Una is in a tight spot in “Ad Astra Per Aspera,” in which she faces a legal reckoning for concealing her Illyrian. But, as the episode’s opening childhood flashback reveals, she’s used to being in a tight spot. She’s had to hide who she is all her life, even when it hurt, lest she and everyone around her face consequences, but this might finally be the end of the line. Charged with prosecuting the first officer, Batel offers a deal she feels will be best for both Number One and the Federation: Una will take dishonorable dismissal but face no further punishment and the Federation will seal her records, thus covering up an embarrassing incident. Even Una’s lawyer thinks it’s a good deal but, honestly, he’s pretty obviously not a very forceful advocate. If Una’s going to get out of this particular tight spot, she’ll need someone more interested in bending the rules in the interest of doing the right thing.
Cut to Pike, because who else could the episode cut to? Where Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ second season premiere leaned into the action side of Star Trek, this follow-up emphasizes its talkier aspect. Which isn’t to say it’s any less dramatic. The crew of the Enterprise navigated the dual threat of Klingons and pirates without Pike, but it’s hard to imagine any of them maneuvering their way to a legal victory with Pike’s skill.
He can’t do it alone, however. To that end, he travels to the Volterra Nebula and a planet where Illyrians have adapted themselves to an atmosphere that would kill Pike without an oxygen mask. In fact, it almost does after Pike refuses to leave the office of Counselor Neera Ketoul (Yetide Badaki), an Illyrian lawyer familiar with Una — even if she’s not particularly happy to hear her name or eager to defend Una against what she suggests was an inevitable outing. Still, Neera is persuadable, especially after Pike makes the case that it’s a chance to jab at the Federation by bringing attention to some other cases against it.
With Neera on board, Una’s defense can begin in earnest, a defense that partly involves Pike chiding his sometime lover Batel, who warns that the Federation is ready to bring the full hammer down on Una if she rejects the plea deal. Una does and the Federation responds as promised with backup in the form of an intimidating bald Vulcan named Vice Admiral Pasalk (Graeme Somerville) who’s intent on making sure Una receives a much harsher sentence than a mere dishonorable discharge.
Of the two lawyers arguing against Una, Batel is clearly the more sympathetic. But she doesn’t let any tender feelings she may have — for Pike or his crew — get in the way of her job. When Pike offers a sample of the charm offensive he might bring to the stand were he called to be a defense witness, Batel counters with a tough line of questioning that reminds him of his own exposure. Pike alone can’t Pike his way out of this one.
As for Pasalk, well, he’s kind of a jerk, in a reserved Vulcan way. Though Ortegas can’t see it, M’Benga rightly senses that Spock and Pasalk do not get along. Spock quickly admits as much, apologizing for an “outburst” that no one, except maybe M’Benga, could pick up on. Spock and Pasalk have history dating back to Pasalk’s time with Spock’s father Sarek, which no doubt complicates things. But when we see Pasalk in the courtroom later, he does come off as pretty unlikable.
As the trial begins, Batel makes a pretty strong case against genetic engineering by drawing on Earth’s history and the Eugenics War that left “tens of millions dead.” But, Neera argues, that’s an unfair example since not all genetic modification is the same (or ends in genocide, for that matter). Isn’t this just bigotry by another name?
And that’s the primary conflict of the trial: On the one side, the argument that rules are rules. On the other, the argument that some rules are pretty lousy. So no, Admiral April would not have let Una enlist if he’d known about her past, but wouldn’t that have been Starfleet’s loss? And hasn’t April broken the Prime Directive a dozen times or so? Is this really any different? Whatever the logic, Neera’s attack on April ruffles a lot of feathers. Pike’s not sure where it’s going and April is pissed (and understandably so).
They might have a point, too. Is Neera showboating, using the trial as a platform to air grievances against the Federation in general? Una suspects so, though when the trial resumes the emphasis shifts to Una’s general awesomeness. M’Benga and Singh love her and Spock admires her so much he even makes a joke about her love of Gilbert and Sullivan musicals on the stand.
Still, the prosecution’s case is pretty strong. Una did lie. But maybe there’s a loophole? That’s Singh’s hope and she approaches Neera suggesting that the evidence against Una might have been obtained illegally and thus the case against her can be dismissed. What she’s not saying is that Singh thinks she might be the culprit, having recorded her frustration with Una in her personal log. This turns out to be a dead end but it does get Neera thinking: Who benefits from Una’s exposure? And can she use that somehow?
Neera doesn’t pursue that line of thinking immediately, or at least she doesn’t seem to. Instead she calls Una to the stand to recount her life story. She grew up in the Volterra Nebula shortly after her Illyrian Colony was given provisional membership in the Federation — as long as they gave up genetic modification. Except, not everyone gave it up, Una’s parents among them.
That meant hiding their traditions and covering up her modifications, or else face persecution, like one of Una’s schoolmates. It also meant living in a society where hatred against the augmented had been given permission to come out into the open, living in fear that a minor injury could prove life-threatening, and having to choose whether to remain in hiding when the colony was divided into Illyrian and non-Illyrian cities — as Una’s family did and Neera’s family did not (hence the tension between them).
Una covers all that in her testimony, even throwing in an apology to Neera. Then she drops a bombshell at Neera’s prodding: Una turned herself in, feeling she was unable to continue “living a lie” and perhaps make it possible for Starfleet to change its mind. And why shouldn’t she want that? It was Starfleet’s diversity and tolerance that drew her to serve in the first place. It’s a passionate and persuasive plea in the form of a confession.
Then Una has to face the final boss in the form of Pasalk, who’s remained silent until now, only occasionally prodding Batel when he wanted her to object. And Pasalk goes after Pike, insisting that if Pike did know (he did) Una’s deception becomes conspiracy. Asked point blank when Pike knew, Una has to spill the beans. Smugly, Pasalk says he has no further questions, opening the door for final arguments. Pasalk’s is brief.
Neera decides to turn to Starfleet Code for her argument. Una feared for her life and joining Starfleet was an act of fleeing persecution, a form of seeking asylum. Neera follows it up with an impassioned defense of Starfleet principles, even though she really doesn’t care for the Federation. She’s an outsider forcing Starfleet to live up to the ideals it’s supposed to uphold. (It’s also a pretty brilliantly orchestrated bit of legal maneuvering.) And with that, the case is won, Una and Neera are friends again, and the Enterprise has its first officer back and the episode finds a happy ending. (Pike and Una even hug, much to her surprise.)
In some ways, “Ad Astra Per Aspera” feels like the show taking a breather after the breakneck pace of the season opener, but it’s a welcome change that’s in the tradition of many other Trek episodes focused on a trial. It also continues Strange New World’s willingness to draw parallels between current issues and its 23rd-century world. Una’s experience doesn’t map onto a single real-world issue, but it echoes several, from Jewish people hiding their identities to avoid persecution to gay and trans people not being able to live openly. And while Una’s situation gets a just resolution, the episode acknowledges that the issue isn’t settled, and that Starfleet still has work to do. (Assuming the coming war with the Gorn doesn’t get in the way, but that’s a problem for another episode.)
• “That must have been awful for you. I know how much you hate giving long, inspiring speeches.” Batel and Pike’s relationship is a sometime thing, an arrangement that seems to suit both of them. But she knows him.
• The phrase “Ad Astra Per Aspera” was Starfleet’s pre-Federation motto, but the phrase and its many variations isn’t unique to that organization. Its origins here might have a different kind of connection to science fiction and fantasy: One of its earliest known uses was in the 1894 H. Rider Haggard novel The People of the Mist.