Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Season 1 Episode 8, “The Elysian Kingdom,” is without a doubt one of the best episodes of the entire franchise. From the bottom to the top “The Elysian Kingdom” is filled with stunning visuals, quite a few jokes, and a deeply emotional journey. What begins as a campy episode dripping with magic and mayhem becomes a moving tale of love, autonomy, and hope. We open the episode with Doctor M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) reading his daughter Rukiya (Sage Arrindell) her favorite fairytale – the one she’s heard a hundred times. She tells her dad she hates the way the story ends and wishes she could change it so that the huntress teams up with the knight to save the king – he tells her maybe someday she can write her own ending.
Elsewhere, Captain Pike (Anson Mount) muses with Spock (Ethan Peck) about how quiet their routine survey mission is – naturally cursing them to run into some absolute chaos. As they try to leave the nebula they find themselves stuck and Ortegas (Melissa Navia) injured. When M’Benga rushes to the bridge to assist, he finds himself and the entire crew decked out in absolutely stunning renaissance wear. It would appear the crew of the Enterprise is living out the roles of Rukiya’s fairytale book.
Written by Akela Cooper (Malignant) and Onitra Johnson and directed by Amanda Row (Doom Patrol) this episode gives the majority of the cast a delightful opportunity to play against type. The bold, brave Captain is now a cowardly page, Cadet Uhura (Celia Gooding) plays the evil queen, and the ever-intimidating La’an (Christina Chong) becomes a precious princess. “The Elysian Kingdom” harkens back to classic Star Trek holodeck episodes like Voyager‘s “The Bride of Chaotica!” or “The Killing Game” and The Next Generation‘s “A Fistful of Datas” or “The Big Goodbye.”
At the time that Strange New Worlds takes place in Star Trek canon, holodeck technology does not yet exist, so the writers have to get creative for their fantasy episodes. Luckily this is Star Trek, and if you can dream it, they can make it happen. M’Benga appears to be the only crew member who still remembers who he is, he heads down to medical to grab a tricorder and attempt to make sense of the unusual happenings on the ship. Here we find that La’an has become Princess Talia – she’s an absolute diva, and Chong in particular does an incredible job differentiating her fairytale persona from her actual character. The costume department truly deserves an abundance of praise for this episode. La’an and Uhura’s gowns in particular are just breathtaking pieces of art, but every character is decked out in the most stunning fairytale garb you have ever seen. Each detail is crafted with incredible precision and thoughtful design.
We soon learn that M’Benga is not the only one who has retained his memories. As an Aenar, Hemmer (Bruce Horak) has different brain chemistry with different abilities than his human counterparts – his telepathic skills allowed him to block the “presence” that has taken the rest of the Enterprise under its control. Down in the landing bay, we find Uhura’s Queen Nev bent on ruling the entire kingdom and taking the coveted mercury stone from M’Benga’s King Ridley. In the same way that Chong plays against type as Princess Talia, Gooding ramps up the bright-eyed Uhura into a terrifying monarch that strikes fear into her subjects. This episode is also filled with moments of humor, especially with Ortegas and Pike bickering back and forth as his cowardice contrasts with her comical bloodlust and Spock’s roguish evil wizard at the beck and call of the queen.
When Una (Rebecca Romijn) appears as the huntress to rescue an outnumbered Ortegas against the queen’s guards, it becomes apparent that this story isn’t quite playing out the way it does in the book anymore. As the fairytale narrative textualizes a romantic relationship between Ortetas and Una’s characters, M’Benga realizes that this version of the story follows his daughter’s wishes rather than what’s written. The version that they’re living out is essentially Rukiya’s fanfiction of “The Elysian Kingdom.” The previous episode of Strange New Worlds made it abundantly clear that the show embraces queer people, and it’s nice to see that inclusion continued in such a wholesome way with this imagined pairing from Rukiya’s ideal ending to her favorite fairytale.
As M’Benga and his allies scramble to find Rukiya they learn that she’s no longer being kept safe in the pattern buffer that delays the progression of her illness. At the start of the episode, she asked her father if she could see his quarters one day when she gets better. Following a final confrontation with the Queen in which Hemmer gets to pull out all the stops to work his “science magic” M’Benga is reunited with his daughter. Rukiya is also dressed up in a beautiful gown, as M’Benga’s personal mercury stone, and when he scans her he finds her illness has been completely eradicated.
Rukiya reveals that the nebula does indeed have a consciousness and Hemmer graciously offers to use his telepathic abilities to allow M’Benga to speak to the entity that has freed – and seemingly cured – his child. The entity values her above all the other lives on the ship, and Rukiya explains that they were both lonely. While M’Benga explains that the way he’s kept her life suspended has been to protect her, the entity also makes the point that that’s no way for Rukiya to truly live. Ultimately, M’Benga must make a choice: keep holding his daughter in the pattern buffer while he searches for a cure, or allow Rukiya to join with the entity and truly live even if it means it won’t be with him.
As a parent, it feels like a completely impossible choice, but M’Benga does exactly what any parent should and explains the situation in terms that Rukiya can understand and then gives the choice and autonomy to her. She wants to write her own story, and he lets her go with all of the love in the world. I’m not entirely sure it’s possible to make it through the end of this episode without being moved to tears by both the story and the performances. M’Benga has done the right thing for his daughter even though he feels so much pain over not being able to spend more time with her. In true Star Trek fashion, Rukiya’s departure with the entity is not the last we see of her. Moments later, she returns fully grown (played by Makambe Simamba) and explains that though no time has passed for her father, it’s been years filled with unimaginable adventures with the entity that she named after her mother. M’Benga is filled with so much emotion and peace at seeing his daughter live a life more spectacular than any he ever could’ve imagined for her.
It’s an absolutely incredible way to resolve this particular storyline and the way that it’s written as well as the magic of Star Trek leaves plenty of room for Rukiya and M’Benga to be reunited for future adventures. “The Elysian Kingdom” is truly an exemplary episode of Star Trekand I do not think I will ever get tired of watching it.
Rating: A +
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is streaming now on Paramount +.