“Just because you receive a message from the future, doesn’t mean you understand it.”
– Una Chin-Riley
The Enterprise is in the Persephone system so the crew can study an ancient comet, one that’s traveling awfully close to a planet with civilization we see struggling (I think we’re supposed to get that they’re struggling) in the desert. This week, Cadet Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) is on rotation in Landing Party Readiness Protocols, and laments the tedium in a personal log. But she does have one exciting thing on the schedule: Dinner in the Captain’s cabin, for which Ortegas has recommended she dust of her dress uniform…
Which was, of course, some hazing. On Uhura’s way to Pike’s quarters, she runs into a very casually dressed Ortegas (Melissa Navia), who continues to tease her as they walk the rest of the way together – it’s her first complete square in Enterprise Bingo. Ortegas does help prep Uhura a bit more, explaining that these events aren’t just for command staff. The captain likes to hear what’s going on from everyday people, so he’ll probably ask lots of questions. Unfortunately, that makes Uhura even more nervous, as her father used to say she was “unburdened by conversational boundaries.”
When the pair arrives, they’re greeted by Pike (Anson Mount), who chuckles at the obvious prank, and Number One (Rebecca Romijn) who puts Ortegas to work refilling drinks. Uhura tries to make herself useful by offering help to Hemmer (Bruce Horak) chop vegetables, but only offends him. With Spock’s (Ethan Peck) assistance, he explains and demonstrates that his lack of vision doesn’t mean he’s “impaired.” Uhura’s had enough and calls them on hazing her (but were they?), and mildly tells Hemmer off in Andorian. As she goes off to get a drink, Hemmer and Spock agree that they like her.
Over dinner, Pike tells a story of a security mission gone horribly wrong, and Spock cannot understand why the other guests are laughing, until Pike explains, “Sometimes things go so badly, you just have to laugh.” Spock still doesn’t get it. But Pike moves on – it’s question time. He asks Uhura what she’s humming as she gets up for a refill, which leads to her sharing that she speaks 37 languages, and now they have everyone’s attention. She explains that she finds the best way to be understood is to speak to someone in their own language, so she learns them. After a little more chatting, Pike asks where she sees herself in ten years, but trips over the question.
Uhura doesn’t seem to notice, and decides to answer honestly. She’s not sure Starfleet is where she belongs. She had planned to study alien languages at the university in Nairobi, where both her parents taught. But after they both died in a shuttle accident, along with her older brother, she couldn’t stand to be on campus. Her grandmother had been in Starfleet, and told great stories, so that seemed like as good a choice as any. But she’s still looking for a place where she fits.
After dinner, walking through the corridors with Spock, Uhura feels like she blew it. But Spock tells her that the captain values honesty. However, in his opinion, if Starfleet is not her path, she should get out of the way of the many people who’ve dreamed of being where she is. That’s a bad take, Spock – She put in the work and excelled and has every right to be there.
Aside 1: This brings to mind a tumblr post that’s recently gone viral, which talks about how we often view something as a success only if it lasts forever. But just because something may be temporary or things might not work out as we planned, that doesn’t mean it’s not successful or not worth doing. Even if Uhura decides that Starfleet isn’t the right fit for her (hypothetically, since we know she doesn’t), that doesn’t mean that her experience was wasted or that her posting should have gone to a different candidate.
Una’s helping Pike with the cleanup in his quarters, and asks him about his verbal misstep earlier in the evening. Pike says that “knowing your future kind of takes the fun out of imagining it.” When Una suggests that maybe his future isn’t written in stone, Pike recites the names of 5 cadets he’ll save. He’s been reciting their names as a reminder: “Stay the course, save their lives.” Una still thinks there’s another way. But Spock, with his excellent timing, interrupts their conversation. There’s a problem the comet.
Based on the comet’s current path, it will hit the nearby planet in 2 days, killing all of the Deleb, the intelligent pre-warp species on the planet. And given their current state of advancement, it’s unlikely they even know the danger that’s coming. Number One and Spock suggest moving the comet with ion engines, launched on photon torpedoes, to change the course of the comet. Pike agrees. But when the torpedoes are launched a few hours later, they impact the comet’s force field. Hold on – the comet’s what? 11 minutes in and finally time for the opening credits…
Una’s been unable to detect any life signs on the comet, but there is a large structure, mostly subterranean. Since there’s been no response to hails, they’ll have to bring down those shields in order to move it, and the controls are most likely to be inside the structure. The good news is that since the shields are not constant only respond to force, they should be able to beam to the surface. Pike orders La’an Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong), Spock, Sam Kirk (Dan Jeannotte), and Cadet Uhura on the away team. (During this meeting, Pike also throws out a non sequitur complimenting Sam’s moustache – it’s a nice touch.)
As the away team suits up, Chapel (Jess Bush) gives them all hyposprays that will protect them from the cosmic radiation bombarding the comet, but only for 2 hours – she also flirts with Spock. The team heads out, with Uhura clearly nervous. La’an’s no-nonsense attitude doesn’t help. But they beam to the surface and make their way inside the structure.
The team enters a large chamber with a breathable atmosphere. At the center, there’s a giant “egg” with markings all along the outside. Kirk asks Uhura’s thoughts, reminding her that she’s the linguistics expert on the mission – she’s there for a reason. She notices that the markings are in a repeating pattern, and Kirk decides to get a little closer. As he approaches, the egg begins to light up. Spock instructs him to step away, but Kirk doesn’t listen, and touches the the egg’s shell, which hits him with a burst of energy, stopping his heart.
La’an tries to raise Enterprise on comms, but there’s too much interference inside the structure and Kyle (André Dae Kim) can’t get a lock. Spock uses the EV suit’s built-in defibrillator (cool), to revive Kirk, but the comet has raised it’s force field, completely cutting them off from the ship. Kirk needs medical attention immediately, and they’re only hope of getting off that comet is if Uhura can figure out those markings. She feels like she’s in way over her head, and attempts to break the tension by teasing Spock about Chapel. He prefers to ease tension by “applying rigorous logic.” Noonien-Singh isn’t having any of it.
On Persephone 3, the Deleb are watching the comet grow larger in their sky, and are clearly worried. On the bridge, Pike is looking for ideas. Ortegas suggests phaser harmonics. Hitting the comet with a phaser beam of just the right frequency could “shatter” the force field.
Una is about to fire phasers when Enterprise is hit by incoming fire from a ship that has appeared out of nowhere. I mean, they would have noticed if it was just behind the comet, right? They call themselves the Shepherds, and the comet is M’hanit, “one of the ancient arbiters of life.” They follow it and make sure that no one interferes or tampers with it. The Shepherds will not hesitate to destroy them if they attempt to alter M’hanit’s preordained course again – “If it is his will to move, he will move. If it is his will to bring life, he will bring life. If M’hanit wills the planet to die, even chooses to die with it, that is what will happen.” The Shepherds have been protecting the arbiters for centuries, and aren’t about to stop now.
Pike pauses communications and gets the report that the Shepherds have a faster ship and better weapons. They’re best course of action would be to buy time for the landing party. When Pike picks up the call again, he cites the Federation’s policy of non-interference, but the Head Shepherd (Thom Marriott) knows that the away team has “desecrated” the temple on M’hanit’s surface, and expect the blasphemers to die there. Any attempt to rescue them will be considered an act of war. Pike needs to reach his people – NOW.
While Spock and Noonien-Singh tend to Kirk, Uhura continues to stare at the glowing markings on the egg. She’s stressed and overwhelmed and full of self-doubt, but Spock does his best to encourage her. It kinda works. As she turns her attention back to the egg, she begins to hum while she thinks, and Spock notices that the cave is responding to the music.
On Enterprise, Una’s attempting to reaching the landing party with no luck, but there is a faint signal that seems to be coming from the comet itself. It sounds familiar. The computer identifies it as a folk song from Kenya – the same one Uhura was humming at dinner.
In the cave, Uhura tries different pitches to see the response she gets. She determines that the pattern or code on the egg must be harmonics. After Spock explains the mathematics of harmonics, Uhura identifies the “code” as a major chord, and has Spock match her pitch before she fills in the rest of the chord. La’an refuses to participate. The two go through some choral warmups, and the egg opens. The cave creates its own music that they can’t yet translate. But Uhura sings a tune to the cave (on a hunch?) and the forcefield drops, and the Enterprise is able to beam out the away team.
Aside 2: This is really a lovely character moment for Uhura. We know from TOS that she’s musically inclined – and like Nichelle Nichols, so is Celia Rose Gooding. They already have a Tony nomination under their belt at just 22 years old.
The Shepherds have had it, and start firing. With shields down to just 25%, La’an insists they warp away and regroup, but Pike won’t leave without saving the planet. The only thing the Shepherds care about is M’hanit… So Pike is going to put M’hanit between them as a buffer.
With some fancy flying through a debris field, Ortegas positions the ship in front of the comet. The Shepherds back off and stop firing – they don’t want to hit their charge. With their maneuvers complete, Pike orders all systems to power down and accepts a hail from the Shepherds. He surrenders, claiming that they’ve sustained too much damage to continue. And if the Shepherds don’t assist them, Enterprise will collide with the comet, causing their warp core to detonate, destroying M’hanit. And it’ll be the same outcome if the Shepherds try to blow them up instead. After Pike promises they they will not touch M’hanit again, the Shepherds initiate a tractor beam to pull Enterprise out of the comet’s path.
And now it’s Spock’s turn. He’s left Enterprise in a shuttle, and modified the shields to radiate as much heat as possible, and flies all around the comet, melting the ice and breaking off chunks of rock. The change in mass and momentum will alter its course and keep it from impacting the planet below. And technically, he’s not actually touching it. Additionally, a large amount of water vapor is entering the planet’s atmosphere, which will change it’s climate from arid to more temperate, making it better for agriculture, and likely, societal development.
The Shepherd’s hail one more time, to praise M’hanit – he chose to bring life. And because it all worked out, they will not part as enemies. And on the surface of Persephone III, it’s raining. All tied up in a neat little bow.
After spending some more time analyzing M’hanit’s music, Uhura’s been able to determine course and coordinates, as well as an image that perfectly matches the piece of the comet that broke off. That image was communicated hours before Spock executed his plan. M’hanit knew all along.
After her report, Spock and Uhura once again walk down the corridor together. This time, Spock apologizes – as best as a Vulcan can. He recognizes that their odds of survival on that mission were quite low, and would have been significantly lower without Uhura. If she decides she wants to stay, “Starfleet would be fortunate to have an officer like [her.]”
And finally, we have a nice little button between Pike and Number One, as they contemplate the role of fate in their lives. Una still believes there’s another way, one where he doesn’t have to “ruin his life” (there’s that ableism again) – maybe he got that message so he could make a different choice and save all of those cadets and himself. A little while later, alone, Pike is able to stare at his reflection without seeing his future visage, and calls up the Federation database records for all the kids he’s destined to save, as we fade to black on episode two.