When a franchise has been around as long as Star Trek, it’s not hard to understand a desire to reinvent the wheel — or, I suppose, the warp core. Lean too much on what Trek has been doing since the Sixties and you risk your futuristic space opera feeling old, stodgy, and high on its own supply. But the more recent series like Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard have tried much too hard to fit Trek into the Peak TV landscape, in the process losing sight of what made these stories work so effectively for so many decades.
In particular, the decision to lean hard into serialization did both Discovery and Picard an extreme disservice, trapping each show in season-long arcs that simply couldn’t sustain themselves for such an extended period. The first year of Discovery committed hard to a Make Klingons Great Again arc — and a reimagining of James T. Kirk’s biggest enemies — that just didn’t work at all, and there was no escaping it once it began. Picard has tried a couple of different major arcs, neither of which has quite worked (I lost interest midway through the latest one and stopped), and mainly perked up when it took a week off from them so that, say, Picard could go hang out with his old friends Will Riker and Deanna Troi.
It’s not just that these different arcs have been duds. It’s that the very concept of them runs counter to everything that has defined Star Trek from 1966 until recently. The original Shatner/Nimoy series was built on a classic Adventure of the Week model, where the Enterprise crew would go into orbit around a planet, get to know the locals, cause and/or solve a problem, and then move onto the next one. This was how most of television operated back then, but it was a structure that worked particularly well for Trek, allowing creator Gene Roddenberry and his collaborators to take big swings every week. Sometimes, they missed terribly, but that just meant they would have the freedom to try something else entirely for the following episode. Eighties and Nineties spinoffs Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine did the formula one better, combining the familiar standalone missions with ongoing character arcs about Data’s desire to be more human, or (on both series) Worf’s struggle to find a place for himself in the tumultuous Klingon Empire. Deep Space Nine eventually went very serialized, but that was at the end, and after the show had spent most of its run building to that and making the characters interesting enough to carry a prolonged interstellar war story. Serialization is all the rage in modern TV drama, but not every series is built for that. So far, Star Trek hasn’t been.
The latest spinoff, though, is a throwback in every sense — an attempt to boldly go where so many have gone before, even if it’s been a while.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is simultaneously a spinoff of Discovery and a prequel to the original series, with Anson Mount reprising his Discovery performance as Christopher Pike, the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise immediately prior to James T. Kirk, and with a host of other familiar names and faces. Ethan Peck is back from Discovery as a younger Mr. Spock, as is Rebecca Romijn as Pike’s first officer, Una Chin-Riley, a.k.a. Number One. (Pike, Number One, and Spock were all featured in Roddenberry’s original Star Trek pilot, where the first two were played by Jeffrey Hunter and Roddenberry’s future wife Majel Barrett.) There are also more inexperienced versions of communications and linguistics expert Nyota Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) and nurse Christine Chapel (Jess Bush, reinterpreting a different Majel Barrett character), plus Babs Olusanmokun as serene Dr. M’Benga, who appeared in a couple of episodes of the Sixties show. A few of the crew members are wholly original, including aloof chief engineer Hemmer (Bruce Horak) and confident helm officer Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia). But even some of the newbies are linked to Trek lore: Security chief La’an Noonien-Singh shares a last name and some backstory with Ricardo Montalban’s genetically-engineered despot Khan, for instance.
The characters are straight out of Sixties Trek, but so is Strange New Worlds as a whole. There are ongoing character stories — Pike dealing with a glimpse of the terrible fate that we know awaits him from the classic Trek episode “The Menagerie,” Spock’s never-ending struggle to balance his Vulcan and human halves, La’an trying to overcome a traumatic past — but each episode is a standalone story of the kind that defined the best of both Jim Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard: The Enterprise encounters a new alien society, helps them through a problem, and then warps out in search of a new stop in their five-year mission.
It’s almost startling how effective the old format is after all this time. The early episodes of Strange New Worlds have a little bit of everything the franchise has tried over the years: exploration, diplomacy, action, even comedy. The breadth of what the show is trying to do is impressive, and a reminder of how elastic Star Trek can be. And if one concept isn’t your favorite — the third episode, a viral-outbreak story spotlighting Number One, drags a bit — give it a week so the show can try something else. One episode is a tense mash-up of the space battle scenes from Wrath of Khan and the “Disaster” episode of The Next Generation, while the next is a wacky shore-leave romp that includes both a body swap and the line, “Spock, I do not enjoy hijinks.” (Unsurprisingly, the latter was my favorite installment so far.)
There’s a degree to which Strange New Worlds is looking backwards a bit too much. Anson Mount was so good on Discovery — incredibly relaxed and confident and gentle, like everybody’s favorite cool space dad — that it’s hard to blame Trek producers Akiva Goldsman, Alex Kurtzman, and Jenny Lumet for wanting to bring him back. It is, however, a lot of classic characters (or, in some cases, their relatives) squeezed into a single show. It can feel at times like nostalgic pandering, and at others the show can seem hemmed in by our knowledge of what’s to come, particularly with Spock. At the same time, revisiting this era through a contemporary lens does wonders for some characters who were fairly one-note in their original incarnations, the women in particular. In the Sixties, for instance, Christine Chapel was defined almost entirely by her hopeless crush on Mr. Spock, where this version is an extrovert who likes playing on the cutting edge of Starfleet medicine. (She is also the character most likely to speak in a 2022 idiom; when Spock admits an embarrassing secret to her, she replies, “Oh, dang!”)
And if we know where everything is going with Spock, Ethan Peck still does very well with the seemingly thankless task of reinterpreting the most beloved, important character in the whole series. Though he’s roughly the same age Leonard Nimoy was in 1966, he’s playing a younger Spock who has not yet figured out how he wants to present himself, either to human crewmates like Uhura or to his fiancée T’Pring (Gia Sandhu, another Strange New Worlds actor who gets to add dimension to what was a very thin character on the original series). It’s a performance that hits the sweet spot of feeling faithful to what Nimoy did without being an impression.
At times, Strange New Worlds feels like a more cerebral version of what Kurtzman, J.J. Abrams, and company did with the 2009 Star Trek film: recasting all our old favorites and giving them a slightly modern touch-up. Pike is not Kirk, but the two men do share a certain laissez-faire attitude about interfering with alien civilizations if the need seems to be there. (There are also already plans to feature a younger Jim Kirk, and, if the series lasts long enough, there will almost certainly be junior glimpses of McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Chekhov, and maybe even a less sexist version of Yeoman Rand?) After so much of the Paramount+ era of Star Trek has failed to connect with the fans(*), retreating into the past is understandable.
(*) Oddly, the best show of the bunch prior to this has been the animated Star Trek: Lower Decks, which is half Next Generation parody, half sincere tribute.
And for the most part, Trek‘s past was pretty great, and durable, and still capable of resonating today. The new show arrives in a moment when it’s harder to feel optimistic about mankind’s future than it was in 1966. The first episode finds Pike mediating a dispute on a planet very much meant to evoke the mess we find ourselves in right now here on Earth, where fights over ideological supremacy are getting in the way of solving escalating worldwide problems. Pike offers these people a glimpse of what humanity went through in the 21st century, with the promise that we eventually made it through to the other side, but only after too much unnecessary hardship. It is on the nose, but no more so than when Kirk and Spock got involved in parables about Vietnam or racism. And when Pike explains to his new friends that he is here “to remind you of the power of possibility,” it resonates with the same spirit of faith in people’s better natures that defined Kirk, Picard, Ben Sisko, and Kathryn Janeway at their bests.
Hopefully, the show after this one sticks with this approach while featuring an entirely new crew. But for years now, as Discovery and Picard have fumbled around looking for a direction, only occasionally reminding me of why I love the franchise in the first place, I’ve asked for Kurtzman and company to just let Star Trek be Star Trek. With Strange New Worlds, they finally have, and the power of possibility is palpable throughout.
The first episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds premieres May 5 on Paramount+, with episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen the first five of 10 episodes.