Strange New Worlds‘ “Ad Astra Per Aspera” in Review
In this outing, we catch up with Captain Pike and find out what he was doing last time, when he left Spock in charge…
We open in a city, with a parental couple debating whether to seek help for their daughter, who has a leg injury and is actually young Una. We then switch to adult Una refusing to plead guilty because her defence counsel works for Starfleet.
Pike has gone to an Illyrian colony in the Vaultera Nebula to persuade Neera Ketoul — an old friend of Una’s and crusading civil rights lawyer — to defend her. Neera at first refuses to even speak with him, but Pike’s brand of persuasion — letting himself be poisoned by the planet’s atmosphere — sways her. He offers her a chance of a better result in her crusade against the Federation’s behind-the-times attitudes, a proposition that gets her on board.
Una, meanwhile, refuses to make a plea deal. She instead opts to proceed to trial, risking twenty years in jail.
As the Enterprise orbits Earth, M’Benga points out how Spock is not getting on with Pasalk — a Vulcan vice admiral who, along with Captain Batel, is on the prosecution. Meanwhile, La’an begins trying to find out who turned Una in to Starfleet, but her investigation is hampered by Starfleet regulations.
When he is questioned as the trial commences, it transpires that Admiral April, who promoted Una ahead of others, wouldn’t have done so if he knew she was gene-modified: he has a bigotry. The lawyers also question members of the Enterprise bridge crew under oath, who all do their best to not give the prosecution what they want.
La’an comes to worry that she might have turned Una in. She’d been in a distressed state over Una’s revelation and feeling conflicted about her Khan-related heritage.
Of course, Una provides testimony too. She tells of her background and the accidental but inevitable ghettoisation of her people after the Federation took control of her planet. Una admits having tipped off the authorities herself, because she’d been sick of hiding. She’d discovered (in the Season 1 episode “Ghosts of Illyria”) that some of her people had found a way to de-modify themselves to make others happy with them, hiding their true natures rather than living them. This is what led to her turning herself in.
Neera, in the end, manages to use Starfleet’s own rules to prove that Una cannot be tried because she, in seeking to join Starfleet because of its motto — “to the stars through hardship,” the translation of the episode title — was in effect an oppressed person seeking asylum, a thing guaranteed under Federation Law. She points out that the law reminds us “how to be our better selves.” Una, therefore, is freed and returned to duty, as well as reconciled with Neera, La’an and the rest of the Enterprise crew.
In this installment, the show covers a lot of ground familiar to fans over Star Trek’s history — in plot and theme, the issue of equality in society; in form, the courtroom drama as per episodes like “Court Martial” and “The Drumhead”.
The regular cast all put in their usual excellent performances, with Christina Chong’s La’an and Rebecca Romijn’s Una taking the bulk of the focus in the episode. Seeing Una’s childhood and hearing about her background make for strong and effective scenes, as do the complexities of La’an’s reaction to Una’s nature. Anson Mount is as admirable as always as Pike, while Admiral April turns out to have some nastier sides to him that really help deepen his character.
Our guest cast are well up to the task, notably Yetide Badaki as Neera, who gets through so many layers of intelligence and emotion in a really fast set of interactions with lots of characters, as well as different layers of motivations and twists, all while maintaining a magnetic performance. It’s also good to see Adrian Holmes tackle a more complex and layered Admiral April. Melanie Scrofano, seen in Season 1’s premiere and arresting Una in the first season finale, returns as Captain Batel to prosecute Una, and makes for a good solid dramatic opponent.
Thankfully, there are some lighter moments too, both from the Spock/M’Benga/Chapel trio — Spock’s “I regret that you had to witness that… outburst” scene is an early highlight — and Pike’s style of negotiation for what he wants.
It’s shown that Starfleet and the Federation have some nasty and bigoted skeletons in the closet. Some will no doubt say, “That wasn’t Gene’s vision,” but such complaints would undermine the chance to see how that vision is worked for, in-universe, and how the harmonisation of different cultures is something that has to be worked at, worked for, and chosen — it’s not something that just happens by ignoring stuff that doesn’t fit.
There are some nice musical touches, as always. Visually, this seems to be a lower-budget, less effects-heavy episode (“seems” being the operative word, given subtle effects and a larger than usual cast). However, there are some nice stylistic things to bring a smile to TOS fans, such as the lie-detector chair design.
Many moments in this episode are affecting, tear-jerking and so on, with acting and dialogue that will touch any member of any form of oppressed minority. All those things are very good, very well done, and will wind up those who call themselves “anti-woke” to a hilarious degree. Where the episode has a problem is in trying to obviously reference too many specific groups and issues, not simply focusing on the basics of Us-vs-Them equality that covers all of them very crisply. It’s a small nitpick, really, but does slightly reduce the power and effectiveness of the episode.
David A McIntee is a writer and historian who has written for properties such as Doctor Who, Star Wars, Final Destination, and Stargate, as well as having written several adventures in the Star Trek franchise for Pocket Books. He has contributed many pieces to the magazines Star Trek Explorer (née Star Trek Magazine) and Star Trek Communicator, as well as having written nonfiction books about Star Trek: Voyager.