Star Trek, in all its various forms, has never really been away since The Motion Picture dragged the once-cancelled original TV from the syndication doldrums to the bright cinematic uplands of the silver screen. A series of six ridiculously successful movies (well, ridiculously success for a middlingly-liked but cancelled TV show at any rate) gave birth to The Next Generation. Then Deep Space Nine. Then Voyager. Then Enterprise. Alongside all that, there were the four Next Generation movies – noticeably less successful at the box-office than their TOS counterparts but keeping the flame alive nonetheless. Enterprise, ignominiously-if-deservedly cancelled in 2005, seemed to mark the end of one particular strand of the franchise, yet just four years of no-Star Trek lie between it at the show returning to the big screen with the sharp, expensive and alternative-timeline shenanigans of the 2009 movie. That’s spawned two further movies – with a third on the way – but in a very real sense Star Trek‘s home has always been the small screen, not the silver one. Anyway, you get the point – four years between Trek projects is nothing. Even if the gap between Enterprise and the franchie’s big return to television, Discovery, is twelve years they have not, in any meaningful sense, been twelve Star Trek free years.
Discovery, though, wasn’t the instant hit it could have been. While it has garnered a huge amount of dedicated, committed fans there have been a lot of questions raised about it as well. It’s wobbled its way through four seasons, each broadly yet not massively better than the one before, while sticking to its core principals of diverse casting, vague disregard of Star Trek history, and messy storytelling. Parts of it work fantastically well, parts of it definitely don’t, but it’s certainly been a divisive show and hasn’t quite been the grand return that many had hoped for. In particular, the complaint levelled at it – with at least some justification – is that it looks like Star Trek but never really feels like it.
That’s a complaint thats also been levelled at the 2009 movie series as well. Two animated shows have also followed, though they’re very much their own thing. There’s the well-regarded (and generally excellent) knockabout comedy of Lower Decks, and the explicitly-for-kids Prodigy, which also brings Captain Janeway back to the fore. And then there’s Picard, resurrecting arguably the most beloved character of the entire franchise for two seasons of pissing-away-all-that-goodwill action. As with Discovery, bits of it have worked and bits of it have been a shoddy failure. Strange New Worlds, then, is a third go-around for live action in the Paramount+ age, so the big question is – can Strange New Worlds manage to capture the essence, the soul if you will, of Star Trek in a way that neither Discovery or Picard have quite managed?
Ok, not the end. Strange New Worlds, to go by the first episode, has managed to tap into the essence of Star Trek in a way that neither Discovery or Picard have quite managed. And key to that success is Anson Mount as Christopher Pike. He’s been in Discovery of course – try not to hold that against him – but given the chance to anchor the lead in his own series and he is a complete and utter triumph. Sonequa Martin-Green has always been one of the better things about Discovery but she’s frequently given material that gives her nowhere to go but overdoing wide-eyed sincerity, and of course Patrick Stewart is… well, Patrick Stewart on Picard but is, equally, often let down by the strength of material he’s given. Mount, on the other hand, is given a straightforward Star Trek episode and just runs with it. There’s lots of parts to his performance that recall previous captains – he’s certainly got Shatner’s 60’s panache, and more than a little of Stewart’s silver fox energy – but he feels distinct and very much his own thing. He is, in short, utterly charming as Pike, whether buried under a beard even McCoy might find impressive (consider his TMP whiskers) or engaging in very Kirk-style gunboat diplomacy with this episode’s alien-of-the-week.
Mount, and indeed the rest of the cast, have one big advantage here, and that’s the plot. Because although calling this “a straightforward Star Trek episode” might sound like a criticism, it is absolutely not. “Strange New Worlds” is a redux of about three Star Trek scripts – Voyager‘s “Time And Again”, the “escaped native on the ship” from First Contact, and TOS‘s “A Taste Of Armageddon”. That means that all of this feels instantly familiar, but not in a way that screams “rip-off” but in a way simply feels like coming home. Sure, it’s not the most challenging episode ever, but then again it’s an introduction, so we get a sense of all the characters and how they’re going to function within this kind of story rather than an overly-focused or fussy plot that has to pull double-time setting up the upcoming season. That’s why Pike can radiate out of this episode so well. We have the clean, familiar lines of a well-worn Star Trek script that give him space to show what he can bring to the table.
That’s true for the other characters as well. Ethan Peck’s Spock – also seen previously in Discovery – works well here, with a nice rapport when it comes to his interactions with Pike. It’s not a millions miles away from Kirk/Spock, but feels slightly more redolent of Zachary Quinto’s take on the character than Nimoy’s original. That’s not a bad thing, just different, and he does well with the role. When rescuing the prisoners on This Week’s Planet, the deadpanning of, “the pain is unbearable”, followed by a startlingly loud scream, then returning to his normal unflappable self is a lovely moment that’s both familiar and new at the same time. All the other characters come off well too – Celia Rose Gooding’s take on Uhura is of particular note and she’s definitely channelling her inner Nichelle Nichols – and basically this feels like a well-rounded, enjoyable and fun cast to spend time with. Chapel and M’Benga, neither of whom were exactly major characters in TOS, both get nice little moments, and there’s a sense that the crew are actually aligned with the story the show wants to tell, which has never quite felt the case with the other two live-action Paramount+ Star Trek‘s.
The production, too, feels very much feels like it’s working towards the right aesthetic goals of the series. The bridge of the Enterprise is a far closer match to the original’s than the movie series ever managed, and there’s none of the rather antiseptic widescreen white of that series’ command centre. Instead, we have something which is far closer to Kirk’s Enterprise, but updated enough that it’s not just a slavish recreation. So there’s still physical switches, knobs and dials, but the set is wider, the screens more advanced, and there’s a blend of modern tech which accompanies the 60’s version rather than simply replacing it. It’s an elegant, successful update to the classic original, clearly done with respect but with one eye on the present as well as the past.
Oh, and there’s one more way that “Strange New Worlds” (the episode – we’ll have to wait and see if it’s also true of Strange New Worlds the series) pays fealty to Trek of the past – it’s clunky, upfront moralising. In this case it’s the “don’t fight or you’ll end up making the same mistakes we did!” that has its roots in literally dozens of TOS stories (but, oh let’s say “The Omega Glory” for a really direct version) to say nothing of the subsequent shows. And yet… and yet… it really works here because captains giving Big Speeches about Important Topics is such a key tenet of Star Trek. This really does feel like TOS without simply being a pale imitation of it, and as such is the first of the three prequels (Enterprise, Discovery for the most part, and the 2009 movie sequence) that actually feels worthy of inheriting that mantle. Strange New Worlds, in just one episode, feels like it’s earned it.
No it’s not subtle, of course it’s not, but neither is it meant to be. It’s the first episode – it’s a big, bold statement of intent. Discovery, when it comes to emotion, is more often than not playing everything at the human level, digging into relationships, how and why they function (or don’t) and everything is very much rooted in the personal. Not here. That’s not to say none of it is, and the relationship between Pike and Number One and Pike and Spock are clearly going to be critical going forward. But what “Strange New Worlds” does is push that into second place – the point of this episode is Pike facing up to the aliens and showing them footage of how badly their conflict could go. That’s the most important thing here, and what’s more it’s written and shot that way, so there’s an alignment between intent and purpose (one of Discovery‘s major shortfalls, truth be told). Pike has his inner demons to wrestle with – knowledge of his own death – and of course that will inform his character going forward, but by placing the big-scale moralising at the centre of the episode we get a real return to the way Star Trek has always worked. That isn’t to say there aren’t other successful models that can be pursued, but there’s simply no denying how good this series is at using the traditional format.
And this is just the first episode! It’s astonishing to have such a bold, confident and fired-up first episode like this straight out the gate. There’s a huge sense that everyone involved in this simply loves being part of Star Trek and getting to play around with all the toys that come with it. Despite how closely this hews to TOS there’s also no sense that the show is simply giving fans what they fans think they want (a surefire way to cancellation, as both Doctor Who and Enterprise fans can attest). Instead, they’re giving fans what they want, and if you want to come along for the ride, well that would be great too. Anson Mount’s Pike is already a stand-out and there’s a vast amount of potential here. Hopefully we won’t fall back to too many tropes from the original, but at this stage there’s every reason to be optimistic. If you want to rag on this episode for being unoriginal, well fine, but that really isn’t the point. This is a simply superb slice of Star Trek, it gets the series off to what is pretty much the best possible start imaginable, and it’s just incredible exciting to see where it’s all going to go.