“Out there… thattaway!”
Kirk’s final line of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” sums up what most people think of “Star Trek.” That it’s about exploration, seeking out new life and new civilizations. “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” the latest entry in Paramount+’s burgeoning constellation of series based on Gene Roddenberry’s beloved franchise, would seem to be a part of that. It’s right there in the title! But thankfully, it’s more than that too.
“Star Trek” has always exceeded what other sci-fi franchises are willing to do whenever it looks inward. When it uses the events of the 23rd and 24th centuries to comment on what’s happening in our own time. And one unassailably great thing about “Star Trek: Discovery” and “Star Trek: Picard” is that, hit or miss as those shows are, they don’t shy away from confronting hard truths and even getting political. “Strange New Worlds” may have found the most elegant way of achieving this of any of these Paramount+ series yet.
But first: the setup. “Strange New Worlds” is both a spinoff of “Discovery” and a prequel to “The Original Series,” about the adventures of the crew of the Starship Enterprise in the years before Kirk sat in the captain’s chair. The leader here is Capt. Christopher Pike, played by Anson Mount, after being previously portrayed in the 1965 pilot episode for “The Original Series” by Jeffrey Hunter and then in J.J. Abrams’ films by Bruce Greenwood. Mount’s Pike is one of the finest additions of the Paramount+ “Trek” era, sensitive and soulful where Kirk is swashbuckling. Mount has created a character who’s just as expressive when he isn’t talking as when he is.
If he seems a more internal character, that’s because he’s been spending a lot of time in his own head. When he was introduced on “Discovery,” he got a glimpse via a Klingon time crystal of the terrible future we saw awaited him on “The Original Series”: at some point about 10 years down the road, he knows he’ll be paralyzed from the neck down, rendered mute, and horribly scarred. And in the first episode of this new series, also titled “Strange New Worlds” and directed with classicism and grace by co-showrunner Akiva Goldsman, he’s so haunted by this vision of himself, he’s retreated to his ranch on earth, unable to command the Enterprise any longer. Like Kirk, he’s an avid horseman, and it feels meaningful that two such forward-thinking characters as both of these captains should hail from what today are red states: Pike from Montana, Kirk from Iowa. Evolution is possible, not to mention that not all people from a place are the same.
Of course, Pike is called back into action quickly enough: his first officer, Number One (Rebecca Romijn) has gone missing, and who else can find her? And so back into the yellow Starfleet command uniform he goes.
It’s an absolute joy to meet so many beloved characters from the Enterprise crew in a new form: Ethan Peck had already been a standout on “Discovery” as Spock — and we meet his betrothed, the fickle T’Pring from classic “Original Series” episode “Amok Time,” whose exasperation with Spock may be given greater justification this time around. But there’s also Babs Olusanmokun as M’Benga, a doctor on the Enterprise only seen on a few episodes of “The Original Series,” Jess Bush as Nurse Chapel, and Celia Rose Gooding as Uhura, the communications officer and linguistics prodigy who was one of the most iconic characters of the ’60s show as portrayed by Nichelle Nichols. Also, brought to life through a bit of progressive casting, there’s the cantankerous Aenar engineer Hemmer: related to the Andorians, they’re a blind species, and the actor portraying him, Bruce Horak, is visually impaired himself.
“Strange New Worlds” takes a lot of time to imbue each of these characters with personality: Nurse Chapel has a crush on Spock, and engages in flirting that makes him a little uncomfortable (much as the version of the character played by Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, who also played Number One, sometimes did); Uhura’s finding her place as a reluctant Starfleet cadet after her parents died. And then there’s La’an Noonien Singh (Christina Chong), whose very name fans will recognize as being connected to the villainous Khan. Her storyline is a slow burn and will clearly take on greater importance.
The production values on “Strange New Worlds” are the most lush of any of the Paramount+ shows: the reimagined Enterprise feels somehow totally contemporary yet informed by the pop art ’60s version. This isn’t a vision of the Enterprise designed to supplant the ’60s Enterprise, which is rather what the new ship in the J.J. Abrams movies felt like, when you could actually see it through all those lens flares. This one feels like it complements the original version, like this show could lead right into “The Original Series.”
It’s all so beautifully made that even the few moments that feel contrived — such as Uhura being hazed by another crewman (Melissa Navia’s Erica Ortega) and tricked into wearing her dress uniform to a casual bridge-crew potluck in the captain’s quarters, or Pike interrupting Spock before he can have sex with T’Pring — are more than forgivable.
When Pike finds Number One, it’s on a planet that recently became aware of warp drive for the first time, but intends to use it in a far different way. These aliens are like 21st century us, impossibly divided and seemingly hellbent on destroying one another. Pike decides that he’s going to dissuade them by talking about Earth’s own history: how in the 2000s, the U.S. became so fractious it plunged into a “Second Civil War,” the moniker Starfleet historians retroactively applied to… the events we’re living right now. Images of “Stop the Steal” placards, possibly from the January 6 insurrection, pop onscreen. It’s clear this wasn’t an actual shooting war, but a war nonetheless. Which sounds about right. Eventually there were the actual (made up, we hope) conflicts of the Eugenics Wars and World War III in “Star Trek” lore. But Pike is very clearly referencing our own present moment to show the people of this alien planet what they should not be doing.
“Star Trek” has become more directly political of late: Stacey Abrams appeared on “Discovery,” and a time-travel plot to the year 2024, complete with ICE as villains, has been central to “Picard” Season 2. But somehow the way “Strange New Worlds” addresses our present moment feels the most effective narrative choice to date. It’s not new that “Star Trek” has portrayed the 21st century as being horrible, a rock-bottom period for humanity from which finally a better world can spring, after any of our lifetimes: Gene Roddenberry was implying as much even on the ’60s show. Somehow it has always been in the DNA of this franchise that things would get worse before they get better. There’s something particularly imaginative about looking at our own time through the lens of people from a much better future. And watching “Strange New Worlds,” a lot of people will wish that future was already here.
“Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” debuts on Paramount+ May 5 and will release a new episode each Thursday.