Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ episode “Ad Astra per Aspera” doesn’t hold up

Starfleet in episode 202 “Ad Astra per Aspera” of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+
Starfleet in episode 202 “Ad Astra per Aspera” of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+ /

As a Star Trek trial episode, “Ad Astra per Aspera” is guilty of negligence.

In the second episode of its second season, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds  goes where the franchise has frequently gone before. It is a Star Trek trial episode. Picking up from the season one-ending cliffhanger, “Ad Astra per Aspera” finds Commander Una “Number One” Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn) on trial for having concealed her status as a genetically modified Ilyrian.

Una’s court-martial occupies most of the episode’s run time. This Star Trek trial episode contains a handful of dramatic moments, none more so than the relentless way in which Neera Ketoul (Yetide Badaki, in a riveting performance), Una’s attorney, holds Admiral Robert April (Adrian Holmes) to account for his several violations of the Prime Directive while captain of the Enterprise.

Ultimately, Neera’s cross-examination of April is part of her strategy to establish that Starfleet expects its captains to make judgment calls based on particular circumstances, as she argues Captain Pike (Anson Mount) did when concealing Una’s Ilyrian identity. Nevertheless, it’s a scene that crackles with dramatic tension, making it the hour’s most memorable.

Unfortunately, most of the court martial scenes in “Ad Astra per Aspera” are a slog. In an unbelievably bad structural move, the episode intercuts the testimonies of La’an Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong), Spock (Ethan Peck), and Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun). The jumps from character to character give the sequence a choppy feel, undercutting what should have been a weighty display of support for Una.

Further, Una’s testimony on her own behalf brings this Star Trek trial episode to a standstill. Writer Dana Horgan’s script gave Romijn some meaty material, but Romijn delivers it with such restraint and detachment, it has little emotional heft. It is a lot of talking about feeling, with little feeling itself—a balance that may be appropriate for a real-world courtroom, but makes for bland TV. The only moment that effectively lands is Una’s apology to Neera for failing to speak up for other Ilyrians.

And if Neera knew all along she would have to clear Una of the charges against her on the technicality that Una had applied to Pike for asylum—a clever argument, to be sure—why didn’t she do so from the court-martial’s start? Why spend the time and effort calling character witnesses and cross-examining Admiral April, when the verdict, once we eventually reach it, seems cut-and-dried?

Previous Star Trek trial episodes delivered far more drama

While “Ad Astra per Aspera” makes several overt visual and auditory callbacks to previous Star Trek trial episodes—the three-member trial board, the ringing of a bell, the illuminated circular pad on the right arm of the witness’s seat, a lawyer who uses an actual printed law book—it doesn’t replicate the genuine drama or tension of the franchise’s previous treks to a courtroom setting.

In “Court-Martial” from the original series, for instance, Captain Kirk’s court-martial moved from the Starbase 11 courtroom to the bridge of the Enterprise, where his attorney, Samuel T. Cogley (Elisha Cook, Jr.), established not only that Kirk didn’t kill records officer Finney (Richard Webb) but also that Finney wasn’t even dead! That’s a dramatic twist “Ad Astra per Aspera” may be trying to emulate in revealing that Una turned herself in, but the latter feels predictable in comparison.

Or consider “The Measure of a Man” from the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The script that won writer Melinda Snodgrass a role on the TNG writing staff remains the Star Trek trial episode par excellence, as Captain Picard is forced to argue for Data’s rights. Like “The Measure of a Man,” “Ad Astra per Aspera” invites us to reexamine our assumptions about Starfleet and Federation morality. And that’s a good thing to do, since Star Trek has always insisted critical self-examination is a key to continued growth, for individuals and for societies. But nothing in “Ad Astra per Aspera” approaches the dramatic heights of Picard’s closing argument, demanding Starfleet carry out its mission by recognizing Data’s right to self-determination.

Finally, TNG also delivered another outstanding Star Trek trial episode in its fourth season. “The Drumhead” “rings with echoes of the McCarthy hearings and the Salem witch hunts,” writes Larry Nemecek in his Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion (p. 162). As Admiral Norah Satie, Jean Simmons crafted a powerful portrait of someone whose patriotism has devolved into paranoia. Admiral Satie’s fury at hearing Captain Picard quote her own father’s words at her to bring her misguided crusade to a close is one of the series’ most indelible moments. “Ad Astra per Aspera” didn’t need the same level of theatrical emotion when Neera cites Starfleet’s own code of conduct to clear Una’s name, but some larger display of emotion from the tribunal was called for.

While “Ad Astra per Aspera” is a serviceable Star Trek trial episode, the self-conscious parallels it draws to others ultimately do it no favors. They only make clear how well Star Trek has done courtroom drama in the past, and how subdued and half-hearted Strange New Worlds’ effort at doing the same feels. Here’s hoping the rest of the sophomore season episodes deliver greater dramatic and emotional punch.

Placing the arrest of Una Chin-Riley on the back burner was a mistake. dark. Next