James Osborne reviews the series premiere of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds…
In 1965, Star Trek’s first episode, “The Cage” told the story of Captain Pike, Number One, and Spock as they traveled through space aboard the USS Enterprise. The pilot was rejected for being “too cerebral”, but the legacy of the characters has been ingrained in Star Trek ever since. Now, almost 60 years later, the trio of characters are leading their own series: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.
The series serves as a sequel to the prequel series Star Trek: Discovery, but also as a prequel to the progenitor of all Star Trek, The Original Series. With this dizzying baggage, and a promise to return to Star Trek’s classic episodic format, Strange New Worlds’ opener sets off with an almost unbearable weight of expectation. Impressively, in the face of that expectation, it just gets on with it.
The series’ premiere is divided into two stories. The first is the emotional core of the episode. After seeing a vision of his own brutal disfigurement in season two of Star Trek: Discovery, the episode opens to find Anson Mount’s Captain Pike contemplating his career in Starfleet and his position as a leader. Grounded by Mount’s performance, Pike questions how he can simultaneously live as a Starfleet captain while carrying the knowledge of the exact time and circumstances of his inevitable fate.
The second story is a classic Star Trek one. The Enterprise is tasked with the recovery of three Starfleet officers, including Rebecca Romijn’s Number One, who went missing while investigating a warp signature detected from an M class planet. With the occasional twist, this develops into a tale about first contact and the rigidity of Starfleet’s core principles in the face of unintended consequences.
The episode balances these two plot points perfectly, with each feeding into the other to form a satisfying and compelling story, driven forward by a likeable cast of characters. Though he has little to do, Babs Olusanmokun’s iteration of Dr. M’Benga is instantly magnetic, and the fresh faced, eager Cadet Uhura also works as a foil to the more seasoned members of the crew. Ethan Peck seems more at ease with the character of Spock than he was on Star Trek: Discovery, and he manages to channel the attitude of Leanord Nimoy’s version of the character with noticeably more success. Usefully, the performances of the cast are framed by a bright and airy visual style, free from frenetic twisting cinematography, and full of colour.
While it gets a lot right, the episode isn’t flawless. It is occasionally knocked off-course by the kind of unnecessary wink-wink name drops and references that have plagued franchise in recent years. The final reveal, that Captain Kirk’s younger brother is also a member of Pike’s crew, is contrived and distracting, and he isn’t the only character bogged down by the weight of their name. The ears of long term Star Trek fans will instantly prick up upon hearing the name of the Enterprise’s new Chief of Security La’an Noonien Singh, because the character is a relative of Captain Kirk’s infamous nemesis: Khan Noonien Singh.
This unceasing reliance on ‘names you know’ is sigh-inducing, but it also has a discernible detrimental impact on the characters. Whenever the Lieutenant speaks about her backstory, which she does throughout the episode, it’s overshadowed by questions about how it fits in with, and connects her to Khan. At times, however, her strong-willed and quick-thinking personality does push through, especially when contrasted with the sensibilities of Spock. This conflict makes for a compelling dynamic, and allows Pike to do what Starfleet captain’s love to do the most: weigh up between two differing opinions on the same situation.
With a strong narrative and engaging cast, the premiere is undeniably a lot of fun and it’s spiked with moments of levity and humour that mostly work. Moreover, it’s a firmly family friendly affair, absent of jarring swear words, or excessive violence, and all underpinned by a moral message. Yes, the presentation of that message is heavy handed, but that’s nothing new for Star Trek and the moral journey that the characters go through to get there is clear, and the result of reasonable discussion and debate. These factors merge together into something that is instantly recognisable as Star Trek and, beyond that, good storytelling.
In many ways, it’s completely unsurprising that it works so effectively. Strange New Worlds is unashamedly aligning itself with the style and values which set Star Trek apart at its inception, and who could have guessed that embracing a beloved formula would lead to stellar results? As the Enterprise sets out among the stars once more, the possibilities for Strange New Worlds are stratospheric.