In contrast to the two previous live-action Star Trek series, Discovery and Picard, Strange New Worlds has distinguished itself by maintaining an episodic format and restraining the scale and scope of its stories accordingly. It is deliberately not blockbuster, “anything can happen” television, and it’s all the better for it. Not only has this allowed Strange New Worlds to juggle a variety of tones (SNW’s silly episodes are its best), but it also means that when the series finally does aim for high stakes and high emotion, the effect is much more pronounced. This week’s episode, “All Those Who Wander,” is still less spectacular and unpredictable than your average chapter of Discovery, but relative to its own series it feels practically like a feature film, the first Strange New Worlds movie after which nothing will ever be the same. “All Those Who Wander” may borrow some of its cinematic feeling from a bulletproof sci-fi classic, but more than anything it’s a validation of the show’s strategy of telling episodic stories in a serialized world.
Full spoilers ahead for “All Those Who Wander.”
We Need to Talk About the Bonus Situation
The Enterprise is diverted from an urgent cargo mission to rescue the crew of another Starfleet vessel, the USS Peregrine, which has crashed on an inhospitable planet. The crash site is a communications dead zone, and since Enterprise’s other mission can’t wait, Captain Pike (Anson Mount) leads a shuttle crew to investigate and provide aid so that the mother ship can continue onward and circle back when they’re finished. The rescue effort finds only two survivors, one of whom turns out to be the unwitting host of a clutch of gestating Gorn, the reptilian predators who stalked the Enterprise back in “Memento Mori.” Now, the stranded away team is being hunted throughout the Peregrine by a pack of hungry lizards, and not everyone will be making it out alive.
“All Those Who Wander” obviously owes a lot to the first two films in the Alien franchise, but it would be reductive to call the episode simply “an Alien riff.” Its debts to Alien and Aliens are pretty plain: A shot of the crew walking across a craggy landscape towards a crashed ship perched at an odd angle is a close parallel to the discovery of the Space Jockey vessel, one of the survivors is a young girl (Emma Ho) reminiscent of Rebecca “Newt” Jordan, and you certainly don’t have alien hatchlings burst through someone’s chest unless you want the audience to think about Alien. But, instead of losing themselves in homage, writer Christopher J. Byrne and director Davy Perez use this familiar framework to further the ongoing emotional arcs of practically every regular character on Strange New Worlds. The episode itself is never upstaged by its influences; When the credits roll, I wasn’t thinking “Damn, I love Alien,” I was repeating my usual, weekly refrain of “Damn, I love this show.”
It may be only the penultimate episode, but “All Those Who Wander” feels like a season finale, converging character threads from across the series to date. It’s most directly a follow-up to “Memento Mori,” in which Security Chief La’an Noonian-Singh (Christina Chong) confronts the trauma of losing her entire family to a Gorn hunting party when she was a child. Here, we get to see the progress that she’s made in the past few months, not just as an immediate result of that episode but of her subsequent therapy sessions. (Actually showing us the therapy is not necessary, especially since last season of Discovery already used up our deductible on mental health check-ups.) “Memento Mori’s” B-plot, in which Cadet Nyota Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) bonds with Chief Engineer Hemmer (Bruce Horak), also picks up here, as does the story of Uhura’s indecision as to whether or not to remain in Starfleet after her pending Academy graduation.
But that’s not all: Spock (Ethan Peck) has spent all season trying to decide how much he wants his emotional, human side to be a part of his identity, and the struggle with the Gorn forces him to uncork his bottled-up aggression. This has implications on his will they/won’t they romance with Nurse Christine Chapel (Jess Bush). Dr. M’Benga’s (Babs Olusanmokun) recent separation from his young daughter gets a nod in this story too, even if it’s a bit tacked-on. It feels as if the storytellers knew how easily their plot could have devolved into a rote “bug hunt” episode and decided to cram in as many character beats as possible. They may have overcompensated a bit, but the effort is appreciated.
Our Feature Presentation
The number of character threads being managed is one of the elements that makes “All Those Who Wander” feel a bit more movie-like than previous episodes of Strange New Worlds. There’s a real sense of urgency throughout, as if this was an actual horror movie in which we only have a limited time with these characters and anyone is potentially on the chopping block. (Surely, not the case, right?) Like a good survival story, the party begins with a few more people than the story can realistically sustain, promising that the stakes are real for at least a few of the guest stars.
Along for the ride are Uhura’s classmate Cadet Chia (Jessica Dancer) and the newly-promoted Lt. Duke (Ted Kellogg), both of whom are absolutely toast. Recurring character Lt. Sam Kirk (Dan Jeannotte) is also in tow, and if you’re not a die-hard who knows that Sam still has about eight years to live, you might easily assume he’s a goner, too. Sam is a usually genial guy, but he freaks out when the mission turns fatal, and the storytellers use him to reprise a scene from the 2009 Star Trek film in which that timeline’s Jim Kirk challenges Spock’s ability to feel, recalling the heightened emotional energy of that film. (Ethan Peck does a good “Angry Young Spock,” but Zachary Quinto’s was better.)
There are also terrific production values on display, embodied in the episode’s first casualty, the unknown, untranslatable alien who his fellow survivor names Buckley (Carlos Albornoz). Buckley is brought to life through a practical costume and makeup effect, and though there appear to be animatronic functions, I can only assume that his more subtle facial articulations are the result of VFX augmentation. It’s either that, or a wizard-level feat of puppeteering the likes of which I’ve never seen on television, The Mandalorian included. He’s the best-looking new Star Trek alien of this generation, and sticks around just long enough to be appreciated before he dies in a sweaty, quivering panic.
The Gorn are, likewise, presented through a combination of practical and digital effects, mercilessly kept in shadow to preserve their monster appeal as much as possible. The big lizards have never had the menace that they’re supposed to, but this is the closest any Star Trek has come, and since these Gorn are only babies, there’s still literal and figurative room left to grow. Surprisingly, the weakest effect of the episode stems from one of the show’s most reliable tools; You can often intuit when a scene is being shot in front of a big LED wall, but the crew’s advance up the snowy cliffs towards the derelict USS Peregrine looks a whole lot like a bunch of actors walking towards a big LED wall.
Bringing the Hemmer Down
But, there’s one thing that absolutely solidifies “All Those Who Wander’s” status as an Event Episode, and that’s the death of Chief Engineer Hemmer. After the immediate Gorn threat has been defeated, Hemmer realizes that he’s been implanted with Gorn eggs. Rather than allow his shipmates to risk death trying to remove them before they hatch, Hemmer chooses to dive into an icy chasm, giving his life for his crew. It’s the sort of twist whose setup is only obvious in hindsight. The nature of his injury by the Gorn is not telegraphed and he doesn’t receive any more focus than the rest of the ensemble, but a second viewing of the episode reveals that the thematic seeds of his departure were planted not only earlier in this hour but way back in “Memento Mori.” For better or worse, Hemmer’s death isn’t about Hemmer, it’s about Uhura, who has already lost a family and is afraid that building a new one in Starfleet will only lead to more heartbreak. Uhura has bonded with a few members of the Enterprise crew this season, but her warm friendship with the typically crusty Hemmer is the most endearing. For Uhura, this episode is about accepting that such a relationship is worth having, even if it has to end someday.
While Hemmer’s death in this episode is a successful tearjerker and works well as a marker along Uhura’s journey, it does come a bit too soon for my tastes. Assuming he doesn’t crop up somehow in next week’s season finale, Hemmer will have had a speaking role in only five episodes of Strange New Worlds, including this one. He played a substantive role in last week’s “The Elysian Kingdom,” but there’s never been a “Hemmer episode” and now there never will be. It feels as if we’ve only just gotten to know him, and while that amplifies the tragedy for the viewer, that’s not part of the tragedy for the characters, to whom he’s remembered as a steady fixture in their lives. Ensign Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia) gives a fond, personal eulogy for Hemmer, but to the best of my recollection, we have never seen them interact.
In fact, Hemmer has been missing from a number of the family bonding moments throughout the season, including the dinner that opens this episode which stands as the most casually homelike scene in the series so far. Hemmer’s death is framed as the end of his journey, with his mentorship of Uhura being the capstone of his life’s purpose “to fix what is broken.” Actor Bruce Horak’s goodbye to the series is affecting, but for me the loss of the character is outweighed by my frustration that we barely got to see what Horak had to offer us in this role.
At the end of “All Those Who Wander,” the status quo of the series is left unclear for the first time. Hemmer is dead, Uhura’s field assignment to the Enterprise is nearly over, and Lt. Commander Noonian-Singh is taking an indefinite leave of absence to help reunite the young human girl who survived the Gorn attack with her closest family. Spock is in emotional crisis, Chapel’s feelings are all tangled up, and M’Benga’s preoccupied with a loss of his own. Each of these character’s new lows are manageable (well, except Hemmer’s), but because Strange New Worlds doesn’t deal in high emotional drama on a weekly basis, it feels real and earned. Each episode this season has been a sprint, but this is a breath in which to recognize that, together, they’ve been a marathon. The last leg of the journey is ahead — what awaits Captain Pike and company at the finish line?