I SING THE SPOILER ELECTRIC!!!
Some people just don’t like musicals…but I am NOT one of them!
I LOVE live theater, and I love singing show tunes! (Yes, straight men can admit that, too!) I saw Annie on Broadway when I was 8, My Fair Lady a year later, and The King and I with Yul Brynner a couple of years after that. I saw The Wiz, Oklahoma, Cats, A Chorus Line, Grease, Miss Saigon, Les Miserables, Phantom, 42nd Street, Chess, Gypsy, South Pacific, Rent and countless others both on and off Broadway all before moving from New York City to Los Angeles in the 1990s. And I’ve seen a whole slew of musicals since I’ve been out here, as well.
Back in high school, I was in Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, Cabaret, and I even got a standing ovation after singing “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” as Nicely Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls.
Meanwhile, my 12-year-old son Jayden, who is a Trekkie and watches and enjoys each new episode of STRANGE NEW WORLDS with me, announced that he would be skipping “Subspace Rhapsody” because, according to him, he HATES musicals. “I cringe when people start singing for no reason, Daddy!” he told me. Of course, his mom and dad sing for no reason, but Jayden doesn’t exactly cheer that tendency, either!
Eventually, I did convince him to watch the episode with me. I explained that, if ever there was a musical he might like, it would be one set on the starship Enterprise. And while he did have his fair share of complaints during the episode—“Why would she be saying this???”—he admitted to me at the end that, “Well, this was probably the best musical I’ll ever see…but I don’t plan to see many musicals, Daddy.”
And now that I’ve finished the overture, let’s take the true measure of this episode to see if it cleared the bar (yes, I have many musical puns planned—brace yourselves)…
IF YOU DIDN’T LIKE THIS EPISODE, AT LEAST BE NICE!
I need to come right out and say this: the fans who are blasting and berating this episode on social media should feel ashamed of themselves. Why? Because our dearly departed NICHELLE NICHOLS would have loved every second of “Subspace Rhapsody.” Nichelle came from musical theater, and her successor in the role of Uhura, CELIA ROSE GOODLING, was one of the youngest performers to ever be nominated for a Tony Award (at the age in 20, three years ago) and actually won the 2021 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. How proud and excited Nichelle would have been to know that her beloved character’s legacy was being carried forward by such a gifted musical performer.
And remember that Nichelle herself was the first actor to ever sing on a Star Trek episode way back in 1966! And she wouldn’t be the last. LEONARD NIMOY gave us the unforgettable “Maiden Wine” sung in Spock’s deep baritone during the third season TOS episode “Plato’s Stepchildren.” In TNG, “Ol’ Yellow Eyes” Commander Data sang twice in the last two Next Gen movies, once doing Gilbert and Sullivan and then singing Blue Skies by Irving Berlin.
Thanks to Vic Fontaine’s holosuite program, we had musical numbers not only by crooner JAMES DARREN (Vic) but also NANA VISITOR and AVERY BROOKS. And let’s not forget all that Klingon opera and battle songs about of honor and glory. Oh, and speaking of operatic opportunities, Voyager‘s EMH featured a number of performances by ROBERT PICARDO, who sang in an a capella group back in college at Yale. JERI RYAN even joined him in a beautiful duet of “You Are My Sunshine” in the Voyager episode “Someone to Watch Over Me.” And yeah, ALISON PILL belted out a stunning Borg Queen rendition of Shadows of the Night during the second season of STAR TREK: PICARD.
In other words, this is by far NOT Star Trek‘s first foray into singing characters. And if you don’t like singing characters or musicals, that’s fine. Don’t watch the episode. Or say that you didn’t like it and leave it that. But for the love of Nichelle, don’t berate it as if your negative opinion in somehow the gospel truth. Nichelle Nichols cherished musical theater and almost left the series after the first season to return to it. We all know the story of DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. talking her into staying with Star Trek, but singing to an audience was always her first and dearest love. To criticize this episode of Star Trek is to criticize that love and, indirectly, to criticize Nichelle.
So if you ripped into this episode on social media, I think I can speak for our Lady of Communications in saying, “SHAME ON YOU!”
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE TELEVISION “MUSICAL EPISODE”
Of course, there’s a difference between having a character sing a song as part of an episode’s storyline and turning an entire Star Trek episode into a full musical. Indeed, it’s boldly going (or anything going) where no Trek has gone before…but not necessarily where no television series has gone before.
Indeed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a groundbreaking comedic sci-fi/fantasy/horror genre mesh, gained additional notoriety during its sixth season in 2001 with “Once More with Feeling,” a critically-acclaimed all-musical episode, with original songs written by series creator JOSS WHEDON. But the episode didn’t simply detour into singing and dancing, it actually advanced character arcs in significant ways. Fans loved it, and it’s still considered a turning point in television history, even today, In fact, when La’an Dr. M’Benga comment in “Subspace Rhapsody” about turning into bunnies, and when Uhura says, “I’ve got a theory,” those lines were direct references to this opening musical number from that Buffy episode…
However, many fans don’t realize that special “musical” episodes of non-musical television series predate Buffy by nearly a half-century! In 1956, during its fifth season, legendary TV sitcom I Love Lucy aired the episode “Lucy Goes to Scotland,” which was primarily a dream sequence with five original songs preformed by both the four main cast members as well as guest singers and dancers. Of course, I Love Lucy and contemporary sitcom series Make Room For Daddy/The Danny Thomas Show regularly featured musical numbers performed by their series’ lead actors DESI ARNAZ and DANNY THOMAS, as well as guest stars. But the Scotland episode was a true musical in the middle of a “normal” sitcom series.
However, while Star Trek itself was airing in the late 1960s, a new music-themed sitcom format was also hitting the airwaves with shows like The Monkees (1966-1968) and, later on, The Partridge Family (1970-1974). But in those cases, the music was usually performed within the “reality” of the episode—in other words, the Monkees and the Partridge Family were singing groups who toured and played in front of audiences.
It wasn’t until 1982, however, that a fully musical dramatic television series emerged. Fame was based on the 1980 movie of the same name and ran for five seasons, earning multiple Emmy Awards and even the Golden Globe for Best Series: Musical or Comedy in both 1982 and 1983. On the other hand, the next fully musical dramatic television series, Cop Rock, was an abysmal failure, lasting only eleven episodes in late 1990 before being put out of its misery. Musical-based TV series would hibernate until 2007 when Glee exploded into people’s living rooms with groundbreaking production numbers and multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations and wins.
But the “musical episode” of non-musical series was done on television even before Buffy…with mixed results. In 1997, Xena: Warrior Princess debuted their third season episode “The Bitter Suite” with nine musical numbers and a very positive reception. Four years later, though, Ally McBeal‘s “The Musical, Almost” could best be described as: a good try, now please don’t do it again. But both efforts flew mostly under the radar until Buffy‘s “Once More, with Feeling” in 2001. Then the musical episode became a challenge that many TV series decided to take on…again, with mixed results.
Scrub’s “My Musical” (2007) and “Psych: The Musical” (2013) were both masterpieces, excellently produced, highly praised, and a joy to watch and listen to. On the other hand, 7th Heaven‘s “Red Socks” (2005) and Grey’s Anatomy‘s “Song Beneath the Song” met with, at best, polarized reviews, with more viewers passionately criticizing the efforts than praising them. (That’s a polite way of saying they sucked.)
Many other live-action television series including Oz, That 70’s Show, Fringe, Supernatural, Once Upon a Time, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and The Flash have each done musical episodes. In fact, “Subspace Rhapsody” was directed by DERMOTT DOWNS, the same person who directed the Supergirl/Flash crossover musical episode “Duet.”
So if you’re saying that making a musical episode of Star Trek was an unprecedented mistake, it was certainly not unprecedented. And frankly, I don’t think it was a mistake.
THEY HAD ONE CHANCE TO GET THIS RIGHT…AND THEY DID!
Granted, had the creators of Strange New Worlds screwed this up, all bets would have been off, regardless of Nichelle Nichols’ or my love of musical theater. Sometimes a show opens on Broadway and closes a few nights later because it’s a flop. And had this episode of SNW been awful, I would certainly have stood up to criticize the execution…although not necessarily the decision. Y’see, I appreciate when the showrunners decide to boldly go, especially on a series that opens each episode with those two words. Two weeks ago during the crossover episode with LOWER DECKS, I commented that Star Trek has always been about taking risks. “Risk is our business!” And this episode probably carried ample opportunities to get themselves into serious treble…er, tribble…I mean trouble!
For example, experiments like the aforementioned 7th Heaven and Ally McBeal episodes ran into major hurdles when it turned out that many in the main cast didn’t know how to sing! After all, actors are typically hired on a TV series based on acting ability, not because they’ve done musical theater. A few might have that experience, of course, but others won’t. What do you do in a musical episode when someone just can’t sing well?
Of course, the songs have to be written, and this doesn’t happen overnight. The plot of the episode needs to first be worked out in script form. Then for each song, lyrics must be written to support the story, and melodies composed. Just getting an episode like this down on paper is a huge undertaking!
Another obstacle to scale (yeah, folks, still musically punning!) is the pure logistics of not just creating the songs but hiring musicians, choreographers, and additional performers with singing and dancing skills. Such people exist and are obviously looking for work (even in Toronto), but you still have to look for them, audition them, and get them prepared to work on the set with the regular cast.
And that brings up perhaps the greatest challenge: timing. While most episodes will require modest rehearsal time, a musical needs a LOT of preparation and practice to be sharp (which is key!)…let alone be finished on time.
Once you’ve hired everyone, the orchestra needs to practice and lay down the music tracks. Then the actors need to rehearse those songs and then each get into the sound studio to record them. Audio engineers next need to clean up the best takes, adjust levels, and ultimately merge them for duets and ensemble numbers. Once the songs are ready, the actors then need to rehearse not just their lines but also their dance moves (or at least their blocking). And of course, being able to lip sync is critical, and not everyone can pull that off without even more practice. And finally, larger production numbers require more camera angles, more coverage, and more production time. And remember, all this extra time and extra people ain’t cheap!
In other words, deciding to make a musical episode wasn’t just a risky move in terms of potential audience reaction, it was a huge, gutsy commitment of time, money and resources….with so many places things could go wrong. But instead, the creative team navigated the gauntlet flawlessly.
First of all, they created a premise that, while not perfect, was enough of a technobabble explanation to allow fans to turn off their brains and just accept that the episode was going to be a musical. As with all musicals, there must exist an unspoken “agreement” with the audience that people will sing and dance their thoughts and feelings. But Trekkies are a tough bunch, and without a decent premise, fans would likely be harsh critics. (And many still were!) One possible explanation for the singing might have been an all-powerful cosmic imp like Q forcing the performances. But Q and other omnipotent beings have been done to death on Star Trek, so better to have a subspace anomaly because those haven’t been done to death…only nearly to death. I’m kidding, they’ve been done to death, too. But the fact is that no explanation for the musical interlude was going to please every fan. You either buy into the premise and just sit back and enjoy the presentation, or you resist the attempt at explanation and enjoyment becomes futile.
So yeah, as improbable as it seems, somewhere out there is s a Star Trek reality where everyone sings and dances. But hey, at least a bowl of petunias didn’t suddenly appear next to the Enterprise thinking, “Oh no, not again!“
The next thing they did right was to turn the musical anomaly into the main plot. This was a problem for the crew to solve. And while the episode’s storyline wasn’t the best ever, the writers did manage to escalate the danger into a galactic-level threat to the Federation and the Klingons, including a countdown to disaster. In other words, this episode was exciting enough to keep up a fast tempo…which was a good thing considering that “Substance Rhapsody” had the second-longest run time of any episode of the series so far.
The script was also nicely balanced between comedy, drama, emotional introspection, action, suspense, and whimsy. Too much of any one of these, or too little, could have either turned the the episode into farce or else gotten it bogged down too heavily in angst and contemplation.
And crucial to the success of a musical episode, the music didn’t suck! Just the opposite, in fact, as some of the tunes were quite catchy. And indeed, the genres of music were as diverse as could be, spanning of while range of Broadway styles from jazzy to whimsical to intense heartbreak to quietly introspective to dramatic inspirational to K-pop/boy band. There was, quite literally, almost something for everyone in terms of musical taste…just not for those with no taste.
And then there was the auto-tune. For anyone complaining about the use of that relatively new technology, I need you to watch something…
So let’s just put the auto-tune complaints into the airlock, okay? Because it could have been much worse.
And finally, the most important thing they got right…
THIS WAS AN IMPORTANT CHARACTER-DRIVEN EPISODE
Much like Buffy‘s “Once More, with Feeling,” this musical episode of SNW was so much more than just an indulgent diversion. VERY important story advancement happened to nearly all of the main characters. In other words, this was not the episode to skip by any means!
Pike and Captain Batel’s (her first name is Marie) relationship was not only explored but moved forward a bit, as well. That said, does anyone reading this NOT think Batel and the U.S.S. Cayuga are gonna get into some serious peril in the season finale? “Priority mission,” huh? More foreboding words have seldom been uttered!
Number One got a couple of good chances to open up about sharing secrets. This episode wasn’t so much a chance for her character to grow as to mark her growth from someone who kept things entirely professional and to herself and to a person who is okay opening up.
But speaking of secrets, perhaps the most character development took place with La’an—and not just the resolution of her schoolgirl crush on James Kirk. However, I did find it significant that her revelation of her truth to James was spoken, not sung. In other words, the anomaly didn’t force her to open up; she did so of her own accord (as opposed to a chord…zing!). That marked her truest growth this episode. And she did it without revealing any details of the alternate reality time-travel…only its effects on her personally.
Speaking of Kirk, I’m glad this potential love-affair was officially retired in this episode. Obviously, Kirk and La’an can’t be together seriously long-term without him either changing ships or visiting WAY too often. And Jim Kirk is already wearing out his welcome after appearing in 20% of the episodes of the series and twice in the last four episodes—so much so that one fan already designed the cover of the next Star Trek novel…
However, the reason given for Kirk’s unavailability was perfect. He’s already got someone: Carol (Marcus). And she’s pregnant. I did some quick head-math, and with SNW set about 6-7 years prior to season one of TOS, and “Space Seed” 15 years before Wrath of Khan, then David Marcus is probably about 20-21 years old when Kirk rescues him and Carol on Regula. So yeah, that works!
And when it comes to canon, another plot line is moving closer to TOS: Chapel is about to spend three months with Roger Korby, who will eventually become her fiancé. This will effectively end her tryst with Spock and, probably, be one of the causes of him going back to a more stoic Vulcan persona. Some fans are complaining that, when it comes to Spock, Chapel has “done him dirty” in charming him away from T’Pring and then leaving him in the lurch. But remember that, two episodes ago, Ensign Boimler clued Chapel into Spock’s potential future being non-emotional. So perhaps she is running away “for his own good” (and maybe her own good)? It’s complicated…which is awesome because it makes things more interesting and blog-worthy.
Speaking of blogs, I’m now crossing 3,000 words, so time to wrap this up. The last two things I’ll mention are that it was awesome seeing BRUCE HORAK return for a second time this season, not as Hemmer this time, but as Klingon General Garkog trying desperately to resist the urge to break out in song. And the other was that I thought it was wonderfully appropriate that Nyota Uhura, noted for first bringing music to Star Trek 57 years ago, ended up being the hero who saved the day. But even more appropriate was that Uhura did so by bringing the entire crew (and the K-pop Klingons) together to sing the grand finale.
Sure, it was a predictable and campy ending, but it was so uplifting! And really, what better way to bring the episode to a coda? Take a bow, Strange New Worlds, and bring on the season two finale…
Encore question: if you leave a comment, please let me know which was your favorite song. Mine was La’an’s “How Would That Feel” because it was so well-sung and poignant, perhaps the best of all of the character-development songs of the episode. What about you?