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How Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Perfected the Holodeck Episode

Star Trek’s holodeck episodes let the cast play different characters, and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds has perfected this staple of the fandom.

The following contains spoilers for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1, Episode 8, “The Elysian Kingdom,” now streaming on Paramount+.

The world of Star Trek has always contained elements of both science fiction and science fantasy. In The Next Generation, the introduction of the holodeck gave storytellers a way to get really weird with their episodes. Even though the holodeck technology isn’t present in Strange New Worlds, “The Elysian Kingdom” perfects the holodeck episode.

Holodeck episodes don’t necessarily need the actual holodeck. They just need the characters fans know to be playing different entities, like Jean-Luc Picard playing Dixon Hill or Kathryn Janeway portraying Ms. Davenport. Strange New Worlds Season 1, Episode 8 “The Elysian Kingdom” is a holodeck episode in spirit. Of course, one other quality Star Trek holodeck episodes share is that they are often not fan-favorites, but this one might change that.

RELATED: How Star Trek: Discovery Is Connected to Strange New Worlds

What makes “The Elysian Kingdom” perfect is that Babs Olusanmokun’s Dr. M’Benga is as “not into” what’s happening as the average Star Trek fan who rolls their eyes at holodeck episodes. Couple his performance with the total commitment from the rest of the cast in their altered roles, and it performs the best kind of magic trick: even if the viewer is annoyed with the premise, by the end of the episode they’ll be shedding some tears.

One of the most interesting things about the character of Dr. M’Benga is that he’s working to find a cure for his ill daughter Rukiya. In order to buy time, M’Benga keeps her in the pattern buffer of the transporter. There are sci-fi explanations for how this is possible due to the “transporter lore” throughout the franchise. Nonetheless, it does pose an interesting question: is M’Benga’s plan to keep his child essentially imprisoned while searching for a cure a good thing? The episode begins with his daughter expressing hesitation about returning to this state after he reads her children’s book called The Elysian Kingdom.

Viewers are then treated to a strange Trek tale that features members of the cast as the characters from the book. Celia Rose Gooding’s Uhura is a malevolent queen. Melissa Navia’s Lt. Ortegas is a knight in service to M’Benga’s king. And Captain Pike (played by Anson Mount, who’s expressed his happiness with Strange New Worlds so far) is stunningly hilarious as a foppish, disloyal coward. Sharp viewers will likely figure out what’s going before the characters, especially when Rebecca Romijn’s Number One appears as a huntress-type heroine. Eventually, M’Benga deduces that the entity took the story from Rukiya’s mind. When he goes to find his daughter, he discovers she was transported to somewhere else on the ship.

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Bruce Horak’s alien engineer Hemmer also remains unaffected by the entity. The psychic abilities that are the hallmark of his species help him avoid falling under the spell that’s captured the rest of the crew. “The Elysian Kingdom” is one of Hemmer’s best episodes. He’s cast as a wizard character with science as his “magic.” Yet by the end, even the notoriously prickly Hemmer is having fun “playing along” with the story. A third-act moment where he helps save M’Benga and his daughter is successfully played for laughs.

Using Hemmer as a conduit, M’Benga speaks with the entity — and the conversation is a series of heartbreaking revelations. The worst one is that M’Benga’s daughter had some sense of awareness while “stored” in the transporter. The entity sensed a deep loneliness in her that matched its own. That inspired the creature to release her and create a fantasy world; it wanted to give her back some of the childhood she’d lost.

M’Benga learns that this alien entity also cured Rukiya of her illness; however, it’s only a temporary fix. The alien is just a consciousness, lacking a physical body, thus he has to make a difficult choice that mirrors the one in The Elysian Kingdom. The MacGuffin in the fictional story is called the Mercury Stone, which the king character learns is sentient. The king can either keep the stone for selfish reasons despite its longing to be free, or he can let it go. M’Benga articulates all of this to his daughter when saying that she should go with the alien. Any viewer, especially one with kids, would be hard-pressed to not cry during a gorgeously tragic scene slipped into this farce of an episode.

RELATED: Strange New Worlds’ ‘Children of the Comet’ Delivers A Classic Star Trek Problem

Yet the Star Trek holodeck episodes are almost always a farce. The storytellers and performers get to don different wardrobe and play different versions of their characters; an exercise like that can’t help but be fun. Imbuing these goofy Trek asides with actual character stories and resonant emotion is a much larger challenge. “The Elysian Kingdom” counts as a holodeck episode because of its premise, but the Strange New Worlds cast elevates the plot. Olusanmokun delivers a weighty performance that serves as the gravitational center keeping things grounded.

Strange New Worlds is classic Star Trek in a lot of ways, even though it’s hampered by its own premise. It’s created the Prime Directive and shed new light on classic characters. Perfectly blending the silliness of a holodeck episode with devastatingly emotional stories is one area in which it surpasses its predecessors.

New episodes of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds stream Thursdays on Paramount+.

Father, veteran, and storyteller. A cunning warrior and the best star-pilot in the galaxy. His book, TALES OF ADVENTURE & FANTASY, is available on Amazon.

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