‘Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ finds the limit of what a prequel can say
It sends a hopeful message that long-term viewers know turns sour.
Prequels, particularly when associated with well-known properties, often find themselves confined within storytelling constraints that limit their creative possibilities. Due to the audience's familiarity with the future outcomes of the characters and storylines, prequels face the challenge of maintaining dramatic tension.
Additionally, any deviations from the existing narrative can disorient viewers who are already aware of the established events. However, "Strange New Worlds" has successfully navigated this hurdle, skillfully leveraging its predetermined conclusion.
In the case of "A Quality of Mercy," the episode deftly addresses the eventual near-fatal radiation exposure experienced by Captain Pike. This exploration adds depth and complexity to his character, transforming the tragic nature of his story into a captivating narrative. Comparatively, "Ad Astra per Aspera" serves as a critique of prequels, exposing their limitations in terms of storytelling possibilities and thematic exploration.
Although it presents a world brimming with hope for change, seasoned viewers recognize the misplaced optimism.
Nevertheless, it would be unjust to label the episode as inadequate, as it masterfully tells a confident albeit lightweight tale within the established tone of the series. Benefitting from Star Trek's adeptness in portraying courtroom dramas, which thrive on melodramatic examinations of significant issues, "Ad Astra per Aspera" ensures its underlying messages can be interpreted in various ways without stretching the narrative too thin. Furthermore, a comedic moment injects lightheartedness into the story, highlighting the delightful nature of a goofball rendition of Spock.
The narrative revolves around Number One facing trial for fraudulent entry into Starfleet, despite the organization's prohibition on genetic modification. Reflecting on her childhood, she recalls her parents' concerns about seeking medical assistance, fearing the revelation of her genetic status. Captain Batel, an unexpected member of Starfleet's legal corps, offers Number One a plea bargain involving a dishonorable discharge, a proposition she adamantly opposes.
Refusing to accept his friend's grim fate passively, Captain Pike embarks on a mission to seek help from Neera, an Illyrian lawyer and former acquaintance of Number One, who had previously declined their pleas. Pike's unwavering determination and the allure of a high-profile case that challenges the Federation convince Neera to join their cause. The ensuing events revolve around a typical courtroom drama, delving into the motivations behind Number One's decision to join an organization that harbors hostility toward her kind.
The audience learns that Number One's decision to join Starfleet was influenced by the visible diversity among its crew members. However, her cause only gains traction when Neera exposes the contradictions between the Federation's rhetoric, its goals, and its laws.
This subtle yet pointed critique echoes Darren Franich's examination of the "California liberal paradox" in his essay on Star Trek: Insurrection. Star Trek, rooted in Californian values, often envisions a world where everyone can live comfortably while inadvertently harboring a preference for others to reside elsewhere.
Despite the court finding Number One not guilty, she is reinstated to active duty on the Enterprise. In the joyous reunion at the transporter room, Neera expresses her belief that this case, while impacting only one individual, serves as a starting point for a larger transformation.
She emphasizes that Number One's visibility as an Illyrian second-in-command aboard a starship will help sway hearts and minds toward her cause. The episode concludes on a hopeful note, suggesting that Number One's story will initiate a gradual process of change and growth, ultimately eradicating prejudice and legal barriers.
However, the seemingly optimistic ending carries a bittersweet sentiment for long-time Star Trek viewers who are aware of the narrative's future developments.
As the chronology progresses, stories like "Space Seed," The Wrath of Khan, "Dr. Bashir, I Presume," and "Statistical Probabilities" affirm the unchanging status quo. Centuries later, individuals with genetic modifications, according to Trek's narrative, remain unable to serve in the premier military, scientific, and exploratory branch of Starfleet.
This realization lends "Ad Astra per Aspera" a tragic quality that may not be immediately apparent. Nonetheless, this tragic undertone adds an extra layer of depth for dedicated viewers. What might initially seem like a limitation in storytelling capabilities is, upon further reflection, a clever commentary on the challenges of redirecting history's trajectory towards justice.
In retrospect, this episode by Dana Horgan and Valerie Weiss offers a wonderfully incisive exploration of these complex themes.
In summary, prequels often encounter storytelling limitations due to their connection to well-known properties. However, "Strange New Worlds" has skillfully embraced its predetermined conclusions to create compelling narratives. "A Quality of Mercy" stands out as an exemplary episode, deftly highlighting the tragic nature of Captain Pike's journey.
While "Ad Astra per Aspera" critiques the constraints of prequels, it adeptly utilizes the courtroom drama genre to present a thought-provoking exploration of significant issues. Through clever storytelling techniques and subtle social commentary, this episode captivates viewers and offers them a glimpse into the complexities of historical progress and justice.
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