Star Trek has always been a progressive universe. From the earliest iteration all the way up to the recent shows, Star Trek has pushed progressive ideals in many of its episodes. The latest episode for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, titled “Ad Astra Per Aspera”, joins those ranks by focusing on the trial of Commander Una Chin-Riley, the Illyrian first officer aboard the starship Enterprise. Subtlety is not the strong suit of this episode nor should it be.
Spoilers ahead, so don’t read this if you haven’t watched the latest episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.
In the finale of the first season, Una Chin-Riley (portrayed by Rebecca Romijn) was arrested for violating Starfleet’s regulations against augmented individuals. During the first season we learned that Una is an Illyrian, a species of near-human individuals who routinely undergo genetic modification while in-utero. Starfleet has a prohibition against genetic augmentation due to the Eugenics Wars, an event occurring in Star Trek’s past that was first explored with the character of Khan Noonien Singh. Khan was like many of the augments during the Eugenics War: physically and mentally superior to those without modification and tyrannical in the extreme. It makes sense on a certain level that Starfleet would ban the practice of genetic modification to avoid producing individuals like Khan in the future.
That leaves Una in a precarious position, since she cannot serve in Starfleet as an augmented person. When Commander Batel (Captain Pike’s on/off love interest) presents a deal that would only cost Una her career and allow her to go free, Una rejects it, despite the advice of her Starfleet-appointed attorney. Instead, Captain Pike decides to bring in a ringer in the form of an Illyrian civil rights lawyer named Neera Ketoul (played with fiery intelligence by guest star Yetide Badaki). Neera is reluctant to take the case at first, owing to a falling out she had with Una sometime in the past. But due to the persistence of Captain Pike, Neera agrees to represent Una in her trial.
Courtroom dramas are a staple of television and have been for decades. Star Trek has employed this type of storytelling in the past, with episodes such as “The Court Martial”, “Measure of a Man”, and “The Drumhead”. Strange New Worlds draws inspiration from those episodes. The courtroom scenes themselves are tense, even if the conclusion is already known. Like many stories in a prequel series, the destination is not the important part. How we arrive at the destination is, however.
There are excellent scenes sprinkled throughout the show that focus on the other main characters. Pike means well in wanting to help his first officer but as Batel points out during their chat, he can hinder Una’s case just as much as he can help it. La’an Noonien Singh’s family history puts her in a tight spot as well. Her ancestry connects to Khan Noonien Singh and she fears that she was the one to reveal Una’s status as an Illyrian. There’s a rather poignant scene between La’an and Uhura when La’an wants the ensign to pull up all personal logs and communications. You can see that both of them want to help Una and La’an is willing to jeopardize her career to do so.
The real meat of the episode, though, is Una and Neera fighting to save Una’s career in Starfleet. Neera has no love for Starfleet, which is on full display during her cross-examination of Admiral April (Una’s first commanding officer and the person who sponsored her for Starfleet Academy). There has always been an element of hypocrisy in Starfleet when it comes to regulations and laws. April demonstrates this when he shouts down the accusations Neera makes that he picks and chooses which regulations to abide by and which he would enforce. The speech Neera gives regarding our own sordid history of discrimination hits like an anvil and it should. Strange New Worlds uses Una’s situation to cast a light on our own ideas regarding discrimination against gender, biological sex, ethnicity, and sexual preference. The writers employ a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel in these scenes, which I have zero complaint about. It is heavy-handed but given the climate that exists when this episode first airs, this is not a time for subtlety.
Rebecca Romijn gives a stand-out performance during her testimony scene. At the beginning of the episode, we see a young Una dealing with a terrible injury. Her parents are fretting about taking her to a doctor for fear that her augmented nature would be discovered. During Una’s testimony, we learn the context for that scene. Una was injured during a protest against the discrimination of Illyrians. We also learn where the falling out occurred between Neera and Una. Neera’s cousin was one of the augmented Illyrians who simply disappeared one day, most likely the victim of a hate crime. When Una and her family had a chance to leave and live undercover as non-augmented Illyrians, the bond between Neera and Una was severed.
Neera is the one to figure out the central mystery of the episode: who turned in Una as an Illyrian. It turns out that Una did it herself in an attempt to live openly as an Illyrian. The parallels of coming out and living openly as transgendered or gay are once again not subtle but they shouldn’t be. And it is Neera who comes up with the solution to keep Una in Starfleet. Citing a regulation that allows someone of a persecuted class to seek asylum within the Federation, Neera uses Una’s testimony and the reveal that Pike knew months before her arrest to ask the tribunal to follow their conscience. It’s a brilliant ploy that results in a not guilty verdict, allowing Una to remain at her post aboard the Enterprise.
Strange New Worlds continues to be an excellent addition to the Star Trek catalogue. This second season is shaping up to be an interesting experience so far. I’m looking forward to seeing where the rest of the episodes take us as the audience.
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