Star Trek fans have had at best a complicated relationship with writer and producer Alex Kurtzman.
With J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the classic sci-fi series back in 2009, fans and general movie-going audiences enjoyed for the most part the new film starring then up-and-comer Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as the famous Trek series characters Kirk and Spock respectively. Through Kurtzman’s script, the film re-popularized the series for a new generation of fans through its sharp visuals, fast-paced action, and generally strong portrayals of the classic characters. I myself had a lot of fun watching it after my first year of college and felt for the most part the movie paid proper homage to the series.
However, a large contingent of other fans were not fond of the changes that were made to the “lore” of the series so to speak (not to be confused with Data’s twin android brother, of course). The new film seemed to place a higher emphasis on action and thrills over the series’, let’s say, slower, more science fiction and philosophy heavy roots.
It also took creative liberties with the timeline of the franchise which effectively rebooted the series in more ways than one. Whether one loved the new movie or not it is indeed starkly different in tone and pace compared to the series and even the movies that came before it.
This divisiveness among fans for Kurtzman’s work would carry over into the next reboot when Star Trek was brought back to TV once again in 2017 for “Star Trek Discovery” where he took over the franchise as both executive producer and showrunner. “Discovery” not too much unlike the 2009 reboot and its subsequent sequels takes some creative liberties with the story fans know once again, adding a sister for Spock that no one knew about and Klingons that are far more alien like than the space Mongolians we were used to in the Rick Berman era of Trek.
Like the 2009 reboot it also has a fairly strong emphasis on action but more divisively it has, at least early on, a much darker tone than we are used to for the franchise. Fans effectively loved it or hated it for the most part, just as before, and debate still rages around if “Nu Trek” is good or not in fan forums online.
“Discovery” did however begin the next era of Star Trek spawning four new shows, all of which vary quite wildly in style and tone. We have “Picard” which is continuation of the famous TNG’s captain’s storyline. “Lower Decks” which is a “Rick & Morty”-esque stylized animated series. “Prodigy” a Nickelodeon show geared toward Trek’s youngest fans. And now finally a spin-off to “Discovery;” “Strange New Worlds” which debuted a couple months ago.
With “Strange New Worlds” producer and showrunner Alex Kurtzman promised fans a new series that reflected more of original Star Trek’s optimistic views of the future while also going back to a more episodic series format, as opposed to serialized as “Discovery” has done for four seasons. Even Nu Trek’s most ardent fans probably would admit, to an extent at least, that Star Trek is best in this format. The older series thrives on individual, self-contained storylines that can be watched on their own as opposed to following a long narrative saga as recent Star Trek shows have done (DS9 being the only outlier from the previous era).
The show also promised to go back to the series original mission statement which is exploration and boldly going where no man has gone before and after several seasons of end of the galaxy events in both “Discovery” and “Picard” this sounded like a welcome change of pace for many.
After ten episodes, which wrapped up just this past week, I think it’s safe to say that, for the most part at least, “Strange New Worlds” delivers for those who may be cynical of Star Trek under Kurtzman’s watch while also acknowledging some of Nu Trek’s strengths.
“Strange New Worlds” tells the story of Enterprise’s first captain, Christopher Pike, featured in the original series pilot episode back in 1965, and how he reckons with knowing his own death that he discovers during the events of “Discovery’s” second season. Played charismatically by Anson Mount, Pike comes aboard the Enterprise once again after a lengthy hiatus to continue the Enterprise’s mission of exploring those very same Strange New Worlds alongside his chief science officer Spock and a host of new characters unseen from before James T. Kirk took that captain’s chair.
What “Strange New Worlds” does effectively well, better than most of the new Star Trek content since 2009, is give fans largely the best of both old and new Star Trek.
The new series goes back to more of that adventure of the week format fans love, with the crew of pre-Kirk Enterprise experiencing things from the serious (encounters with the Gorn, who take a drastic new turn in this series) to the more silly and mundane (Spock and his fiancé T’Pring switching bodies in what became my favorite episode of the first season). Though there are definitely advantages to serialized based series, as most prestige TV is these days, the benefits of an episodic series is that it gives more time to explore individual characters by telling singular stories that express who they are on a more focused level.
The emphasis is on Pike of course but Spock gets a couple great one-off episodes. We learn some new things about Pike’s first officer Una. We get to see who Uhura was as a cadet and Nurse Chapel is given a considerable amount of new depth. And new characters such as chief of security La’an Noonien Sigh (Yes, related to that Noonien Sigh) especially get time to show who they are without interrupting any kind of overarching narrative like “Discovery.”
It also focuses more heavily on the problem-solving aspect of the series, as the Enterprise encounters this a little more often than newer Trek series. Basically we have less episodes that are solved via lasers or photon torpedoes and more just the characters thinking on their feet and using their heads like they did in older Star Trek series.
The pace is thus a little slower which is what most Trek fans like about the franchise overall. With most mainstream science fiction being more science action based than anything these days, fans enjoy that Trek can be the slower, more dialog-based alternative from the relentless violence of other shows. “Strange New Worlds” is a welcome return to this more relaxed/low stakes storytelling and it helps paint a more hopeful view of the future that fans know and love about Star Trek.
But “Strange New Worlds” isn’t all just a homage to the slower stuff of old, it also showcases what makes Nu Trek good too.
I think even the most ardent “Star Trek can’t be action based!” fans would agree that laser fights and space battles are still a big part of the series and when done effectively it’s hard not to enjoy it. When there is action in “Strange New Worlds it’s more often than not a deeply enjoyable experience. Space battles are about as good as they have ever looked in Star Trek and the intensity of each scene reflects this. It also doesn’t feel forced or as a replacement for weak writing here as the action, more often than not, has a purpose and story to tell other than “kill the bad aliens.” The season finale especially is a great exercise in the advantage Nu Trek has over old Trek and even the most cynical will probably be on the edge of their seat as Captain Pike leads the Enterprise through danger.
Visually it’s not all action-based too, of course. The cinematography to “Strange New Worlds” is probably the best the franchise has ever looked. Combined with the original soundtrack by Nami Melumad, when the action is over and the series focuses on the wonders of space the tone has an almost “Planet Earth” like feel to it or “Cosmos” ala Neil deGrasse Tyson’s narrated series.
There’s a particularly great example of this in that aforementioned body swap episode where Una and La’an take a space stroll across Enterprise’s hull and watch as a spaceship carrying alien ambassadors flies over them with their solar sails flowing above. The music combined with the cinematography is quite breathtaking and is a great example of how good and inspiring Nu Trek can be even in 2022.
“Strange New Worlds” isn’t without some flaws however. Because of the limits of a ten episode season, it can’t quite do episodic the same way previous, older Star Trek series have done which numbered between 25-30 episodes a season typically. Some intriguing sub plots to characters are resolved a little too early in the series’ first season because of it and thus at times it can feel rushed, not allowing things to develop longer.
Though “Strange New Worlds” dials back Nu Trek’s action heavy focus there are still times in the season where you might find yourself going “oh, another action scene/episode.” This is especially the case with the emphasis on a new/old enemy in the Gorn who get a drastic makeover in much the same way “Discovery’s” Klingons do. I’m not against rebooting and redesigning some of these original alien species, afterall the Klingons became a fan favorite once they went from just dude’s in brown face to Space Mongolians with big ass forehead spines in the Berman era, but making the Gorn a cross between Predator and Alien is…a choice to say the least.
Though I think part of Nu Trek’s charm is also the faster, “quippier” dialogue so-to-speak, it also gets irritating at times that every character has a level of MCU-esque banter to them that can turn scenes that should feel more serious into action comedy. This isn’t always bad but there were times where it felt like the script should’ve laid off the jokey jokes a little longer to let the more serious tone flow on its own.
Star Trek as a franchise is hardly humorless, of course. In fact, a large percentage of my favorite Star Trek episodes are the funny ones but there is a difference between making characters occasionally very funny and making every character the comic relief in most episodes to a certain extent.
The new series also suffers from all the same problems prequels typically have as well. While I enjoy this cast of old familiar characters, especially Mount as Pike, the thing that makes a lot of stories fun is that eagerness to know what happens next and who all these characters we grow to love become in the future.
With a prequel we already know all this.
As great and intriguing as Ethan Peck is as Spock, we know he becomes Kirk’s first officer and a prominent scientist in the Federation down the line. Celia Rose Gooding is fantastic as cadet Uhura but we know she is just destined to be comms on the Enterprise. We know that the “will they or won’t they” aspect of Nurse Chapel’s relationship and T’Pring’s engagement to Spock ends with neither of them together with him in the future too. It takes the fun out of imagining the future of these characters which is part of what makes engaging with a story fun to begin with.
Too often during the series I found myself just wishing it was something entirely new, set in the future of the franchise instead of the past. These do feel like new versions of the characters, but I still found myself lamenting that I knew where the story progresses already.
The funny thing though is, Pike’s story is in many ways a meta commentary on that; he already knows what his destiny is. We know what it is too. In the series first episode he spends quite a bit of time lamenting that he knows where he ends up, that in many ways the fun of not knowing the future for himself, like the fans, has been taken away from him. He chooses to engage with his journey anyway though as he acknowledges that his destiny is set in stone and that there is some bittersweet optimism to knowing one’s own end point. In that way, even though I wish this wasn’t a prequel, this is probably the best way to engage with the series. Yes, we know what happens to all our favorite original characters here but there is some joy still to seeing how their lives play out toward that end point anyway.
Though we know Spock is destined to lead the cosmos in scientific discovery, there is charm to seeing his more human side in this role and how he grows into it. Uhura might be set to only ever be just the Enterprise’s chief communications officer but seeing a bright-eyed, youthful cadet initially resist and then embrace destiny is interesting in its own way too. And with Pike of course, we didn’t know much about him beyond how he dies before “Discovery” and this new series. With “Strange New Worlds” we’ll get to see who the man was before facing his tragic destiny and if this first season is any indication it is one worth continuing to follow.
“Strange New Worlds” may not be peak Star Trek like some series in the franchise of the past but it is a worthy addition nonetheless that fans both new and old are more than likely to enjoy.
If not boldly going for some, it is still nonetheless engaging and that may be just enough to explore these Strange New Worlds for hopefully many seasons to come.
4 out of 5