The following article contains spoilers for “Ad Astra per Aspera.”
Prequels, especially for well-known properties, are straightjackets which limit their own storytelling possibilities. Dramatic license is hampered by the fact the audience often knows where these characters (and storylines) end up. And any violence to the extant narrative can jar viewers who likely know what’s going on now contradicts what they’ve already seen. Until now, Strange New Worlds has navigated this issue well, making a virtue of its well-known conclusion.
“A Quality of Mercy” deftly played with the fact Pike will eventually get his near-fatal dose of radiation. The episode served to make the tragic nature of his character both a benefit and a burden, making it compelling in the process. In comparison, “Ad Astra per Aspera,” serves as an indictment of prequels, exposing the limits of what it can say, and do. Much as it presents a world that’s hopeful of change, long-term viewers know that optimism is misplaced.
That’s not to say the episode is bad, because it’s another confidently told, if lightweight, tale in a series that knows it works in that register. It helps that Star Trek wears the tropes of courtroom drama so well, since they’re both prone to a melodramatic exploration of The Big Issues(™). The subtext here is sufficiently broad that there’s a multitude of readings it’ll accept without too much stretching. And there’s at least one actually funny comedy moment where we, once again, see how much more fun Spock is when he’s played as a goofball.
Number One is preparing to stand trial for fraudulently entering Starfleet despite its ban on genetic modification. She’s thinking about her childhood, where her parents worry about taking her to a doctor and therefore exposing her status. Captain Batel (Melanie Scrofano) – who for some reason is now a member of Starfleet’s legal corps – offers a plea bargain with a dishonorable discharge, something Number One recoils at.
Pike, refusing to passively accept his friend’s fate, jets off to meet Neera (Yetide Badaki), an Illyrian lawyer and former friend of Number One, who has until now refused their pleas for help. His refusal to take no for an answer, and the lure of a high-profile case with which to stick it to the Federation, is enough to convince her to sign up. What follows is the usual courtroom drama, focusing on what prompted Number One to sign up to an organization that hates her.
We learn Number One was inspired to sign up to Starfleet because of the visible diversity of its crews. But that isn’t enough to win until Neera finds the contradiction between the Federation’s fine words, its goals, and its laws. It’s a subtle, pointed, critique of what Darren Franich dubbed the “California liberal paradox” in his essay on Star Trek: Insurrection. (And Star Trek is nothing if not a creature of Californian values.) He says that those people may wish “everyone to live comfortably, but would secretly prefer that most people live comfortably someplace else.”
But the court finds Number One not guilty, and she’s allowed to return to active duty on the Enterprise. At the happy ever after reunion in the transporter room, Neera says that while the case affected just one person, it’s a “start.” She adds that Number One’s visibility as an Illyrian (second) in command of a starship will help turn people’s hearts and minds toward her cause. It’s a hopeful ending, and one that suggests Number One’s story will kickstart a process of change and growth that will eventually see these prejudices and legal blocks go away.
The issue with that ending, and how hopefully it’s portrayed, is that long-time Star Trek viewers know it doesn’t happen. Any hearts and minds that would be changed in this process would be a minority given that – from this point in Trek history – things won’t change. Chronologically, we have “Space Seed,” The Wrath of Khan, “Dr. Bashir, I Presume” and “Statistical Probabilities” as affirmations of the status quo. At least a century later, people with genetic modifications remain – in Trek’s narrative – unable to serve in its premier military, scientific and exploratory branch.
It lends the episode a tragic quality that isn’t reflected in its presentation, but one that adds a layer of depth for dedicated viewers. Perhaps what I’m describing as a limit of its storytelling is really a smart commentary on how hard it is to bend the arc of history toward justice. In fact, I think I’ve just talked myself around, this is a wonderfully pointed exploration of this stuff, bravo Dana Horgan and Valerie Weiss.
Source : Engadget