Star Trek: Strange New Worlds fails to engage with ‘The Broken Circle’

Spock played by Ethan Peck sits in the command chair on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 2 episode 1 ‘The Broken Circle’
Written by: Henry Alonso Myers & Akiva Goldsman
Directed by: Chris Fisher

The opening season of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds was remarkably consistent. While many shows take a while to find their feet, this one seemed sure of itself and its cast and had a confidence to try different things in each episode. Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising as the show takes the form that served Star Trek so well for its first two major incarnations – episodic storytelling. Of course, Strange New Worlds put a slight twist on this format by adding ongoing character arcs making it a mix of science-fiction soap opera and anthology. Throughout its debut run, it merrily hopped genres, taking a bunch of classic ideas and tropes from Star Trek gone-by and making them feel fresh, all culminating a wonderful finale which saw Pike facing his destiny and gaining a new sense of purpose.

So it’s a bit strange that the season two opener feels like the worst episode of the show to date. Perhaps it’s because it’s saddled with a couple of cliffhangers to resolve. Number One (Rebecca Romijn) has been locked up by Starfleet for lying about her identity. So at the start of the episode, Pike (Anson Mount) buggers off to go find the one lawyer in the galaxy who can help prove her innocence, or get her off on a technicality at least. That leaves you without your two leads for the episode, which is a really weird decision. And of course, the show should be able to lose some characters and move the focus. The ensemble has been a vital part of Star Trek since The Next Generation. But in this instance, it’s an odd way to begin the season.

The other ongoing thread was the departure of Security Chief La’an Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong), who took a leave of absense to help a child kidnapped by the Gorn to find her parents. And her departure is what motivates the mission of this episode, with the ship recieving a coded distress call which states she needs help and that the future of the Federation could be at risk if they don’t pay a visit. Why does anyone ever join the Federation? It really doesn’t seem that stable. Anyway, after Admiral April denies Spock (Ethan Peck) permission to investigate, he decides to steal the Enterprise and go after her anyway.

Look, I understand why stealing the Enterprise is something you’d want to do; we’ve all seen Star Trek III. And seeing the crew rebelling like they’re in a western was fun in Star Trek: Insurrection, but here the stakes just are not high enough for Spock to commit a mutiny. He could have borrowed a shuttle or something.

‘Well actually, Spock commandeered the Enterprise in the original series…’ I hear you annoyingly point out. Yes, yes he did and I’m sure they are trying to evoke that memory here but he was doing that to save Pike’s future in extreme circumstances and he faced a court martial. But in this particular incarnation of Star Trek, Spock is only in command because the three ranking bridge officers are not available, so taking a ship and gaining the support of the crew is a bold move. No wonder the Galileo Seven turned against him.

Also, the interactions of the crew here start to grate a little. There’s a scene in Deep Space Nine episode ‘The Ship’ where Sisko berates Dax after using one of her pithy one-liners: ‘Dax! Maybe you haven’t noticed, but no one’s laughing. Now I know it’s hot, we’re filthy, tired, And we’ve got ten isotons of explosives going off outside, but we will never get out of this if we don’t pull it together and start to act like professionals. ‘

And I felt like that throughout much of this episode. The crew are very quippy, and if the stakes are supposed to be high and we’re supposed to take this seriously then I could do with a little less of Spock saying something stupid because every commander needs a catch phrase. I understand that everyone wants to make their sci-fi tonally more like Guardians of the Galaxy and undercut tension with gags, but it’s a ship with a command structure and maybe everyone could maybe act like it a little more. There’s a balance to be found and in this episode, the comedy really fell flat. The tone is torn between original Star Trek and Lower Decks, and more often than not, the former should win that battle.

To steal the ship, they fake a problem with the warp core. They’re aided by one of the ship’s inspectors who helps their  breach look more convincing. This is Pelia, played by the wonderful Carol Kane. And she’s doing an accent which sounds like everywhere and nowhere. She’s from a race known as the Lanthanites, who live forever and look human, so she’s been around a bit. She also knew Spock’s mum and that’ll probably come up again soon. I’m sure every actor goes into a new project wanting to do something big, and usually they should be told to not. It’ll probably be fine because the performance so far is good, but in an episode with grating elements, a big accent felt like one element that might tip the scales.

Anyway, the main plot turns out that on the galaxy’s finest dilithium planet shared between the goodies and the baddies, a syndicate aims to restart the war between the Klingon Empire and the Federation in order to drive up prices. They plan to do this with a captured Starfleet ship which they’ll use to attack the Klingons in a ‘false flag’ attack.

I’m sorry, did you just say false flag there, Spock? And make it actually a thing that’s happening. Well, that’s awful. I know it’s a centuries old phrase but anyone who says ‘false flag’ in this time is usually referring to some horrific event that they claim didn’t happen, usually because of guns. So maybe don’t. It’s up there with Star Trek: Picard’s season 1 finale which gave the conspiracy theorists credit for getting things right. Is this where Star Trek is right now?

Anyway, Doctor M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) and Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) end up on board the not-Starfleet ship as it launches (hey look, movie-era graphics, that’s nice) and have to find out what’s happening and fight their way off. To do this, they inject themselves with something. I thought it was going to be a variation on the first season’s genetic treatment and they were going to look like Klingons. But no, they juice up and become super soldiers and beat the shit out of a bunch of bad guys. Then M’Benga tortures a guy in a lift for information. Ah, classic Star Trek. Remember Chain of Command, anyone? An explicitly anti-torture message from 30 years ago. Modern Star Trek’s relationship with violence and death is far too casual and this episode is as good an example as any. War is bad and stakes are grave but to see your compassionate doctor character violently extract information does not seem right. His backstory is deepened here to suggest he has experience with war, but that doesn’t mean he should be a monster.

The ship being used for the attack is a captured Crossfield class. If that rings a bell then it’s because that was the same class as the USS Discovery. This one has a different drive section though so it doesn’t look quite the same. Spock tracks it down and after a chase through an asteroid belt, the Enterprise blows up Discovery the generic Crossfield class ship. Does that feel a little on the nose to anyone else? I’m sure no deeper meaning was implied.

Chapel and M’Benga escape by jumping out the airlock and are beamed onboard and Spock does CPR on his favourite nurse to bring her back to life, all with a tear in his eye. The Chapel and Spock stuff is probably the best part of this.

If the episode is about anything (and I’m not sure it is) then it’s about Spock being torn between two worlds, letting his emotions become part of him and working out a way to healthily express them.. And of course, there’s a love triangle forming to not very elegantly represent two lives dragging him in different directions. There’s a nice scene at the start with M’Benga advising Spock to play his favourite instrument to relieve stress, which only increases around Chapel. So it’s nice Star Trek still does allegory so well. I bet Christine’s briefly mentioned upcoming trip to Vulcan will be the culmination of all this. I sure hope she doesn’t meet some exobiologist called Roger Corby there on the rebound.

It all ends with the Klingons demanding answers and everyone goes down to the planet for some blood wine. Hey, and after we just blew up Discovery, these Klingons seem like those from the movies and The Next Generation-era. That’s weird. Almost like they’re just saying that never happened. They’re sort of over the top and banging on about honour and laughing a lot. And so we’ve arrived back at the status quo.

On returning to Starbase One, April tells Spock never to steal a starship again and he agrees. Is that it? Sure, he averted a war but Michael Burnham suffered some pretty serious consequences when disobeying a direct order just a few years ago. Ah well, I guess that sort of thing doesn’t really matter. Anyway, April is more concerned about a potential war with the Gorn. I hope we don’t do a war with the Gorn. The thing that was nice about season one was that it wasn’t dark, depressing and built around mass death. It was mostly optimistic with just a little death. I like my Star Trek to be heavy but in a philosophical way rather than a bloody one.

Overall, it wasn’t the best way to start the season. Obviously, this episode had some work to do to pick up the pieces from last season’s finale, bring back characters and introducing a new one. And it was perfectly watchable but had enough little things that didn’t sit right to add up to something which left a bit of a bad taste. But the good thing about Strange New Worlds is, if you don’t like one episode, there’s sure to be something different next week.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is released weekly on Paramount+.