‘Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ breaks into song

The cheery music disguises the darkness.


The following article contains spoilers for “Subspace Rhapsody.”

At some point in the ‘90s, it became law that all genre shows with a certain flexibility in their premise must do a musical episode. Xena, Ally McBeal, Buffy, Psych, Grey’s Anatomy and Scrubs have all done one, as has Supernatural, Once Upon a Time, 7th Heaven, Supergirl and The Flash. Now, it’s Strange New Worlds’ turn to make its characters spontaneously burst into song as it drops “Subspace Rhapsody” as the penultimate episode of its second season.

It’s clear from the start that Strange New Worlds was well-suited to do a musical given how broad its range is. In the last four weeks alone, we’ve had goofy comedy served up back to back with serious meditations on empathy and redemption. This is the first live action Trek of the streaming era to remember the franchise gets better when it allows itself to be goofy. The only surprise is that this is coming so early on its run; this is just the nineteenth episode of the series overall.

Musical episodes serve several purposes: It allows the cast to show off their hidden talents and lets the production crew indulge their latent musical theater nerd. They’re also, in many cases, a useful narrative crucible, forcing characters to reveal secrets they’d otherwise never let out. It’s an old trick to use the primary colors of a rousing number to drop something deep and dark on an audience. This comes in handy given the number of running storylines in the back of each episode, which get resolved more or less all in one go.

L-R Rebecca Romijn as Una and Paul Wesley as James T. Kirk in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Michael Gibson/Paramount+
Michael Gibson/Paramount+

Uhura’s opening narration informs us the Enterprise has discovered a large subspace fissure. Spock believes it could be used to speed up communication over long distances, but despite several tries, he and Uhura can’t make it work. Not until Pelia suggests they test the system using music, so Uhura fires up Anything Goes and sends it into the ether. Before you can say that’s-a-good-macguffin, a large subspace wave hits the ship and sends everyone singing.

As this is happening, Pike and Batel – who I can’t believe Pike didn’t dump after arresting and prosecuting his first officer – argue about holiday destinations. Chapel has received word she’s been accepted for a prestigious fellowship with a high-profile academic. She’ll be away for a while but declines to share her news with Spock after the fraying of their relationship last week. And, to further complicate matters, James T. Kirk is back on board to shadow Una in preparation for his own promotion. But when they start spouting technobabble as lyrics and feeling the urge to dance, we’re straight into an acapella rendition of the theme tune.

I’ve pointed out, too frequently this year, the confidence Strange New Worlds has in its own execution. This is the second time in three weeks that it’s not just screwed with its format but also its packaging in the form of its opening credits. It’s evidence of a show that knows it has the patience from its audience to play around with its formatting.

Urged on by Pike, stuck firmly in his eyebrow-raising sick-of-this-malarkey mode, the team find they’re trapped in a state of quantum uncertainty. They’re in a universe that follows the rules of a musical, so when emotions are high, people are likely to burst into song. That’s bad for La’an, who is struggling to contain her feelings with her alternate-history beau on board, especially since she’s prohibited from talking about it. Pike, too, starts to confess his misgivings about the holiday he and Captain Batel have been planning. La’an gets a solo about being emotionally shut off from the rest of the crew, followed soon after with a duet with Una talking about why it’s good to open up.

The improbability field starts to expand, encompassing more starships in the area and reaching Klingon territory. They soon dispatch a cruiser to shut it down, but the Enterprise crew discover that shooting the fissure will release enough energy to wipe out the quadrant. Uhura posits that, if they’re in a musical, their behavior might have to follow the tropes of the genre. Armed with a tricorder, she drags Spock to the bar where he bumps into Chapel, who then dumps him with a full-cast song-and-dance number about the importance of her career. He responds by singing his own solo in engineering in which he talks about his abandonment of logic and reason for love, a mistake he won’t make again.

La’an, who has spent more and more time with Kirk, decides to open up a little bit only to find her advances rebuffed. Not because he doesn’t feel similarly, but because he’s in an on-again, off-again relationship with a scientist called Carol. And that Carol is currently pregnant with Kirk’s child, who we might not get to see again until Kirk looks a lot more like William Shatner. (This episode has more than a few moments where it’s consciously drawing attention to its “evolution” into The Original Series.)

Spock’s judgment may be clouded but Uhura, whose awareness of musical tropes has been key all episode, spots the solution. In order to pop the uncertainty field, the whole crew needs to do a big full-cast finale, but not before Uhura gets her own solo. At Pike’s urging, Uhura gets on the ship’s PA and inspires the whole crew – complete with dancing redshirts and balletic starship dances to produce a showstopper climax. We even get a blast of the Original Series’ theme to underpin their victory, while Spock goes off to smooth things over with the Klingons and get over his split with another round of heavy drinking.

Much as the ending is ostensibly happy, with everyone learning the lesson to be more honest and authentic with each other, there’s trouble on the horizon. Batel has to cancel her holiday with Pike, she’s being sent on a top secret mission which, I’m sure, is our lead in to the finale. Spock’s nursing his grief, and the rest of his supersized emotions, while La’an has to deal with the ramifications of her not-quite-requited love.

Celia Rose Gooding as Uhura in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Michael Gibson/Paramount+
Michael Gibson/Paramount+

It’s almost pointless to try and judge a musical episode by the standards of its peers given how different it is from the norm. The script, credited to Dana Horgan and Bill Wolkoff, efficiently and effectively works in the musical universe concept without a lot of setup. Demott Downs’ direction blends the closed nature of Strange New Worlds’ standing sets with the necessary scope a musical demands. And the songs, from Letters to Cleo’s Kay Hanley and Tom Polce, are perfectly fine. Musical lovers will have a greater appetite for enjoying each track on a loop, but as a casual enjoyer of the artform, I’m not sure how many would enter my regular Spotify rotation.

Obviously, much of the dramatic weight of the episode hangs on the shoulders of the cast members who can sing. Christina Chong, Jess Bush, Rebecca Romijn, Ethan Peck and Celia Rose Gooding all get showpiece numbers and boy, can they all sing. But that’s not to shade the names not on that list, especially those who are getting by with the help of autotune. It’s hard enough to sing and dance even if you’ve got years of experience behind you, let alone if you’re dropped into the deep end in an acting job. Now, onward to the finale!