Review

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Episode 202 “Ad Astra per Aspera” Review

An exceptional courtroom drama episode, highlighted by standout performances.

Review: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 2 Episode 2 “Ad Astra per Aspera”

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds gets one of its most memorable episodes yet with “Ad Astra per Aspera,” as Captain Pike enlists a person from Una’s past to defend her against charges levied by Starfleet over the first officer’s genetically modified nature.

After getting a tease in last week’s episode about Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn) and Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) needing the help of some mysterious lawyer with ties to Una’s past, Pike ventures to enlist this person’s help. The character in question turns out to be Neera (Yetide Badaki), an Illyrian and former friend of Una who harbors resentment for her and the apathetic Federation with their “draconian” race laws. However, the influential captain manages to persuade Neera that taking Una’s case would benefit the lawyer’s reputation and her various race-advocacy cases, and appealing to her ego does make her join Una’s team. The case is challenging, as Una refuses a plea deal and is left to have her day in court.

Yetide Badaki as Neera and Rebecca Romijn as Una

What follows in this episode is an intriguing courtroom drama, the kind of setting which has historically led to some of Star Trek’s most memorable outings, including Deep Space Nine‘s “Dax” and The Next Generation’s “The Measure of a Man.” “Ad Astra per Aspera” is no different, in that the producers for this episode have managed to use a killer script and amazing performances to bring a dialogue-focused narrative to life. There’s not one action scene in this episode, and that’s fine by us. Kudos to writer Dana Horgan for an excellent script.

After an unsentimental reunion 25 years in the making, Una and Neera prepare Una’s case, while opposing counsel – who happens to be the sympathetic Captain Batel (Melanie Scrofano), Pike’s former romantic interest and the person who arrested Una – prepares her’s. Joining Batel is Vice Admiral Pasalk (Graeme Somerville), a Vulcan officer who aims to help Batel get Una dishonorably dismissed and 20 years in prison.

“I’ve served with Una for longer than anyone else on this crew. I’m in the best position to speak to her character.”

“When did you two meet?”

“I gave a speech at her academy class forever ago.”

“That must have been awful for you. I know how you hate to give long inspiring speeches.”

– Pike and Batel.
Anson Mount as Capt. Pike

Una insists to Neera somebody clued Starfleet onto her Illyrian nature, and now Una wants to fight the system that clearly is prejudiced. Neera pulls testimonies from various characters, such as Admiral Robert April (Adrian Holmes) and Una’s Enterprise crewmembers to focus on Una’s excellent service to Starfleet. She also references various events from April’s past to illustrate how it seems to be okay to flex or break the rules when needed. Neera also insists that because something is law, that doesn’t mean it’s just, and she uses various black marks on humanity’s history, like slavery and apartheid, to illustrate that.

Neera then brings Una herself to the stand, and Rebecca Romijn absolutely shines as Una recounts why she chose Starfleet as her career despite her Illyrian status. Using the phrase ad astra per aspera – Starfleet’s motto at one point – as motivation to venture to the stars, Una hoped for a life earned through the hardship she endured in her youth. She was hoping Starfleet could give her that life, and reader, don’t be surprised if you get a little misty-eyed as Una recounts what she thinks of Starfleet’s ideals. This is powerful, perfectly Star Trek­-esque material seemingly straight from the heart and mind of Gene Roddenberry himself.

Yetide Badaki as Neera and Anson Mount as Capt. Pike

Una also recounts what it was like growing up as a suppressed Illyrian in a Federation colony, and how there are some Illyrians who are visibly genetically modified and some aren’t. Some Illyrians who were discovered as genetically modified were arrested, as was the case with a boy Una knew in her youth. It’s in this scene where one of our favorite moments of this episode happens. The audience learns through inferring, instead of being told explicitly, that the hostility Neera shares for Una stems from the two knowing each other years ago and Una abandoning Neera when Una and her family moved to the non-Illyrian city and concealed their true nature. It’s a powerful moment as Una and Neera subtly share this painful moment in court. We are thrilled when shows trust their audience enough to smartly reveal information, and again kudos to writer Dana Horgan for penning such an intelligent script.

The last key bit of information revealed during Neera’s examination of Una is that Una herself turned herself into Starfleet – all because she was tired of living her lie. In truth, she was looking for a safe space among her crew on Enterprise, and she thought such an idea was possible because she had observed diverse Starfleet crews in action before.

Rebecca Romijn as Una

“Starfleet is not a perfect organization, but it strives to be. And I believe it could be.”

– Una on why she wanted to join Starfleet despite being an Illyrian.

Despite the emotional tale Una weaves, it’s time for Pasalk to make his role known in this case. She presses Una on a key question: when did Pike learn of her secrecy? Based on Una’s answer, Pike could be in for charges of conspiracy, something Batel purposefully tried to save Pike from by not involving him in testimonies throughout the trial. Una, of course, must answer truthfully, which means Pike is nailed for knowing four months in advance of Una’s arrest about her being an Illyrian. Not a good look for the captain.

At the end of the trial, it’s time for Neera’s wonderfully dramatic closing argument, and it’s in this monologue that we realize what Neera’s brilliant plan was all along for Una’s defense. In having Una recount her troubled youth, entry into Starfleet, and then subsequent self-incrimination, Neera frames Una’s journey as the Illyrian requesting asylum from Starfleet, the prerequisites of which are codified in Starfleet’s Uniform Code of Justice. Therefore, the judges have no choice but to declare Una not guilty of her alleged crime, and she is free to go on this technicality. Captain Pike is also off the hook because, according to Neera’s framing, he merely entertained Una’s asylum request, as any Starfleet captain has the right to do.

Melanie Scrofano as Batel and Christina Chong as La’an

“Do you know why I love the law? Because the law is not a mirror of society. A law is an ideal, a beacon to remind us how to be our better selves, and you have the opportunity today to do just that.”

Neera to the Federation judges

These scenes in the courtroom make for excellent TV. We said last week in our critique of “The Broken Circle” that Strange New Worlds doesn’t need action to be good, and boy, does that assessment hold up this week. Yetide Badaki is an amazing guest star, perfectly able to bring her character’s skill as a civil rights attorney and her still-simmering anger at Una to bear, and one can’t help but be glued to the screen as Neera pieces together her winning argument for the judges. We were skeptical at first that this character was teased so cryptically last week, but Neera certainly has earned that tease and then some. Badaki is one of Strange New Worlds’ most memorable guest stars.

She isn’t only great in the courtroom. This episode also spotlights a couple of scenes between Neera and La’an (Christina Chong) that address the security officer’s lingering angst about sharing a lineage with the genetically modified Khan Noonien Singh. Indeed, it was because of Khan and his followers that the Federation is so uptight about genetic modification. For her part, Neera exposes La’an’s feelings with ease and even offers some encouraging words about how to handle the pressure of being genetically modified and how to handle how society treats such people. Importantly, Neera also puts La’an’s fears to rest that it wasn’t her personal log, one that describes her anger at Una’s secrecy, that turned Una in.

Having Una get off on these charges based on a technicality is also a great way to toe the line between this trial and established canon dealings with genetic modifications in Starfleet personnel.  While watching this episode, we couldn’t help but think of Doctor Bashir’s run-in with Starfleet law in the Deep Space Nine episode “Doctor Bashir, I Presume.” It makes sense that Una’s trial here doesn’t do much to influence Star Trek canon as it relates to genetic modifications, as otherwise, things may have changed by the time Bashir’s storyline comes into play.

Taken together, “Ad Astra per Aspera” runs a perfect commentary on subjected people, and how one can evolve their views to accommodate different types of people. Indeed, Una’s description of how Illyrians were discriminated against could be representative of any number of people here on Earth – her monologue about her youth can send a chill up your spine particularly if you’ve read about persecuted Jews during the 1930s and 1940s. As all good Star Trek does, “Ad Astra per Aspera” points a mirror to our society and gives us a science-fiction backdrop to frame our own shortcomings. We’re thankful Strange New Worlds has delivered such a high-quality and well-built episode after last week’s disappointing outing, and we have renewed faith in how this show continues its sophomore season.

Anson Mount as Capt. Pike

Stray Thoughts:

  • The mission to an abandoned Illyrian colony Pike mentions to Neera is referencing the events of “Ghosts of Illyria.”

  • This script is pretty rock solid, but if a scene had to be cut for time, it could have been the Spock-Pasalk scene in the mess hall, where Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) and Ensign Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia) witness Spock’s “outburst.” The scene is played for laughs and feels at odds with the seriousness and profundity of the episode.

  • Why did La’an need to approach Uhura about collecting the crew’s personal logs? As a senior officer, wouldn’t La’an have access to such information?

  • How great is it to see the colored floppy disk-esque data cards, as made famous by The Original Series, in this episode?

  • In the Enterprise’s conference room, where we witness a plethora of reaction shots throughout this episode, one can see pictures of Zefram Cochrane’s Phoenix and what appears to be Captain Archer’s Enterprise.

  • Why in the world didn’t Neera reference April’s failure to properly punish Spock for hijacking the Enterprise in the previous episode in her examination of his ability to flex or break the rules when needed?

  • We’re totally getting a Robert April tie-in comic or novel at some point, right? The list of his adventures seems too interesting not to tell.

  • Spock’s recounting of meeting Una is referencing the events of the Star Trek: Short Treks episode Q&A.”

  • M’Benga’s testimony that Una handles personal matters with “great care” is likely a subtle reference to the doctor confiding in Una that his daughter was held in the sickbay’s transporter for months, as seen in “Ghosts of Illyria.”

  • While it serves its dramatic purpose well, it sure is a dangerous approach to have Neera put Una on the stand without telling her client her strategy.

  • Neera doesn’t even finish saying “energize” before she is beamed away. Someone was quick to get her off the ship!

  • The Tellarite judge in this episode is played by David Benjamin Tomlinson, who plays Linus on Star Trek: Discovery.

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