“I don’t think there’s any way to tell a ‘Star Trek’ story today without really knowing ‘Star Trek.’
That’s “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” co-showrunner Akiva Goldsman’s ethos for his work on the franchise. “My first Star Trek convention was 1976,” he said. “I can mount a good defense of ‘Star Trek: Enterprise,’ and sing the theme song.”
If fans have been particularly taken with “Strange New Worlds,” a show set seven years before the start of “The Original Series” and starring a superlative Anson Mount as the Enterprise’s final pre-Kirk captain, Christopher Pike, it’s because the creative team seems especially to care about “knowing ‘Star Trek.’” Not just the lore. But the tone.
It may be set prior to “The Original Series” yet the tone of “Strange New Worlds” calls to mind another storied period of “Trek”: the 1990s, in which there was a veritable explosion of “Trek” across “The Next Generation,” “Deep Space Nine,” and “Voyager.” Each of these shows balanced standalone episodes — Goldsman references O. Henry for the way they’d often come together with a hammered-home point or sharp twist — with recurring plot threads focused on individual characters. Personalities, not puzzle boxes. “And the moral of the story is… BAM!” he said. “We’re standing on the shoulders of Rick Berman, Brannon Braga, and Ron Moore, and that’s really fun, because people’s love of Star Trek and their exploration of it is really deep. It may not be as broad an audience as some other space franchises, but they go deeper.”
Not that the other recent live-action Paramount+ shows haven’t had “BAM!” moments like that too — and much of the creative team on this show has worked on the far more serialized “Discovery” and “Picard” as well, including Goldsman — but “Strange New Worlds” going episodic has been a gamechanger.
On “Deep Space Nine” you could have a whole episode be about a baseball game. On “Strange New Worlds” you had two characters, Number One (Rebecca Romijn) and La’an Noonien Singh (Christina Chong) decide they were going to play a game the lower-decks’ crewmen have embraced: Enterprise Bingo. (And the choice to not make La’an a villain, despite her connection to Khan is inspired. Goldsman said he created the character first, before making the connection to the Eugenics Wars madman.)
On “Next Gen” and “Voyager” you had multiple episodes set on the holodeck which, as Goldsman put it, “was the Original Series’ shore-leave planet turned into a room on the ship where tone can very and consequences can seem tremendously real and then be reset.” This show doesn’t have a holodeck, but it did give us an episode where Dr. M’benga (Babs Olusanmokun) finds the crew bewitched by a sentient nebula into thinking they’re the sword-and-sorcery characters from the fantasy book he’s been reading to his daughter. Like the best of “Trek,” it found what was profound and moving out of something a bit silly.
Season 1, which concluded July 7, wrapped with an episode that put that unique tonal recipe on display. It retold one of the classic “Original Series” episodes, “Balance of Terror,” which introduced the Romulans, from a different perspective. Why that episode? “It allowed us to tell a story that speaks to race and marginalization and a priori assumptions and prejudice and how we feel about those we imagine are different,” Goldsman. “Those are timely questions today if not more timely than when the episode first aired. If you don’t know much about ‘Trek’ the story will stand on its own but if you do know that, boy will you love that.”
The season finale, “A Quality of Mercy,” imagined Capt. Pike, who’s been haunted by a vision of the future he received that shows he’ll be horrifically injured and several cadets in his charge killed, being visited by his future self just as he’s about to take steps to change his fate. “Future Pike,” wearing the beloved red uniform seen in the 1980s “Star Trek” movies, tells him that changing the future has resulted in horrible consequences. Then he shows him, Ghost of Christmas Future-style: Seven years into the future, Pike is commanding the Enterprise during the events of “Balance of Terror,” instead of Kirk. And a full-scale war with the Romulans results.
Kirk shows up in this episode, now played, as announced in March, by Paul Wesley, after the previous iconic turns by William Shatner and Chris Pine. That was a big surprise for fans, because in that initial announcement Goldsman said Wesley would only be playing the character in Season Two. “He was shooting this episode and the picture leaked,” Goldsman said. “I realized the best way to go was to confirm it and get it out there early.” Wesley’s Kirk will be in Season Two, though Goldsman won’t say whether in a recurring or guest star capacity.
The use of Kirk here, though, showed the priorities of the “Strange New Worlds” creative team. He wasn’t just here for fan service, and Wesley isn’t doing a Shatner impersonation at all. Kirk was here, as a very different, more aggressive personality type than Pike, to hold up a mirror to Pike about the different ways to be a captain, and ultimately for Pike to accept his fate.
“Right now what this was really about for us was bringing Pike’s story about changing his fate from a sentence to a choice,” Goldsman said. “It was about putting to rest what happens when you know you’re going to die. Now, [in Season Two] we’re going to give Pike other things to worry about, obsess over, triumph over. The purpose of this for us was for him to pick this future.”
As for how, because of his journey to the future, Pike is now the only person in the Federation who knows the truth that the Romulans are cousins to the Vulcans, Goldsman said “This episode is not trying to change canon. We’re trying to leave canon alone.”
That’s fitting for a series that put character above cliffhangers, though the Season 1 finale certainly did end with one, with Rebecca Romijn’s Number One being hauled off by Federation Security for being genetically modified (a big no-no among the Starfleet set). The other arcs teased throughout the season seem like slow-burn threads that’ll reveal more about the characters than simply being Memory Alpha fodder: the ongoing threat of the Gorn and La’an dealing with her trauma from them; Spock’s relationship with his betrothed, T’Pring; the instant-classic villain Capt. Angel (Jesse James Keitel) and what she’s planning with Spock’s fanatical brother, Sybok.
“We love that Trek can be so many different things,” Goldsman said. “‘Star Trek’ jumps genres, whether it be a Robert Bloch horror piece, or a wacky ‘Piece of the Action,’ or ‘City on the Edge of Forever,’ which is beautiful social commentary. And that makes episodic a natural fit.”
Now, about getting Goldsman to sing the “Enterprise” theme song…
“Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” Season One is now airing in full on Paramount+.