Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

5 out of 5

Created by: Akiva Goldsman, Alex Kurtzman, and Jenny Lumet

covers season 1

Star Trek: The Next Generation was the one I grew up on. I don’t know if I understood what Star Trek “was” when I started watching it, but it was a weekly view up until it ended, and I absorbed most of the original movies through TV at some point, forming an awareness of the series’ history, plus the addition of the occasional TNG films. I casually watched Deep Space Nine, and would check in periodically thereafter, acknowledging strengths and differences between the series, and eventually getting a small sampling of TOS through reruns as well. There are throughlines during that whole run of shows / movies, even if Next Generation still stood at the top of the pack for me.

This was enough of a basis to be excited about the rebooted film franchise, and while there were ups and downs, I’ve overall enjoyed the take; I’m not so slavish to technicalities that I’m not willing to allow some playing around with timelines and whatnot to modernize something, and the movies felt like they maintained that throughline well enough. So the eventual announcement of Discovery encouraged similar excitement.

But the new world of Star Trek TV has… dimmed that. Focusing on Discovery, I appreciate / understand the different tonal direction the show has tried for, and it has bumbled along okay, gotten better, gotten worse, better, then way worse… and while this isn’t a review of Discovery, the important thing is that, for me, two main ingredients continually got lost: it rarely felt like we were exploring anything new, and none of the characters were particularly convincing or compelling. This did not / does not feel like a “crew,” and most of what they experience is so ham-fistedly tied to some “point” that it barely has non-scene-chewing time to drum up any sense of adventure.

One of those times during which it was better, though? When Anson Mount showed up in season 2 as Christopher Pike, with Rebecca Romijn alongside as his Number One.

Lower Decks has its own issues; Prodigy is fun but maybe kind of feels like sci-fi wearing Trek uniforms – not fully part of the universe yet. I’m on the side of the fence that really enjoys Picard, and I think it’s closer to what Discovery wanted to be – a more serialized, “grittier” Trek – and is kind of in line, tonally, with the movies, so much closer to home.

But from the moment Mount brought a bit of charm and command back to the leadership role in Discovery, it was like seeing that throughline worming its way out of that show’s piled-on mish-mash. I’m clearly not the only one who loved that: Akiva Goldsman, Alex Kurtzman, and Jenny Lumet pulled on that line, and created a whole series around it – Strange New Worlds. And from the opening scenes, from the opening titles, they’ve nailed it: without being overly winky with nostalgia, SNW has fully embodied the classic feel of the show, absolutely modernized.

And it’s rather “simple” from there: the show uses a rarer template of prestige TV nowadays, straying from a serialized, season-long event and towards individual episodes, and thus is able to do spins on all of the old-school setups TOS and TNG used to use, navigating around issues on various planets or negotiating peace between warring races, scripted in such a way that it never feels cheated, or in disservice to nearly the entire crew. That latter point is heartwarming: you love everyone on this ship. I could probably just watch Mount smile for hours, and marvel at the swoop of his hair, but as Pike, he’s got Kirk’s swagger and Picard’s intelligence team spirit, and Strange New Worlds exudes that charm all over, allowing the focus to easily drift away from direct fisticuffs or Pike making a witty comment to learn about Spock’s (Ethan Peck) relationship; Lt. Commander Una Chin-Riley’s (Romijn) background; or the ship’s doctor (Babs Olusanmokun) can have a classic “everyone dresses up like a fairy tale” episode; Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) gets time to figure out whether or not she’s happy she joined Starfleet; and so on. Nothing is filler, because the show is structured around these individual moments.

Which isn’t to say we don’t get to touch on some more timely concepts, but they feel organic; like “true” sci-fi in which the medium is a vehicle for exploration as opposed to moralizing. And though each episode stands alone, the more individually spotlit focus does world-building more subtly, growing the stories of its characters and connecting that to the advancement of the Federation, plus allowing for some meta zing via Pike’s awareness of his eventual fate – i.e. the general retcon of his character in TOS, which was given an update in Discovery.

There’s much else to be praised, from the steady but immersive shooting style, to the really specialized production – this has to look “old,” as it’s a prequel to TOS, but still be fresh and fun for modern audiences, to the extremely well done and consistent effects, but maybe especially the writing: besides allowing these actors to bring a lot of humanity and uniqueness to their roles, in-world, you feel like these people are good at their jobs. There’s a reason Pike is captain; that Una is Number One. And so when Mount looks out and cues the ship onward with “hit it,” the spell is cast – you’re on an adventure with this team, and I hope for many seasons to come.