The long-awaited musical episode of Strange New Worlds, Subspace Rhapsody, is finally here. This marks the first time a Star Trek show has done something like this.
Of course, this is not the first time we’ve seen a Star Trek musical. If you’re a veteran of cons, I’m sure you’re familiar with the tradition of “filking.” This is singers doing parody songs of SF franchises, and of course many were centered on Trek. One of the first ones I ever heard was the classic “Star Trekkin'”
Plus there have been any number of parody shows, including a recent off-broadway musical version titled Khan!
But now, Trek has officially created their own musical episode. The songs were written by Kay Hanley and Tom Polce of the band Letters to Cleo. Polce also wrote for My Crazy Ex Girlfriend, so he knows a thing or two about writing a funny, catchy, and plot relevant song.
If you know me, you know I’m a huge fan of musicals, and musical parody. I’ve been looking forward to this since the rumors of a musical episode first started burbling out. How will this compare to other musical episodes on non-musical shows such as the prison drama Oz, the medical comedy Scrubs, and (most relevant here) the supernatural teen drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
Short answer? It rocks. Longer answer, aside from a few musical misfires, it gives you just about everything you’d want from a musical Trek.
Structurally, this episode most resembles Once More With Feeling, the musical episode of Buffy. In that show, a demon makes everyone sing out their innermost secrets. Here, it’s a subspace anomaly, but the effect is the same. Secrets are revealed and emotions exposed, all through the power of song. (Also a lot of the songs seem to parallels of ones in Buffy. It’s fun to match them up.)
Spock and Uhura are investigating an intriguing subspace fold. Because of the way it’s folded on itself, certain signals can transmit through it at triple speed. This could be a boon for faster subspace communication, but nothing is working. That is, until chaos imp Pelia suggests trying some music. Uhura plays “Anything Goes” and, wouldn’t you know it, that triggers a quantum improbability field that – improbably – causes everyone to start singing.
Complicating matters is a visit from the future first officer of the Farragut, James T. Kirk, who is going to shadow the command staff for a week as training and create romantic tension with La’an. Christine Chapel is waiting to hear if she’ll get accepted for a medical fellowship which would take her off the Enterprise for three months and which could create even more stress in her young relationship with Spock. Plus, Pike is trying to plan a romantic vacation with Captain Mrs. McMurray, and is realizing they have very different definitions of romantic.
Now, because the plot this week is really just an excuse to get the crew of the NCC-1701 singing and dancing, I’m going to do the recap a little differently today. Rather than run down the plot, I’m going to grade the songs and see how well they function as a musical. There are nine tracks, plus a revamped opening where an a cappella group harmonizes the theme, so let’s get to it.
1) Status Report Right after the anomaly goes blooey, a strange wave ripples through the Enterprise, causing the crew to start speaking in rhyming couplets and then bursting into song, starting with Mr. Spock. Oh, and everyone is hearing music and they can’t tell where it’s coming from. This is a nice little intro song to our episode, with all of the crew getting involved. There’s a nice driving beat, with the bewilderment of the crew breaking through as they give updates on the Enterprise. It’s great start, not too complicated but it certainly sets the stage. (Rating 4/5)
2) Connect To Your Truth As Kirk and Una refit the Enterprise to attempt a repair of the subspace rift and close up the field, they start to sing a Gilbert and Sullivan inspired song. While it is cute to see the two of them waltz through the corridors, the song is kind of a dud. It starts off with Una once again asking “why am I singing?” and the lyrics are all about leadership styles and, frankly, kind of dull. This is the weakest song in the episode, and the only good part of this (Rating: 2/5) is that La’an overhears them, which leads to…
3) How Would That Feel La’an sings a beautiful power ballad, reflecting on the life she might have had with Jim Kirk if she had stayed in the alternate timeline with him (and also if he hadn’t been killed by a Romulan agent), and what could happen if she dared to act on those feelings in this one. The song is a knockout, both lyrically and visually. There are scenes of a pregnant La’an waking up next to Kirk, with La’an laughing and smiling! It’s another great showcase for Christina Chong, who has a gorgeous voice. (Not coincidentally, she has an EP coming out today. And you can bet I’ll be checking that out.) For me this is the best song of the show. (Rating 5/5)
This also leads La’an to realize that the songs are getting the crew to reveal their innermost feelings and secrets, which could create a security risk. Pike is skeptical about that, until Captain Batel calls in.
4) Private Conversation Batel is calling in to discuss her vacation plans with Pike. She’d like to have a private conversation about it, but instead she starts sing-fighting with him. And, of course, Pike’s true feelings about her vacation plans spill out in front of the crew. Pike is getting ready to do some hard-core emoting, until La’an ends the transmission.
Anson Mount is in fine form, and I’m a little jealous that he has such nice hair and can sing. And his final poses reminded me of the song work of another captain of the Enterprise.
The melody is a jauntier version of Status Report, and I would’ve liked to see more of Batel and Pike’s fight, but it does help establish that the singing improbability field is spreading throughout the fleet. (Rating 3/5)
5. Keeping Secrets Another plan is hatched to contain the subspace fold. Photon torpedos could close it, but first they’ll test it on a few subspace particles. Kirk volunteers himself and La’an to go and target some for testing, but La’an tries to beg off. Una can tell something is up and knows she has feelings for Kirk. The song is all about how secrets can eat you up inside, and how Una has had to keep secrets for years and it made her too distant. It’s a nice song, with some fun floating when Una turns off the gravity in the room, and it inspires La’an to go tell Kirk how he feels. Unfortunately, Kirk has an on again-off again girlfriend named Carol, and while he also has feelings for La’an, things are definitely on right now because Carol is pregnant. (Hey Kirk, maybe don’t tell someone named Khan that Carol Marcus is about to have a son. You’ll be telling her all about Project Genesis next.) (Rating 3.5/5)
Unfortunately, the particles prove too volatile to destroy. A few of them almost blow up engineering, so blowing up the fold would create havoc throughout the galaxy. Including the Klingon Empire. Angry Klingons call the Enterprise and inform the Enterprise that they are going to destroy the source of their “dishonor” (i.e.: forced singing) themselves. They’re going to destroy the fold.
6. I’m Ready In need of more songs to analyze, so they can determine if there’s a pattern in the subspace activity, Uhura takes Spock to the ship’s bar. There, Chapel is celebrating getting chosen for the fellowship with her friends. However, she has not yet told Spock, and has not invited him. The song is Chapel’s chance to kick loose and say how she’s ready for a new challenge. She feels freed by getting the fellowship. Unfortunately, it becomes clear in the song that she’s ready to leave Spock if she has to. (RIP Spapel) This is a jazzy little number, with some Amy Winehouse inflections. It’s a welcome change of tempo from the ballads we’ve gotten thus far. It also marks the first time in the episode we get a real group number with choreography and everything. So not only is it a fun, sexy number, it also indicates that the musical field is getting stronger. (Rating 5/5)
7. I’m the X Spock is frustrated that the data they have collected has shown no patterns, and is also frustrated with his relationship with Chapel. There is some really clever wordplay here with the title, with Spock referencing solving for X in an equation, the X-factor of the subspace fold, and being Chapel’s ex. The melody starts as an downbeat echo of I’m Ready, which makes sense as this is Spock’s side of the story. Ethan Peck has given a lot of weight to Spock’s human half in his performance, and it really comes out here in his sad breakup song. Aww, poor guy. Do what we humans do and put on some Cure records. (Rating 4/5)
8. Keep Us Connected Uhura picks up where Spock left off, both in trying to find a pattern and in singing a sad song. Uhura sings about the irony of being at the center of communications on the Enterprise, yet still feeling alone and isolated, and how she’s felt pretty much alone since her family died in a shuttlecraft. Celia Rose Goodman was nominated for a Tony for their performance in Jagged Little Pill (and their mom won one for The Color Purple), so you know Uhura is going to knock this out of the park, and she does. The song has one of my favorite tropes, where a sad song becomes triumphant. Uhura realizes that she isn’t alone, because she is the connection with her crewmates and the memories of her family. (Rating 4.5/5)
9. We Are One Uhura has spotted a pattern! When people sing together, the improbability field spikes. If the field reaches an arbitrary point, it will overload and shut down. (Sure, why not?) Pike tells Uhura to get the entire crew singing. He tells her that she’s the one to do it, since she can see all the connections between them. So inspire she does, telling the crew how miraculous it is that they’re all on this ship together at this particular time. The song builds and builds, with all the decks joining in. Even the approaching Klingons get into the act, threatening Pike and the crew with death via a choreographed boy band number. (Someone on Twitter dubbed this new group the Bat’leth Boys, and yeah, that’s their name now.)
The song hits the breaking point when Spock jumps with the crew on the bridge like Jojo in Horton Hears a Who and adds his voice. In an nice touch, the choreography at the end of the song resembles a bow at curtain call, and once the field is destroyed the classic Alexander Courage theme starts in. (Rating 4.5/5)
Overall, this was a lot of fun. My main issue with the music, clever as it is, is that there are a few too many ballads and downers. Even though there are a lot of bangers, they sound a little too much the same. It needed a fun, wacky number from someone like Pelia to really push it over the top and make this the best episode ever. Or if you need to do a Gilbert and Sullivan number, make it patter song where Spock and Uhura do some rapid fire technobabble.
Still, it’s really good. Is it as good as Once More With Feeling, the clear inspiration for this? (There’s even a reference here to bunnies, Cordelia’s nemesis in Buffy that she sings about.) Not quite, but that is the best musical episode ever. This is still excellent.
Classic Call Back Carol Marcus! I wonder how much we’ll see of Kirk’s baby mama in the seasons to come.