Star Trek: Strange New Worlds but rocks for many reasons most will show for his return to the episodic formula upon which Star Trek was built. It’s a throwback to the original series (almost literally, given that it takes place a few years before Captain James T. Kirk pilots the Enterprise), with almost every plot resolved through to the credits.
The Serene Squall is different, although it begins like every Star Trek episode: A Dr. Aspen (Jesse James Keitel) calls in the Enterprise to help with a humanitarian mission to feed some colonists on the fringes of Federation space. The crew (including Captain Christopher Pike) are kidnapped by space pirates during a mission, and it’s up to Spock and Dr. Aspen to save the ship and its crew.
[Ed. note: The rest of this post discusses “The Serene Squall” at length. Ye be warned.]
Just – turn! – dr Aspen is not at all Dr. Aspen, but rather Captain Angel from the eponymous Serene Squall, who has devised an elaborate ruse to hold Spock captive in exchange for a Vulcan prisoner (and ex-Flame).
In an episode where Pike pulls an apron over his tactical vest and is literally at the helm of an enemy cruiser, it’s Keitel’s performance that really carries the vampy, zany energy of “The Serene Squall.” You (pronoun of angel; Keitel uses she/them) not only are you visibly comfortable and enjoying yourself in the captain’s chair, you are the most indelible Trek villain in a long time. Both in the buttoned-up provocation of Dr. Aspen and Captain Angel’s campy cheerfulness is just plain fun to watch.
“I have to be 50 Shades of Chaos,” Keitel says of the experience. “I knew they were a little bad — I knew they came in and flipped the script a little bit. But I didn’t know the details […] So I screamed while reading the script.”
While Angel’s plans are ultimately thwarted by Spock and Nurse Chapel, Star Trek’s favorite Vulcan isn’t so sure if he’s last seen of Angel, or the prisoner he thinks they were trying to release. As T’Pring checks on a prisoner, we hear Spock say that he thinks the prisoner is his half-brother, Sybok.
Like so many of Strange New Worlds, it’s a name drop that looms large in the show’s universe and seems set to set the stage for the final run of the show’s first season. But director Sydney Freeland (who has directed films like Deidra & Laney rob a train and will direct Marvel’s upcoming film echo series) says it was about opening the door to “something bigger down the line.”
“The idea that was presented when I first came on board was that they wanted to use that to try and introduce one of these big, charismatic villain characters that might come back,” Freeland tells Polygon. And it’s more than just Sybok; Captain Angel was an equally important character in seeding something greater.
“I saw her tape and I thought: Oh, that’s freaking perfect. […] She’s got charisma, she’s got flair, she’s got humanity, she’s got presence,” Freeland says of the decision to build Angel. “When we first see Khan in the original series, like Oh, this guy is bloody combative! […] He’s chewing up the landscape! He goes for it! You can see where they got this idea from, how it grew into this big type of charismatic presence.
Keitel admits that in the first half of the episode before the twist it was a little harder to curb, but she knew it was important.
“I didn’t want it to be very obvious that this person lied early on,” says Keitel. “So that was a pretty tough challenge for me as an actor to be serious and really get to know Spock. And then I also used it to get closer to my goal of rescuing my husband – who we all know is Sybok.”
Part of getting into the character came from the process of being on the Enterprise surrounded by all the set and costume details that come with a show that has become a franchise for decades. “The only thing we wanted to avoid was this audacity, like yes, buddy! something like that,” says Freeland. “But we still wanted a little bit of it [showing how] You’re an outsider, while the Enterprise bridge is very clean and a bit uniform and tidy.”
Freeland says a point of reference for her was photographs she saw growing up as a Southwest Native child, of Native Americans in 19th century clothing.
“So that evolved into a conversation about how, Oh, is there anything we can do in the Star Trek universe? Are there any pieces of Starfleet uniform that these pirates might have gotten from their raids and they put them into their uniform – and not just into their uniform, but into their personality?”
Of course, Angel still stands out from the crowd, not only as a leader, but with her costuming. Keitel says the mesh catsuit Angel dons (while still dressed as Aspen) changed “everything,” from her posture to the way she walks. It helped put them in Angel’s mindset as they try to “disarm Spock in a different way, in a slightly more seductive way”. And at no point was it an opportunity that Keitel took lightly.
“There aren’t many trans women working in Hollywood, especially in sci-fi, especially on a legacy show like Star Trek. And that’s how I knew my presence there could have an impact or it could be a big misstep,” she says. “I think it’s really exciting not just to have a queer-coded villain, but to have a villain who actually does it is strange.
“I think a lot of times in Hollywood people are scared of making trans people bad guys. We are constantly slandered in the media; We are constantly being demonized in legislation. You can’t turn on the news without seeing that either trans people are experiencing hate crimes or an attempt is being made to legislate us out of existence. So the opportunity to be a sexy, unabashed villain is a dream, you know? We’re not villains in real life, so I can’t play a space pirate on Star Trek?”
While neither Freeland nor Keitel know (or will say) what’s next for future Angel and Sybok escapades, they’re just as excited to see them again as the rest of us.
“Starfleet flies to different corners of the galaxy and they have good intentions, but sometimes those good intentions don’t always manifest as such. And what are the consequences of that?” asks Freiland. That Strange New Worlds The director hopes audiences can identify and sympathize with Keitel’s character and feel you know they are right