The Star Trek: Strange New Worlds review contains spoilers.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Episode 8
One of the downsides of our current era of Peak Prestige TV is the assumption that, in order to be good, something must also be deadly serious. This seems to be doubly true if we’re talking about a genre property, which these days tend to be peppered with bleak, grimdark depictions of authoritarian military regimes, insidious robot overlords, or widespread climate disasters. Even Star Trek hasn’t been immune to this trend in recent years—both Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard have certainly shown us futures that don’t always entirely feel compatible with the more lighthearted optimism of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision for the franchise.
Thank goodness (as usual!) for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. As an episode, “The Elysian Kingdom” is a bittersweet tragedy, as well as an hour that will have major emotional ramifications for Dr. M’Benga for the rest of the series. Yet it’s also completely ridiculous and a ton of fun to watch, even as it hides its darkest twists in a sparkly, candy-coated wrapper and essentially erases the memory of what M’Benga sacrifices in the name of the daughter he loves.
“The Elysian Kingdom” is certainly the silliest episode Strange New Worlds has yet done, involving everything from major cast members recast as fairytale figures from a popular children’s book to actual swordfights and supposed magical forests that are essentially hallways draped in plastic ferns from Party City. And, yet, it’s also one of the season’s most emotionally gut-wrenching hours, as M’Benga says goodbye to the daughter he has fought so hard and risked so much to try to save. (But like all good fairytales, the sadness of the episode’s ending is undercut by a bittersweet promise that M’Benga and Rukiya will meet again one day.)
The basic premise behind the hour is fairly simple. On a routine survey of the Jonisian nebula, the Enterprise finds itself mysteriously stuck and unable to leave. What follows is the series’ first real M’Benga episode, in which the ship is somehow transformed into the setting of the children’s book he regularly reads his daughter during her brief interludes outside the pattern buffer. It’s called (you guessed it) The Elysian Kingdom and the Enterprise’s chief medical officer seems to be the only person who hasn’t been changed by it, despite the fact that he’s also the only one that knows the story.
The most entertaining part of the hour is the gusto with which the Strange New Worlds cast fully embraces the weird new fairytale figures they’re all playing. Pike is now King Ridley’s most obsequious chamberlain (whose horrible hair honestly feels like a personal attack), a shift that allows Anson Mount to indulge his most ridiculous eyerolls and display surprisingly sharp comedic timing. Ortegas is the kingdom’s most bellicose knight who truly just wants something, anything to behead. La’an is a flighty, sparkly dress wearing princess who carts around a purse dog dressed in a matching outfit. (Fun fact: Apparently that’s Christina Chong’s actual pup.) Chapel is a sort of medieval-looking hedge witch, while Spock is a full-on Lord of the Rings-style wizard. And Uhura gets to rock a fabulous Evil Queen ensemble that, if there is any justice, will inspire cosplayers everywhere next convention season.
Almost every major cast member gets to play wildly against type—from the hilariously waspish rivalry between Ortegas and Pike’s characters to La’an’s helpless princess act. But as fun as it is watching the Enterprise crew essentially act out a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, eventually we learn—thanks to an assist from Hemmer, who’s also apparently immune to the strange events going on thanks to his heightened telepathic abilities—that a strange and unidentified entity is controlling the ship.
A consciousness without a body, this being is apparently not just proof of the validity of the Boltzmann brain thought experiment but a lonely godlike figure who finds a kindred spirit in the mind of M’Benga’s daughter, who has spent so long trapped alone in the transporter pattern buffer. Heartbreakingly, it has tried to not just befriend her but give her the power to tell the stories she has always wanted, allowing her to shape the reality of the Enterprise to mirror the world of her favorite book. It’s strangely kind and vaguely horrifying,
The idea that M’Benga is ultimately faced with the choice between letting Rukiya go to live a life free of disease and pain or keeping her near him in the hopes that he might someday be able to find a cure for her is both utterly classic science fiction and the literal stuff of fairytales. Myths and folklore are full of impossible choices like this, where getting the thing you’ve most longed for often means you can never see it again. Magic, after all, always comes with a price.
Babs Olusanmokun hasn’t had a ton to do on Strange New Worlds as yet, but “The Elysian Kingdom” more than makes up for that and proves he’s as capable as any other performer on the canvas, deftly mixing overprotective father vibes with both sorrow and heartbreak. (M’Benga’s face when Rukiya goes on to name the entity Deborah after her mother, I can’t.) But, at the risk of sounding heartless, which I promise I’m not, but still—part of me is actually very curious to see where this character goes from here.
Through the first eight episodes of this series, M’Benga’s arc has been generally defined by his daughter, from the basics of keeping her alive and her existence hidden to the constant search for something that might cure her. What does he do now? Who is he, if he has to figure out a way to be happy on his own?