Warp Factor Trek

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At the start of this episode, the Enterprise crew is studying a comet in the Persephone system, whose third planet is occupied by the desert-dwelling Deleb people. Aboard the ship, Uhura is invited to dinner with the senior staff, where Pike is having a barbecue in his quarters. Ortegas (looking like an 80s Goth, in her civvies) has conned Uhura into wearing a (very DS9-like) cadet dress uniform as a joke.

Uhura and Hemmer attending the barbecue (Paramount)

It’s a little sad to see that hazing is still a thing in Starfleet, but Uhura handles it well, even when she’s faced with the imposing, deadpan Hemmer, the immediately intriguing Andorian (or Aenar, to be more precise) chief engineer. Like Geordi in TNG, he’s blind, but unlike Geordi, he doesn’t need visual aids, thanks to the fact that Aenar have telepathic abilities. His personality promises some interesting characterisation as well as representation in terms of rejecting ableism. And he gets some great low-key comedic lines.

Mention of Hemmer’s precognitive abilities brings us into the episode’s subtext, about foreknowledge versus choice. As Una and Pike talk about his foreknowledge of events, she suggests, in Sarah Connor style, that the future “isn’t written.” Her opinion that, just because Pike knows his future, he shouldn’t stop imagining a different one serves as a reminder to us all that we can still be surprised by a prequel.

On the bridge, Spock announces that the comet is about to crash into the inhabited Persephone III in forty-eight hours; they have a planet to save before breakfast – this may or may not be one of six impossible things. Pike orders a plan to change the comet’s course by planting ion drives on it (real science!) via photon torpedo. However, the comet turns out to have shields, which baffles the Enterprise bridge crew.

The comet also turns out to have a building complex. The Enterprise officers decide to beam onto the comet and attempt to change its course manually. Uhura and xenobiologist Sam Kirk are assigned to Spock’s landing party, along with La’an, who has little to do this week.

The landing party prepares to beam down (Paramount)

Once on the comet’s surface, the group enters an ancient, sprawling complex. In the center of this massive chamber, they encounter an enormous golden egg completely covered with strange markings. Sam asks if the alien symbols are a language. It’s not surprising that Uhura is surprised by the question – confidence of rank and expertise only comes with time. She says they’re a repeated sequence, and Sam thinks that means they’re controls instead of a warning. (We’ve all seen that movie, right?) Naturally when he messes with it, he’s zapped and left comatose. But no help is available, as transporters and comms are jammed.

Spock tells Uhura that, though this is only her first away mission, being the sole linguist means she’s their only chance of escape – no pressure. There’s a  chuckle for longtime fans with Uhura sarcastically calling Chapel Spock’s “girlfriend.” Spock clearly needs to continue working on his pep talks. Whereas he says he applies “rigorous logic” to deal with tension, Uhura cracks jokes and hums her childhood folk tunes to try and relax, which seems more practical.

The Enterprise is suddenly attacked by a massive ship controlled by “the Shepherds”, monks who escort the comet, which they call “M’hanit” – one of the “Arbiters of Life”. They threaten Captain Pike that, if the Enterprise crew tamper with it again, the Shepherds will destroy them.

The Shepherds believe the M’hanit is some sort of instrument of God, which will bring life or death and must be allowed to make its own way. We’re again teased about foreknowledge, as the Shepherds claim the comet’s path is pre-ordained, subtly carrying on a thread that never becomes too obvious or overwhelms the episode despite its importance to the show.

Pike confronts the Shepherds (Paramount)

It’s rationalist vs superstitious time, with a Pike vs Monks debate, which also veers into Prime Directive issues again. Pike is faced with the risk of starting a war if he tries to rescue the landing party.

The comet reacts to Uhura’s humming, and responds, which Enterprise can detect. The comet is controlled by music. Spock is also a musician and together they work out how to communicate by humming, opening the egg and persuading it to drop the shield, which allows them to be beamed back. This, however, prompts the Shepherds to attack, and their ship is far superior.

We then get great visuals as the ships duel. The camera follows the Enterprise swooping around, while a shot from the Shepherds’ ship plays as if model and camera are clamped to a board. It’s almost identical to one of the cliffhangers from the 1970s Doctor Who story “Frontier in Space”, blending the tone of decades-old effects with the beauty and control of modern ones. While Pike gambles by surrendering the Enterprise to the Shepherds, we get another series of gorgeous flight shots as Spock takes a shuttle to heat up some of the comet’s ice.

The comet sheds ice, changing its collision course and instead bringing life-giving rain to the desert of Persephone III. The Shepherds are satisfied that Pike has been convinced they were right. But that’s not the end of the episode’s theme: Uhura has decoded the comet’s humming, revealing that it was showing them the course it would take after Spock freed exactly that piece of ice from it – as if it knew the future…

We’re left with mysteries like who built the comet – one can presume the Preservers from TOS, but who knows, really. Can Pike somehow avoid his accident while still rescuing the cadets he will save in the process (whom he has been cyberstalking, which probably doesn’t come across as guardian-angelic as it’s meant to)? And how will Uhura realize that Starfleet is her true path?

Rating: 4/5

This feels a little more like a 24th century-era episode, perhaps because that period had more installments in which religious organisations or cultures were mysterious threats. However, this is a great sophomore episode of today’s Star Trek.

It’s nice to see the issue of suitability or inclination for Starfleet service addressed – from Pike’s anecdote about trying out for the security division, and Uhura’s response to the question of where she sees herself in ten years, to her final debrief with Spock.

Celia Rose Gooding nails Uhura so well, with a much more believable backstory than the JJ-verse movies gave her. While the revelation that the alien symbology is musical isn’t original, it’s nicely handled and plays well into our future knowledge of Uhura’s musicality. Ethan Peck continues to cement his place as his own Spock, yet very much Spock.

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