It doesn’t happen as often as one might think, but in the latest episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds we got something pretty special on the screen. In episode 2 of season 2, titled “Ad Astra Per Aspera,” the genetic modification trial of Una Chin-Riley finally begins. And for Starfleet, it’s a huge deal. The fear of genetic engineering has terrified the Federation since the Eugenics Wars and No. 1’s genetic enhancement, and keeping it secret, have her staring down the barrel of some serious charges.
First, let me say that I have rarely watched an episode of any iteration of Star Trek that made me feel as tense as this one. Yes, my instincts told me things were going to work out and vindication would win the day, but the work put into this episode delivered some unexpected tenseness and emotion that I’d not counted on. Well done, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. I think that, in the short history of Strange New Worlds, this episode stands at the top in terms of what it delivered. Just fantastic stuff.
Written by Dana Horgan and directed by Valerie Weiss, episode 202 provided a taut courtroom drama that was on-point and delightfully delivered a Star Trek staple – empathy.
This is your SPOILERS AHEAD alert. You have been warned.
Let me introduce you to the brilliance and dynamism of Yetide Badaki as Neera, who comes aboard Una’s defense team after Capt. Pike made the somewhat dangerous foray to the Illyrian home world to get a litigator who could go toe-to-toe with Starfleet’s laws and prejudices. She’s an equal rights attorney with plenty of attitude and a real dislike for Starfleet. Her disdain for the organization is palpable. But an old friendship, and perhaps a chance to stick it to the big boys, brings her to Una’s side. It would seem they were once close friends.
So let’s just get to it. Neera turns this episode into a tour-de-force of passion, intensity, intelligence and sheer presence that is top-notch from first to last. What a powerful, dynamic character she turned out to be, one you just couldn’t take your eyes off. Badaki infused Neera with not only a power and commitment to Una, but the cause of all Illyrians back home and in hiding. At times it was raw, other times subtle and nuanced, but at all times was it something special. It was just one of the finest performances we’ve seen and it was worth every second it was on the screen. What a revelation Yetide Badaki was. I hope we see her again. Perhaps the Illyrian-Federation relationship will improve after this.
Una Chin-Riley is on trial for her career and, with a 20-year prison sentence in the mix, potentially most of her life. There was a lot going on in this episode with messages about intolerance, prejudice, honesty, purpose of laws vs. justice, being allowed to be who you really are, etc. The trial wasn’t just about Una, it was about fear, ignorance, and the laziness of simply hiding behind a law or preconceived ideas that time has proven to be unjust. Sound familiar?
Things change, the stream moves, and opinions need to be revisited and sometimes dissected. All of these things are items and issues we have in play today in our respective worlds. And there they are in the Star Trek realm offering us a mirror to look into and take stock. As always, Star Trek offers reflections that we’d do well to heed, but so many don’t, won’t or aren’t capable of. It also offered insight into the fight to change those perceptions and attitudes, and the emotional toll hiding your real self can take on someone. I found the combination of these things were well done throughout the episode.
Una’s vision of Starfleet was honed as a young child. To her, seeing all the diverse species working together offered a hopeful way out of a situation that turned more and more tense and tragic on her home world. Genetic mutation were a part of Illyrian culture, but soon became a mark of shame and intolerance – then violence. How many of us have had an experience as youngsters that inspired us to do something outside our norm or the norm others thought we belonged in. How many have endured the things Una has do to being “different?”
At it’s heart, the Star Trek franchise is one of hope and inspiration, that our better selves can be accessed for a higher, common purpose. A dream perhaps, but as Una reminded us, it’s a dream worth pursuing.
Rebecca Romjin’s turn as Una during the trial is another fantastic performance. While she was on trial for her perceived misdeeds, I think she gradually came to know that she was something more, something to aspire to for other Illyrians. Neera came to the case with just that idea, to put the Federation on trial. But Una, I don’t believe, was as in-tune with that goal. After the first day of questioning, an argument between the two, I felt, helped them to find a little more common ground. It broadened the scope of just what this trial really was about. Who Una was needed to be defended. She needed to be seen for who she really was and, I think, that was also true of the Illyrians as a whole.
Romjin just lit the emotional fires in a very tangible way. As she talked about what Starfleet meant to her, I admit I got a little bleary-eyed. Again, those better angels we all possess, but too seldom demonstrate, were such a powerful force in this episode. She was dynamic as hell when she was at her most subtle and controlled. Her on-the-stand recounting of her past and her struggles was moving and wonderfully delivered. It was a matter-of-fact, somber recounting of how she’d come to be second in command of the Enterprise. Romjin delivered it like a piece of music. Loved it.
I also enjoyed the perspective of the crew watching the trial. There were so many subtle looks and gestures amongst the crew as they watched. It was so well done on so many levels. Again, I think this is the best episode of SNW to date. There was so much going on that I was captivated in a way that was very enjoyable. We’re two episodes in and both have been focused on other crewmembers outside of Pike. He’s been involved, but only in minor or very short moments. I’ve enjoyed that tremendously as we get some backstory on some of the others. I think that has been a key element thus far.
In the end, Starfleet found its better self. Una met the three criteria for asylum, something it was ruled that Pike was within his power to grant. Old friends started on the path to reconciliation, the Illyrian question is now one that can be explored further, Neera has encountered some Starfleet personnel she can find respect for, and some of those bits and pieces of guilt and uncertainty started to wash away for some of the crew.
Everyone, it would seem, walked away from this with a little more patience, a little more understanding and, perhaps, a little wiser in determining justice within the law. In the end, empathy won out. As Neera said on the transporter pad – “It’s a start.”
I do have a question about the Vulcan on the prosecution team. Spock clearly had an issue with him and his contribution to the trial was a very short ramble about “facts” and “logic” of the case. I kind of wonder if there’s more to the Una and the Illyrian question than we are aware, and his presence is a testament to that unspoken question. Anyway, I thought his presence was interesting on a couple of levels given his eventual limited involvement. More to come? We shall see.
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