Star Trek, from its very beginning, has been about a lot of things, but one thing above all: beautiful people performing competence porn. The idealized future utopia, the spaceships and costumes, the action and adventure, the sci-fi of it all, that can be brushed aside if Star Trek gives you people who really enjoy being good at their jobs. So what do you do when you take one of its brightest and imagine them in a place where they’re not quite sure they’re that good yet?
That’s what “Children of the Comet,” the second episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, is about at its core. On the surface, of course, it’s a bit of classic Star Trek storytelling that Strange New Worlds relishes in emulating, even if it doesn’t really have more to add to it: the Enterprise has come across a comet in danger of wiping out a pre-warp civilization on the planet Persephone-3, and finds itself having to navigate a rescue mission that puts it at odds with a technologically advanced ship that believes said comet is a life-giving divine entity.
You’ve got your space anomaly, you’ve got tough first contact with an unknown species called the “Shepherds”, and, don’t get too hot under the collar just yet Trek fans, but there’s even an away mission gone wrong thrown into the mix as well. When the Enterprise dispatches a team—Uhura, Spock, La’an, and newcomer sciences officer Sam Kirk (yes, Kirk’s brother, no, sadly not played by season 2’s Paul Wesley with a fake moustache in homage to William Shatner, but by Dan Jeannotte)—to the comet’s surface, they promptly get trapped by a mysterious shield system on the comet, and find themselves trying to solve the mystery of a glowing, egg-like core within its cavernous structures so they can beam out. Things get bad to worse, like all good Star Trek mysteries, when Kirk is injured and the aforementioned aliens begin firing on the Enterprise for trespassing on the comet’s sacred grounds. But, also like all good Star Trek, our heroes work out a way to resolve everything amicably and the day is saved. The comet is diverted, the away team get, well, away safe, and both the mysterious “Shepherds” and the aliens on Persephone-3 are all satisfied, the latter mostly because they weren’t wiped out by a comet, instead having it pass by their planet close enough to bring atmosphere-altering rainfall to the desert world.
It’s all very simple, and that’s what Strange New Worlds is very good at so far—a simple, tropey plot that you check in every week to watch get resolved, no matter how briefly tense things get, because you know you’re watching a Star Trek show, and above all, you’re watching a Star Trek show about the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, so you know everything’s going to work out well. What makes “Children of the Comet” really spark, however, that all that is layered over a really important journey for one of its most potential-laden characters: Celia Rose Gooding’s young Nyota Uhura. “Children of the Comet” really is Gooding’s show to steal, and she does it with aplomb, giving us an incredible performance that navigates a side of Uhura that we’re very familiar with—the confident xenolinguist who knows she can get her job done—with one that we’re really not: a young cadet who came to Starfleet more out of curiosity than honor and inspiration, and one who suddenly finds herself surrounded by the best and brightest the organization has to offer, and likewise begins to find herself thinking like she’s increasingly out of place.
From an impromptu Captain’s quarters dinner for the senior staff that opens the episode, to Uhura going on her first official away mission to join the team on the comet, to her eventually being the one that not only unlocks the mystery of the comet to help save the day, Uhura’s arc in “Children of the Comet” sees her grow from this young cadet unsure she’s in the right place for where she wants to be in her life, to something closer to the proud, charismatic young woman we met in the original Star Trek. And sure, we know that things are going to turn out okay for her, even when Uhura repeatedly tells people around her that she’s not sure her future is in Starfleet, or is shocked when her fellow officers turn to her for advice and expertise, because, well, she’s Nyota Uhura. Her fate, just like Pike’s in a way, is a done deal.
But even then, there’s something incredibly satisfying to watch the seeds of the character that we’ve known for over half a century at this point being to flourish through Gooding’s take on the character. Her curiosity, her passion for language—and a cute nod to her passion for song when she realises that the comet’s core can communicate through harmonics after idly humming a folk song—her assuredness in herself after she eventually learns, with a little push from Spock when things start getting dicey on the away mission, to trust in the fact that she wouldn’t be where she was if she wasn’t good at her job. It all comes together to give “Children of the Comet” and its otherwise pretty basic Star Trek premise a real sense of heart, in spite of the inevitability of its outcome.
If that’s what Star Trek: Strange New Worlds wants to deliver week in, week out—well executed plots of the week with a heartful exploration of one of its key characters, a familiar face or otherwise—then “Children of the Comet” is already setting a gold standard for the rest of the show to match. And if it does, like its Starfleet heroes, then Strange New Worlds can take a lot of satisfaction from a job well done.
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.