Warning: Our Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 1, episode 4 review contains major spoilers – many of them set to stun. Boldly go further at your own risk…
While it doesn’t quite fit with Gene Roddenberry’s ideals about exploration and the betterment of humanity, many of Star Trek’s most memorable moments have come when a Starfleet vessel has taken a complete and utter pounding. This week, Strange New Worlds follows in the footsteps of The Next Generation’s ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise’, Voyager’s ‘Year of Hell’ and the franchise’s finest hour, The Wrath of Khan, by ensuring Pike, Spock and the crew spend an entire mission with their backs against the wall.
The episode’s title, ‘Memento Mori’, translates as a reminder that everyone must die – an echo of Game of Thrones’ famous ‘valar morghulis’ – and for once, it doesn’t feel like an empty threat. While Trek canon dictates that Pike, Spock, Uhura, M’Benga and Chapel must live to fight another day, there are moments when you believe the show might do a Tasha Yar, and kill off a regular before season one is done. That all the leads make it out in one piece (more or less) almost comes as a surprise – and a definite relief, seeing as every member of this beautifully assembled crew is worthy of more screen time.
The cause of the Enterprise’s woes is an intriguing contradiction, both refreshingly familiar and the chilling face of the unknown. The Gorn date back to – or, in Trek continuity, technically forward to – original series episode ‘Arena’, when Captain Kirk was forced to take on his rival captain in hand-to-hand combat. The stiff, rubbery prosthetics of the ’60s ensured that the reptilian species became figures of fun in some quarters of fandom – they were subsequently given a hokey CG makeover in Star Trek: Enterprise’s Mirror Universe – but there’s no question we’re taking this new incarnation very seriously indeed. The reinvented Gorn may be the first genuinely frightening ’new’ threat the Federation has faced since the introduction of the Borg and the Dominion – and because it’s made clear that they like eating humans for dinner, we don’t even have to see them to know they’re bad news.
Their introduction is an Alien-like masterclass in building suspense. The season opener already established that Lt La’an Noonien Singh had a close encounter with the Gorn as a kid, an attack that left the rest of her family dead. Now she’s forced to relive the trauma on the abandoned colony of Finibus 3, gradually deducing that the ominous bloodstains and the clicking sounds recreated by a terrified eye-witness can mean only one thing…
With the Enterprise still tethered to the cargo vessel it’s evacuating, however, La’an’s desperate call to raise shields comes too late, leaving the ship a sitting duck when the Gorn open extremely hostile hailing frequencies. Despite being temporarily frozen in fear, La’an is mostly unscathed by the brutal surprise attack, but not everyone is so lucky – there are numerous dead, Number One is injured, and Starfleet’s flagship is left an inoperable warp drive, medical supplies running out and – perhaps most ominously of all – its air-con on the fritz. There are also lots of random wires left dangling from the ceiling, in the finest Trek tradition.
Things are so bad that retreat is the best option, the only place to hide an unstable brown dwarf that’s being sucked into a black hole. It’s an unashamed homage to The Wrath of Khan, but it works spectacularly. That movie’s director, Nicholas Meyer, famously reinvented Star Trek as a submarine adventure, and ‘Memento Mori’ takes the same approach, plotting a tense game of cat-and-mouse as the Enterprise tries to stay one step ahead of the enemy. In fact, this episode is so blatant about its nautical influences that the ship’s pressure-induced creaks and improvised take on radar feel like they could have been lifted from Das Boot. Lt Ortegas even gets to acknowledge one of Pike’s orders with a tongue-in-cheek, “Aye aye, skipper – dive dive dive!”
From start to finish, the episode embraces every opportunity to ratchet up the stakes, gradually introducing a hull breach, a larger, more powerful Gorn vessel, and the threat of a cataclysmic explosion in a cargo bay to a seemingly unsolvable equation. Maybe it’s a consequence of the show’s decision to embrace standalone stories, but the Strange New Worlds writing team is ensuring that every episode is consistently loaded with plot – four episodes in, there’s been little time (or need) for narrative padding.
But once again, the show’s most powerful weapon is its cast. This story wouldn’t have worked as a season opener, but now this wonderful new crew is established, you’re totally rooting for them in their darkest hour. While La’an gets the most prominent character arc – the ever-impressive Pike reminds her that, sometimes, hope is just as important as her usual ruthless efficiency – everyone gets a moment to shine, whether it’s the medical team taking advantage of “archaeological medicine”, or Ortegas delivering her trademark gallows humour. Crucially, you believe that when they’re together, Pike and his crew can accomplish pretty much anything, but not in that contrived, borderline superhuman way that dragged down the most recent season of Discovery. Indeed, the way the rookie Uhura and sarcastic engineer Hemmer bond while trying to avert an explosion is one of the early highlights of the season.
An otherwise brilliant episode is slightly let down by the contrivance of its conclusion. Spock using a mind-meld to help La’an access old memories comes a little too soon after Picard episode ’Monsters’ took advantage of a similar plot device, and – while it’s a long-established Vulcan ability – skirts perilously close to a magic trick here. It also seems unlikely that La’an would be able to recall the Gorn’s light-emitted language in such detail, or that a technologically advanced species could be so easily fooled by a fake message. Have they never heard of coded transmissions?
That minor slip up aside, Strange New Worlds has established this new version of the Gorn as a genuine threat to the Federation. Canonical restraints may ensure that they remain bit-part players – the ‘Arena’ incident in the original series is treated as a first contact situation – but we’ll be eagerly awaiting their return. Who knows, maybe next time we’ll even get to see what they look like…
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is currently airing now in the US on Paramount Plus. A UK airdate is TBC – though Paramount Plus launches in the UK on June 22. For more, check out our guide to the Star Trek timeline.
4.5 out of 5
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 1, episode 4 review: “Embraces every opportunity to ratchet up the stakes”
With nail-biting tension, a classic villain reinvented and the Enterprise crew thrown headfirst into a nightmare scenario, this really is an episode to remember. Everyone will die eventually, the ‘Memento Mori’ title reminds us, but thankfully not today.