Star Trek: Strange New Worlds rocks for a lot of reasons — though most will point to its return to the episodic formula that Star Trek was built on. It’s a throwback to the original series (almost literally, as it takes place a few years before Captain James T. Kirk helms the Enterprise), where most every storyline gets resolved by the time the credits roll.
“The Serene Squall” is different, though it starts like any Star Trek episode: A Dr. Aspen (Jesse James Keitel) summons the Enterprise to help with a humanitarian mission to resupply some colonists on the outskirts of Federation space. The crew (including Captain Christopher Pike) gets kidnapped by space pirates while on a mission, and it’s up to Spock and Dr. Aspen to rescue the ship and its crew.
[Ed. note: The rest of this post discusses “The Serene Squall” at length. Ye be warned.]
Only — twist! — Dr. Aspen isn’t Dr. Aspen at all, but Captain Angel of the titular Serene Squall, who’s concocted an elaborate ruse specifically to hold Spock captive, in order to trade him for a Vulcan prisoner (and ex-flame).
In an episode where Pike dons an apron over his tactical vest and helms the literal wheel of an enemy cruiser, it’s Keitel’s performance that really carries the vampy, zany energy of “The Serene Squall.” They (Angel’s pronouns; Keitel uses she/her) are not only clearly at ease and having fun in the captain’s chair, but the most indelible Trek villain in a long time. In both the buttoned-up provocativity of Dr. Aspen and the campy glee of Captain Angel, the character is just a lot of fun to watch.
“I got to be 50 shades of chaos,” Keitel says of the experience. “I knew they were a little bad — like, I knew they came in and kind of flipped the script a little bit. But I didn’t know the details of that […] so I was, like, screaming reading the script.”
While Angel’s schemes are ultimately thwarted by Spock and Nurse Chapel, Star Trek’s favorite Vulcan isn’t so sure he’s seen the last of Angel, or the prisoner he believes they wanted to release. As T’Pring goes to check on a prisoner, we hear Spock say he thinks the prisoner is his half brother Sybok.
Like so much of Strange New Worlds, it’s a name-drop that looms large in the show’s universe, and seems poised to set up the final run of the show’s first season. But director Sydney Freeland (who has helmed movies like Deidra & Laney Rob a Train and will direct Marvel’s upcoming 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 this to try to introduce one of those, like, big, charismatic villain characters that could come back,” Freeland tells Polygon. And it’s more than just Sybok; Captain Angel was just as important a character to seed for something bigger.
“I saw her tape and I was like, Oh, this is fucking 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 up. “Like, when we first see Khan in the original series, like, Oh, this guy is campy as fuck! […] He is chewing up the scenery! He is going for it! You can see where they got that idea for how he became that big sort of charismatic presence.”
Keitel admits it was a bit harder to rein that in for the first half of the episode, before the twist, but she knew it was vital.
“I didn’t want it to be super obvious that this person was lying early on,” Keitel says. “So that was kind of a hard challenge for me as an actor, to be earnest and actually get to know Spock. And then, also, I was using him to get closer to my goal of rescuing my husband — who we all know is Sybok.”
Part of getting into character came from the process of being on the Enterprise, surrounded by all the set and costume details that come with a show made decades into the franchise. “The one thing we wanted to avoid was this swashbuckling, like, yar, matey! kind of thing,” Freeland says. “But we still wanted to have a little bit of [showing how] they’re outsiders, whereas on the bridge of the Enterprise, it’s very clean, and a little uniform, and orderly.”
Freeland says one point of reference for her was photos she would see while growing up as a Native Indigenous kid in the Southwest, of Indigenous people in the 1800s, where “you have this sort of Western influences interacting with Native and Indigenous” ones in their clothing.
“So that sort of evolved into a conversation about, like, Oh, is there anything we can do in the Star Trek universe? Are there pieces of Starfleet uniforms that these pirates could have gotten in their raids, and they’ve incorporated them into their uniform — and not only their uniform, but 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 changes into (while still in disguise as Aspen) changed “everything,” from her posture to her walk. It helped put her in the mindset of Angel, as they try to “disarm Spock in another way, a slightly more seductive way.” And at no point was it an opportunity Keitel took lightly.
“There aren’t a lot of trans women working in Hollywood, especially not in sci-fi, especially not on a legacy show like Star Trek. And so I knew my being there could be impactful, or could be a major misstep,” she says. “I think it’s really exciting to have not just a queer-coded villain, but a villain who actually is queer.
“I think oftentimes, recently in Hollywood, people are scared of making trans people the villain. We’re constantly being villainized in the media; we’re constantly being villainized in legislation. You can’t turn on the news without seeing either trans people get hate-crimed or an attempt to legislate us out of existence. So an opportunity to be a sexy, unapologetically daring villain is a dream, you know? We’re not villains in real life, so can’t I get to play a space pirate on Star Trek?”
Though neither Freeland nor Keitel knows (or will say) what’s next for future Angel and Sybok escapades, they’re just as excited to meet her again as the rest of us.
“Starfleet going to the different corners of the galaxy and, you know, they have good intentions, but sometimes those good intentions don’t always manifest as such. And what are the consequences of that?” Freeland asks. The Strange New Worlds director says she hopes the audience identifies and sympathizes with Keitel’s character, and can feel like, You know, they’ve got a point.