One of the most popular tropes in genre television especially is the episode where the characters all act wildly out of character. Star Trek has indulged in this trope dozens of times before, though the reasons for the out-of-character behavior are legion: disease (the original series’ “The Naked Time,” TNG’s “The Naked Now”), weird telepathy (DS9‘s “Dramatis Personae”), an alternate timeline (the original series’ “Mirror, Mirror,” DS9’s “Crossover” and its followups, Enterprise’s “In a Mirror, Darkly,” Discovery’s “Despite Yourself” and its followups), biased historical records (Voyager’s “Living Witness”), holodeck shenanigans (DS9’s “Our Man Bashir,” Voyager’s “Bride of Chaotica!”). And now we get to add alien interference to the list…
In this particular instance, the setting is one we’ve seen before. Every time M’Benga rematerializes his dying daughter Rukiya from the transporter buffer, he reads to her from a YA fantasy story called The Elysian Kingdom.
The Enterprise has been exploring a nebula, and just as they’re about to leave, the ship is stopped from moving forward rather violently. M’Benga is called to the bridge to treat Ortegas, but when he arrives, he finds himself wearing the robes of King Ridley, the main character in The Elysian Kingdom. While M’Benga knows who he is and remembers his life as a twenty-third-century human, the same cannot be said of the others. The bridge has been altered partly to match King Ridley’s throne room, and both Pike and Ortegas have taken on the role of his chamberlain and Sir Adya, respectively.
For the bulk of the episode, M’Benga is forced into a Live-Action Role Play of The Elysian Kingdom on an Enterprise that has been altered just like the bridge. The corridors and layout are the same, but there are fantasy-land additions to every space. Number One (Zymera the Huntress), Spock (Castor, a wizard), La’An (a princess), Uhura (Neve, the queen of a rival nation), Chapel (a healer), Mitchell (Queen Neve’s chief soldier), and Hemmer (Pollux, another wizard, the twin brother of Spock’s wizard) all have roles to play, but the latter’s telepathy enables him to retain his own personality. (Why the also-telepathic Spock doesn’t is left as an exercise for the viewer.)
Hemmer’s engineering skills enable M’Benga to eventually get to the truth, which is that aliens who live in the nebula have created this scenario. This gives us two other Trek tropes, the general one of beings of pure energy, which we’ve seen all over the franchise, and the specific one of those aliens taking a shine to human children and trying to help them (the original series’ “Charlie X,” TNG’s “The Bonding”). The aliens saw Rukiya in the transporter buffer, and are giving her her favorite story.
Getting there, though, is an exercise of pure self-indulgence, and I have to confess to loving the shit out of it, mainly because the actors are having so much fun role-playing. Some more than others, of course; Ethan Peck particularly seems to be enjoying playing Castor, the untrustworthy wizard who betrays King Ridley, while Rong Fu is very obviously enjoying a meatier role as a soldier than she gets saying “Aye, sir” a lot as Mitchell, and Melissa Navia and Rebecca Romijn both are fun as the two badasses.
But the most amazing work is done by Anson Mount and Christina Chong, who go completely sideways from their usual. The chamberlain is a coward, a fop, and a schmuck, and Mount plays his unapologetic cravenness with gusto. And man, is Chong having a blast being a pampered prig of a princess, who carries her little dog with her everywhere.
Most of the episode is an excuse for the LARPing, but eventually, the real plot kicks in, and what prompts it is my favorite thing in the episode. What makes M’Benga realize that this isn’t just a re-creation of The Elysian Kingdom is when Zymera and Sir Adya hug, and make it clear that they’ve been lovers. In the book, Zymera and Adya have never even met. But Rukiya thinks they should be friends and lovers, and yes, the whole thing is Rukiya’s fanfic that she wrote in her head, and I adore the heck out of that.
In the end, the aliens take Rukiya with them, because they can remove her from her failing body and give her a life as an energy being with them. M’Benga’s whole thing was that he was hoping to find a cure somewhere out in space where there’s all kinds of crazy-ass shit, and it’s a very Trek solution for her cure to be the craziest of crazy-ass shit.
It’s a bittersweet solution for M’Benga, as Rukiya grows to adulthood in just a few seconds, thanks to the peculiar nature of the aliens. On the one hand, he’s missed her growing up. On the other hand, she did grow up, and her adult self is very happy and very grateful.
Interestingly, my assumption of what happened at the end of “Ghosts of Illyria” was wrong. I figured that Number One had to have set up the dedicated power source for the medical transporter with the knowledge of Pike and Hemmer. But in this episode it’s clear that Hemmer doesn’t even know that M’Benga has a daughter, much less one being stored in the transporter buffer.
And indeed, Una is the one who talks to M’Benga about what’s happening to Rukiya, in parallel scenes at the beginning and end of the episode. Commander Chin-Riley has been criminally underused in the series so far (and yes, I will continue to complain about it as long as it remains true), but she’s well used here, both as M’Benga’s confidant and as Zymera the Huntress. In fact, I was expecting Number One to be Queen Neve, and I think giving that role to Uhura was a smarter move (though Celia Rose Gooding was comparatively stiff in the role). For one thing, it meant that both the king and the queen were played by Black actors, which I liked. I also liked that Ortegas was in the role of “Sir” Adya, and nobody batted an eyelash at that…
SNW is sometimes embracing the goofier style of plotlines from Trek history, and I’m down with this. I don’t need all the new Trek shows to dip into this well—for example, this sort of story wouldn’t really work on Discovery or Picard, whereas it’s pretty much all Lower Decks does—but I like that SNW goes for it sometimes.
I also appreciate that they’re not dragging the subplots out. I was worried we wouldn’t get any resolution on Rukiya at all this season, and we’ve got it with two episodes to spare!
They also finally give M’Benga a first name. To my disappointment, they went with “Joseph.” Rather than mine the tie-in fiction for his first name (successfully done with Sulu, Uhura, and Number One), which has given M’Benga the first names of Geoffrey (in Jean Lorrah’s The IDIC Epidemic) and Jabilo (in the Vanguard novel series), they went with Joseph. I would’ve rather it be Jabilo, but alas…
Keith R.A. DeCandido has three short stories out soon: “A Lovely View,” a tale of Zorro, in Zorro’s Exploits, edited by Audrey Parente, from Bold Venture Press; “What You Can Become Tomorrow,” a story that puts together author Mary Shelley, baseball player Josh Gibson, and NASA scientist Florence Johnson, in Three Time Travelers Walk Into…, edited by Michael A. Ventrella, from Fantastic Books; and “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a Super City Cops story, in Tales of Capes and Cowls, edited by C.T. Phipps, from Crossroad Press.