TV Reviews

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (Season One) – TV Review

“It’s been a long road, getting from there to here.” So sayeth the opening lyrics of the not terribly well-regarded theme song of the similarly not terribly-well regarded Star Trek: Enterprise. Of course, they could equally apply to what is probably the longest known gap between a TV pilot and its eventual series pickup.

Way back in early 1965, Gene Roddenberry’s ‘The Cage’ – featuring Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike of the USS Enterprise – was rejected by the NBC network as being “too cerebral”, but they gave the concept another chance, and after a new pilot was filmed, starring William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk, Star Trek was commissioned for a full series. For years, it has been tempting to wonder whether it would have turned into the global money-making franchise had it followed the original template.

Well, thanks to the insatiable drive of streaming services to serve up ever more content to draw in subscribers, we now need wonder no longer how that iteration of Star Trek might turn out. With Paramount having launched its Paramount+ app, mining its intellectual property for new output was an inevitability, and Star Trek is undoubtedly one of the biggest strings to its bow. The franchise has always been something of a cash cow, although Paramount has still sometimes come close to killing the goose laying those golden eggs.

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If we look back to the end of the 1970s, when Paramount was considering setting up a fourth TV network in America, they had planned to bring back the show with a new series, which was to have been named Star Trek: Phase II. It, however, was to end up morphing into Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and took things in a very different direction. A mid-‘90s effort to try again saw Paramount launch the short-lived UPN, which would have Star Trek: Voyager and – later on – Enterprise as flagship series, with which to pull in audiences.

In its push to strip mine Trek for just as much programming as they could muster, Paramount+ launched a range of new shows, starting with Star Trek: Discovery. Given the rather mixed reception it continues to receive, it seems that while the basis of Vulcan philosophy is Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, fans are less willing to accept that in terms of the Star Trek it receives, always complaining over how each subsequent entry in the canon just ends up diverging too far from what they perceive to be ‘proper’ or ‘true’ Trek.

© 2022 CBS Studios.

One of the true highlights in Discovery’s second season was seeing the appearance of Captain Pike and the Enterprise, in a way which was more than just the empty fan service which it could have so easily been. Anson Mount breathed new life into a character who had only really been seen in the original Star Trek as a disfigured cripple in the two-part episode ‘The Menagerie’ (which used ‘The Cage’ as flashback material), or in the first two J.J. Abrams reboot films, with an alternate timeline Pike (Bruce Greenwood) meeting an untimely end.

In fact, so successful were Mount and his co-stars – Ethan Peck as Spock, and Rebecca Romijn as Number One – that fans were soon clamouring for them to get their own series, having elevated Discovery so significantly. Lo and behold, only some 57 years after the completion of ‘The Cage’, the original Enterprise crew finally get their due, in the form of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. But was it truly worth the protracted wait for Pike to finally take the Captain’s chair? Emphatically, yes: this is probably the best thing to happen to the franchise in a long time.

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One of the biggest criticisms of Discovery – as well as Star Trek: Picard – has been the tendency to move towards long form storytelling. Entire seasons tell just one tale, stretched out over what – at times – has felt like just an interminable number of weeks. Thankfully, Strange New Worlds has seen fit to reverse that trend, and moved back toward the episodic pattern to which the franchise had traditionally adhered. It means there is greater variety possible in overall content, so if you happen not to like this particular instalment, there will be a different one along next week.

As a result, Strange New Worlds has been able to explore a significant range of tones and styles during its all-too-brief ten episode debut season. Pick any season of Discovery, they all seem to hinge upon some universe or reality-threatening scenario, with the end result being something which is all so ruddy po-faced and earnest. Strange New Worlds, however, makes use of the ‘planet of the week’ setup, moving swiftly from one story to another, allowing for some light amongst the shade.

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Episodes like ‘Spock Amok’ and ‘The Elysian Kingdom’ offer the cast a chance to show their acting chops, by giving them some comic material reminiscent of the funnier episodes of the original Star Trek. In fact, there is something comforting and familiar about Strange New Worlds, a welcome feeling which has been sadly missing from some of the other recent Paramount+ entries. It manages to feel old-fashioned (not used here in a pejorative sense), yet at the same time fresh, new, fun, and even hopeful.

Whereas Gene Roddenberry disliked the idea of there being any conflict between his characters, believing humanity would have evolved beyond that by the time of the 23rd Century, it really is a dramatic necessity, lest all interactions be insipid and tediously agreeable. Discovery soon jettisoned having any tension between its crewmates, with one scene from a fourth season episode being such an obnoxiously saccharine love-in and mutual appreciation session that it should have come with its own sick bag.

© 2022 CBS Studios.

Strange New Worlds shows there is still room for some grit, a bit of friction at times when needed, yet it still manages to balance this with Roddenberry’s keen aspiration for a more developed mankind. Characters like Pike, Spock and Number One (now given a proper name – Una Chin-Riley) get the chance to have their own stories, but not at the expense of the other crew. In fact, this is probably the strongest ensemble seen in a Trek show since as far back as maybe The Next Generation, with pretty much everyone having their time to shine.

We get to see previously minor players from classic Trek like Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) given some prominence. Kudos should be given to the writers and actor Jess Bush for giving a whole new spin on Nurse Christine Chapel, adding extra depth to her complicated friendship with Spock, along with making her more feisty, capable and sassy than in the original Star Trek. Another legacy character getting rather a reappraisal is Nyota Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding), here a mere cadet, struggling to find whether she has a place in Starfleet. Made more poignant by the recent loss of Nichelle Nichols, it must be said Gooding does both her and Uhura proud.

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While still being a prequel series, Strange New Worlds has managed to avoid falling into a trap of being nothing more than a shallow nostalgia-fest. Yes, there are plenty of fan-pleasing kisses to the franchise’s past, like one of the crew – La’an Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong) – having a familial connection to iconic villain Khan, or certain musical cues. However, it still allows for plenty of room to explore new territory, and to seek out new plots and complications, on what will hopefully be a lengthy tour of duty.

Other Star Trek shows may have gone more boldly, but few have done so as entertainingly, or hit their stride so quickly out of the blocks. And with season two already in prospect? To coin Captain Pike’s turn of phrase: Hit it.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is streaming now on Paramount+.

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