“Ad Astra Per Aspera”
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 2, Episode 2 – Debuted Thursday, June 22, 2023
Written by: Dana Horgan
Directed by Valerie Weiss
The pace slows down for a classic courtroom episode that offers a lot of character development along with reinforcing time-honored Star Trek themes.
WARNING: Spoilers below!
“I shouldn’t have to hide anymore”
After a quick flashback to a tense moment in Una’s childhood, we find Number One being pressed to take a plea deal by Captain Batel: Admit to lying by hiding being a genetically engineered Illyrian and receive dishonorable dismissal from Starfleet but no jail time. She wants a better deal… and a better lawyer. Pike is on the case, across the quadrant on an Illyrian colony where he needs to carry his own air to breathe, using that to bully his way into the office of renowned civil rights lawyer Neera Ketoul. However, her bad personal history with Una has her refusing to take the case. “Una Chin-Riley is not my friend, and neither are you.” Yet she has no love for the Federation or Starfleet, calling their anti-genetic engineering laws “draconian,” so Pike uses this passion to get her to sign on. Once on Earth, Neera is clear she is only there to raise the profile of her caseload of fights with the Federation. She scoffs at how Una hid her true nature, but the accused Starfleet officer vows she is finally ready to stop hiding and fight for who she really is. With the new lawyer raising the stakes, Batel is pissed her hard work on the plea deal was rejected, and now her sour Vulcan JAG boss has taken an interest and added charges of sedition, pushing for 20 years in a penal colony. Gulp.
Batel convinces Chris to resist his instinct for “inspiring speeches” and not take the stand in the trial, as it could open the door up to him incriminating himself for not reporting Una. Neera also convinces Una that going on the stand to defend herself would also backfire—and possibly risk implicating the whole crew as co-conspirators. After a fun diversion in the Enterprise lounge where Spock apologizes for his (imperceptible, except to M’Benga) “outburst” with the Vulcan JAG admiral, Neera gets set up for work in Number One’s quarters. She looks to La’an to help her prep with the required Starfleet codes and records. The security officer suggests trying to get the case thrown out if it can be shown Starfleet found out she was Illyrian through illegal means—like accessing personal logs. Ironically, to test her theory, La’an turns to Uhura and requests access to all the personal logs, saying, “We need to find out who turned her in.” The newly minted communications ensign rightly points this is an illegal order and so she refuses, empathizing with La’an’s desire to help her mentor, but saying flatly, “I’m sorry. No.” Good for her.
“Genetics is not destiny.”
The trial starts and Batel opens by explaining why genetic engineering is “dangerous and illegal” by immediately invoking the Eugenics Wars, the dead millions, and saying those who monkey with their DNA are “playing God.” Neera counters by lumping these laws in with the dustbin of history’s laws discriminating against different groups, accusing the Federation of being blinded by fear. Una had no choice but to hide her true nature, just like all those persecuted before her. The first witness is Admiral April, Una’s former commander and Starfleet Academy sponsor who admits he wouldn’t have helped her if he’d known the truth. Neera pounces on him defending this protocol, noting how he ignored the Prime Directive on multiple occasions (as captains of the Enterprise tend to do), calling him “sanctimonious,” and doubling down on her argument, accusing him of acting out of “fear and racial prejudice.” The judges are not happy, and neither are Pike and the crew as they watch from the Enterprise while Una’s case descends into chaos. April drops by to let Chris know he is not cool with his choice of counsel and even refuses to share a drink. Una is pissed too, accusing Neera of just using the trial as a “soapbox,” triggering Neera to accuse Una of being the expert on leaving people behind, revealing more of their simmering tension. So day one could have gone better.
Things look up a bit on trial day two as Neera calls character witnesses. La’an (noted as an descendant of Eugenics Wars tyrant Khan Noonien Singh) testifies she never suspected Una and credits the first officer for saving her life and the lives of many more. Dr. M’Benga touts Una’s compassion and discretion with the crew. Spock, too, has high praise for the commander as a mentor, saying that it would be illogical for Starfleet to punish itself by dismissing such a good officer, calling her a friend and family. Aww. But he did admit she was hiding something… her affinity for Gilbert and Sullivan musicals. Back on the Enterprise, La’an continues to fixate on how Starfleet learned about Una, admitting to Neera she is worried they may have accessed her own personal log, recorded in anger after she first learned her mentor had lied to her. The lawyer sees that La’an is also troubled by her own genetic past, concerned she carries not only Khan’s augmented genes, but the potential to become dangerous. Neera dismisses the concern, telling La’an she has been listening to too much Federation dogma: “You’re not born a monster.” The defense counsel also assures La’an she isn’t the source, but who exposed Una is still a question. La’an ponders who would “gain from exposing the truth.” A more confident Neera pivots, saying the conversation has been “very helpful,” leaving La’an wondering what’s going on. Us too.
“Starfleet is not a perfect organization, but it strives to be.”
For the final trial day, Neera surprises by calling Una to the stand, who explains how she was inspired to join Starfleet through the classic pre-Federation motto “Ad astra per aspera” (episode title alert!) seeing a possible “salvation” in the stars. And she needed salvation, big time. Turns out Una grew up on a Federation colony of Illyrians literally divided between the modified and unmodified, with the latter facing growing persecution from the government and the mob inspired by discriminatory laws. Augmented Illyrians feared for their lives and because her family could pass, they chose to separate themselves and hide among the non-Illyrians. Now she regrets it, apologizing to Neera, who was one of those left behind. But the lawyer presses on, accused by a judge of badgering her own witness, until Una admits she turned herself in to Starfleet. She wanted to be safe and hoped she could help Starfleet meet its own ideals. Una still believes in that inclusive diverse Starfleet that she looked up to as a girl. Inspiring. Stepping in for Batel, Vulcan JAG vice admiral Grump Pasalk is not moved by all this “emotion” as he needles the first officer about precisely when Pike found out she was Illyrian. She reluctantly admits it was months before she outed herself, opening up her captain to a charge of conspiracy. Wow, what a buzzkill.
For closing arguments Pasalk is brief, pointing to Una’s own testimony as an admission of guilt, not only for herself but likely leading to a court-martial of Captain Pike. He recommends Starfleet rid itself of her “toxic” presence. Spock is right, this guy is just the worst. Unfazed, Neera asks for a reading of a Starfleet Code which lays out the specific conditions which just happen to match Una’s own testimony about the dangers she faced on that divided colony as well as how, by turning herself in, she requested “asylum” within Starfleet. The anti-Federation crusader then gives her own inspiring speech about how Una’s actions are all part of Starfleet’s many missions of salvation, with Pike living up to those ideals by accepting her, therefore using his discretion to grant asylum. All the judges needed to do is find their “better selves” and confirm it. You just knew she had some legal trick up her sleeve. Delivering the final ruling, the head judge reaffirms that the laws against genetic modification exist for good reasons, leaving reexamination for a future court. However, they are open to some nuance when it comes to “unique” cases, like Una Chin Riley, now officially granted asylum and declared not guilty of all charges. Vulcan JAGoff is pissed, ha! Things wrap up quickly as Una is reunited with her happy Enterprise family. She and Neera confirm they are friends again, and the lawyer (awkwardly) gets a round of applause as she beams away. After some fun banter, Una is back on duty and dismisses the crew. With a final (also awkward) hug from Pike, the first officer is happy to be back. And so are we.
To the stars through hardship
After the action and galactic stakes of the season premiere, Strange New Worlds pivots to another familiar genre with an effective courtroom drama. This time the stakes are personal but just as high, with Una’s freedom on the line, and more importantly, Starfleet’s ideals being put to the test in her trial. While the faster pace of the previous episode may make for a better opener, the simple but laser-focused story infused with Star Trek idealism made for the better episode. Buoyed by strong performances from Rebecca Romijn along with guest star Yetide Badaki as Neera, “Ad Astra Per Aspera” delivered some of the richest character development of the series so far, and not just revealing Una’s backstory and motivation, but also exploring the bonds she has with her captains: Pike and April. And through the lens of this trial, we even learn more about others including La’an’s fear of her dark genetic heritage, M’Benga’s deep understanding of Vulcans, and Uhura growing up and showing some spine, all of which ties well into canon.
Star Trek is often knocked for being too “talky” with lots of scenes of people sitting around tables in deep discussion. There may be some truth to this, but Strange New Worlds leaned into how this is also one of the franchise’s enduring strengths when done right, with the episode not getting distracted by subplots. Instead, it relished in the genre, visually evoking classic TOS episodes like “The Menagerie,” and especially “Court Martial” with some excellent production design and beautiful dress uniforms. However, the powerful trial and its dramatic arguments about individual rights bring favorable comparisons to the classic TNG episode “The Measure of a Man” (with tinges of Voyager’s “Author, Author”). Holding up the dark mirror to prejudices that can still exist within the Federation’s utopia was also reminiscent of “The Drumhead.” Even though you knew Neera had a clever legal twist coming, when finally revealed, it still made for tense drama, but also nicely tied things up both thematically and with her own personal connection to Una. Again, the episode reveals how this show can honor and evoke Trek lore without stumbling over it as it sometimes does.
This new episode stands on its own among this legal subgenre of Trek and like the best of them, it uses a sci-fi concept as allegory; in this case, persecution of the genetically modified and Una having to hide her true identity standing in for topical issues related (mentioned in the episode in case you missed it) race, gender, sexuality, and religion, although it is a little unclear how a Federation colony could devolve as badly as Una’s did, with her recollection being an almost beat-for-beat rundown of the persecutions of Jews ahead of the Holocaust. While setting up the conditions for the asylum trick, this Reductio ad Hitlerum wasn’t necessary and makes real discussion of the issues at hand more difficult. However, all the commentary about Una living authentically certainly did feel relevant and contemporary and likely resonated with modern audiences as it once again used a Star Trek courtroom drama to put humanity itself on trial. Altogether, “Ad Astra Per Aspera” should end up ranked high on lists of Star Trek courtroom episodes. Like the best of them, it leaned into those inspirational speeches about living up to the ideals of Starfleet, with the active musical score effectively landing all of those moments. While we were denied hearing a speech from Anson Mount’s Captain Pike, that gave Rebecca Romijn (a very underutilized asset for the show) time to shine, adding many new layers to Una and also setting her up for a new journey now that she can be her true self.
“Ad Astra Per Aspera” feels very modern in every way and yet it is classic Star Trek, which is the exact sweet spot the series is designed for. The show is demonstrating that it is willing to tell its own stories while also evoking the best of the franchise. Two episodes (and two subgenres in), and season 2 of Strange New Worlds is off to a strong start.
- Starts with Captain’s Log, Stardate 2393.8.
- The Tellarite judge was played by David Benjamin Tomlinson, best known for playing Linus on Star Trek: Discovery, along with a number of other aliens.
- While credited as “Tellarite Judge,” the character’s name was actually Zus Tlaggul, and the credited “Vulcan Judge” (played by Eugene Clark) was actually named Chiv.
- The “Vaultera Nebula” is likely a different spelling for the Volterra Nebula from the TNG episode “The Chase.”
- The “fruit of a poisonous tree” cited by Neera as precedent in Starfleet law is also used today.
- Spock recalling his first meeting with Una recounted the events of the Short Treks episode “Q&A.”
- Ortegas jokes that Spock and Pasalk might play a game of kal-toh.
- The research mission Pike tells Neera about when he learned the Federation got things wrong about Illyrians was seen in the season 1 episode “Ghosts of Illyria.”
- M’Benga’s mention of how Una can be compassionate and discreet is a nod to how she kept the secret regarding how he was keeping his daughter alive using the medical transporter buffer, also from “Ghosts of Illyria.”
- While the ban on genetic engineering will persist into the 24th century, Starfleet will also find loopholes for Dr. Julian Bashir (Deep Space Nine) and Dal R’El (Prodigy).
- The courtroom set was a redress of the 32nd-century Starfleet HQ set from Star Trek: Discovery, with some added wood paneling, along with golden frieze panels inspired by panels from the US Supreme Court.
More to come
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Season 2 episodes drop weekly on Thursdays on Paramount+ in the U.S, the U.K., Australia, Latin America, Brazil, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Season 2 is also available on SkyShowtime elsewhere in Europe. The second season will also be available to stream on Paramount+ in South Korea, with premiere dates to be announced at a later date.
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