Tuesday, May 24, 2022

‘Strange New Worlds’ Review: Series Breathes New Life into Live-Action ‘Star Trek’

Being a Star Trek fan has been both a blessing and a curse these past few years. Not since the early 1990s (which was almost 30 years ago, pardon me while I crumble into dust) has so much Star Trek graced our television screens. We have Discovery, Picard, the animated series Lower Decks, Star Trek: Prodigy, and now Strange New Worlds!

A true bounty of riches. Except that Discovery, while boasting an excellent cast of sweethearts, has suffered from increasingly melodramatic plot lines (does Burnham really need to cry multiple times every episode? Hasn’t she been through enough?) And Picard, while bringing back my very favorite captain, has been kind of an underwhelming mess since its first season. And don’t even get me started on Prodigy, which feels as if it would rather be Star Wars. It’s hard to criticize these shows because I want so badly for them to succeed, but also I have to be honest. They are struggling. 

Fortunately, the Trek gods have been kind to me because their latest show, Strange New Worlds, has come to remind me why I love Star Trek

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A spin-off of Star Trek: Discovery’s second season, Strange New Worlds follows the crew of the USS Enterprise in the years before it is captained by James T. Kirk. In fact, it is supposed to take place 10 years prior to the events of Star Trek: The Original Series. In Strange New Worlds, Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) is the captain of the Enterprise, with his Number One — Una Chin-Riley — played by Rebecca Romijn. Trekkies have been brimming with excitement ever since the show and the casting were first announced because it is providing another fresh take on some classic Trek characters. We will be getting to know a young Science Officer Spock (Ethan Peck), Ensign Uhura (Cecilia Rose Gooding), Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush), and Chief Medical Officer Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun). 

We will also be meeting several new characters like the ancestor of Star Trek’s greatest villain, La’an (not to be confused with Khan) Noonien Singh, played by Christina Chong, along with Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia), and an Aenarian Chief Engineer named Hemmer (Bruce Horak.) 

What Works

Marni Grossman/Paramount+

Honestly, almost everything about this new Trek series works. The serialized, episodic story format feels refreshing after several seasons of both Discovery and Picard’s one-story narratives. It feels refreshing and fun, and like, well, real Star Trek. Each episode, the crew has a new problem to solve or mystery to unravel, and they do it with the friendly collegiality of true Starfleet professionals. I don’t mean to dunk on Discovery or Picard, but Strange New Worlds has finally managed to find the right balance between character backstory, tension, and teamwork in each episode arc without tipping into weepy melodrama or muddled nothingness. It is finally returning live-action (because the animated series Lower Decks remains excellent and on point) Trek back to its roots. Even the episodes that aren’t total bangers (episode three is fairly mediocre story-wise) are still great and a joy to watch.

Partly, this is because the dialogue on Strange New Worlds has kicked it up a notch (especially the episodes that feel like they have taken a page from Lower Decks in terms of banter and the level of escapades.) But also because the cast has fantastic chemistry, and really pop in their snazzy modern-retro uniforms. Cecilia Rose Gooding shines as the young Uhura, which is no small feat considering she is standing in the legendary Nichelle Nichol’s space boots. I’m also very excited to see more of the curt and rather Bones-esque engineer Hemmer, whose retorts feel right at home in this TOS adjacent world.

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This is also definitely the most expensive-looking Star Trek show to date, (the captain’s quarters appear to be the entire size of Guinan’s 10 Forward in TNG) but I ain’t mad at it! The ship looks amazing, and the costumes, as I mentioned before, look sharp. There are even costuming nods to TOS’s iconic looks, like Kirk’s famous green wrap-shirt, but with some slightly modern updates. 

What Doesn’t 

Marni Grossman/Paramount+

As great as the show is, I do have some quibbles. Mainly, with regards to the timeline and long-established Trek canon. Yes, unfortunately, I do have to go there. The new live-action Trek series have been playing a bit fast and loose with Star Trek canon, and that really becomes evident on this show. When the cast and crew were first introduced I let out a small groan. Technically, according to the established timeline, Uhura is not supposed to be on the Enterprise yet. Not to mention some of the things built around La’an’s storyline. Would descendants of Khan keep his last name? Why has she been bullied and judged for her family’s DNA when TOS has established that his war crimes were committed 300 years ago and most people have forgotten about them? 

And then there is Spock’s behavior with his fiancée! In Trek canon, Spock did indeed have a fiancée, but they were in an arranged marriage that was set up when they were children. Also, Vulcans do not … well … get down unless it is time for the Pon Farr! There is an episode that is meant to reference that iconic TOS episode (“Amok Time”) and instead it unfortunately mostly undercuts it or renders it entirely irrelevant. Which is a bit of a bummer! There’s also the introduction of an iconic alien race that is posed to be the ‘Big Bad’ of the season, that no one in the Federation is even supposed to know about until ten years later when the Enterprise discovers them! I understand wanting easter eggs for Star Trek fans to enjoy, but I worry that this show might be crossing the line into fan service instead of preserving the larger legacy and epic saga that is all of the Star Trek shows as a whole. Hopefully, as the show continues, they will prove to be worth it.

Overall though, the show is very fun and an important shift in tone and direction for this new era of live-action Star Trek. It’s got the flash and pizzaz (and sex appeal) of J.J. Abrams’ Kelvin-verse Trek films mixed with the heart and spirit of The Original Series and The Next Generation. Classic Trek is back and we are all the better for it.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds releases Thursdays on Paramount+.

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