Review: 'Star Trek: Strange New Worlds' Warps Back to the Franchise's Roots

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday May 5, 2022

'Star Trek: Strange New Worlds'
'Star Trek: Strange New Worlds'  (Source:Paramount+)

Remember Captain Pike and the Enterprise as envisioned on "Star Trek: Discovery?" Those episodes pointed the way for the newest entry in the sprawling franchise, titled "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds." Set aboard the Starship Enterprise in the years before Capt. James Kirk took command, the series finds new stories to tell and maintains the modern sensibilities (and big budget) of today's "Trek," but steps back from season-long story arcs to revisit episodic storytelling (something that the modern shows, with the exception of animated series "Star Trek: Lower Decks," and "Star Trek: Prodigy" have seemingly abandoned).

The appearance of Pike and co. during the secondseason of "Discovery" prompted a massive fan response, and a demand for this very show. Miraculously, it's happened — and the payoff is everything fans want: A deep dive into Pike's adventures, a lively dynamic between Pike (as played by Anson Mount), a youthful Lt. Spock (Ethan Peck), and oh-so-smart, oh-so-capable Number One (Rebecca Romijn), who has a proper name here: Una Chin-Riley. That's a far cry from the first "Star Trek" pilot, produced in 1964 and then famously rejected by NBC, in part because they didn't like a brainy, confident woman on the ship's bridge. (Lucky for us the NBC suits liked the idea and ordered up a second pilot; the rest is, as they say, future history.)

"Strange New Worlds" revitalizes a number of legacy characters from the original series, which ran from 1966-69. Spock, the most popular legacy character of all, is joined by Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) — a cadet in this show, trying her hand at engineering and other ships' departments, as well as communications — and by Nurse Christine Chapel (Jess Bush) who, unlike the caring but somewhat limp version of the character as portrayed in the '60s, is a free-spirited, go-getting, sometimes inappropriate presence in sickbay. The cheerful Dr. M'Benga (Babs Olosanmokun) (another legacy character, though having only appeared in two episodes of the original series) runs the ship's medical department.

Transporter Chief Kyle is back, too, as a very different version of an original series recurring character (he was Australian back in the day). But what about Scotty? McCoy? Sulu and Chekhov? They, like Jim Kirk, are not aboard yet, and won't be for another ten years or so, but there's a fascinating array of new characters filling in their roles. The sassy, fun-loving (and LGBTQ+, perhaps?) Ortegas (Melissa Navia) is at the helm, proving herself to be "the best pilot in Starfleet" a few times in the five episodes provided for review. And in place of Chief Engineer Scott, the crusty Scottish working man from the original series, we get Hemmer (Bruce Horak), a crusty Aenar working man who, by the way, is blind. (That's normal for his species, and not, as he points out early on, a "disability.")

Overseeing security is La'an (Christina Chong), and before you fret that her redshirt status puts her at risk of ending up one like... well, like redshirts tend to, chew on this: La'an's surname is Noonien Singh. As in super-baddie Khan. As in, she kicks serious ass when she needs to.

Enterprise has been updated inside and out, as we saw on those "Discovery" episodes, and now we get a better look at the re-invented flagship, including a vast engineering section (whereas the original series' set was sparsely equipped and relied on some unconvincing forced perspective work to indicate size) and a double-decker sickbay. Clearly, the JJ Abrams' "Kelvin-verse" aesthetic is at work here, as in "Discovery." Crew quarters have gotten an upgrade, too; William Shatner once complained that Kirk's cabin was like a hotel room, but Pike dwells in something that looks like an Airbnb that would cost $800 per night and be run by the most luxury-minded of superhosts. It's a pretty nice place to throw dinner parties, and Pike, who likes to cook, gathers his crew there on occasion to exude some Picardian wisdom, mixed with his own brand of personable chumminess.

Which brings us back to the show's format. Though episodic in nature — each week a whole new adventure, no long stretches of slow-churn wheel-spinning to try and stretch a single story across ten or more episodes! — the series features "emotional arcs" designed to run across entire seasons. First and foremost among these is Pike's vision (from an episode of "Discovery") of his future act of self-sacrifice, which will leave him radiation burned and boxed up in a life-support wheelchair. It's grim stuff, and he sees reminders of that vision all around him. He's so spooked, in fact, that he almost doesn't want to return to his post as Enterprise prepares for relaunch from space dock. But he does, both because his trusted mentor Robert April (Adrian Holmes) (there's a deep cut for you!) asks it of him, and because Number One has gone missing while on temporary assignment with another ship.

Spock, too, has an ongoing emotional arc; in his case, it's the character's familiar struggle between his human and Vulcan halves, and that internal split (decades away from being reconciled at this point) is dramatized in an early episode in a way that's huge fan service fun but also psychologically apt. Adding to Spock's story is his complicated relationship with his fiancee, T'Pring (Gia Sandhu), who — during this era — is genuinely in love with him, but already growing weary of how Spock prioritizes his duty to Starfleet over his commitments to her. We know how this is going to turn out, but the way the writers are handling the relationship there are probably multiple seasons' worth of complex, thorny storylines waiting to be unpacked.

Other characters have more formulaic backstories, including our beloved legacy characters. One is the only survivor of a vicious alien attack carried out against her colony ship, in a childhood trauma; another regular character lost parents and brother to the most tired of "Trek" contrivances, the all-purpose "shuttle accident." (It's not like fans haven't been saying for half a century that 23rd century spacecraft really need seatbelts.) The five episodes I saw (out of the season's ten) made time to introduce other personal losses, and a shocking secret or two, as well.

Therein lay a nitpick: A dramatic backstory is fine... but there are different ways for a personal history to be fraught with emotional issues aside from malevolent aliens and badly designed shuttles wiping out your whole clan.

Classic "Star Trek" was a mix of silly space opera tropes, social commentary, and well-wrought character dynamics. That's all here, purposefully so. What's more, "Strange New Worlds" benefits from our much more comprehensive understanding of the cosmos and its wonders... among the general public as well as astronomers... and the series shows itself willing to make use of those advances right out of the gate.

But the greatest strength of the new series lies in the most classic of classic "Trek" conventions: Episodic storytelling. Yes, the characters will grow and change — but they'll also get to boldly go more than one or two places a season, and that's a surefire recipe for excitement. The franchise now has five series in active production, and each of them serves different tastes and desires, acting almost as "Star Trek" sub-genres; based on these initial episodes, "Strange New Worlds" delivers a crucial missing piece. Trekkies, rejoice! We've been waiting for this, and now it's here.

"Star Trek: Strange New Worlds" premieres on Paramount+ on May 5.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.