Warning: This Interview Contains SPOILERS for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Episode 7 – “The Serene Squall”
Director Sydney Freeland just helmed one of the best episodes of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 1. “The Serene Squall” introduces a major new villain, Captain Angel (Jesse James Keitel), who forms a personal connection to Spock (Ethan Peck) before they hijack the USS Enterprise.
Among several major bombshells, the episode reveals that Captain Angel is married to Sybok, which reintroduces Spock’s Vulcan half-brother into Star Trek canon.
ScreenRant had the pleasure of chatting with Sydney Freeland about working with Jesse James Keitel to introduce Captain Angel and their aliases, Dr. Aspen, who are the first nonbinary characters in Strange New Worlds. She also shared how directing Star Trek compares to her current project, Marvel Studios’ Threw out, and what it was like to have cast member Jess Bush, who plays Nurse Christine Chapel, shadowing her as a director on set.
Screen Rant: Were you a Star Trek fan before you got tapped to direct this episode?
Sydney Freeland: I certainly saw the Star Trek movies growing up. I wouldn’t say I was a diehard Trekkie, though. I definitely was a sci-fi fan and appreciated the films.
As not a diehard fan but having some familiarity, what was the learning curve like to work on Star Trek?
Sydney Freeland: That’s the part that was actually really great. In order to prepare, I went back and started with The Original Series. Watching a lot of those episodes with fresh eyes for the first time, for the ’60s, so much of what they were doing was ahead of its time. It’s resonant now and holds up so well. The themes, the ideas, and the tone were great.
For this episode, specifically, we had always talked about this idea of introducing a villain who had that big, charismatic presence. So I watched Khan’s first episode of The Original Series, [I] rewatched Star Trek II, and looked at some other episodes. We used that as a touchstone.
One of the things I liked about The Original Series was that they were not afraid to go camp. We wanted to find a balance but we also wanted to nod to The Original Series and have a little fun with our episode as well, too.
Speaking of that great villain, Jesse James Keitel has an incredible role, really a dual role. Can you talk about working with her and how you figured out Dr. Aspen’s villain turn as Captain Angel?
Sydney Freeland: We talked about that a lot, as far as her character. We liked that idea of somebody who was queer – the characters of Aspen and Angel use they/them pronouns and Jesse uses she/her – and also a trans woman. That was something we were talking about.
All of our decisions, motivations, and story points were always based on this question of what is the humanity of this character? Who is this person on a human level? That dictated our decisions. Because it became much more about [Angel and Spock’s] relationship and who she was, and it wasn’t so much about her queerness. We wanted to tell a story that was beyond that.
Both characters Jesse plays are nonbinary. I believe they’re the first nonbinary characters Strange New Worlds you have introduced. Can you talk about getting to be part of that historic moment?
Sydney Freeland: There were so many conversations that happened off-screen and in prep, and in the writing and rewriting of [Jesse’s] character. Before I even came on board, Star Trek was very adamant about wanting to do this in the right way, and talking to people with these lived experiences. I know they went to GLAAD and this is before I even came on board.
Once Jesse and I came on board and started talking, there were all these little nuances [we discussed]. At the time, we were using 2021 terminology, this idea of nonbinary and pronouns. But then, we also asked ourselves, “Okay, but in the 23rd century, is that even a thing?” And so we landed on this place where it was a very matter-of-fact approach. As if ‘they/them’ was just common and matter-of-fact. We really focused on having that in the episode. When Spock and Chapel are referring to Dr. Aspen, they say, “they seem very talented… they seem like they bring a lot to the table.”
Even at the end when Anson [Mount, who lays Captain Pike] is doing his wonderful pirate impression, he explicitly says, “If we ever catch Angel, we should make them walk the plank.” I remember making the point of talking to Anson on that day, saying it’s important that we say “make them walk the plank” but not emphasizing it, just making it very matter-of-fact. That’s one word and eleven piece of dialogue but it was extremely important to me to make it very matter of fact and not making a big deal out of it. We wanted it to feel like we progressed beyond 2021/2022 terminology.
Strange New Worlds is also one of the shows that uses an AR Wall. I believe you used it to create the Vulcan rehabilitation center. How did you like working with the AR Wall?
Sydney Freeland: Like any new technology, it had its quirks but I had an amazing time with it. We shot the Vulcan center, and we shot the Engineering core. That entire set was also the AR wall. Everything you see in the Engineering core scene is 100% practical. There’s no blue screen on that set.
Right before we spoke, I saw an Instagram story with Jess Bush about how she shadowed you on set as a director.
Sydney Freeland: Yeah, Jess has aspirations to direct. She asked about shadowing me on the episode and I said, “Sure.” I invited her into the process the way my directing mentors did. Debbie Allen is a huge mentor of mine, and she can be extremely generous. Shadowing can be a tough process but one of the things I learned from Debbie is she would have me break down an episode as if I were directing it.
When I was working on Grey’s Anatomy, Debbie would set up the first scene of the day and we would turn it over to lighting and camera. And when we move to the next set, she would have me show her my breakdowns of how I was approaching the scene. I’d show her the blocking, the character points, and the shots. She would offer notes, thoughts, and feedback.
Anyone who’s interested in directing and wants to shadow is always an exciting prospect for me. I think Jess really stepped into that well and we tried to take a similar approach too.
You’re currently working at Marvel Studios’ Threw out. How does directing a Marvel show compare to directing star trek?
Sydney Freeland: Yeah, I’m currently working on Echo for Marvel. I would say the elements that are the same [are that] they’re both very huge franchises. Star Trek is a huge franchise, and Marvel is a huge studio. Both have very big shoes to step into and to try to fill. I think the main thing they have in common is they both have a huge emphasis on the story.
On Star Trek, all of our choices, from the character of Aspen, the character of Angel, and the other characters, everything was rooted in story story story. character character character. On the Marvel side, that has been our same MO Story and character, period. full stop. That dictates all of our decisions on the production side and and so forth.
Will you be coming back to direct more star trek when you’re done with Threw out?
Sydney Freeland: I would absolutely love to come back. It’s an amazing cast and crew. And Jesse is a genuine friend. We’ve stayed in communication after Star Trek. She’s blowing up. Queer as Folk is premiering, and she was on Big Sky. She’s just doing all of these amazing things.
All of those actors are so good. Jess and Ethan are so good together. Ethan is a class act, Jess is a class act. Jesse is a class act. It was an absolutely wonderful cast but also, more importantly, a wonderful crew. It was a very welcoming and creatively positive environment. If the opportunity presents itself to come back, I’d love to.
Check out our other interviews with Star Trek: Strange New Worlds stars Gia Sandhu, Christina Chong, Rebecca Romijn, Ethan Peck, Jesse James Keitel, and Anson Mount.
Next: Strange New Worlds Sets Up Spock’s Divorce 8 Years Early
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds streams Thursdays on Paramount+.
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