Star Trek: Strange New Worlds - S1 E7 - "The Serene Squall"
By: Samantha Coley
June 16, 2022
'Star Trek: Strange New Worlds' Season 1 Episode 7 Review: Queer Theory and Space Pirates
'Star Trek' examines the flaws in binary thinking through a thrilling episode about space pirates.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1 Episode 7, "The Serene Squall," delivers a thrilling hour of television filled with surprises, action, intimacy, and secrets. Guest-starring Queer as Folk actress Jesse James Keitel, this episode uses Spock's (Ethan Peck) identity as half-human half-Vulcan to explore the queer experience and where we can go when we move beyond the binary. The episode also delivers on a full range of comedic and romantic elements, making for a superb viewing experience.
Strange New Worlds continues to flesh out Spock's beloved fiancée T'Pring (Gia Sandhu), as the episode opens with her balancing her work duties with her relationship, striving to better understand her partner by researching human sex. She mentions a handful of books from different perspectives over the last hundred years including Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller for a masculine point of view, Fear of Flying by Erica Jong for a feminine point of view, and Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts. Nelson's book is a mix of memoir and philosophy through which she explores many things, including her love for her partner, Harry Dodge, who happens to be trans-masculine. The title of the book refers to the constantly changing and evolving parts of ourselves that still all fall under who we are. It's a remarkably fitting choice for T'Pring to study in order to understand Spock, who still holds a lot of internal conflict about the two most prominent parts of his identity.
Spock is clearly flustered by T'Pring's choices as his feelings about sexuality and emotions are complex, and in all honesty, confusing. Elsewhere, he unpacks the conversation with Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) — whom he does not realize is harboring unrequited feelings for him. Strange New Worlds very deftly uses Spock's questions about his own identity to explore what it's like to be a queer person in a way that hasn't really been done yet on Star Trek. This episode embodies the franchise's mission statement of boldly going where no one has gone before through the vehicle of a Die Hard -style adventure.
At dinner in Captain Pike's (Anson Mount) quarters, we meet an ex-Federation counselor who has reached out to the Enterprise for an aid mission to rescue innocent people who've been captured by pirates. As Starfleet's boy scout, Pike has no choice but to take the Enterprise into non-Federation space in the hopes that he might save a group of people from being sold. When the captured colonists turn out to be a ruse, Pike and most of the senior bridge crew are detained aboard the pirate's ship while Spock and Nurse Chapel must sneak around within the ship to keep it from falling into the hands of the enemy.
On the Serene Squall, Pike leads carefully and charmingly sows seeds of dissent among the crew of pirates. This storyline really leans into the comedy of the episode, as Pike's wordless communication with Una (Rebecca Romijn) leads to the whole crew getting in on inciting a mutiny. It goes quite well, and they return just in time to rescue the Enterprise. Elsewhere, Nurse Chapel also has a couple of very subtle moments of humor that reference Majel Roddenberry, who originated the role on Star Trek: The Original Series and would go on to play several other characters in the franchise, including the voice of the computer. On Star Trek: The Next Generation she played Lwaxana Troi, who was notoriously awkward with the computer as a running gag since Roddenberry played both roles. In Strange New Worlds, Chapel gets frustrated with the computer while attempting to send out an SOS and later struggles to re-route command to engineering.
When Aspen turns on Spock and reveals themselves to be Captain Angel, we learn that this entire scheme has been a trap specifically to gain Spock as a bargaining chip. Angel calls up T'Pring and demands she release one of the "prisoners" in her rehab facility. Spock, clearly frustrated over having been bested using emotions, quickly thinks up a plan to save himself and absolve T'Pring of her responsibility for his life. He makes up an affair with Nurse Chapel, and thanks to her burgeoning feelings for him, the pair are able to sell their lie with a truly spectacular kiss. T'Pring and Spock end their bond, and she's free to go. Later she arrives on the Enterprise later and explains that she understood it was a scheme and that she's impressed with how well it worked. Strange New Worlds is doing a very good job of laying out this love triangle of sorts without making it seem too fraught or adolescent. T'Pring is incredibly likable as is Chapel, and while T'Pring believes there is nothing between the two, Chapel does her best to put up walls around her own feelings. Spock, in the middle, appears to take both women at their word for how they feel about him.
While never explicitly stating the queerness of this episode it's quite obvious to anyone who understands the queer experience on a variety of levels. When we first meet Dr. Aspen/Captain Angel — played by a trans actress — we don't know that they're part of the pirates they're referring to, but they call them "outsiders" who are "fiercely loyal to each other," saying that the bond they've formed can be "more powerful than any weapon." Their statement perfectly describes the queer community and the way that we quite often build our own families out of fellow LGBTQ+ people with bonds that run deeper than blood.
Later, Spock speaks with Dr. Aspen about how much he relies on logic. He diminishes his human side because he was raised to be Vulcan, but they point out that while his human side may be "just biology" his Vulcan side is "just geography." Aspen explains that while we may act one way or another to fit into certain expectations, sometimes forcing ourselves into a box can be incredibly limiting. Spock does not have to be human or Vulcan, he can be both or something else entirely — his journey to figure that out follows that of a range of LGBTQ+ identities, particularly being non-binary or transgender, but also experiencing any non-heteronormative type of attraction.
Strange New Worlds also presents the fact that Dr. Aspen is non-binary in a very subtle way. Star Trek: Discovery introduced both a trans character and a non-binary character in Season 3, both of whom had lovely textual conversations about those identities. However, in this episode, we don't have the time, or more importantly, the necessity to have that conversation about Aspen/Angel. The characters on the Enterprise simply use they/them pronouns when referring to the counselor turned captain. Both of these representations of queer people are so important, and it's incredibly encouraging to watch a queer person simply existing on Star Trek. And even though her character gets there through subterfuge, it's so exciting to see a trans woman sitting in the captain's chair.
It's also surprisingly nuanced to how the show presents Aspen's turn into Angel. While it could come off as stereotypical to have the "villain" of the episode be queer-coded, having the character played by someone who is a part of the LGBTQ+ community feels like a reclamation of sorts — especially in the context of how their villain arc is presented. As queer people, we're often drawn to villains in fiction because of the way they've been coded and the recognition of similar traits and features that we've come to celebrate about ourselves, as well as a sense of "other." While they are decidedly morally grey and they do threaten to kill Spock, Angel doesn't actually take any lives. Their main motivation throughout the entire episode is to rescue their lover who is being held in T'Pring's rehab facility.
The lover in question is revealed in the final moments of this episode to be none other than Spock's older half-brother, Sybok. Sybok was first introduced in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier as the son of Sarek and a Vulcan princess. Though we only see and hear of him in the final moments of this episode this is a remarkably fitting introduction to the classic Trek character. Sybok ultimately rejected the teachings of Vulcan, believing that it was essential to embrace emotion. He uses his abilities as a Vulcan to help people heal from their own trauma and ultimately sacrifices himself in The Final Frontier in order to save the rest of the crew. Filling out the backstory of such an iconic character is exactly the kind of storytelling that has so many fans excited about Strange New Worlds. Introducing Sybok through the lens of the people who care most about him aligns perfectly with what we know of his future — and doing so in an episode where Spock must rely on instinct and emotion — is a brilliant choice.
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