Star Trek Strange New Worlds: The Medical Team Talks Evolution and Ethics of Canon
It’s no exaggeration to say that the medical team of every long-haul exploration vessel is vital to the crew’s well-being.
It’s pretty much their entire purpose for being there. Historically, Star Trek’s ship doctors have fulfilled that role with empathy, wit, and, more often than not, a significant level of curmudgeonly charm.
Onboard the USS Enterprise of the all-new Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, sickbay is staffed primarily with Dr. M’Benga, portrayed by Babs Olusanmokun, and Nurse Christine Chapel, played by Jess Bush.
Speaking virtually with TV Fanatic and other outlets on a Strange New Worlds press day, Olusanmokun and Bush were candid about stepping into characters established on Star Trek: The Original Series (also referred to as TOS) by Booker Bradshaw and Majel Barrett, respectively.
Barrett, in particular, appeared as Chapel on twenty-five of the series’s seventy-nine episodes and reprised the role on nine episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series (TAS) and two of the motion pictures.
Bush’s iteration of the role on Strange New Worlds takes the character in a different direction than canon. Bush notes that there was extensive discussion around how this new version of Chapel would develop.
“When I watched Majel’s performance, what I took from that was her candor and her humor and her wit, but those things were just little seedlings, and in the 2021 rebirth of her, there’s so much more to her.
“Chapel in TOS’s whole plotline was quite connected to who she was pining after. That was a big feature of who she was, and that’s different this time.
“She’s got this lust for life and this mischievous nature that I love to embody. She’s been through some stuff, actually.
“Akiva [Goldsman] and Henry [Alonso Myers] are great in the sense that they — before the start of Season 1 — sat down [with me], and we chatted about who is she going to be. They had some points, and they also gave me license to explore.
“We talked about what her backstory might be. That wasn’t really explored [before] either. Her life outside of Starfleet wasn’t explored.
“She’s got a bit more… I dunno, she’s fallible, and she’s rough-and-tumble, and she’s curious about other people and what their honest expression is. Bringing that out is a cool, thoughtful, and kind aspect to her that I think is new.”
Did Bush prepare herself for the canonical relationship between Chapel and Spock?
“I definitely read into it. I read as much as I could on Majel and Chapel, and obviously, the Spock relationship is the major part of her portrayal in TOS. So, yeah, I watched a bunch of TOS. I did a lot of reading.”
In contrast to Chapel’s recurring role, M’Benga only appeared on two episodes of TOS, stepping in as the ranking medical officer when Dr. McCoy was absent from the ship.
Did Olusanmokun research Star Trek’s medical procedures and protocols before scrubbing up for duty on Strange New Worlds?
“I watched TOS, and I think I watched one other show, and I left it at that, really. You don’t want to be doing what everybody else has been doing. You don’t want to get too many influences, so to speak.
“I just try to craft something new and something different and something that I can bring my qualities – whatever they may be – to.”
What are some of the personality traits Olusanmokun feels come through in his portrayal of M’Benga?
“I would say his warmth is something that comes from me. I can be sharper with my language at times, but I’m working on it. I think he’s a wonderful guy, and I think I am too.
“All we really have is the self. We can bring ourselves to it. Then, of course, we are not exactly our characters, but our qualities and how we use our qualities to engage what the character is on paper is what the character then becomes. That’s the performance.
“Whether he’s always just strong or he’s vulnerable or the fragility that he might bring or the nobility that he might bring to certain moments and those choices when he decides to bring it or not bring it.
“Those are qualities that the actor must have, and the engagement of them with the written word is what gives you what you then see on the screen.”
As seen on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1 Episode 1, the doctor and nurse are a team comfortable with each other, with a history that empowers their ability to leap into action of an accord.
Olusanmokun shares that there is an established understanding that M’Benga and Chapel have a backstory. “They’ve known each other for a while.
“They’ve been on some adventures together. I don’t want to specify what those adventures may be, but there’s a backstory of respect for each other’s work, for engagement, for having spent time together in more adverse circumstances.
“I think that informs their relationship. It’s from a deeper familial point of view when he says, ‘You know you’re my favorite’”
Trek fans are a wide-ranging and diverse demographic. How do the actors feel about becoming part of this fandom and being role models for young viewers who see them as medical professionals?
Bush is gracious and grateful for the opportunity. “It’s an enormous privilege as an artist to be able to contribute to Star Trek. It always has such a strong cultural impact.
“It’s evident in everything, and it means so much to so many people. I think the people who make Star Trek have always been mindful to be intentional about that power that they hold.
“To be invited into that as an artist, to be able to use your voice and your heart and your passion to positively influence, to reach the younger generation is the goal as an artist.
“To me personally, you couldn’t ask for more. It’s an enormous responsibility and an enormous privilege.”
As Strange New Worlds launches into its first season, the cast engages with the excitement, knowing that Trek series can run for a long time. Is this daunting in any way?
Bush sees it as exhilarating. “I think it’s so delicious. The prospect of that is amazing. To be like, ‘Wow, I could be with this character for so long. I could be developing these relationships for a significant portion of my life.’
“The prospect of that is really exciting. To me, anyway. You, Babs?”
Olusanmokun agrees, “It’s a special thing to be part of this enduring legacy. It’s a job as an actor, but very quickly, you realize it means more than that because of how many people are so invested in this work and in this show and all the series through the years.
“So we have a challenge ahead of us. Seven seasons. Six seasons. Sounds wonderful, but we want to be able to give worthy episodes and worthy seasons, y’know? And keep it meaningful for people.
“We don’t want to just clock in every day. We want to make this as truthful and as meaningful and powerful as possible for those that engage with it.”
While Strange New Worlds is episodic, there is a thread of theme running through the season concerned with rules and whether they are necessary to protect humanity from harming themselves. What are Bush and Olusanmokun’s thoughts on that debate?
Bush speaks to it from Chapel’s perspective. “As a character, Chapel believes that rules are guidelines and people come first. You have to pay attention to the circumstances of a situation and not be blinded by the rules.
“There’s a respect for the rules and the regulations and that they’re there for a reason, but it’s a framework from which to then make decisions.”
Olusanmokun also sees it as a context-specific dilemma. “People write rules, and of course, people are not infallible. Therefore, at times, the rules that are created need to be taken down and stepped on in certain circumstances. Rules are not something that we should live and die by.”
Speaking of health-related rules, what was it like playing the medical team on a show produced during the pandemic?
Bush laughs, “It was strange. I mean, it is strange. It’s still strange.”
Olusanmokun expands more on the experience. “First of all, with all that was going on, we were really cocooned, and it gave it weight.
“On at least one [upcoming] episode, we touch upon something like [the pandemic]. It tells us we need to be respectful of what’s going on and button up and do what’s best for everybody around us, not just ourselves but everybody else around us.
“We have to care. And we’re carers in the sickbay, so it was definitely a factor.”
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds streams on Paramount+ with new episodes dropping every Thursday.
While you’re here, check out our previous roundtable interviews with cast members Rebecca Romijn, Ethan Peck, Anson Mount, Christina Chong, Melissa Navia, and Celia Rose Gooding.
Does this new series have you excited for new life and new civilizations? Hit our comments with your thoughts!
Diana Keng is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.