Throwing an hour of light comedy into the middle of a 10-episode arc with galactic-level stakes could derail an entire season, but Star Trek: Strange New Worlds dances gracefully from week to week between courtroom drama, time-travel romance, and its latest wild swing: a musical episode.
In “Subspace Rhapsody,” the crew of the USS Enterprise encounters a strange cosmic phenomenon that induces them to break into song and reveal their innermost feelings. The episode features 10 original songs by Kay Hanley and Tom Polce (of Letters to Cleo fame) and highlights the vocal talents of the cast, including Tony nominee and Grammy winner Celia Rose Gooding and singer-songwriter Christina Chong.
Executive Producer Alex Kurtzman, who heads up the franchise at Paramount, has been teasing the possibility of a Star Trek musical since 2020. But at the time, his only venue for bizarre genre experiments was Star Trek: Short Treks, a short subject anthology series that filled the gaps between Discovery and Picard. Short Treks eventually became the launchpad for Strange New Worlds, whose tone has proven equally elastic. After the warm reception to its first season, which contained everything from a screwball body-swap comedy to a grim political drama involving child sacrifice, it was time to set phasers to “sing.”
According to the episode’s director, Dermott Downs, Chong was the cast member who pushed the hardest for a musical episode. Chong, whose debut EP Twin Flames is also out this week, confesses in her Spotify bio that her screen acting career began as a way to raise her profile as a singer and stage actor. “Subspace Rhapsody” would seem to be an important landmark in her career, as she features heavily on the soundtrack, including the solo ballad “How Would That Feel?”
(Chong is unavailable for comment due to the conditions of the ongoing SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes, as is the rest of the cast and the episode’s writers, Dana Horgan and Bill Wolkoff. Songwriters Kay Hanley and Tom Polce also could not be reached via Paramount publicity.)
Indeed, one of the interesting challenges of producing a musical episode of an established television show is tailoring the music to suit the talents of the existing cast. Who’s a belter? Who’s a crooner? Who’s funny? Who might not be comfortable singing at all? The tools at hand impact not only the distribution of the songs, but the shape of the story. The narrative and emotional weight of a musical has to fall on the shoulders of the cast members most prepared to carry it.
So, it’s no surprise that, while “Subspace Rhapsody” gives nearly every regular cast member an opportunity to show off, the heart of the story is Ensign Nyota Uhura, portrayed by Celia Rose Gooding. Gooding’s performance as Frankie in Jagged Little Pill, a Broadway jukebox musical featuring the songs of Alanis Morissette, garnered them a Tony nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical, as well as a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album (shared with the rest of the cast). Gooding sings the episode’s 11 o’clock number, “Keep Us Connected,” an undeniable earworm that showcases their impressive vocal range and power. Gooding’s Broadway bona fides bring a level of legitimacy to “Subspace Rhapsody” that’s lacking even in top-tier TV musical episodes like Buffy’s “Once More, With Feeling” and Community’s “Regional Holiday Music.”
This also isn’t Downs’ first crack at a musical episode, as he also helmed “Duet,” a crossover between The Flash and Supergirl that reunited former Glee castmates Grant Gustin, Melissa Benoist, and Darren Criss. Downs used this experience, as well as his long resume as a music video cinematographer, to secure the “Subspace Rhapsody” gig from the list of episodes in development for Strange New Worlds’ second season. Combined with his fondness for the original Star Trek, the possibility of working on Trek’s first musical episode was too exciting to pass up, despite the obvious risks.
“There was a great potential to jump the shark,” says Downs, “because if you’re this grounded show, how are you going to do a musical in outer space? And to their credit, they crafted a great story. Once you understand the anomaly and how music pushes forward all of these interior feelings through song, then you have the potential for so many different kinds of songs.”
However, the prospect of singing for the viewing audience was not immediately appealing to every cast member, a fact that is lampshaded within the framework of the episode. Much of the Enterprise crew fears the subspace anomaly’s ability to make them spill their guts through song. Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) is afraid of getting into an argument with his girlfriend, Captain Marie Batel (Melanie Scrofano), and the pair ends up airing out their relationship issues on the bridge. (This song is, appropriately, entitled “A Private Conversation.”) Mount’s singing role is simpler than his castmates’ on a technical level, but leverages his comedic talents and awkward, boy-next-door charm.
“He crushed it,” says Downs. “It was like a country ballad gone wrong.”
Babs Olusanmokun, who portrays the multifaceted Dr. Joseph M’Benga, sings the bare minimum in the episode, and his character makes a point to tell his shipmates (and the viewer) that he does not sing. For his part, Downs cannot comment on any studio magic that may or may not have been employed to make the less seasoned vocalists in the cast more tuneful, but a listener with an ear for autotune will definitely detect some pitch correction.
Downs says that Ethan Peck, who portrays the young Lieutenant Spock, was among the more apprehensive cast members, but if anything, this becomes an asset to his performance in the episode. Spock has spent this season actively exploring his human feelings, even entering into a romantic relationship with Nurse Christine Chapel (Jess Bush). Spock’s solo “I’m the X” sees Spock retreating into his shell, and the actor’s shyness feeds into the character’s conflict. Peck’s performance of the song, which was written for his smooth baritone, was the production’s most pleasant surprise. The temp track of the song that the crew worked with (until Peck recorded his version over a weekend, like the rest of the cast) featured a bigger, more conventionally Broadway vocal, but Peck performs it in character — superficially steady, but with strong emotional undercurrents just below the surface.
On a character level, however, the musical format might be most revelatory for Rebecca Romijn’s Commander Una Chin-Riley, aka Number One. Una began the series as a very guarded person harboring a secret that could end her career. Even as far back as her appearance in the 2019 Short Treks episode “Q&A,” her advice to new arrival Spock was to “keep your ‘freaky’ to yourself,” in this case referring to her love for Gilbert and Sullivan (inherited from Romijn herself). Since then, her much more consequential secrets have been revealed, and she finds herself unburdened, and uses the opportunity presented by the musical anomaly to encourage her mentees to do the same. Una’s songs, “Connect to Your Truth”’ and “Keeping Secrets,” see her offering advice to rising first officer James T. Kirk (Paul Wesley) and her protege La’an (Chong), respectively, about the futility of withholding your full self from others.
“Subspace Rhapsody” concludes with an ensemble number about the crew’s common purpose and fellowship — an appropriate sentiment not only for a musical episode but for Strange New Worlds. Star Trek has always been about friendship and cooperation, but no previous incarnation (save, perhaps, for Deep Space Nine) has granted each member of the cast such even amounts of attention and importance, from Captain Pike to Ensign Uhura. Previous Trek series could perhaps have sustained a musical episode (Ronald D. Moore even pitched one for DS9 back in the ’90s). For a series sold to fans as a return to “old-school Star Trek,” Strange New Worlds has taken some wild creative risks. While the show has resumed its time-tested episodic “problem of the week” format, its writers and producers have used this structure to experiment in ways that its sister shows, Discovery and Picard, could never have gotten away with. As corny as it might be, on Strange New Worlds it feels particularly appropriate to close a story with the entire crew singing about their trust in each other, in perfect harmony.