The greatest strength of Star Trek is that it can be many things. One episode might be a comedy, the next a horror, and the one after that a romance. Some episodes might rely on some fictional technology for their resolution, while another might dive into the unknowable realms of faith. It’s a diversity of storytelling that suits the smorgasbord of delightful characters we meet along the way. But running through just about every episode is one common theme: Optimism. Things can be dark, but there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. Even at the height of the Dominion War, Sisko and his crew found time to play a game of baseball.
Since it’s return to the small screen in 2017, Star Trek has struggled to show that sense of optimism. Discovery is a fine drama, but the first two seasons are needlessly bleak and bloody. Even then more recent offerings of Burnham and her crew are reliant on trauma and suffering, albeit in a bid to show characters moving past such things. Picard spent its first season showing the darker side of the Federation, and the second dealing with more unresolved trauma from the past. The crew of Lower Decks are comedy gold, but are so dysfunctional, I wouldn’t want to serve on a ship with the majority of them.
I don’t want to be one of those people who trashes other series in order to proclaim one as perfect. As it happens, I have enjoyed every season of recent Star Trek, barring only Picard’s sophomore outing, for a variety of reasons. But in just ten episodes, Strange New Worlds has set itself up as the show to beat. Eclipsed in my humble opinion only by Picard‘s debut offering, Strange New Worlds is almost exactly what I want Star Trek to be. And in this day and age, almost is something I’m more than happy to settle for.
The show’s biggest strength is its structure. Yes, I’d prefer to live in a world where science fiction shows still had a twenty-plus episode season, but in the ten we get, Strange New Worlds hits all the right notes. It is episodic, something Star Trek excels at like no other show. It feels a little like a greatest hits record as each episode ticks off another item on the sci-fi tropes list. There’s the body-swap, the one where we all wear funny clothes, the abandoned colony, the monster of the week. But unlike the heyday of The Next Generation and Voyager, the narrative isn’t wholly reset every episode. Characters grow and change, the odd plotline resurfaces. The relationships and long-running arcs are rarely in the foreground, but they add a sense of consistency that older shows lacked.
For the first time since Enterprise, there is a crew that is both friendly and functional. there’s limited interpersonal drama, and they’re the sort of people I’d love to spend the day with. Anson Mount’s triumphant Pike deserves every word of praise he receives, bringing new life to a character as old as the franchise itself. Celia Rose Gooding, Rebecca Romijn, and Jess Bush all turn classic characters into new favourites as Uhura, Number One/Una, and Nurse Chapel Respectively. And while Leonard Nimoy is an impossible act to replicate, Ethan Peck’s younger, less-experienced version is easy to get used to. On the downside, Bruce Horak’s Andorian engineer Hemmer is tragically underdeveloped, and if we don’t get an Ortegas-centric episode in season two to showcase Melissa Navia’s talents, I will personally lead the riot.
The other issue I have with the show is something affecting not only Star trek, but all franchise fiction at the moment. The appeal of nostalgia is undeniable, but so to is the weight. It seems every big franchise at the moment is drowning in references to its own past, and Strange New Worlds cannot escape this. For all that I love the show, I would love it even more if it were set a hundred years later. Clearly, the popularity of Pike from Discovery‘s second season is the reason this show got made, and I’m glad that it was. But do we really need another prequel? Is Star Trek not about looking to the future instead of the past? The presence of Sam Kirk doesn’t really add much to the show other than having another famous surname on board, and the reappearance of the Gorn would work just as well in the post-Picard era. It’s a niggle that I will poke every time storytellers go back to an existing well rather than looking for a new one, but in all honesty it’s a minor complaint.
Strange New Worlds is bright, colourful, and optimistic. It’s got a great cast and crew, and is finally getting back to the ideas that made me a Trekkie in the first place. Season 2 cannot arrive fast enough.