There are lots of rules relating to movies, music and films. The second album is usually the most difficult; the middle movie in a trilogy is usually the weakest. In the universe of Star Trek movies, the even-numbered movies are usually better than the odd-numbered ones. Strange New Worlds, the latest incarnation of the Star Trek universe, has dropped its second season – so which rule are we following?
The opening episode picks up directly after the events of Season One. First Officer Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn) has been arrested and Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) is heading off-world to find a way to help her, leaving Science Officer Spock (Ethan Peck) in charge. The focus of the episode is very much on how the Enterprise crew works together to solve a puzzle, allowing the audience to get under the skin of what drives these supporting characters far more intensely than in Season One.
That season was partly driven by Pike’s attempts to understand his coming fate and a search for ways to try to avoid it. Season Two embraces the ensemble nature of the series, moving to a more traditional ‘monster of the week’ profile, while focusing more closely on different characters. Many of the episodes start with the familiar voiceover of a personal log, star date, and location. The main difference is that each one is a personal log of a different member of the crew.
Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding), Ortega (Melissa Navia) and Spock all take their turns sharing their deepest thoughts, which acts as a jumping off point for the different direction of each new episode. There are also new characters to get to know, such as Chief Engineer Pelia, a long-lived alien who used to teach at the Star Fleet Academy, who is beautifully played by Carol Kane. This focus on the rest of the crew allows Strange New Worlds to build on the strong characters already established, driving the narrative this season, and developing crew members who you would totally trust with your life on a flying tin can in the darkest depths of unknown space.
Romances develop – with all the friction that brings to bear on a close-knit community – friendships are strengthened, and space is explored boldly and thoroughly. There are also hints, some not so subtle, that perhaps this version of Star Trek has a far darker past than we previously realised… The conceit of allowing different characters to take the lead lets us lean into many genres of storytelling, with horror, zombie, war, time-travel and, of course, musical episodes. There is even a crossover with the animated series Lower Decks. Each genre excursion feels unique whilst, at the same time, amplifying the ensemble nature which remains Strange New Worlds‘ strong suit.
We get to see Uhura use her ability to communicate to bind the crew together, as well as becoming a human telegraph line. Erica Ortegas defines what it means to be a pilot of a starship – confident whilst painfully aware of the responsibility laid at their feet. A foe we have never really explored in previous versions of Star Trek, the Gorn, make their presence known in several episodes, leading to a conclusive encounter that the Kirk of the original series, had he met these terrifying space lizards, would never have survived the encounter! To take a single character from an episode very well loved but obviously shot with a man in a suit, and turn them into the most anxiety-inducing species since the Xenomorph Queen in Alien is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
As always, this series of Star Trek also explores some of the darker themes of society and what impact our decisions have on us and on others. Episode two, ‘Ad Astra Per Aspera’, explores racism, identity, privilege, and the nature of asylum, seen through the lens of an officer who lied to hide her identity as a genetically modified individual, relying on her ability to pass as something else to save her. Episode eight, ‘Under the Cloak of War’, is a stunningly understated story of war, trauma and the nature of forgiveness. Babs Olusanmokun is just wonderful as Dr M’Benga, the effortlessly effective Chief Medical Officer.
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Whilst previous episodes have hinted at a complicated past, ‘Under the Cloak of War’ brings it unashamedly to the front and centre. It is a deep exploration of the legacy that trauma can leave on an individual, and suggests that perhaps our man of medicine used to be a man who believed that revenge is a dish best served – without consideration for its temperature. Olusanmokun’s portrayal of a man attempting to hold onto his moral centre in the face of overwhelming provocation is a stunning performance that leaves you breathless and unsettled in equal measure. Where they take his development next will be interesting to see.
Of course no discussion of this season would be complete without a mention of episode nine, ‘Subspace Rhapsody’. Coming after the events of episode eight, this is a beautiful reminder of the hope and promised utopia of the future imagined by Gene Roddenberry, often missing from the latest batch of Star Trek series (I’m looking at you Discovery and Picard). Compared by many to the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (‘Once More with Feeling’), ‘Subspace Rhapsody’ relies on science instead of magic as reason for why the crew are singing.
After the previous emotionally-heavy episode, this is a wonderful palate cleanser of fun, even as it reveals more emotional truths. Standout songs include ‘Apologies/Status Report’, and ‘I am the X’. It’s nice to see the cast have fun with lines about intermix chambers and inertial dampeners, as well as being aware that they are in fact singing and this is not a normal state of affairs. Unlike the final number of ‘Once More with Feeling’, the finale of ‘Subspace Rhapsody’ is joyful and inspiring and effervescent, bringing a really delightful end to the musical interlude (even if Mr Spock is glad to no longer be singing).
Each episode in Season Two stands on its own merits with solid storytelling, moving the development of the central point of view of each character to new heights, unveiling hidden secrets and setting up new avenues for their continued involvement with the Enterprise as she continues her exploration of space. With one notable exception: Captain Pike himself. From the beginning of the season, Chris Pike feels like he is relegated to the sidelines.
In episode one Pike is replaced by Spock in the Captain’s chair. Whilst this is in part due to Anson Mount taking paternity leave, that pattern is continued throughout the series. He mostly appears in his kitchen cooking up some new concoction. He plays chef for Spock in episode five, ‘Charades’, when alien interference removes Spock’s Vulcan DNA, resulting in a comedy of errors as he explores what it means to be in two worlds at all times. In episode four, Pike loses his memory and tries to remember his purpose in life. In episode nine, he again plays support, although he is finally back on the bridge and in command.
The continuity brought by Pike’s desire to outrun his future in Season One is noticeably missing this time around, resulting in an unbalanced experience. Without the unifying thread of a single central lead, the series bounces along more like a dinghy on open water than an ocean liner. The jumps between genres, points of view and narrative styles can feel disjointed, resulting in occasional dramatic whiplash for the viewer.
Storylines are opened (the encroaching war with the Gorn and an attempt to launch a false flag operation) and then not mentioned again, not even as passing comment, until the end of the series. This bookending means that, as strong as the final episode is, episode one could not exist and there would be no real detriment to the rest of the season. It also means that, on some level, the final episode lacks some of the build up of tension it could have benefitted from if the main antagonists’ presence was felt throughout the series. As it is, whilst again a strong episode, it feels more like it comes out of nowhere, unlinked to the events of the preceding nine hours.
Season Two of Strange New Worlds showcases character-driven storytelling at its best, and is not the difficult second album it could have been. But, for Season Three a unifying threat building over time would be more satisfying and allow a stronger climax. That and puppets. We’ve had a musical episode – the only place to go now is puppets.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season two is now streaming on Paramount+.