In a shocking twist for anyone who grew up watching Star Trek in the ’90s, Pike and his crew have achieved what few other entries in the franchise can boast: a first season that’s actually good! In both critical reaction and audience demand, it’s clear that Strange New Worlds (SNW) is one of the most successful Trek shows ever made, and I expect that will continue in later seasons.
Which makes it all the more glaring when one episode doesn’t fit with the others. That episode is All Those Who Wander, and it’s basically the movie Alien squished down into 53 minutes, with the Gorn repurposed as store-brand xenomorphs, right down to the acidic bodily fluids. It has the same strong performances and excellent production values as the rest of the show, but there’s something undeniably off about it. This episode doesn’t feel in theme with its fellows, because its plot simply does not work with the Star Trek setting as constructed by both SNW and shows that came before. What does that mean? I’m glad you asked!
Spoiler Notice: Season one of Strange New Worlds
The Characters Know Too Much
Alien is a horror movie, and a big source of that horror is how mysterious the xenomorphs are. The less well known an enemy is, the greater their capacity to inspire fear, as the audience imagines all kinds of horrible things that might happen. Alien’s setup supports this. The main characters are space truckers whose job is moving cargo from one location to another. They aren’t explorers, and they certainly aren’t soldiers. It doesn’t even seem like alien life has been discovered in this setting. This is also important for helping to justify choices that are obviously unwise to any genre-savvy viewers, like breaking quarantine against Ripley’s orders.
SNW doesn’t have a setup like that. The Enterprise’s crew are all seasoned explorers, both knowledgeable about aliens and trained in combat.* They even know about the Gorn specifically, both from their security chief’s personal testimony and from discovering a log entry that tells them what’s happening on the abandoned ship. They are perhaps the best-prepared group of people to handle an Alien-type encounter.
Right away, this decreases the episode’s tension. These Starfleet officers have faced down lots of dangerous aliens before; this creepy ship is an average Tuesday for them. When they act all spooked anyway, it feels forced. From there, the frustration sets in, as the crew have to make numerous bad decisions so the Gorn can be a threat. To name a few:
- Assuming all the Gorn are gone based on flimsy evidence.
- Wandering around the ship alone.
- Leaving an intern to guard the possibly infected survivor.
- Forgetting that Gorn eggs can evade bio-scanners.
- Not sounding an alarm when the infected survivor is clearly seconds away from hatching a new passel of Gorn.
You can see why this is so frustrating. Instead of untrained newbies figuring out xenomorphs for the first time, we have a bunch of professionals acting like they can’t find their aft torpedo tubes with both hands. SNW could have avoided some of this by not giving the characters so much specific information about the Gorn, but that would still have left general mistakes like assuming the threat is over because some of the monsters are dead.
There’s a reason horror movies tend to focus on inexperienced and unprepared characters, and even then, the poor decision-making can get annoying. When the characters know what they’re doing, a good horror story has to change tactics. That’s why Alien’s sequel, Aliens,* switches things up by giving its badass marine heroes a horde of aliens to fight rather than just one. This SNW episode is like putting those marines through the first film’s plot and expecting them to not immediately solve the problem.
The Technology Is Too Advanced
Despite working on a spaceship, Ripley and her Alien costars have very little in the way of advanced technology. This makes sense, as they’re working for a megacorporation. Their bosses are unlikely to provide any equipment the crew doesn’t absolutely need, and even that can’t be guaranteed. The crew certainly don’t have any weapons; the best they can do is jury-rig some clumsy flamethrowers. This is important, because if they had guns, the xenomorph’s only threat would be causing a hull breach with its acidic blood.* That’s why the marines in Aliens have to fight hundreds, if not thousands, of xenomorphs, as they do have guns. But even the marines’ tech is barely more capable than what the US military was using in 1986.
Star Trek’s technology is, to put it mildly, a bit more advanced. They have directed energy weapons that, according to some episodes, can wipe out an entire regiment of soldiers. How powerful phasers are is actually a subject of some debate, but the important bit is they’re a lot more powerful than traditional projectile weapons, and that’s just the tip of the techberg. Pike’s crew also has access to faster-than-light communications, long-distance transporters, scanners with near-magical levels of precision, and medical technology that can rearrange your entire body with a single hypospray.
Dealing with the Gorn should be child’s play, so the writers have to employ a series of increasingly bizarre contrivances. First, communicators and transporters just don’t work on this planet, for technobabble reasons. Okay, Star Trek does that a lot; we can roll with it. Also, the Gorn are invisible to sensors. Which sensors are they invisible to? All of them. Uh-huh. Keep in mind these are baby Gorn without any tech of their own, so they somehow just evolved to be undetectable. And once a person is infected with Gorn eggs, there’s nothing that Starfleet’s supernatural medicine can do about it, for reasons.
It is viscerally frustrating to watch these contrivances play out and even more so when the writers forget some important tactic that the characters could have used. Even if the Gorn are somehow invisible to sensors, surely scanning an infected person would show big gaps in their tissue where the larvae are. We know that tricorders can create detailed maps of a patient’s body, and there’s not a lot of empty space inside a person. But later in the episode, the Gorn’s sensor immunity vanishes so that the characters can shout status reports about where the monsters are, so not even the writers were particularly devoted to this plot device.
Nothing is as frustrating as the phasers though; there isn’t even a conceit there. The characters shoot at the Gorn and miss a couple times, after which they apparently just give up on the idea and never use their phasers again. Even while using phasers, the characters still quake in their boots about these dog-sized lizards as if they aren’t all armed with advanced energy weapons. It just feels backwards. The Gorn should be afraid of them. The episode also wants us to be scared of the Gorn getting bigger, but that would just make them easier to hit!
Star Trek doesn’t have a great track record for horror in general, but the few successful examples all involve either a thinking enemy with their own tech or some kind of extradimensional being, sometimes both. You might remember the DS9 episode where Garak turns evil and hunts O’Brien for sport, or the TNG episode where some cosmic-horror aliens are kidnapping the crew and experimenting on them. Voyager also has a great horror episode about an evil clown who lives in your brain.
That’s the kind of setup you need to make horror work in a high-tech space-opera setting like Star Trek. Either that or contrive a reason for the characters to be dumped on a barren rock without any of their stuff, but you can only do that so many times before it gets old.
The Aliens Are Contrived
If you stop to think about it, the xenomorphs don’t make a whole lot of sense. Their first stage develops in an egg, then hatches into a facehugger. The facehugger, with limited mobility, has to then latch on to a hostile animal and deposit a larva, which then becomes the xenomorph. That’s a really convoluted reproductive cycle that doesn’t seem to offer many advantages, and that’s not even considering how the baby xenomorph puts on 500 pounds of chitin and muscle in a few hours.
The nice thing about Alien as a purely horror franchise is that it doesn’t encourage us to ask those sorts of questions. We watch an Alien movie to enjoy people getting eaten by xenomorphs, not to imagine how they fit into a bigger world.* Star Trek, in contrast, is about a bigger world, and the Gorn are more than just one-off monsters. In fact, the Gorn play a central role in at least one very important episode of the Original Series.
This makes it much harder to ignore how completely absurd the Gorn are as a species. Gorn babies apparently kill each other until there’s only one left, which seems very unlikely from an evolutionary perspective. The closest real-life comparison I can find is how certain shark species will actually eat each other in utero, but that has the direct benefit of allowing the survivors to grow larger before they’re born. I don’t see any corresponding benefit for the Gorn.
The Gorn also have the same growth problem the xenomorphs do, with their size doubling several times as they grow into full adults over just a few hours. At that growth rate, we should be able to see them getting larger in real time. Plus, they’re capable of asexual reproduction in that same time frame. When you add in all of their weird tech immunities — and even an immunity to telepathy, for some reason — the Gorn feel less like a species and more like a grab bag of monster powers.
But what really drives home the absurdity is that the Gorn are also a sapient species with spaceships. So they have all the abilities needed to make them unstoppable monsters, and they have advanced tech? That’s a little much, don’tcha think? It’s not like SNW’s writers have to spend evolution points when building their aliens, but it still feels unbalanced for one species to get so many powerful perks.
The Message Is Wrong
As a movie about morally uncomplicated monsters, Alien isn’t overly concerned with any messages its xenomorphs might be sending. They’re basically big wasps with extra mouths, and killing them is no different than calling an exterminator to get rid of that hive under your porch.
The Gorn are much more complicated, or at least they were before SNW came along. Before this episode, the Gorn’s most prominent appearance was in the episode Arena, where the big message is that while the Gorn seem scary, we can ultimately make peace and coexist with them. That episode has some problems, like never addressing how eager the Gorn were to bomb a civilian outpost, but it’s a good message regardless.
In SNW’s view, that message is wrong. To make it acceptable for the heroes to kill Gorn without any remorse, this show casts them as the galaxy’s greatest monsters. They hunt down other sapient species to torture and eat, then use the survivors as hosts for their parasitic young, which is basically another form of brutal torture. And thanks to this episode, we can rule out that such behavior was only from an extremist faction of Gorn: they’re literally born like that.
Strange New World’s Gorn are a strong contender for the most evil species the franchise has ever seen. Even the Borg don’t come close: they kill and assimilate because it’s the most efficient way to expand their power. The Gorn go out of their way to torment other sapient beings. If it’s really necessary to incubate their young in a living host, they could just use cows. Instead, they run around dishing out trauma as a national sport.
At this point, even if the Gorn offered to live in peace, the Federation would be very silly to accept it. The Gorn are dangerous to be around, both culturally and biologically. The only rational response is to keep them away by whatever means necessary. Anything else is just inviting the scorpion to climb on your back while you swim across the river.
That is, to put it mildly, a bleak outlook. The only way for the Gorn to fit in with Arena’s message* is to reinvent them via retcon. And if that episode didn’t exist, SNW’s Gorn would still be a bad fit for Star Trek. As Strange New Worlds emphasizes in several of its other episodes, this is an optimistic setting where peace is always possible. If two species are enemies today, they might become friends tomorrow. That’s impossible with the Gorn, who are now just Space Satan.
The only silver lining is that, as big lizards, the Gorn don’t appear as an obvious stand-in for marginalized people in real life. At least, not to the extent species like the Klingons do. Despite that, such an over-the-top and inherently evil species doesn’t fit with the ethos of Star Trek in general, or Strange New Worlds in particular.
The Tone Is Discordant
Modern Trek has a serious grimdark problem. The first and second season of both Discovery and Picard suffer badly from it, with characters literally being tortured to death for the flimsiest of reasons. This doesn’t appear to be something many fans want and is a major contributor to the popularity of rival shows like The Orville.* That show’s first season is a garbage fire, but at least it’s a relatively light garbage fire.
Fortunately, Star Trek is slowly kicking its grimdark habit. Discovery’s third and fourth seasons both have a much more balanced approach, and it sounds like season three of Picard will be more heavily focused on TNG nostalgia than horrible depictions of suicide. However, it’s Strange New Worlds that really demonstrates modern Trek turning over a new leaf. This show does a great job portraying an optimistic future* while still exploring serious topics. It’s a show where one episode can address the horrors of sacrificing children to an AI god, while another has the characters do fantasy cosplay for 45 minutes.
That’s why it’s so jarring to press play on this episode and be greeted with a cavalcade of blood and gore as the Gorn tear various redshirts apart, sometimes from the outside in, sometimes from the inside out. It even does that thing where we suddenly talk about a side character’s backstory right before they’re brutally murdered.
This is all perfectly at home in a horror franchise like Alien, where tearing people’s spleens out is a thoroughly unremarkable event. But Strange New Worlds isn’t a horror show. At least, the early episodes give little indication of it being a horror show. Previously, the show only made things as dark as they absolutely needed to be. In the AI god episode, we don’t watch the child sacrifice writhing in agony, because there’s no reason for that. It’s plenty tragic to know that a child is suffering. In a previous Gorn appearance, our heroes found bloodstains where people had been killed but not any mangled bodies, because that wouldn’t have added anything.
This episode takes all the hard work of establishing the proper mood and tone for SNW, wads it up into a ball, and chucks it out the airlock. For fans of Alien-style movies, this might not be a big deal, as they probably already have a high tolerance for gore. But for anyone who was watching SNW specifically for its lighter and more optimistic aesthetic, the shock is unpleasant, to say the least. Oh, and the episode also kills off the blind engineer, robbing the show of some much-needed disability representation. This is why we can’t have nice things!
What really gets me is that all of this was clearly on purpose, even if there wasn’t an interview to confirm it. The writers set out with the goal of doing Alien in a Star Trek show, with seemingly little consideration for this being a completely different franchise. It doesn’t feel like Star Trek with an Alien twist or even Alien with a Star Trek twist. It’s just Alien masquerading as a different franchise.
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