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In ‘The Broken Circle,’ Strange New Worlds Is Performing Star Trek

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 2 episode 1 premiere review The Broken Circle SNW S2E1

This discussion and review contains spoilers for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 2, episode 1, “The Broken Circle,” the premiere on Paramount+.

There is an interesting moment about 20 minutes into “The Broken Circle,” the second season premiere of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. With Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) and Commander Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn) off the ship, Lieutenant Spock (Ethan Peck) is in the command chair. He is overseeing a hijacking of the ship, in contravention of orders. The Enterprise has detached from Spacedock. It is preparing to go to warp.

This is ostensibly a high-stakes situation. Spock has violated his oath to Starfleet to respond to a signal from La’an Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong) that warns of a threat to the Federation. More than that, the crew faked a warp core breach in order to get away from Spacedock, and so they should probably leave before anybody realizes what has happened. However, instead of jumping straight to warp, the crew pauses to discuss the situation in which they have found themselves.

“You gonna say it?” asks Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia) from the helm. “Your thing?” Instead of ordering her to go to warp, Spock pauses to inquire what she means. “Your thing,” she clarifies. “Y’know. Everyone in the chair has their thing.” Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) demonstrates, “Captain Pike always says, ‘Hit it.’” Lieutenant Jenna Mitchell (Rong Fu) adds, “My last captain used to say, ‘Zoom.’” Spock is amusingly confused by this debate. “Must I have ‘a thing’?” he ponders.

This is effectively the characters pausing to acknowledge one of the standard tropes of Star Trek storytelling. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) would famously instruct his crew to “engage” or “make it so.” In the J.J. Abrams reboots, Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) would tell his senior staff to “punch it.” It’s an exaggeration to claim every captain could be reduced to a catchphrase — Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) never really had one — but it is, as Ortegas notes, “a thing.”

It’s a cute moment that breaks the fourth wall. It’s important to acknowledge that this isn’t serving the same function as similar winking and knowing ironic gags in a lot of modern blockbusters like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which often employs the mocking of familiar tropes as a way of excusing them. This conversation isn’t ridiculing the convention of the catchphrase. It is affectionately celebrating it. That sort of thing, “The Broken Circle” insists, is just Star Trek.

This gets at a recurring issue with Strange New Worlds, a show that often seems more interested in performing Star Trek than in being Star Trek. Strange New Worlds spends a lot more time and energy drawing attention to how it adopts the language, tropes, and conventions of Star Trek rather than actually employing those elements in service of anything greater. It feels like a conscious choice on the part of the series. To underscore this point, the fifth episode of the second season is helpfully titled “Charades.”

At times, this can become distracting. Spock and the crew stealing the Enterprise to help their friends is a classic Star Trek trope, one referencing both “The Menagerie” and The Search for Spock. Putting that sequence on pause, and letting the dramatic tension evaporate, in order to make an affectionate joke about Spock’s potential catchphrase feels insistent. It’s not enough that the viewer is watching Star Trek; Strange New Worlds has to remind them they are watching Star Trek.

There is a potentially interesting story underpinning “The Broken Circle.” On the one hand, this is the story about Spock’s first time in the command chair, which is a classic Star Trek story that Riker (Jonathan Frakes) experienced in “The Best of Both Worlds,” Data (Brent Spiner) endured in “Redemption II,” and Crusher (Gates McFadden) went through in “Descent, Part II.” Given that Spock is an authority figure who has rarely been shown in command of a ship, there’s a lot to explore there.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 2 episode 1 premiere review The Broken Circle SNW S2E1

More than that, the episode is also about the aftermath of the Federation-Klingon War, which is the cornerstone of the modern era of Star Trek, having served as the basis of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery. What does the aftermath of that war look like? In particular, what does it mean for veterans of that conflict, like Doctor Joseph M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun)? Olusanmokun is the show’s standout performer, so it’s a good opportunity to give him something to play.

Instead, all of this gets a bit lost in “The Broken Circle.” One of the big issues with reviewing Strange New Worlds is that the show often degenerates into a game of “spot the reference.” As such, “The Broken Circle” becomes a mish-mash of familiar elements, like the hijacking of the Enterprise from The Search for Spock or the Federation-Klingon conspiracy from The Undiscovered Country. Composer Nami Melumad even quotes from Cliff Eidelman’s score for The Undiscovered Country.

There’s a bigger issue with the script and direction. “The Broken Circle” makes a point to largely sidestep the cliffhanger ending from “A Quality of Mercy,” with Pike leaving the ship to meet a lawyer to represent Chin-Riley in her trial, which has yet to begin. There is a worrying sense watching “The Broken Circle” that Strange New Worlds was afraid to open the season with a “talky” trial episode, and so “The Broken Circle” becomes a big bombastic spectacle story, driven by action and effects.

It would be interesting to unpack the trauma that M’Benga still carries from the Klingon War. “The war is over, Joseph,” Nurse Christine Chapel (Jess Bush) tells him. M’Benga replies, “Yes, but how can it ever be?” In the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, it might be interesting to revisit the experience of combat veterans and how the government has or hasn’t met its obligations to them. It would maybe recall Miles O’Brien’s (Colm Meaney) arc in “The Wounded,” but that’s a good story.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 2 episode 1 premiere review The Broken Circle SNW S2E1

Instead of allowing M’Benga to confront his trauma, “The Broken Circle” has him shoot himself and Chapel full of “juice” that turns them into generic action movie protagonists as they beat their way through wave after wave of Klingons with super strength. Director Chris Fisher leans into this, employing all the clichés of action direction: slow motion, spinning dolly shots, even a barrel roll. It’s an extended sequence that completely undermines anything the episode might have to say.

This sequence obviously exists to showcase Olusanmokun’s skill at Brazilian jiu-jitsu, in much the same way that “The Elysian Kingdom” allowed Christina Chong to show off her stage training and “Data’s Day” included an entire set piece around Gates McFadden’s background in musical theater. Olusanmokun looks great doing it, but that sequence jars with the story of a traumatized veteran. If Strange New Worlds had longer seasons, these could be in two separate episodes.

This tension is apparent when a defeated Klingon claims to “know about (his) Federation rules against torture” only for M’Benga to beat the answers he wants out of his prisoner anyway. There was a minor controversy when Enterprise allowed Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) to utilize torture in “Anomaly,” but even then the show went out of its way to suggest these compromises made Archer suicidal in “Azati Prime,” led to further compromises in “Damage,” and were repaid in kind in “Countdown.” Here, that torture is simply framed to make M’Benga look like a badass.

This is perhaps putting too much weight on “The Broken Circle.” This is an episode that largely exists to reassure viewers that Strange New Worlds is back to business as usual. The show is aggressively committed to its episodic format. During the 1990s, many fans criticized Star Trek: Voyager for its religious devotion to “the reset button,” the promise that everything would be back to normal by the start of the next episode no matter what happened. On Strange New Worlds, this is a feature.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 2 episode 1 premiere review The Broken Circle SNW S2E1

It feels somewhat pointed, for example, that Spock effectively steals the Enterprise during a routine upgrade. Crewmembers like Uhura bristle at the idea that their ship might need to be updated to stay in line with the rest of the fleet. When Pike leaves the ship, Spock notes the disruption caused to the ship by recent events. “We still lack a chief engineer as well as a head of security,” Spock explains. “Additionally, Commander Chin-Riley’s loss is acutely felt.”

While Strange New Worlds resists the temptation to resurrect Hemmer (Bruce Horak) in the same way that Discovery resurrected Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz), “The Broken Circle” ends with La’an back on the Enterprise, serving as Chief of Security. Similarly, promotional materials make it clear that Chin-Riley will be back at her own post sooner rather than later. All this is a shuffling of papers, an illusion of movement. The status quo will be maintained. Things will be the same as they ever were.

Of course, this is how Star Trek has always worked with these sorts of departures: Worf (Michael Dorn) leaving the Enterprise in “Redemption,” Sisko leaving Deep Space Nine in “Tears of the Prophets.” However, those decisions were dictated by the production realities of contemporary television. There is no reason that Strange New Worlds couldn’t take advantage of the freedom afforded by the streaming model to shake things up. Then again, that’s not the point of the show.

Strange New Worlds is a prequel, and so the familiarity is the point. However, the show is constrained. “The Broken Circle” sets up the idea that Spock’s arc is about having to learn to manage his human emotions, but that arc already played out for the character (Leonard Nimoy) on-screen in movies like The Voyage Home. Even beyond the fact that this is well-trodden ground, this puts a limit on how deeply Strange New Worlds can explore that arc beyond offering continuity Easter eggs like an origin story for his Vulcan lute.

Like so much of Strange New Worlds, “The Broken Circle” works so hard to assert that it is Star Trek that it never really gets to actually be Star Trek.

About the author

Darren Mooney
Darren Mooney is a pop culture critic at large for The Escapist. He writes the twice-weekly In the Frame column, writes and voices the In the Frame videos, provides film reviews and writes the weekly Out of Focus column. Plus, occasionally he has opinions about other things as well. Darren lives and works in Dublin, Ireland. He also writes for The Irish Independent, the country’s second largest broadsheet, and provides weekly film coverage for radio station Q102. He co-hosts the weekly 250 podcast and he has also written three published books of criticism on The X-Files, Christopher Nolan and Doctor Who. He somehow finds time to watch movies and television on top of that. Ironically, his superpowers are at their strongest when his glasses are on.