Star Trek: Strange New Worlds sailed into season two recently, returning less than a year after its debut. And, there was one major immediate cliffhanger to resolve from season one: the unexpected arrest of first officer Una Chin-Riley. In episode two, “Ad Astra Per Apsera,” fans finally found out the fate of Una’s Starfleet career. The Una-centric episode pays homage to Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Measure of a Man” episode. In it, Data was similarly on trial over a question of his rights and ability to serve in Starfleet. “Ad Astra Per Aspera” shares some structural and thematic beats with “Measure of a Man” for sure. But Strange New Worlds also has a unique, utterly memorable ace up its sleeve: Yetide Badaki as Neera.
The episode picks up on the eve of Una’s trial, where she’s presented with an unattractive ultimatum. She must either take a plea deal that will lead to her dishonorable discharge from Starfleet or challenge the court martial and risk a lengthy stint in jail. Unwilling to go down without a fight, Una (and Pike, the epitome of a best friend/captain with an unwavering loyalty to her) opts to take Starfleet to court. But there’s a half-hearted defense attorney (on Starfleet’s payroll, no less) assigned to her case. So Una and Pike secure the services of one of the quadrant’s most notoriously fierce lawyers. Enter Badaki’s Neera, one of Una’s fellow Illyrians.
Una and Neera share a species; however, it quickly becomes clear that they’re not cut from the same cloth. Instead of jumping at the chance to defend another Illyrian against Starfleet in court, Neera is initially dismissive of Una’s predicament. From Neera’s perspective, Una is a traitor to the Illyrian people. She feels that Una “abandoned” her planet and disowned a deeply ingrained part of her Illyrian culture (genetic modifications) in order to assimilate in Starfleet. Neera eventually takes the case (thanks to Pike’s stubbornness), but explains she isn’t doing it out of any goodwill towards Una. She wants to provide a voice for Illyrians who “can’t or won’t pretend to be who they really are,” and this case is her best shot at sticking it to Starfleet.
The idea of genetic modifications getting a crew member in trouble with Starfleet isn’t a new one. “Measure of a Man” is the obvious inspiration for “Ad Astra Per Aspera.” But Deep Space Nine’s “Doctor Bashir, I Presume” also sees a beloved officer (Alexander Siddig’s Doctor Bashir) in hot water over hiding his genetic modifications from Starfleet. But while “Doctor Bashir, I Presume” explores identity and the treatment of children with disabilities, Strange New Worlds presents Una’s plight through an entirely new lens. The series focuses on structural corruption and long-standing prejudice within Starfleet itself.
The exploration of Starfleet as an aspirational but very flawed vision of the future was a theme first introduced in The Next Generation. So returning to it in Strange New World through an episode that parallels a TNG all-timer makes perfect thematic sense. Interestingly, the episode doesn’t give most of the philosophical heavy-lifting and monologues to Una or even Captain Pike. Instead, it’s a new, one-off character who gets to steal the show.
It’s difficult to remember another recent Star Trek episode that functions so wholeheartedly as a star turn for a guest actor. But bringing in Neera to fight on Una’s behalf isn’t just an opportunity for the series to highlight grade-A talent. In addition to letting Badaki work her magic, spotlighting Neera is a necessary break from tradition to make the episode work on a narrative and thematic level. Pike and Una are plenty aware of the deep flaws and prejudices within Starfleet. However, they are relatively idealistic, starry-eyed officers who hold the organization with a great deal of respect.
They may rail against the decisions being passed down regarding Una’s hidden genetic ancestry. But for them to suddenly take to the stand decrying Starfleet’s extensive history of bigotry and injustice would be a pretty significant heel-turn. This is especially true considering they’re both still eagerly serving aboard the Enterprise for the rest of the season. In recruiting Neera, Strange New Worlds is able to launch a wholehearted, in-depth criticism of Starfleet without miswriting one of their pre-existing characters.
Once Neera, Una, and co. take to the courtroom, it quickly becomes clear that Neera doesn’t just see this case as a one-off favor for another member of her species. By taking Una’s case, Neera is at long last given the platform to tell a high ranking Starfleet official (to their face) that their laws, codes, and customs are backward and bigoted.
Any time the morality of Starfleet itself is challenged, there’s almost always a dust-up in the Trek fandom. However, Neera’s grudge against Starfleet isn’t just presented as a cut-and-dry “she’s right they’re wrong” situation in Strange New Worlds. Dana Horgan’s script goes to great pains to paint Neera as a very passionate individual with flaws and predispositions of her own. Neera may be fighting for the right cause and helping our intrepid heroes. But she’s also a scrappy lawyer willing to resort to low blows if it means a case will sway her way. This conflict of interest in turn gives Badaki plenty of wiggle room to form a complex, multi-faceted character over the course of the episode.
That’s what’s so compelling about Neera in Strange New Worlds. In her deep passion to fight for the cause of the Illyrian, her personal feelings towards Starfleet come dangerously close to jeopardizing Una’s case in the name of tackling a larger, more “important” issue. That righteous fury is evident in every shift of her rigid posture and impassioned delivery. Though Neera is a strong character on the page, the intensity and strength Badaki brings to the character makes her truly memorable.
When the crew of the Enterprise applauds Neera for her victory at the episode, you can’t help but clap along with them. It’s a powerful performance and an astoundingly well-written, multi-faceted character that elevates “Ad Astra Per Aspera” beyond just a rehash of classic Trek courtroom episode.