Thursday, June 2, 2022

REVIEW: 'Star Trek: Strange New Worlds' - A Body Swap Adventure Forces Everyone to Lead With More Empathy in 'Spock Amok'

Paramount+'s Star Trek: Strange New Worlds - Episode 1.05 "Spock Amok"

It's a comedy of manners when Spock has a personal visit in the middle of Spock and Captain Pike's crucial negotiations with an unusual alien species.

"Spock Amok" was written by Henry Alonso Myers & Robin Wasserman and directed by Rachel Leiterman

Spock is in constant conflict with himself as a result of his identity as half-Vulcan, half-human. This is conflict that has been amply covered throughout the many iterations of this franchise. As such, it's difficult for any creative team to find a new spin on it. In fact, it's even noted that Vulcans tend to take things so literally even in their own dreams. This episode starts with Spock fighting himself to the death. He fears T'Pring's rejection when she realizes the extent of his human emotions. He doesn't believe she will tolerate that given the work she does to bring all Vulcans back to the faith of extreme logic. That's how she dictates her life. Of course, they both have a willingness to make this relationship work. It's all a matter of perspective. They each have to be willing to make sacrifices for the benefit of their bond. They are destined to be together. They still have to fully accept who the other is as an adult with a mission in the world. As such, the episode has them swap bodies to understand that completely. It's a familiar plot construct. One that certainly isn't unique to this science fiction reality. It's easily accessible for Spock and T'Pring to bring their minds together in the name of something greater. They seek out true connectivity. They want to experience every emotion that their partner has. That will bring them closer than ever before. In this case, they have their guards up mentally. That prevents them from restoring order easily. Instead, they opt to spend the day in the lives of their partner. It's kept hidden to a large extent. However, Captain Pike and Nurse Chapel have to know in order to assist them with the missions they must carry out. Even then, it's mostly done to provide enlightenment to those who have to engage with this plot. It fosters greater understanding across the ensemble and not just for the two who go through this ordeal. It's still important for Spock and T'Pringa. However, the plot revolves around the lessons Pike and Chapel learn as well. That makes the focus of this episode a little more broad than what the show has been doing so far. It's aspired for a back-to-basics approach with its storytelling. Star Trek was once known for its episodic structure. This show aims to restore that. It's done so by centering one character around the main plot. That allows the spotlight to be shared amongst this cast. Following their encounter with the Gorn, the crew gets to enjoy some downtime. That luxury isn't extended to leadership. For Una and La'an, that's fine because they love the work. It also creates a relatively low-stakes main story. The show absolutely should play around with dimension and stakes in its storytelling. Here though, it mostly comes across as trying to service everyone while telling a story with the most universally known character amongst the ensemble.

Seeing T'Pring try her best to emulate Spock during a tense negotiation helps Pike come to the realization of what this alien species needs to hear in order to join the Federation. He sees a race dictated by extreme empathy. As such, they always react based on how the other side is behaving. That means they rarely get to voice their own perspective. Messages are still delivered. It's simply confusing for the negotiators because they don't know how to read the situation. Pike finally arrives at the meaningful answer. He simply has to lay out what this deal would mean for these aliens who worry about the loss of their cultural identity. They don't want to be absorbed into this massive entity that has no respect for the various species across the galaxy. They would be better served trying to come up with some treaty with the Klingons or Romulans even though they can't be trusted. Of course, all of this is done in the aftermath of the Klingon war that was depicted in the first season of Star Trek: Discovery. That show has moved way beyond that in its timeline. It still carries personal resonance here. It motivates people into action. The representatives of the Federation feel the priority of closing this deal. They have their own objectives. It takes a truly compassionate person to understand what the other side is enduring. Pike doesn't have to swap bodies for that clarity to occur. Instead, it simply must happen to his chief science officer. He can see the benefits of this unfortunate event. Meanwhile, Spock struggles to do T'Pring's job. It leads to him simply punching the guy who refuses to come back to the logical order of Vulcan. T'Pring can rationalize that in the end as well. However, it mostly just proves the benefit of people being honest with themselves and their partners. It's not fair for anyone to bottle up how they are feeling. It's fun and invigorating when the truth is shared with the world. It builds a deeper connection. That's true with Spock and T'Pring. It's also true for Chapel as she sets the standards for what she wants in any kind of personal relationship. Of course, the show is already hinting at chemistry between her and Ortegas. That immediately feels like the slow burn romance that will play out across this series. They get along well. They have a shorthand as friends. Hopefully, that can build into something more - in addition to mocking M'Benga for the silly hat he chooses to wear while fishing. Again, it's a low-stakes adventure for all to see. That extends to Una and La'an as they seek out the fun typically left for the ensigns. It's meant to keep everyone grounded. That's appreciated. It's character work that allows the audience to be more invested in the outcome of these characters' lives. It still embraces some easily recognized tropes to arrive at that end result.