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Star Trek | Strange New Worlds Boldly Goes Back to Basics (Review)

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The highest compliment I can give Star Trek: Strange New Worlds? It’s the closest thing modern Trek has to The Orville. And that’s a good thing.

Ever since Trek on TV returned on Paramount+ (nee CBS All Access) with Star Trek: Discovery in 2017, the franchise has struggled with a bit of an identity crisis. Should it attempt to hearken back to the good old days of the 1990s, with the bright, shiny future and the episodic adventures? Or should it attempt to bring the universe into the 21st century, with its predilection for binge-watching and serialized storylines? 

The results, thus far, have been more than a little mixed: Discovery, for all its bold changeups to the status quo, unabashed inclusion of racial and queer diversity, and a few iconic characters, has struggled to establish an identity of its own. Even in Season 4, two seasons into a radical leap forward to the 31st century, the show is drowning in the muck of fortune-cookie platitudes and group therapy masquerading as space adventure. Picard, a show just as committed to serialization as it is reinventing itself every few episodes, feels miserabilist and revisionist by nature, insisting that Jean-Luc Picard is the way he is because of soapy childhood trauma and building heaps of empty fanservice around it. 

Spock (Ethan Peck), Pike (Anson Mount) and Number One (Rebecca Romijn). | CBS, 2022.

The animated shows have fared a little better: Lower Decks has fully embraced its “Rick and Morty in space” pretensions, and Prodigy is the stylish, whiz-bang young adult adventure it promised itself to be. But Strange New Worlds feels like the Alex Kurtzman Industrial Complex finally figuring out just what makes Star Trek Star Trek, and it’s such a breath of fresh air. 

Existing somewhere between prequel, spinoff, and reboot, Strange New Worlds is technically an offshoot of Season 2 of Discovery, where the show righted itself after the messy showrunner roulette of Season 1 by integrating our new characters with reinterpretations of old faves: It was there we got Guest Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), who with a wink and a fatherly smile immediately washed the stink of Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) out of our mouths. We were also treated to a new take on Spock (Ethan Peck), one which we warmed up to faster than we expected. And Number One (Rebecca Romijn) got some time to shine too, though mostly in certain Short Treks. Strange New Worlds is their moment in the stars, and it’s astonishing how far past their spinoff siblings it soars in just the five short episodes provided to critics.

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Keep It Simple, Spock

Strange New Worlds’ greatest strength is that, after years of live-action Trek creaking under the weight of serialization, this newest adventure is free to follow in the episodic footsteps of the Original Series. It’s the same old Enterprise (albeit the glammed-up version we saw in Discovery, which is still gorgeous), with many of the same faces we’re used to. In the show’s eponymous premiere, we’re thrust into the kind of familiar situation fans remember from the TNG days. Enterprise is put into service a bit earlier than planned because it’s the only ship that can get the job done — the job in question being the rescue of a reassigned Number One from a planet mistakenly presumed to be First Contact-ready. (Instead, they find a civilization not unlike modern-day planet Earth, with all its factional infighting and predilection towards fearmongering and prejudice.) There are grand speeches about freedom and fierce debates about non-interference, with the occasional punch-up and arched eyebrow to keep things exciting. 

Number One at the controls. | CBS, 2022.

Rather than feeling like empty nostalgia and noxious fanservice, Strange New Worlds opts to mostly remind you of an older form of storytelling that’s become too well worn in the Peak and post-Peak TV age: the episodic sci-fi procedural. The good old days of going to a new planet, solving a problem, and moving on are back, while the consequences of those adventures linger on for its cast of characters.

So much of the show reminds you of original Trek, without painfully nudging you with its elbow — Enterprise is sleek and mod both inside and out (you’re sure to be envious of Pike’s deluxe captain’s quarters), and the uniforms effortlessly bridge the gap between Discovery’s skin-tight jumpsuits and the bright Technicolor garb of the ‘60s. In short, Strange New Worlds leans hard on what used to work about Star Trek and is justifiably confident that it’ll work again.

Captain on the Bridge

No starship is complete without its captain, and Trek fans should feel lucky that Mount is right back in the big red chair for this series. What little we got of him in Discovery was easily the most exciting thing about that show in a good long while: a laidback, straightforward commander who’s a little more mature and soulful than Kirk, but with that same twinkle in his eye. Mount, here as in his prior appearances, is an incredible lead, his lantern jaw, and soulful eyes deeply appealing while carrying enough swagger to sell the gee-whiz optimism of this era of Starfleet.

Captain Pike on the Bridge of his new-old Enterprise. | CBS, 2022.

And yet that casual sense of adventure is balanced by a tinge of melancholy, He’s haunted, especially in the first few episodes, by the premonition of his fated mutilation we’d eventually see in TOS’s ‘The Menagerie’ (S1, Ep11-12) ten years hence. It’s shaken him to his core and wonders what to make of his life if he knows how it’ll eventually end. It’s a classic philosophical question of the type Trek is famous for, and fits especially within the prequel-itis of the premise. If we know how everyone will end up, what’s the point in watching? Pike learns, as the audience does, that the purpose is in the journey, in the moment-by-moment delights of experience. It’s an inventive way to complicate the kind of admirable commander whom you’d still follow into the gates of hell. And that’s where Strange New Worlds, in its old-fashioned structure and breezy attitude, excels. 

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The Finest Crew in Starfleet

Another way Strange New Worlds goes refreshingly back to basics is in its cast — both Discovery and Picard have clear protagonists (Michael Burnham and Jean-Luc) around which the show is built; the ensemble is there, but is hardly given much to do. But while Discovery has to bend over backward to make us care about the ancillary bridge crew, Strange New Worlds puts them front and center, keenly focused on their interpersonal relationships and pitch-perfect chemistry.

Alongside Pike, the show sees the return of this era of Spock and Number One, both of whom get far more to do than in their Discovery-centric appearances. Peck, who gradually grew into the role in Discovert Season 2, seems fully at home as the half-human, half-Vulcan science officer, capably evoking Nimoy and Quinto while bringing a few new shades of his own. His chemistry with soon-to-be bride T’Pring (Gia Sandhu) is palpable, and some of the show’s most effective attempts at dry humor come out of his lips. (Prepare yourself for Spock to say the word “hijinks” multiple times in the first season’s laidback shore leave episode, complete with body-swap subplot. You will not be disappointed.) For her part, Number One fills her role well, though apart from some revelations in Episode 3, she doesn’t get as many chances to shine as her counterparts. Still, when she gets to let her hair down, it’s a delight, and one hopes that, as their five-year mission continues, she’ll get the chance to be more at ease with her crewmates.

Pike and Spock. | CBS, 2022.

Even the newbies have an air of familiarity with them on this pre-Kirk NCC-1701: Before Bones, we had Dr. M’Benga (Dune’s Babs Olusanmokun), the quiet and contemplative doctor we saw in a few short episodes of TOS; Transporter Chief Kyle is here too, now played by a young, bushy-tailed André Dae Kim. Some of the original Enterprise’s most famous faces sign on in the pilot for their first tour of duty on the ship: Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush), who assists Dr. M’Benga with Emma Stone-like charm, and fresh-faced but uncertain Cadet Nyota Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding), who frequently serves as the audience perspective character for the series. 

Rounding out this new/old version of the pre-Kirk bridge crew are fun-loving helmsman Lt. Ortegas (Melissa Navia), grumpy Aenar engineer Hemmer (Bruce Horak), and security chief La’An Noonien Singh (Christina Chong), a descendant of the infamous Khan who’s constantly trying to shake off the negative perceptions her surname gives her. (Why she doesn’t change it admittedly goes unaddressed. If I was born Clint Hitler, Surak knows I’d be running down to the courthouse as early as I could.)

With this show’s lack of reliance on an overarching storyline or Big Bad to dispatch, Strange New Worlds instead uses its dilemma-of-the-week formula to hone in on its group of characters, leading to one of the most well-formed ensembles in Trek history. Everyone in the cast has a wonderful rapport with one another, and the crew’s distinct skills and neuroses bump against each other in certain episodes to highlight more personal stakes amid the interstellar mayhem. 

Jess Bush as Nurse Chapel. | CBS, 2022.

Most everyone on the crew is struggling with some kind of dissonance between the person they see themselves as and who they’d like to be. Pike, as mentioned, can’t shake the foreknowledge that his time as a sexy Starfleet captain is finite. Spock is torn between his twin duties to the Federation and to T’Pring. Number One suffers from impostor syndrome due to a deeply-held secret about her past. Dr. M’Benga carries secret problems on the ship he hopes their adventures will solve. La’An bristles against the weight of her name, and the trauma of being the sole survivor of a Gorn attack that killed everyone on her last ship. And most of all, Cadet Uhura isn’t even sure she wants to be in Starfleet; she just wants to be where her communication skills can be of use. 

Among the various one-off shenanigans they face each episode, from mysterious alien signals inside a comet to that old chestnut of a crazy alien virus spreading aboard ship, it’s the way the characters relate to one another (and, in some important ways, grow together) that makes Strange New Worlds’ particular brand of alchemy work so well. The cast is down-the-line fantastic, with Golding, Navia, and Bush as particular standouts. It’s odd to say, but after several series where the crews of our respective ships don’t seem to like each other very much, it’s nice to see a ship of people working together for the good of the many, even if they occasionally have to hash out some self-doubts. (What’s more, despite having many of the same writers, Strange New Worlds manages to do it without Discovery’s penchant for preachiness.) 

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A Bold, Old, New Frontier

After years of trying to shake up the formula to mixed results, Strange New Worlds feels like Trek getting back to what it’s best at, and it’s no surprise that it’s some of the most exciting stories the series has enjoyed in a long time. Until now, the most direct successor to classic Trek hasn’t been any of the officially-licensed shows, but Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, a show initially miscalibrated as “Family Guy in space” but which quickly became the torch-bearer for bright, optimistic, fun weekly space adventures with a workplace family that actually felt like one. That Strange New Worlds manages that sense of awe and joy while keeping its fanservice oh-so-casual, is nothing short of miraculous.

As a Trek fan since birth, it stirs the blood to hear Mount say, for the first time in a title sequence since 1994, “Space, the Final Frontier.” As Enterprise’s lights flicker awake, and Jeff Russo’s more adventurous re-interpretation of the original Alexander Courage fanfare rises, it feels like coming home. That’s the Trek I’ve missed for so long — not bogged down in its own mythology, or tortured by Serious Questions about its own legitimacy, but with a sense of idealism that informs its entire crew of misfit spacefarers. Ironically, by going back to basics, Strange New Worlds feels like the most revolutionary Trek of them all. 


Testimonial Author Image

Clint Worthington is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Writer for Consequence of Sound. He’s also the host of the podcasts More of a Comment, Really…, and Travolta/Cage (with cohost Nathan Rabin). You can find other bylines at Vulture, IndieWire, RogerEbert.com, StarTrek.com, The Takeout, and others. He lives in Chicago with his wife, his cat, and far too many Criterions.

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