Star Trek reviews: Strange New Worlds season one

A couple of months ago I subscribed to the Paramount+ streaming service. My primary motivation was that I wanted to finally start watching all of the new Star Trek shows. So far I’ve seen Picard season one, Strange New Worlds season one, and the first couple of episodes of Lower Decks. I didn’t think all that much of Lower Decks, but the show does have its fans, so I’m glad they’re enjoying it. I liked Picard, and I thought Strange New Worlds was great. So I’m going to share a few thoughts on the later.

I knew that Strange New Worlds spun out of Star Trek: Discovery. I asked around to find out if I needed to watch Disco to understand SNW. A couple of people said that the first two seasons of Disco really set the stage for SNW and recommended watching it. On the other hand, my friend Colin had no idea that Disco occurred first, so he just watched SNW, and he had no trouble understanding or enjoying it.

So I just leaped right in on SNW. It was immediately apparent that a number of events from Disco were being referenced or alluded to… but it was so well-written that someone such as myself who had not watched Disco was very quickly able to figure out what was going on and understand the important plot & character development that had occurred previously.

SNW stars Anson Mount as Christopher Pike, who was the Captain of the starship Enterprise before James T. Kirk. Pike was originally played by Jeffrey Hunter in Star Trek’s first unaired pilot “The Cage.” Scenes from that story were then used in “The Menagerie” which revealed Pike became horrifically crippled by radiation saving a group of Starfleet cadets.

I expect even the most casual fans of Star Trek were aware of Pike’s ultimate fate. So rather than just ignoring the elephant in the room, SNW’s writers have tackled it head-on. Before the events of SNW season one (in an episode of Disco, I imagine) Pike is given a vision of his terrible fate a decade in the future. One of the central themes of the first season is Pike wrestling with this knowledge, wondering if he should attempt to change his future, as well as worrying his awareness of his ultimate fate is going to negatively impact his command decisions and jeopardize the crew of the Enterprise.

Anson Mount gives a really solid performance as Pike, bringing all of this internal conflict to life with subtlety & nuance. His version of Pike is intellectual, soulful, contemplative and irreverent, a really solid balance of the serious and the humorous. It was Mount himself who suggested having Pike bonding with his crew over his cooking sessions in his quarters.

Ethan Peck portrays science office Mr. Spock. It has got to be a daunting prospect stepping into the shoes of an iconic, beloved character previously brought to life so memorably by Leonard Nimoy, but Peck does a fine job. He really captures the younger, more uncertain qualities of Spock, who at this point in his life is still not as sure of his footing in attempting to balance his logical Vulcan and emotional human sides.

The third member of Enterprise’s command triumvirate is Rebecca Romijn as Number One, aka Una Chin-Riley, a character previously portrayed in “The Cage” by Majel Barrett. Just like Pike, Una was practically a blank slate. I feel the writers and Romijn did a good job developing a character who many viewers, myself included, found quite intriguing from her one-and-only appearance all those decades ago.

Rounding out the SNW cast are Jess Bush as Nurse Christine Chapel, Christina Chong as Security Chief La’an Noonien-Singh, Celia Rose Gooding as Cadet Nyota Uhura, Melissa Navia as Lieutenant Erica Ortegas, Babs Olusanmokun as Doctor Joseph M’Benga and Bruce Horak as Engineer Hemmer.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of SNW for me was Gooding’s portrayal as a young Uhura, as I watched it just a short time after the passing of actress Nichelle Nichols, who originated the role back in the 1960s. Nichols did a good job with the material she was given, but she sometimes lamented that her character, who was theoretically in a command position and an accomplished linguistic expert, was nearly always reduced to being a glorified receptionist on the Enterprise. I appreciated how SNW gave Uhura the development she was never really afforded in the original series, and Gooding is great in the role.

One of my favorite characters on SNW was actually Ortegas, the Enterprise’s pilot & navigator, who is played by Navia with a wry sarcasm. As the season progressed I kept hoping that Ortegas would receive more material, but she never got to step into the spotlight, other than the very offbeat episode “The Elysium Kingdom.” So I was glad to hear that Navia will be returning in season two, especially as a preview clip shows Ortegas front & center, getting ready to join an away team mission.

Speaking of “The Elysium Kingdom” by Akela Cooper & Onitra Johnson, it was a really enjoyable, moving conclusion to the extended plotline involving Dr. M’Benga’s daughter. The structure of SNW season one consisted of 10 relatively standalone episodes that nevertheless had several subplots and character arcs running through the entire season. As I said, I liked Picard season one, but I felt there just was not enough material to stretch a single story across 10 episodes. So I appreciated how SNW balanced self-contained stories with long-term plotting.

Speaking of balance, I feel like SNW has a nice proportion between the pulpy two-fisted space opera action of the original series and the more cerebral, philosophical tone of The Next Generation.

I know some people were unhappy with the season finale “A Quality of Mercy” as it appeared to show Pike’s humanist approach fail spectacularly. But I think the point was to demonstrate the need for balance & flexibility. Yes, it is vitally important to have empathy & understanding. Tragically, though, there will be occasions when this is simply not possible, when you are dealing with people who are unable or unwilling to respond to either logical arguments or appeals to decency.  I felt like “A Quality of Mercy” was an illustration of the advice “Never start a fight, but always finish it.”

One of the more outstanding episodes this season was “Ghosts of Illyria” written by Akela Cooper & Bill Wolkoff. It had such a mournful, contemplative quality.

Something I have always appreciated about science fiction, and Star Trek in particular, is that it enables us to examine our societal problems from an alternative perspective. In this case, it looks at the Federation’s ban on genetic engineering (due to the horrific events of the Eugenics Wars on Earth during the mid 21st Century) and how, even though it was initially implemented with the best of intentions, such a policy can all too easily lead to fear & discrimination.

As Dr. M’Benga says in this episode:

“Prejudice has kept people from helping each other for centuries with no scientific justification. And after we met our neighbors in the galaxy, we found new bigotries. Human and Vulcan blood. Now it’s human and Illyrian. In any case, they’re meaningless to me. I am a physician.”

Some people were not happy with this scene, because it seemingly flew in the face of Star Trek continuity. The thing is, though, the Federation in the original series was not a utopia. For all its tremendous strides, humanity was still very much a work in progress. As Captain Kirk himself said in “A Taste of Armageddon” written by Gene L. Coon & Robert Hamner:

“We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands, but we can stop it! We can admit that we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes… knowing that we’re not going to kill today.”

“Ghosts of Illyria” reveals that Una Chin-Riley is from a genetically engineered species, something she has concealed so that she can serve in Starfleet. She loves her job, and she is damn good at it, so it’s heartbreaking when in the final scene of the season her secret is discovered and she is arrested by Starfleet. Definitely leaves me on the edge of my seat waiting for season two.

Another great character is Hemmer. At first I thought he was an Andorian, but he’s actually a member of the Aenar, a blind, telepathic offshoot of the Andorians introduced in Enterprise season four. As someone who found Enterprise underrated, I’m glad to see it acknowledged here. Hemmer starts out as a seemingly-unlikable asshole, but he soon is shown, underneath his gruff façade, to be an intelligent, thoughtful, caring individual. I enjoyed the mentor-student relationship that developed between him and Uhura.

Hemmer was also a pacifist… although that did not mean he would just stand on the sidelines while others were in danger. As he explains it:

“Pacifism is not passivity. It’s the active protection of all living things in the natural universe.”

In hindsight, I realize this later ties in to the themes in “A Quality of Mercy,” the idea of striving for peace but being aware that it is sometimes necessary to fight in self-defense.

I grew to like Hemmer, and I was sad that he got killed. Since I watched these episodes a few months after they first streamed I unfortunately had his death spoiled online. But even there I figured he’d get killed at the very end of the season… so when he sacrificed himself to save Pike and the others in episode nine, “All Those Who Wander,” it was still a surprise. I just wish Hemmer had appeared more prominently throughout the season before this, as it would have given his death even more of an impact.

One other character I want to bring up is Spock’s fiancée T’Pring, played by Gia Sandhu. T’Pring was previously seen in the original series episode “Amok Time” where she was very much depicted as a cold, manipulative bitch. It is to SNW’s immense credit that it develops T’Pring into a fully realized, three-dimensional character. As the season progresses it becomes apparent that Spock and T’Pring did at one point genuinely care for one another and fully intended to marry, but over time, as Spock became more and more invested in his Starfleet career, their relationship became strained and they grew apart, their love turning to bitterness. It’s definitely a tragedy, and SNW lets us see it from both their points of view.

SNW was such an enjoyable series that I was disappointed it was only 10 episodes long. On the other hand, I have to acknowledge that back in the day when The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine were churning out 24 episodes per season there were inevitable at least a few duds in even the strongest of seasons. Fewer episodes means that the writers & other creative personnel can focus their energies more on producing as many quality stories as possible. On the whole I thought SNW season one was of a high quality, with only one episode, “The Serene Squall,” feeling underwhelming.

It’s interesting: sometimes people can look at the exact same thing and come away with radically different opinions on it. I know there are Star Trek fans who dislike SNW. There’s even a critic & blogger whose opinions I typically find to be highly insightful who refers to SNW as “bad Star Trek karaoke.”  I guess the nice things about having several different Star Trek series being produced nowadays is that hopefully there’s something for everyone.

There are so many other aspects of Strange New Worlds season one that I want to discuss. I could write several paragraphs just on the episode “Lift Us Up Where Suffering Cannot Reach” (and maybe I will one day soon). But then this blog post would be at least twice as long, and I’m already over 2000 words! Suffice to say, as someone who has been a Star Trek fan since I was a little kid watching reruns of the original series in the early 1980s, I really enjoyed it.

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