kingdom of Elysian’ rarely feels like a classic of children’s literature. The characters that inhabit the Enterprise crew are too one-dimensional to entertain and it’s remarkable that a show that’s usually effortlessly funny can become so grim when it gets involved in a comedy episode.
Although the cast clearly relishes the chance to try something different, not everyone is well served by their new characters. Melissa Navia has a lot of fun as the king’s bodyguard, while Ethan Peck is a compelling evil wizard, but the usually brilliant Anson Mount seems completely out of his element as a cowardly advisor to the court. It is an uncomfortable experience to see such an accomplished and charismatic actor struggle with such a ruthless and poorly written role.
A degree of salvation, both for the episode and for the team, comes in the form of Bruce Horak’s Lt. Hemmer. Like M’Benga, the Andorian engineer is unaffected by the collective pantomime that surrounds him, but his trademark world-weary humor enhances every scene he finds himself in. His telepathic abilities have enabled him to withstand the powerful psychic force emanating from the nebula, although the experience “felt like my brain was being squeezed through my nose”, and brings much-needed scientific reasoning to the second half of the episode. .
While it’s easy to explain 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 on the real-life thought experiment known as a Boltzmann brain to justify everything that happened. It turned 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 numerous times, both in Star Trek and other sci-fi stories, but here it brings a belated emotional resonance to an otherwise underwhelming episode. M’Benga is faced with an impossibly heartbreaking choice: keep Rukiya on the Enterprise in the vain hope of curing her condition, or let her go with the nebular entity to live a disembodied life among the stars. Babs Olusanmoku plays the moment beautifully, allowing her little girl to go off with an unknown alien force, even though she knows that means she “will no longer be happy.” It’s a bit trite and glib when he returns as an adult moments later, telling M’Benga about the wonders he’s seen with a nebula called “Deborah,” but confirmation that the choice was the right one provides some much-needed closure for his dad.
One question remains, though: why did such an emotionally powerful story have to be resolved in such a light episode? Giving everyone but M’Benga collective amnesia about the incident, plus the convenient cleaning 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 pretend ‘The Elysian Kingdom’ never happened, and get back to what has otherwise been a wonderful season.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is currently airing on Paramount Plus. For more information, check out our guide to the Star Trek timeline.