When Captain Christopher Pike appeared in “Star Trek Discovery” Season 2, played by a suave, charismatic, eye-twinkling Anson Mount with a yellow uniform hearkening back to the Trek of old, fans of Old Trek heaved a sigh of relief, while fans of New Trek were bowled over by what was a fan-favorite performance. It is an open secret that “Strange New Worlds” was commissioned after huge fan support to see more of Mount’s Christopher Pike.
Pike wasn’t a new character. Initially part of the first pilot termed “The Cage”, the adventures of Captain Christopher Pike (played then by Jeffrey Hunter) was rejected because of being “too cerebral. However the pilot was liked enough that the network commissioned for a second pilot episode, which would ultimately turn out to be the first episode of Star Trek The Original Series. The rest, as they say, is history. Out of the two pilots, two elements remain moderately unchanged. One is Leonard Nimoy’s Commander Spock who while described as a Vulcan was given a major overhaul that would shape the present perception of Spock and the vulcans. The second is the tone and ethos of Star Trek.
It does make sense, but knowing who is leading the “Star Trek” brand at present gives cause for concern. Secret Hideout, led by Akiva Goldsman and Alex Kurtzman, is notoriously more focused on action set-pieces, violence, and an emphasis on socially-driven storytelling at the expense of a coherent narrative. See “Star Trek Discovery” and “Picard” for reference. This is why, when I finally finished the pilot of “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” I had a strange sensation. I liked it.
And it is not a love affair intertwined with a healthy dose of trepidation and dread. Those were present, but the episode somehow managed to craft a one-and-done story while also managing to keep its serialization and subplot intact. Most importantly, the narrative wasn’t bad. I was even more surprised when the realization struck me. This wasn’t a one-off.
“Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” to be different from Goldsman and co.’s “traditional oeuvre,” actually went back to the olden ways of procedural television, embracing the “wagon to the stars” form of storytelling as well as some of the sillier aspects of Trek, and the result was somewhat of a positive step. The first noticeable difference is in the show and its writers’ care in fleshing out the rest of the crew. It could be called cheating, considering Una (Rebecca Romjin) isn’t technically a new character, nor is Uhura, Nurse Chapel, or even Spock, for that matter. But the interpretations here work for the most part. This feels like a crew that gets along with each other. There is a legitimate hierarchy that the crew follows, and the crew, along with Pike, meet, discuss, and solve problems together, instead of Pike rushing to solve it head-on and ignoring repeated warnings like some of the Nu-trek characters we know about.
But the notable aspect of “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” is how it manages to recapture the feeling of delving into deeper questions of existentialism and the possibility of life. Trek has never been shy about asking deeper questions, and “Strange New Worlds” is no exception. While older Trek delved more into allegorical storytelling, newer Trek is blunter, but it doesn’t delve too hard into being didactic.
There are moments of fan service and connections to earlier properties in the franchise which would baffle and excite you in equal measure. The true identity of Xaverius, a Vulcan, or the backstory of La’an Noonien Singh, is connected to a character very familiar to anyone inundated with even a fraction of Star Trek. La’an, without the baggage of that backstory, is a far more interesting character, which makes me scared of how much canon would be bent.
Then again, the bending of canon is the ethos of “Strange New Worlds” existence. Pike’s character arc stems from him having learned about his future, which is already set in stone in Star Trek canon. The nature of the revelation is frankly laughable, but it is interesting how Pike grapples with a future that is set in time, and how his efforts to change it come to bite him in the rear in the final episode of the season. The final episode is a mixture of “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (Star Trek TNG) and “Balance of Terror” (Star Trek TOS), with a healthy dose of the appearance of another fan-favorite character for added measure. It still hearkens back to the problems very much emblematic of nu-trek.
Original ideas, original sci-fi ideas, or well-done remixes of original ideas in sci-fi aren’t the forte of the writers of the new Star Trek. Even the best episodes of this season are very much inspired by older Star Trek novels and episodes of other sci-fi shows. That is not a problem in its basic construct, but the writers’ room’s efforts to change or tweak significant moments in canon to deliver an edgier and action-heavy story fall flat on their faces. Reimagining the Gorn as a version of the xenomorphs is a baffling choice, using the Gorn as a season-long recurring villain even more so. It’s always the adage of “one step forward, two steps back” for this current era of Star Trek, which is frustrating because this show showcases its potential to be good. The good episodes are fantastic. The silly episode of Dr. M’benga stuck in a proto-holodeck version of his child’s favorite fairy tale hearkens back to the best silly stories of Star Trek TNG or Voyager.
Anson Mount holds the fort. His Pike is the quintessential leading man, with charm and a suave personality to spare, while also managing to showcase vulnerability and doubt whenever required. Ethan Peck as Spock is noticeably very stiff, arguably the weakest of the cast, but then again, he is acting in the shadow of the greats. However, he manages to make Spock his own by the end of the season. In her delightful interpretation, Jess Bush as Nurse Christine Chapel is a surprise, while among the newer additions, Melissa Nava’s Erica Ortegas is a standout. Babs Olusanmokun’s Dr. Joseph M’Benga is a character previously seen in Star Trek, but here Olusanmokun manages to infuse him with a certain weight and dignity. The clear winner, though, is Bruce Horak’s Hemmer, the grumpy aenarian chief engineer who has a mentor relationship with Nyota Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding), another surprising legacy addition to the cast who managed to grow on me.
“Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” is not perfect. There are moments when the plot contrivances are very noticeable, and the storytelling choices are extremely baffling. But its worst episodes are still better than some of the best episodes of these newer iterations of Star Trek. And like every “Star Trek” show, it had a rocky first season, though it is still stronger than a lot of the first seasons of the others (except maybe TOS). For the first time in a while, it has made me excited to follow a Star Trek property again without being fearful of having my heart broken. For the first time, as a fan, I can afford to hope without fear of it being completely blown to smithereens.