Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Review – Learning to Lighten up

It’s a general rule of thumb among Star Trek fans that, in most cases, a new series really hits its stride in the third season. There are two obvious major exceptions: The Original Series, which only lasted three seasons, of which the last sometimes got really silly, and Lower Decks, which hit the perfect tone for what it was meant to be right out the gate. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds has an advantage in that it’s a continuation of existing lore. It follows the original series pilot “The Cage,” and the same characters as they appeared for a short time on Star Trek: Discovery. And of course, one of those characters is Spock, the most popular Trek character of all time.

Regardless, it’s a show that still needs to build interest in a crew of characters who, besides Captain Pike (Anson Mount), Mr. Spock (Ethan Peck), Nyota Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding), and Nurse Christine Chapel (Jess Bush), arrive as largely blank slates. Reviewers were given five episodes to preview, and it’s easy to see why. Only by the fifth episode does it really hit the right mix of optimism, science fiction, humor, and character-based adventure a good Trek show needs. Prior episodes have some of those things — just not in the right proportions. Whether viewers will hang in there to see it, and whether the show maintains that tone after, remain open questions. As Spock says, there are always possibilities.

Nostalgia abounds, of course. Strange New Worlds is the first in the franchise since The Next Generation to use the “Space. The Final Frontier…” speech over its opening credits. (It’s a five-year mission again.) And the opening theme is essentially a remix of the classic Alexander Courage music.

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In the tradition of Enterprise, we get classic aliens before they should have been seen in the timeline, by virtue of a plot that manages to not show what they look like. Many scenes hearken back to moments in the movies and previous shows, including several involving Spock’s bride-to-be, T’Pring, as a recurring character.

But the show has a built-in conceit that allows it to comment on criticisms of prequels without outright doing so. Captain Christopher Pike has already seen a vision of his own future as a radiation-burned quadriplegic. So he knows how his story ends. And this leads him to repeatedly question, out loud, what the point is of an adventure where everyone knows the ending. (See how that works?) The answers he gets are clearly designed to both (a) insist these stories have a point even if we know the ending, and perhaps more so; and (b) make us wonder if, in fact, Strange New Worlds will flip the script at some point.

The first episode, directed by Akiva Goldsman, feels as heavy-handed as one might expect. Both Pike and Spock are introduced with strange new women in their beds, with departures made on behalf of duty (Pike’s avoiding his; Spock is not). Pike’s role as handsome good ol’ boy is obvious, and played so, but this show is leaning harder than ever into “hot Spock.” It’s basically canonical — “Cage”-era Spock showed emotion freely. But it’s weird to have him as a fully integrated friend to all, portrayed more like a general nerd than an emotion-suppressing Vulcan specifically as we know them. The showrunners must surely be aware of this, and they are probably planning an arc which may involve T’Pring.

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Goldsman also wants the viewer to know that he’s doing political allegory, with an explanation point. It’s initially quite unsubtle, using actual January 6th footage to make a point about societal divisions. And that’s missing the larger point. Classic Trek navigated its allegories by being subtle enough to evade the censors at socially conservative networks. Paramount+ makes no such restrictions, but being subtle enough that certain viewers don’t instantly cry “Woke!” might open said viewers more to the underlying themes. Captain Kirk never busted out Vietnam war footage to make his arguments. William Shatner’s elocution and hand gestures were all he needed.

Rather than using a Captain’s Log voiceover every time, each episode begins with a different crew member’s log. Unlike the original series, this show wants to a deep dive on each character early on. Surprise — nearly everyone has some sort of hidden trauma they won’t talk about. At first. Until they don’t stop talking about it. The best new main character is butch-yet-diminutive helmsperson Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia). And it’s because she’s the only character who really seems to enjoy her job unabashedly instead of powering through in spite of some heavy secret. Meanwhile, cranky engineer Hemmer (Bruce Horak) is fun because he channels Jeffrey Combs’ Shran in his portrayal of a blind, albino Aenar — the psychic Andorian subspecies revealed in Enterprise.

For what its worth, Aenar’s makeup resembles Discovery‘s upgraded Andorians more than the older versions. “Trials and Tribble-ations” aside, Star Trek generally has opted to recast and revamp its prequel narratives rather than, say, CG’ing in Jeffrey Hunter’s face. So the original Enterprise doesn’t look exactly like the ’60s TV version. It has more of a ’70s visual vibe, in line with The Motion Picture and shows like Space: 1999.

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By the fifth episode, the crew is finally established enough that we get hints of sorely needed conflict. Number One (Rebecca Romijn) and security chief La’an Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong) are the uptight authoritarians, Uhura the easily hazed noob, Nurse Chapel the young maverick, Spock and Pike the most perfect people ever, etc. Plus there are genuine stakes, and it’s funny too, with a comedic device that harkens back to the O.G. “Turnabout Intruder” episode. While larger narrative arcs exist for the characters, the A-story changes week to week, an intentional throwback that feels like a refreshing novelty in this streaming, binge-watch age.

If fans have the patience, this show could turn into something really special. But the human adventure is only beginning.

Grade: 3/5

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds debuts as a weekly series on Paramount+ beginning May 5.

Recommended Reading: Star Trek: The Next Generation: Through The Mirror

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