What makes Starfleet work? Pecs, abs and thighs, baby
The last time I had anything to say about Star Trek, it wasn’t good. I think it was 2018 and I was talking about the bleak and confusing nature of Discovery. The show had just been renewed for a third year, leading to ambivalent sighs and resigned shrugs from fans and detractors alike.
Things are much the same today, and Discovery’s baffling success has led to several equally mediocre titles being added to the Trek pantheon. Picard is a scatter-brained love letter to fans of The Next Generation. Lower Decks is an Easter egg generator for middle-aged shut-ins. And there’s something on the Nickelodeon channel called Prodigy.
It’s got snarky CGI kids with stylized bodies and dead eyes. That’s cool, I guess.
The Viacom/CBS/Paramount three-headed beast that owns Star Trek has committed itself to expanding the IP into every nook and cranny of entertainment. Imagine a much lower-stakes version of Marvel’s MCU or Disney’s Star Wars. In today’s world if you own an IP, you’ve got to leverage it anywhere and everywhere you can.
It’s worked out pretty well so far, judging by the rate at which new Star Trek is being announced. But a segment of the fanbase hasn’t been so sure, and I’ve long been inclined to sympathize with them.
I don’t mean to disparage the hard work of the talented cast and crew of any of those shows. But somewhere along the line, some fans would say, much of what made Star Trek interesting went missing. Then, a trio of legacy characters appeared in season two of Discovery. Captain Christopher Pike, Mister Spock, and Rebecca Romijn, all aboard the sparking new USS Enterprise.
When they warped away at the end of Season 2, I was but one of millions of viewers who barked at the television:
“Why aren’t they making that show?”
Well, now they are. Paramount acceded to fan demands and put together Strange New Worlds, a show that takes place, like Discovery, before the original Star Trek series. But where Discovery is a visually and narratively bleak festival of weekly navel-gazing, SNW captures the look and feel of the classic show, albeit with a modern twist. It’s fun, colorful and best of all, optimistic.
But it’s not just the splashy uniforms, miniskirts, and beehive haircuts that have returned. Where Discovery tends to focus too much on a single character, SNW boasts a strong ensemble cast of new and legacy characters. And the show is presented in the same episodic format longtime fans are used to. Plot points and events do carry into subsequent shows, but each episode wraps up its primary narrative by the end of its runtime.
Our fearless leader is Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount). He is James Kirk’s predecessor on Enterprise, and up to now was best known from the original series, where his face got melted because the actor who originally played him wanted too much money. Interestingly, this half-century old bit of off screen intrigue serves as the starting point for Strange New Worlds.
During his arc on Discovery, Pike became aware of this potential face-melting situation. When we catch up to him, he remains haunted by what he’s seen. Can he continue in his career knowing what he knows? Is it a liability, or could it make him a better leader?
Does knowing the date of his death mean he can’t die now or is it possible for him to change his destiny?
It’s a lot to deal with for the uninitiated, so SNW is kind enough to flesh out these details early in the first episode. It’s also tough work for the actor getting paid to put this melodrama on screen. Mount physically imbues the Captain with the steel-jawed fortitude of a WWII naval commander. But his depiction of Pike, the Man combines that mettle with the interpersonal awareness level of a modern Human Resources professional.
The same nuanced, classy performance made him the breakout character of Discovery Season 2.
Ethan Peck reprises his role as Spock. But this isn’t the reserved, stately original version of the character, nor is it Outrage Spock from the JJ Abrams films. Peck continues to surprise us with equal parts youthful charm, fledgling poise and dare I say it – sex appeal.
That’s right, ladies. It’s Hot Spock! But be warned, Hot Spock has got a very demanding girlfriend who may or may not be bigoted against humans! I know that sounds almost intolerable but after six episodes (there are ten this season), I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching this develop.
Rebecca Romijn inhabits another legacy character that we’ve only seen once before – and she didn’t even have a name! As First Officer, Una Chin-Riley (also known professionally as Number One) occupies an important place not just at Pike’s side but in the narrative of any Star Trek show.
She fits the bill as an imposing disciplinarian, yes. But she displays a faintly matriarchal devotion to her profession that’s honestly refreshing in a lead on an action-adventure series.
But for my money, the revelation of the season so far has been Celia Rose Gooding’s take on Cadet (nee Lieutenant) Uhura. The character was originated by Nichelle Nichols, who might have been the most vocal of the original cast when it came to how little their characters were given to do each week.
In Strange New Worlds, not only do the supporting cast truly support the show but Uhura herself has been a particular focus thus far. Pike makes all the speeches and cooks barbecue in his quarters but, in a belated gift to both Nichols and Gooding, Uhura might well be the conscience of the show.
Her backstory has been greatly expanded and she might have already had more to say and do this season than Nichols was given in 79 episodes of the original series.
She’s charming, adorable and inspiring.
Honorable mention has to go to Jess Bush’s delightful new take on Nurse Chapel, and Babs Olusanmokun as Dr. M’Benga, another formerly obscure legacy character. Olusanmokun has the unenviable task of being the latest Ship’s Doctor, a role with a storied history of colorful characters.
So far, I kind of wish he was MY doctor.
But what truly makes this a terrific show – and it is – is the intense attention to detail paid by its creators to successfully recreating both the aesthetic and tone of the original show. There remain buttons, switches and knobs on the Enterprise, and the doors still whoosh when they open. The ship itself is a slick update on the old design, with spinny red lights on the engines and that shiny gold deflector dish on the front.
As always, it is a character unto itself.
Each week’s episode contains an A story involving a mysterious alien aggressor, crisis of conscience or disease-of-the-week. Of course, there’s an obvious moral or socially conscious theme behind it. And, there’s a B-story involving one or more characters and their ongoing development.
None of this is really new. As implied, it’s the formula used in the original series. But it’s the execution of it that makes Strange New Worlds such a rewarding gem of a show. Ask yourself, what if they just rebooted the franchise altogether? And what if they gave it all the resources and creative freedom it could ever need?
You’d end up with the best looking, best sounding Star Trek of all time. Easily the best Star Trek on television since Deep Space Nine. This is still a franchise that’s not afraid to mine for humor as well as drama, and doesn’t hesitate to ask its audience questions like:
Do the concepts of freedom and liberty allow for more than one way of thinking?
Does duty leave room for flexibility, and does cultural identity leave room for interpretation?
When shown proof of your own fallibility, are you willing to change the way you think?
If you have a disability that in no way impairs you from being your best self, is it even a disability?
Sometimes bad things happen and you can do nothing. Not a question, just a fact.
And my favorite:
Wait, you’re related to Space Hitler?
At its best, Star Trek has given us some of the most challenging and thought provoking science fiction on television. Robust storytelling, strong acting performances and outstanding visual effects make this show something truly unique: a version of Star Trek that actually looks as impressive as it feels.
No, the last time I had anything to say about Star Trek, it was a bad scene. But now I harbor hope that the next time I have to talk about it, it’ll feel as good as it does today.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is available in the US on Paramount+, and as of June 22, 2022, Paramount+ UK
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Bruce?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."