In the ever-innovating landscape of television, what was old is suddenly new again.
Netflix is contemplating a subscription option with commercials. Hulu broke out of the small-batch programming rut by renewing a sitcom for a whopping 20-episode season. And, after a string of spinoffs characterized by gritty darkness or twisty mythologizing, Paramount + may have cracked the Star Trek code with a new series that’s bright, optimistic and fundamentally episodic in nature.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
The Bottom Line
An appealing, if inconsistent, throwback.
I actually kinda liked both Star Trek: Discovery spirit Star Trek: Picard. Both have ideas that interest me and performances I’m happy to support. But they’re both shows that, once I fell a little behind, I never felt any desire to catch up on.
I can not say if Trek: Strange New Worlds is a series I’m going to want to pay close attention to every week, but that feels almost like what the new series is designed for. Through the five episodes sent to critics – half of the 10-episode first season – there are installments that hit and others that are completely forgettable. But the series has successfully and quickly established a small ensemble that’s easy to care about and a hopeful ethos that harkens back to the original Star Trek series and the more procedural aspects of various popular spinoffs. It’s an amiable and entertaining throwback by intent and in execution.
Although the core ensemble of Strange New Worldscreated by Akiva Goldsman, Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet, was introduced in the second season of Discoverythose episodes border on completely unnecessary when it comes to what is, on its most basic level, Star Trek: Muppet Babies.
A prequel to Gene Roddenberry’s mothership, Strange New Worlds puts us back on the slightly shinier, slightly newer USS Enterprise under the watch of Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), Captain Kirk’s predecessor, suggesting Starfleet used to make leadership decisions primarily on bone structure. Pike is still a bit haunted from the Discovery incident in which he saw the cause and context of his death, 10 years in the future.
Carrying over from those Discovery episodes are Pike’s second-in-command Una “Number One” Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn) and Baby Spock (Ethan Peck), who make up the key leadership trust on the Enterprise, which is sent on deceptively simple exploratory missions to seek out new life and new civilizations – and to, as the new-fangled phrasing puts it, “boldly go where no one has gone before.” Their crew includes variably familiar future faces including Baby Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding), a fresh-out-of-the-Academy communications prodigy, Baby Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush), security officer La’an Noonien Singh (Christina Chong), whose last name points to a distant relation to iconic franchise villain Khan, and more.
If you keep your ears open, you’ll hear mentions of many additional names and alien races from various pieces of the Star Trek universe, but the degree to which you want to obsess over connections is up to you. Strange New Worlds is, in the original series tradition, an encounter-of-the-week narrative as the crew learns about different alien cultures, some benign and some hostile, some with very, very direct allegorical connections to human life in 2022 and some just lizard creatures that want to eat us.
Each of the five episodes I’ve seen is different from the others, while also evocative enough of some of the most repeated structural tropes from the franchise that the Star Trek show this one often most closely resembles is the animated Lower Decks, which lovingly parodies those tropes. So there’s one of those episodes in which an alien infection runs rampant on the Enterprise and makes everybody behave strangely; several episodes in which different landing parties are isolated from the Enterprise and have to learn valuable lessons about not making assumptions; and at least one action-driven episode with a fearsome alien foe that’s mostly pew-pew-pew space blasting and laying the foundation for future antagonistic run-ins. And then there’s a wacky body-swap episode!
Perhaps because the effects work on Strange New Worlds is only average, I was not blown away by any of the episodes that involved somewhat weightless ships and objects flying around in space blasting at each other. Meanwhile, anything depicting character trauma felt flat and prestige-by-the-numbers. But when Strange New World keeps things light – a description that does not preclude plots set among warring races or potentially planet-ending cataclysms – the series is a pleasure and makes up for any CGI limitations with top-notch makeup, costuming and production design.
The cast is across-the-board sturdy, led capably by Mount’s Ken Doll-with-snark attitude. Romijn isn’t all that interesting in dramatic mode, but any time she gets to show a dose of levity, Number One works well. Although Spock’s droll exercises in logic have now been played indelibly by multiple actors over the years, Peck’s interpretation is a worthy one, and he’s especially good in the episodes featuring Vulcan love interest T’Pring (Gia Sandhu).
My favorite performances came from Chong, Gooding, Bush and Melissa Navia as Enterprise helmsman Erica Ortegas. Chong has a dark intensity that plays well whether the context is dramatic or comic, and her scenes with Romijn in the fifth episode are standouts. Bush has a wide-eyed openness and Navia something more wryly sardonic, and the contrast works well. And Gooding is just a general delight, funny and emotionally available, honoring the Nichelle Nichols original and making Uhura her own.
Pervasively progressive, but not so progressive as to alienate that portion of the Star Trek audience in denial that the franchise was always progressive, Strange New Worlds may aim for something less ambitious than the most recent Star Trek shows, but it’s also more successful. In a streaming universe, it’s a broadcast-friendly Star Trekwith a not-unwelcome emphasis on “broad.”