‘Strange New Worlds’ Finds the Old-School ‘Star Trek’ Sweet Spot

In the closing seconds of the premiere of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Anson Mount’s Captain Pike gets to say the lines. You know the ones: those previously proclaimed by William Shatner, Patrick Stewart, and even Scott Bakula. They come right after the phrase “to explore strange new worlds,” which means they were always bound to be the big finish of an episode called “Strange New Worlds” that launches a series called Strange New Worlds. And after 50 minutes of anticipation, there they are, as expected and promised, with only minor modifications. Pike, preparing to settle into the captain’s chair on the bridge of the USS Enterprise, reminds his crew of its mission: “We seek out new life and new civilizations. We boldly go where no one has gone before.” Cooool, every Star Trek fan thinks. “Cool,” Cadet Uhura says on the screen, grinning widely. Pike can’t help but smile too.

It’s easy to imagine a Star Trek series that phones in those first 50 minutes and hopes to be bailed out by a cynical, creatively bankrupt recitation of a quote that’s sure to trigger any fan’s nostalgia subroutine. But that’s not Strange New Worlds. Through the series’ first five episodes, which were provided to critics in advance of Thursday’s series premiere on Paramount+, the prequel/spinoff doesn’t take the coolness of the Enterprise’s five-year/continuing/ongoing mission format for granted. Instead, it makes a proactive case for its, well, continuing coolness. For at least the first half of the 10-episode first season, the mission remains as compelling as it was when it started on TV almost 60 years ago. Strange New Worlds doesn’t just invoke the well-known words; it lives by them, which is what makes it the most purely enjoyable live-action Trek since The Next Generation.

Technically, Strange New Worlds is a spinoff of Star Trek: Discovery, whose second season reintroduced the Pike-commanded Enterprise and established the core cast of Mount as Pike, Ethan Peck as Spock (who’s Discovery protagonist Michael Burnham’s adoptive brother), and Rebecca Romijn as Number One. But really, the series owes as much or more to the unaired pilot of The Original Series, “The Cage,” and the first-season two-parter, “The Menagerie.” Those episodes established both that Christopher Pike was James T. Kirk’s immediate predecessor as the captain of the Enterprise, and that Pike would later be paralyzed and severely scarred by radiation in the process of rescuing cadets on a training vessel. Discovery deepened Pike’s story by giving him a glimpse of his disfigured future; in Strange New Worlds, which is set about 10 years before the foreshadowed accident, he has to either come to terms with his fate or find a way to avoid it. (A version of Pike also appears in the alternate timeline plotted by J.J. Abrams’s big-screen Trek reboot, though that Pike avoids the worst of the physical effects.)

Pike doesn’t brood about his destiny in every scene or on every episode, though. He has his hands and thoughts full with more immediate crises: problems with warp cores, malfunctioning transporters, troublesome body swaps—you know, the usual. For the most part, Strange New Worlds will be neither strange nor new to Trek fans whose fondness for the franchise predates Discovery’s reboot. (According to coshowrunner Henry Alonso Myers, the pitch to the network was literally, “Here’s our crazy idea: We want to do Trek again. We want to do it the way it was done.”) From its font to its theme song to its story structure to Spock saying “reh-cords” and “sen-soars” to much of its recurring cast—which includes younger versions of Original Series characters Uhura, Nurse Chapel, and Kirk’s brother Sam, and will, as of Season 2, welcome Kirk himself (played by Paul Wesley)—Strange New Worlds is a comforting, familiar throwback. Like Pike, all of the returning characters are bound for outcomes largely set in stone in the ’60s. But we still want to see them get where they’re going.

Strange New Worlds, which joins Discovery, Picard, Lower Decks, and the kid-oriented Prodigy, is the fifth Star Trek series active today, one short of the sum of all Star Trek series that preceded Discovery. (Trek is a selling point for Paramount+, so there may be more on the way.) The speedy expansion of the Star Trek TV universe under franchise impresario Alex Kurtzman has produced innovative, varied, and divisive results, updating the Trek template in ways that brought the franchise into line with modern TV trends but also made it feel divorced from Star Trek’s past—sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

Perhaps improbably, the most consistent of the series that preceded Strange New Worlds is the animated Lower Decks, a comedic sitcom that fondly and perceptively spoofs TNG-style conflict by focusing on the not-in-command crew of an outmoded vessel that specializes in second contact. Lower Decks hit its stride at the end of its second season, expanding its scope while still delivering laughs. And while both Discovery and Picard started strong, they’ve recently run off the rails. Discovery’s third and fourth seasons, and Picard’s just-completed second, have earned the lowest average IMDb user ratings of any season of a live-action Star Trek series.

Some of the downvotes that produced those ratings may have stemmed from a kind of culture war within the Trek fandom, fueled by reflexive resistance to change or tinkering with tradition, but we can’t chalk up all of the negativity to that. At their least engaging, Discovery and Picard can be convoluted, poorly paced, and dark by Star Trek standards; so far, Strange New Worlds is neither. The latest Trek series premiered on the same day as Picard’s Season 2 finale, and the contrast does Strange New Worlds a lot of favors.

Despite its strong cast, Picard’s second season is, without exaggeration, one of the most clumsily plotted and inelegantly written television seasons I have ever watched. I finished it mostly out of vestigial loyalty to the character, the urge to rubberneck at a flaming 10-episode pileup, and fascination with what Stewart was thinking as he delivered his lines and presumably wondered how he got himself into this. Merely clearing that bar wouldn’t be a big accomplishment, but Strange New Worlds compares favorably to the best of Trek as well, even though it shares some of Picard’s creative DNA; Akiva Goldsman (who wrote and directed the Strange New Worlds premiere) was a cocreator and coshowrunner for both Strange New Worlds Season 1 and Picard Season 2.

It is semi-deflating that the two most enjoyable series of the Kurtzman era are the two most beholden to The Original Series and The Next Generation, respectively. Those blueprints are TV classics, of course, but what does it say about Star Trek’s potential to evolve if the only path to success is well-worn? (Or that the formerly forward-looking Picard is pivoting to a third and final season that’s shaping up to be a well-attended TNG reunion?)

In some respects, Strange New Worlds seems almost regressive and cautious compared to the series that spawned it. While Discovery spearheaded serialized storytelling within the Star Trek TV ecosystem, Strange New Worlds marks a return to an episodic vision, albeit with more character continuity and development than The Original Series. After Michael Burnham and friends parted ways with Pike at the end of Discovery Season 2—after which fans clamored for more of Mount—that series took a 900-plus-year time leap to the 32nd century; Strange New Worlds sticks to the safer, charted territory of the decade before Kirk took command. Discovery made Michael (and Sonequa Martin-Green) the first Black female captain in live-action Trek; in Pike (and Mount), Strange New Worlds returns to the franchise’s white-guy-captain roots.

However, exploring the galaxy and encountering new threats and wonders from week to week isn’t a bad brand to have, even if the basic configuration has been employed before. Discovery’s mold-breaking structure was exciting in 2017, but the episodic nature of Strange New Worlds feels like a relief in 2022—not only from the labored plotting of Picard and Discovery’s later seasons, but also from the crushing cultural weight of shared universes and multiverses that demand deep dives on wikis to keep up with. Characters make occasional allusions to events from Discovery, and Original Series callbacks abound, but a Trek newcomer could start fresh with Strange New Worlds without missing many beats. This approach also frees the series from the lack of suspense that sometimes plagues prequels; as long as the immediate drama doesn’t disappoint—and it hasn’t over the first five episodes—it almost doesn’t matter when this series is set. Plus, Mount is magnetic in the role, adding compassion, consensus-building, and emotional intelligence to the charisma of Kirk and cool-headed resolve of Picard. (He also sports a gravity-defying, Tribble-height thicket of industrial-strength hair that would make Shatner’s Original Series toupee team weep with envy.)

I’m often the first to point out the problems with prequels or bemoan uninspired, nostalgia-centric narrative recycling, and on the surface Strange New Worlds would seem to risk checking both boxes. Most of the episodes evoke Trek episodes past: a conflict between warring factions on a world that’s about to blow itself up; a vintage mysterious space anomaly; a crew contracting a confounding infection; a colony in distress; the complexities and perils of shore leave and diplomatic negotiations. But if these are borrowed tunes, they’re the best kind of covers, those that help us appreciate what made the original songs so catchy. Even when it’s boldly rehashing, the series’ evident delight in its subject matter is contagious. When Pike says “I love this job” after helping avert what could have been a costly loss of life, it’s easy to revel in the wholesome spectacle of idealistic, competent, passionate, and selfless people pulling together.

Formerly underserved characters like Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding), Chapel (Jess Bush), and Number One get much more fleshed out backstories in Strange New Worlds than they did in The Original Series. Spock—whom Peck plays with a perfect blend of Nimoy and new—is less experienced than we’re used to seeing him, and struggling as always with how to balance his personal and professional obligations and his Vulcan and human heritages. A smattering of original characters stand alongside the legacy acts, particularly Babs Olusanmokun as Dr. M’Benga, Bruce Horak as taciturn engineer Hemmer, and Christina Chong as security officer La’an Noonien-Singh, whose surname may ring a bell and whose hairstyle and no-nonsense vibe makes her Star Trek’s answer to Drummer from The Expanse.

Pike’s tweaks to the Enterprise’s mission statement—“We seek out new life” and “We boldly go”—speak to the series’ true ensemble nature. The premiere revolves around Pike and the Enterprise’s top brass, but subsequent episodes shift focus to supporting characters, all of whom have humanizing (or, well, Vulcanizing or Aenarizing) traits. I cared more about the crew of Strange New WorldsEnterprise after four episodes than I did about most of the crew of Discovery’s Enterprise after four seasons. That’s partly because Strange New Worlds understands that the ship itself is its audience’s happy place and its crew’s home away from home; as the last scene of TNG reminds us, Star Trek is about the bonds between its crews and the communities they make for themselves among the stars, and the Enterprise of Strange New Worlds feels appropriately like a lived-in, not-so-strange world.

The ship’s semi-retro appearance plays a part in its air of hospitality: While its corridors and bridge don’t look like they’re straight out of the ’60s, the decor and instrumentation are mercifully a little less sleek, antiseptic, bright, and blue than the other starships of the Abrams and Kurtzman era. Visually and tonally, the series sometimes tries rewarding new tricks, as evidenced by a sequence in which Star Trek meets submarine movies, or another episode in which a couple of higher-ranking characters get in touch with their inner ensigns in a near-empty Enterprise. “Space really wants us dead,” one character observes, but that’s all the more reason to relish levity where one finds it. As Spock says, “It appears that hijinks are the most logical course of action.”

It’s not initially clear what galaxy-altering implications, if any, Strange New Worlds may be building up to, though the series does introduce an imaginative possible Big Bad and, in typical Trek fashion, finds ways to comment on the 21st century by way of the 23rd. (Fortunately, those allusions are less heavy-handed and preachy than they tend to be on Picard.) For now, though, it’s enough to be back in the vast Alpha Quadrant, to revel in the thrill of thought-provoking discoveries, interpersonal epiphanies, and inspirational speeches, and to hope that this series sustains its momentum longer than Discovery and Picard did. Slashing its seasonal episode count to 10, rather than the 26 or more that used to be the Star Trek standard, should help it steer clear of the quality dips and repetition that plagued even the best Star Trek series at times.

To quote Spock again, “I find the best way to defuse tension is to apply rigorous logic.” CBS seems to have decided that the best way to defuse the tension within Trek fandom was to go not-that-boldly back in time and content to where multiple series have been before. Star Trek doesn’t necessarily need to be static; it could and should be a Changeling that adapts to its times and challenges its audience, and future Trek incarnations may perfect the model that Discovery and Picard pioneered. But gosh, it feels good to know that the old Enterprise’s mission is ongoing again.

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