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Thursday, August 18, 2022

Star Trek Strange New Worlds Recap Ep 9: All Those Who Wander

Anson Mount as Captain Pike, with Christina Chong's La'an Noonien-Singh standing in the background.

Captain Pike doesn’t know how bad his day’s about to get.
Image: Paramount

Strange New Worlds has prided itself in its first season on a somewhat sense of ephemeralitythat even at its direst of stakes, our enterprising heroes would come out the other side and move on to the next big adventure. This week’s penultimate episode of the season proved just how scary and incredible the series can be when it confronts arguably its truest idea of horror: lasting consequence.

Image for article titled Jesus Goddamn Christ, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

“All Those Who Wander” starts out both innocently enough and tinged with a sadness that will become much more tangible as the episode progresses. Beginning with another dinner in Pike’s quarters, we’re told that Uhura and another cadet, Chia, are nearing the end of their tours of duty on the Enterprise—and with it, Uhura’s reassurance that in spite of all that she’s learned aboard the ship, she’s ready to let go of Enterprise and Starfleet alike. But before she can be too certain—even without our own metatextual knowledge that if she does leave, she won’t be gone forever—a new priority mission that overrides Enterprise’s other priority mission gives Pike reason to send Uhura off with one last adventure.

This is all dealt with in a casual, cool, and confident manner that gives us a wonderful moment with Pike briefing the bridge crew on their new mission—a search and rescue operation for the U.S.S. Peregrine, an important Constitution Class-adjacent vessel that has seemingly crashed landed on an icy world, cut off from comms contact. Balancing Pike (and a roped-in Spock) doing dishes as they discuss the risks—and the fact the Enterprise will need to send an Away team in solo so the ship can finish its other mission delivering supplies—with Pike becoming a Space Dad and treating it like a road trip, this all feels very much of Strange New Worlds’ oeuvre: look at these cool space heroes, so good at their jobs, so calm and collected that balancing the risks of two life-and-death missions is just something that can be casually discussed over a plate of dinner leftovers among friends as much as they are colleagues. Woo, go space exploration!

Image for article titled Jesus Goddamn Christ, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Image: Paramount

Turns out, however, this is not a “woo, go space exploration” episode of Strange New Worlds. The moment Pike’s sizeable Away team is cut off from the Enterprise—our two young cadets, a newly promoted Lieutenant Duke, Spock, Nurse Chapel, La’an, Doctor M’Benga, Sam Kirk, and Chief Hemmer—the crew realizes that this is not going to be an easy mission. Finding the Peregrine and the dismembered remnants of much of its crew, and a message for Starfleet to stay the hell away, what was meant to be a fun road trip suddenly becomes extremely bad for our heroes. And then it gets worse when “All Those Who Wander” reveals that its classic sci-fi riff this week isn’t a Star Trek episode plot, it’s Alien. With Gorn babies.

Now, Star Trek has done Alien riffs before of course, but this episode ramps up to a level of horror unlike anything we’ve seen the franchise really attempt. The audience and the crew find this out at the same time by watching in horror as an alien survivor the Peregrine picked up clutches his chest, only for it to violently explode with four blood-covered small Gorn—immediately and bloodily killing the poor Cadet Chia on the mission, and Lt. Duke shortly thereafter—and there’s an immediate tone change for the entire episode. This isn’t the dire stakes Strange New Worlds has put its heroes in before, but a complete and total compromise of who we thought these Starfleet heroes were. It’s matched by the presentation of the episode, a genuine episode of horror that is explicitly brutal, explicitly violent, and packed with blood and viscera that hammers home, fundamentally, that as good as these people are at their jobs, space is dangerous, and space will get you killed. Definitely when space is actually four rapidly growing feral lizard alien baby monsters intent on destroying either you or themselves to be the alpha of the litter.

Image for article titled Jesus Goddamn Christ, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Image: Paramount

It is, frankly, incredible. Not just for its pitch-perfect, rampant thievery of every great horror movie trope around as the Away team finds itself being hunted for bloodsport, but for all the ways this immediate, shocking confrontation with a scenario that cannot be handled with diplomacy and reason immediately breaks almost everyone available. Nurse Chapel, so capable and so used to confronting and healing the sick and wounded, is shaken to her core over Chia’s death, barely able to speak while La’an—herself forced to reckon with darker impulses and her past with the Gorn as she did in the similarly excellent “Momento Mori”—thrusts a phaser rifle into her hands. Sam Kirk almost immediately freaks out, picking fights and screaming at his friends, robbed of any composure expected of a Star Trek hero even in the face of great danger. Even Spock isn’t free of this, eventually breaking down his mental logic inhibitors to tap into a primal, emotional rage to fight the Gorn once the Away team re-unites and hatches a plan to survive. It’s as genuinely unnerving to watch these cracks emerge and splinter wider and wider open as the episode progresses as it is to watch the Gorn carve a gory path through the Peregrine.

It’s not just brilliant for its horror however, but the way this team is made up of characters we’ve gotten to spend individual highlight episodes with this season: La’an, Chapel, Spock, Uhura. This moment, unlike anything Strange New Worlds has tried before, serves as the catalyst to climax their respective arcs over the entire season, a challenge that can only be brought about by throwing them into a situation that asks them to compromise all standard ideas of Starfleet behavior and simply survive. It’s a remarkable contrast with the aforementioned prior Gorn episode of the series, “Momento Mori.” There, the Gorn were an unseen shadow, but one that asked our heroes to rise to this idea of hope as a thing to guide them against that shadow with grace: as long as they all believed the Enteprise would endure, it would. This episode, on the other hand, finds hope along a much more distinctly bleaker route, that you cannot simply believe in surviving but have to throw yourself wholly into doing so—and that in doing so you also accept that sometimes it’s never enough to get everyone out of a bad situation alive, and it’s just as heroic to come out of it down people but having actually endured.

Image for article titled Jesus Goddamn Christ, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Image: Paramount

And that’s what “All Those Who Wander” saves its most gut-wrenching lesson for: that the horror shift is not the only major form change for Strange New Worlds we get to witness this episode, but the earth-shattering presence of choice and consequence for a show that has largely breezed by them with its episodic format. Early on in the episode, Hemmer gets attacked with an acid spit from one of the Gorn, and everything seems fine except for some momentary shock and pain for the Aenar. And you think, maybe, Strange New World won’t hit this particular horror trope, that everything’s fine. After all, the episode has satiated its bloodlust by killing off the two obvious death flags: the cadet two weeks away from proverbial retirement, and the newly promoted rookie. You can’t touch half of the cast for their place in Trek canon, otherwise. You’re lulled into that sense of security, that hope and bravado that our Starfleet heroes pump themselves up with, that everything’s going to be fine.

Then it isn’t. When the Gorn are destroyed and the day not saved, but salvaged, Strange New Worlds has one heartbreak hammer blow left to deal: Hemmer had already realized, as had La’an having faced the Gorn before, that their acid spit is more than an attack, but away to infect a host with their eggs. Hemmer, accepting that this is his fate in the way all Aenar accept the end, decides to throw himself out of the Peregrine’s hangar bay, killing himself and ensuring that any Gorn hatchlings growing inside him will perish in the planet’s freezing environment. Even though Hemmer has had less to do in this first season than some of the other major cast members of the show, his death carries a weight here nonetheless—the same sort of scary, sea-changing disruption for Strange New Worlds at large as this episode of blood, gore, and horror was for the show’s tone. Things are suddenly that much more serious, and carry a disruptive weight that persists beyond the series’ beloved episodic structure.

Image for article titled Jesus Goddamn Christ, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Image: Paramount

We immediately get to feel those consequences beyond Hemmer’s loss, too. La’an decides to take an extended leave of absence from the Enterprise to help one of the Peregrine survivors, a young child, find their home beyond Federation borders. Spock, now unable to truly control his emotions again, finds himself and his relationship with Nurse Chapel changing in fundamental, and downright scary, ways. Even Uhura, so distraught by the loss of Hemmer, is left open-ended, unsure of whether to stay and put down roots aboard the Enterprise or leave as she originally intended, the episode ending on a lingering shot of her staring out at the comm station on the bridge—the future we know she will have one day—and it’s distinctly left up to interpretation as to whether she’s looking at it with pride or doubt.

It’s a bold ending to an incredible bold episode of the series—arguably, perhaps, its best in a very good opening season. Its malleability as an episodic series is both challenged and proved in “All Those Who Wander,” not just for the pitch-perfect tone pivot, but with the gravity of consequence it brought to match such a major change that its has born down upon its characters. Strange New Worlds has spent much of its first season firmly settling into that groove of riffs, familiarity, and individualized, walled-off stories. With this episode, it suddenly feels like everything has changed as much for the series as it has its heroes: right now, Strange New Worlds feels like it can do just about anything, and that’s one hell of a gauntlet to throw down in the penultimate episode of a season.

Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

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