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Star Trek: Strange New Worlds •••••

Movie Greg Scott
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

SPOILERS WITHIN

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
Screen Shot 2022-09-08 at 11.17.37 AM

scott
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, strangely enough it’s time to review the 11th Star Trek television series, Strange New Worlds

Finally a “new” Star Trek I can relate to: A cisgendered white man of a certain age commanding a crew of women and minorities while spreading his personal morality across the galaxy. But I kid… let’s recap:

The series is set about ten years before Star Trek’s original series (which featured Captain Kirk, Spock, Scotty, McCoy, and the rest of that iconic crew). In Strange New Worlds, the starship Enterprise is captained by Christopher Pike, who fans will recognize as the Captain lured to Talos IV in the two-part Menagerie episode from the original series. Joining Pike is a younger Mr. Spock, a younger Uhura, Number One, and a host of new characters.

This series was spawned from a few episodes of Star Trek: Discovery. In it, Pike witnesses his future where he is permanently disfigured while saving some cadets. This glimpse into the future haunts Pike as he begins the Enterprise’s mission to explore “Strange New Worlds.” Of all the “new” incarnations of Star Trek – this is one that most resembles the Original Series, and even The Next Generation.

Yes, there’s no doubt that SNW appeals to fans who long for the good old days of Star Trek, the days when Star Trek featured episodic television rather than long, serial arcs. I have to admit, I find these stand-alone episodes to be a refreshing change, although truth be told, there are some arcs embedded in SNW, such as M’Benga’s child in transporter stasis, not to mention Pike’s handling of all the haunting images of his future damaged self.

But more than an emphasis on episodic format, SNW brings with it a jaunty optimism that has also been lacking in modern incarnations of Star Trek. There is less dark, gritty, melodrama and more fresh, bright-eyed enthusiasm for exploration. I see more wonder and awe, and less wander and yawn.

There’s a lot to like about ST:SNW. There are younger versions of characters we already know and love. Spock, Uhura, and Nurse Chapel are reimagined with care and respect for those who came before. And the “one off” characters of Pike and Number One (from the original pilot “The Cage”) and Dr. M’Benga (from ST:TOS “A Private Little War”) are fully fleshed out. New characters like Security Chief La’an Noonien-Singh, Orion Chief Engineer Hemmer, and Helmsman Erica Ortegas bring fresh blood to the series.

The writing is very good. The sets are amazing. The performances are excellent. While my opening quip above was quite tongue-in-cheek, this is – in fact – the Star Trek I’ve been waiting for. Not since Star Trek: The Next Generation have I enjoyed sitting with a Federation crew so much. Nor have I waited in anticipation for the next episode. DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise all fell flat for me. The Kelvin Timeline movies had promise that was squandered. And the latest incarnations of Discovery, Picard, and Lower Decks were forgettable. (The latest animated series ST:Prodigy is enjoyable enough, despite being aimed at children). So, yes, finally – this is a Star Trek I can relate to.

The stories in the first season have mostly been focused on deep character development. Each episode seems to focus on one of the main characters and some deep psychological problem they have to solve. It’s not a bad idea, but it does make for some rather static stories. This is a distraction because Story should trump everything. In ST:TOS and ST:TNG, we learned the characters’ backstories over time. The ST:SNW episodes “Ghosts of Illyria” (ep 1.3), “Spock Amok” (ep 1.5), and “The Serene Squall” (ep 1.7) exhibit this problem the most. In each case the character study is so intense that the main “mission” is superfluous to the point of being… well, pointless.

Greg, we’re both dodging the most important new innovation on ST:SNW – Captain Pike’s hair. There’s no doubt that Pike’s Peak has emerged as one of the most talked about, meme-worthy, visually iconic features of the series. When we first met Pike in ST:DISC’s season 2, his hair was a fairly normal-sized slab of black and grey atop his head. But now in ST:SNW, either Pike or the showrunners decided that Pike needed a signature look, a gimmicky calling card to generate media buzz.

The good news is that Pike’s Peak doesn’t distract too much from Anson Mount’s fine acting and portrayal of a captain who is tortured by the knowledge that he’s going to die a hideous death. Mount has a quiet charisma about him that brings a nice gravitas to the role, and it is balanced by an occasional playfulness. In this sense, he’s much like James T. Kirk, only without the philandering. Ironically, we know that William Shatner sported a toupee during ST:TOS, but what remains unknown is whether Anson Mount’s hair is held together by scaffolding or several tubes of hair product.

I’m also impressed by Ethan Peck’s portrayal of Spock. This rendition of Spock plays homage to the late great Leonard Nimoy’s portrayal while also bringing in some of Peck’s occasional whimsy. What may be problematic for me is the often cringe-worthy romance between Spock and T’Pring. Many of the scenes between Spock and T’Pring don’t appear to be consistent with what we know about Vulcan culture and sexuality from the original series. Their romantic conflicts often seem too trite and “middle-schoolish” to come across as authentic.

My theory about “Pike’s Peak” is that Anson Mount stands six feet tall and his co-star Rebecca Romijn is five-foot-eleven. So, they needed to “top him off” so he wouldn’t be dwarfed by his Number One. Regardless, more than one of my female friends have commented that they wouldn’t mind being Anson “Mounted”.

There are, for me, too many throw-backs to The Original Series. In “Spock Amok” we see the recreation of the Kirk/Spock battle from “Amok Time.” And in “The Elysian Kingdom” the crew is recreating a fantasy story much in the way the Next Generation crew were stuck in a Q-induced “Robin Hood” torture. The problem with the former episode was that none of us knows this fantasy story, so a lot of the humor falls flat. And the ending (where M’Benga’s daughter is released from transporter stasis) is quite literally a deus-ex-machina. Bad form.

But the absolute best episode, despite my distaste for throw-backs, has to be the season finale. It pit Pike against the Romulans in a reimagining of my favorite ST:TOS episode: “Balance of Terror.” In “A Quality of Mercy,” a young Jim Kirk is commanding the USS Farragut while Pike commands the Enterprise. The two captains face off against the Romulan commander and we see that it is Kirk’s brash risk-taking, rather than Pike’s measured diplomacy, that was the better solution to the game of brinkmanship. We haven’t seen a retro-episode crafted so well since ST:DS9 went back to “The Trouble with Tribbles.”

Ah, yes, ST:SNW’s finale “A Quality of Mercy” was the best hour of Star Trek in decades. I was riveted and I marveled at the brilliant connections made with “Balance of Terror”, so much so that I had to rewatch BOT and the QOM again that same day. This is similar to what happened in the mid-1990s when DS9 released their brilliant “Trials and Tribblations” based on “Trouble with Tribbles”.

Overall, ST:SNW is a real treat for Star Trek fans, as finally we have a modern day Star Trek that we can sink our teeth into, that honors the principles of the original trek while also breaking new creative ground. Are there too many callbacks to the original series? Probably. But that’s okay for now. In season two, we should see (and need to see) some new life and new civilizations for Pike’s Peak and his crew to explore. My scores for this series, based on season one, are 5 out of 5 Reels and 5 out of 5 Hero points.

There is one detail about “Strange New Worlds” that worries me: Pike knows his future. He knows that in ten years he’s going to rescue a handful of cadets and be horribly disfigured. This fact haunts him and it makes for good pathos. But, he also knows that he’s going to be alive in ten years. Which means… he can be as cavalier about his choices as he pleases. He knows he’s going to live through whatever problem faces him. With all the “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey” problems the writers of ST:SNW tackle, this is one they tacitly ignore.

Still, I’m thrilled with the results. Like you, Scott, I grant the cast and crew of the once and future Starship Enterprise 5 out of 5 Heroes and 5 out of 5 Reels.

Movie Greg Scott
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds