If there’s one iron clad rule of the Star Trek universe — even more powerful than the Prime Directive — it’s that everybody gets a time travel episode, whether you want it or not.
The Enterprise in the original series got sent back to earth in the late sixties and encountered early Earth astronauts. They also had to save the whales in the eighties. More relevant to this episode, they got zapped back to the Depression era, where Kirk fell in love with Joan Collins and had to let her die lest her pacifism delay the U.S. from entering WWII. That’s not even touching on Deep Space Nine time traveling with Tribbles, all the times Q and the Borg did time shenanigans, how Voyager went back to Earth in the nineties, and entire seasons of Picard and Discovery. If you haven’t gone back in time on Star Trek and tried to alter the space-time continuum irrevocably, are you even really trying?
So it should come as no surprise that Strange New Worlds is taking a bite at the temporal apple. While this is a well-worn Trek trope, it really comes down to the writing and the characters to pull off a time travel episode. I am happy to say that the episode delivers while avoiding most of the pitfalls that can happen. And a big reason for that is centering the episode on La’an Noonian-Singh.
La’an hasn’t had a lot of screen time thus far this season, and has seemed pretty depressed. Last week, she was worried that she had inadvertently tipped off the Federation about Una, but now that Una is back on the bridge, she hasn’t talked to her. In fact, M’Benga notes that she skipped the party Captain Pike threw for her in his quarters. M’Benga think she seems pretty lonely.
That makes sense. As the series has noted, La’an is a descendant of Khaaaaan!, the tyrant who conquered Asia in the Eugenics Wars (which, canonically, happened in the ’90s. You know, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was supposed to happen in 1991. Busy decade!) And it’s hard to make good friends if the first question you get asked is “Are you related to Space Hitler?”
But who has time to be lonely when there’s so much to do? Like investigating all the petty complaints on board! La’an has to tell Spock to knock off his Vulcan lute practice due to an “anonymous” noise complaint. (Though I’d bet a shiny quatloo that the anonymous person’s name started with La and ended with ‘an.) Then it’s off to question Pelia about the suspicious provenance of some of her precious artworks. “That’s from the archeology department! That’s a fake. So tell the Louvre to stop calling me!” Pelia has half a mind to go back to the bunker she kept in Vermont, you know, in case this whole no-money socialist utopia thing turns out to be just a fad. (Once again, whoever on staff suggested getting Carol Kane to play a daffy alien for a season on SNW, I hope you are getting a raise.)
Suddenly, La’an’s day is interrupted by a strange man in grey appearing in the corridor before her. He’s been shot, and not by a phaser. He has an olde-tyme bullet wound. With his dying breath, he hands La’an a strange device and tells her to “get to the bridge.” As he dies, he disappears, and the corridor suddenly changes shape. La’an rushes to the bridge, but instead of the comforting coiffure of Captain Pike, she is greeted by Captain James Tiberius Kirk who asks her who the hell she is and why is she on the bridge of his United Earth Fleet ship? Yes, Paul Wesley is back to command the Enterprise.
Just then, a hail comes in from a nearby ship, and Kirk puts Vulcan Captain Spock on screen. The Vulcans are on the brink of total destruction by the Romulans, and although Earth and Vulcan are not allies, Spock knows that Earth doesn’t like the Romulans either, so maybe they could help? Kirk says sorry, no can do. They have enough problems with the Romulans already and signs off, to deal with La’an.
So already La’an can see that something has gone very wrong. There are no aliens on the Enterprise crew, there is no Federation, just a “United Earth Fleet,” the Vulcans aren’t allies, and La’an isn’t even a part of the crew anymore. She tries to explain all this to Kirk, who is skeptical at best. Earth scientists believe time travel to be theoretically possible, but no one has proven it yet. He asks to see the device La’an allegedly received from the time traveler, but she is reluctant to let it go. As they grab at it, a button is pressed, and both are sucked back into the past.
And they wind up in 21st century Toronto! Which Kirk promptly calls New York City, even though he is directly in front of a sign that reads “Toronto Eatons Centre.”
To anyone who grew up in Canada, this is a delightful joke. Film crews have been using Toronto as a New York stand-in for decades and hardly bothering to avoid getting the CN Tower or Roy Thompson Hall in the shot. Another fun Easter egg: the location where La’an and Kirk get transported to is the same spot they shot a lot of TekWar, a ’90s TV show based on novels written by William Shatner.
La’an basically calls him a dumb ass and corrects him. Kirk’s excuse is that he’s never been to Earth. In his timeline, Earth is a smoldering ruin, and humanity lives in the stars. He was born on the USS Iowa. (Nice touch, guys.) After being transported thousands of light years and centuries through time, Kirk believes La’an’s story and agrees to help.
Since primitive Canada still uses “currency” and is not yet part of the no-money socialist utopia, they engage in some classic fish-out-of-water hijinks. They steal clothes (Kirk is happy to run for it, but La’an is smart and frames another shopper to create a distraction) and Kirk hustles enough money playing chess to buy them hot dogs and a hotel suite. Which must have been a lot. Assuming they didn’t have a credit card, they’d need to put down a substantial deposit, so Kirk must’ve made about $1000 CND in a couple hours. As he says, after you’ve played three dimensional chess, the old 2D version is basically for babies. “Idiot’s chess,” he calls it.
La’an is warming up to Kirk. That lady-killing charm is the same in all timelines, apparently. After he watches his first-ever sunset (he’s never been to Earth before), they retire for the night. In the morning, they argue about what they should do. Kirk is in favor of doing nothing, since that’s how his timeline is created, and would he even exist in La’an’s? La’an assures him that he does, since she’s heard stories about him from his brother Sam. This stuns Kirk, since his brother is dead in his world. It’s right then that the Lake Ontario Bridge explodes in the window behind them. (Ohhh… that’s what the guy meant by “get to the bridge.”)
The Lake Ontario Bridge was just completed and it connects Toronto to, uh… Rochester? Niagara-on-the-Lake, I guess? I appreciate Trek acknowledging the existence of Canada and all, but it’s only a 90-minute drive from Toronto to Buffalo, and I’m not sure how useful that bridge would be. But, it’s useful as a way to kickstart a shift in the timeline, so yay Canada!
La’an notices some odd markings on a piece of the rubble being carted away. She borrows a camera from a nearby photographer to look closer and identifies the markings as those from a photonic bomb, obviously not something of the era. The piece is being loaded into a black van, which they decide to follow.
They follow the van by stealing a car from a drunk. Kirk uses the Vulcan nerve pinch (he picked a few things up from his cellmate in a Denobulan prison. Also how to make plomeek soup in a toilet. Yum!) La’an tells him to follow discreetly. Hey, replies Kirk, discretion is my middle name! No, jokes La’an, it’s Tiberius. Kirk needles her back, saying “Noonian-Soong” isn’t much better. It’s then La’an realizes that he’s never heard of the name “Noonian-Singh” before. He has no idea about her past, her legacy, any of it. He’s being charming to her and pleasant because he likes her and that’s it, and you can see La’an’s heart melt a little even though they’re in a high speed chase.
Kirk goes from “where does the key go?” to Tokyo Drifting through the icy — and surprisingly empty — streets of Toronto in no time flat. Unfortunately, his hot shot driving is noticed by the Toronto cops, who almost drop their Tim Horton’s coffee to chase him. Really laying on the Canada stuff pretty thick, and I’m not going to lie, I loved it. Have Kirk visit the Zanzibar Tavern, while you’re at it. (Google it, but not at work.)
The cops are about to haul him off to jail, when the photographer who shared the pictures with them shows up. She tells them she’s live-streaming them, and they were obviously profiling them since they just pulled over a famous American civil rights attorney. The cops look confused, and when a call comes over the radio for more backup at the bridge site, they let Kirk off with a warning.
The friendly photographer introduces herself as Sera, and she can tell right away that Kirk and La’an are special. They know the same things she does, namely that aliens are coordinating with a shadowy cabal of world governments to restrict human progress. And she’s got proof! Lots of it! She takes them to a diner (where Kirk delightedly shovels poutine into his mouth. “Poutine has gravy?” Why yes, it does.) and shows them all the evidence she’s found, including a photo of a ship that Kirk recognizes as a Romulan Bird of Prey. The aliens are giving the governments tech like cold fusion reactors to in exchange for covering up their existence.
And, ok, Sera is obviously too good to be true, right? It’s too big a coincidence that Random Photographer would turn out to be a helpful ally two scenes later, especially one that is conveniently unhinged? Something is up. But Kirk doesn’t notice, as he remembers from his history that Toronto gets destroyed in a cold fusion reactor explosion. That must be the timeline twist, and they need to stop it from happening. But how to find it? If only they knew some engineer who could figure out alien tech?
Cut to: Kirk and La’an getting out of a cab in Vermont, and knocking on the door of a barn with The Archeology Department spray painted on. And who should answer? Pelia! They found her capitalist bunker. La’an tells her they know she’s a Lanthanite, and they need her help finding a way to detect the cold fusion particles. Pelia would like to help, but she’s not an engineer. La’an realizes that future Pelia teaches engineering at the academy. Past Pelia is an art thief who works retail. In another great Carol Kane line reading, she says she hasn’t had a math class since “Pythagoras made that crap up.” La’an notices that she has some old diver’s watches, which have hands coated in tritium so they will glow underwater. The cold fusion would release tritium particles, so Kirk reasons that if they take off the glass casing, the hands will glow if they detect any tritium nearby.
Back in Toronto (and honestly, the part the stretched incredulity the most this episode is not the time travel, but the less than a day it takes to get from Toronto to rural Vermont and back, including a border crossing twice with no ID), they roam the streets looking for the reactor. They’re getting quite friendly. Kirk says he’d like to go back with La’an to her timeline, but knows it’s not possible. Besides, no timeline could be big enough for both of them, right? La’an smiles and says that it’s difficult for her to make friends. Her heritage is kind of like a Scarlet Letter, or a mark of Cain. Kirk plays dumb. Scarlet what? Hawthorne who? Bible huh? La’an is about to yell at him when Kirk says of course he’s heard of Hawthorne and then kisses her. (Time travel gets Kirk horny in every timeline!) La’an kisses back, but then Kirk sees that the watch is glowing.
And the source? The Noonian-Singh Institute for Cultural Advancement. Oh, that can’t be a coincidence. La’an’s handprint opens the door, apparently coded to her family’s DNA. They’re about to enter when they hear a gun cock. It’s Sera. Turns out she was an undercover Romulan. (See? I told you she was too helpful!) She is embarrassed it took her so long to recognize the famous Captain Kirk.
Her plan was pretty much what she ranted about at the diner. Stop or delay human progress so they become less of a threat in the future and the Romulans can control the galaxy. She’s been at this for thirty years, but time is tricky and certain events just WANT to happen. (The Eugenics Wars were supposed to happen 30 years ago, but they haven’t yet! Good save, Trek writers!) This line brings to mind the whole bit about “canon events” in Across the Spider-Verse, events that need to happen in the timeline. Captain Stacey has to die, the Eugenics Wars have to happen. Kirk tries to stop her, saying that if she shoots, the building will lock down and alarms will tell everyone she’s here. She calls his bluff and shoots him anyway.
Even with a variant timeline Kirk, it’s still a shock to see him die. The man who refuses to accept that there’s no way out? The man who beat the Kobyashi Maru? He dies in Toronto, just a few blocks from where I saw Phantom of the Opera as a teenager. La’an is heartbroken.
La’an chases Sera through the building. Since security has been alerted, she pivots away from the “blow up the reactor” plan and goes for plan B. The sign on the wall has a helpful “COLD FUSION RIGHT, GENETICS LAB LEFT” indicator.
Sera turns left.
Oooh, Noonian-Singh, genetics, you know where this is going, right?
Indeed, plan B is to kill baby Hitler, aka Khan Noonian-Singh. (To quote an excellent short story about time travel, everybody kills Hitler on their first trip. Click on the link and read it, it’s only a few pages long and very funny.)
As she and La’an fight, Sera tries to get her on her side. Wouldn’t she rather live in a world without the stigma of her last name? A world where her ancestor didn’t wipe out millions? But, if Khan dies, then there’s no Federation, no Starfleet, and probably no La’an. So, as Sera opens the door to Khan’s room, La’an shoots her twice with her own gun. As she dies, she teleports back to her own timeline.
La’an enters to find Khan hiding behind his bed. He’s only a boy, not even ten years old. He nervously asks if La’an is there to kill him. She calms him down, and tells him no. He is exactly where he is supposed to be. As the security guards converge on Khan’s room (and wow, for a secretive organization running both an off-books genetics facility AND a cold fusion reactor, the Noonian-Singh Institute has TERRIBLE security), the time device blips from red to green. The timeline is repaired, and La’an returns to her Enterprise bridge. Pike and Una are grilling Pelia about her art collection when she enters, and La’an says maybe we let her slide on it this time.
Back in her room, an agent from the Department of Temporal Investigations is waiting for. She thanks her for completing her agent’s mission, asks for her time beeper back, and gives her a friendly warning not to discuss this with anyone, mmkay? After the agent leaves, she calls up the USS Farragut to check in on Lieutenant Kirk. Kirk thinks his brother Sam did something, but she makes up an excuse about checking on something in his files. Kirk promises to buy her a drink the next time they’re on a starbase together and tell her some stories about Sam. She agrees. After she ends the call, she starts to cry on her bed.
First off, kudos to Christina Chong this week. The ending is heartbreaking. La’an finally found a real friend and possible lover, only to have him die in front of her. Also, when presented with a potential replacement, she knows it can’t possibly be the same since she can’t talk to him about the experiences she shared with the alternate timeline version of him.
Most of the SNW scripts call for La’an to be an annoyed bad ass, so it’s always great to have her stretch. (Last season’s fairy tale episode, where she got to play a vain, giggling princess, was also a highlight) This episode lives or dies on Chong’s performance, and she is fantastic here. You can feel her loneliness and fear about opening up and her relief when she realizes Kirk doesn’t know about her. And her sadness when she realizes that she’s even more alone now after the events of the week are over is so believable.
And big props to Wesley as well! He isn’t playing Kirk as an echo of Shatner or Chris Pine. He’s doing his own thing but still maintaining all of Kirk’s confidence and swagger. (Oh, and libido.) I really hope he and La’an get that drink together at some point, and in this timeline. La’an need a little happiness.
This could have easily been a collection of time travel tropes, but the two leads this week keep it from being clichéd. In spite of some minor quibbles (still wondering where exactly that bridge is supposed to go and why a genetics lab and fusion reactor has four guards) this is another fine outing from the Strange New Worlds crew.
Episode Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Classic Call Back: Kirk longs for a chess opponent who could be a real challenge for him, since his current First Officer got tired of losing to him. Hmmm… I wonder who that opponent and future officer on his ship might be…