Any Star Trek-related review should, I think, begin with a declaration for context. A disclaimer to clarify where a writer sits on the Trekkie fandom spectrum on a scale of newbie to casual fan to Klingon cosplayer, and how familiar we are with this universe. Personally, despite my unshakeable nerd inclinations, I never fell into Star Trek fandom and it’s many, many, many recent reimaginings and offshoots (Star Trek: Picard, Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Lower Decks, Star Trek: Prodigy and beyond). Where I did fall for this world, however, is through the insanely fun Chris Pine-led movies which remain among the most underrated blockbuster trilogies in recent memory.
Those movies served as the origin story of the legendary James T Kirk (Chris Pine) as captain of the USS Enterprise, under the guidance of retired Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood). Timeline-wise, Strange New Worlds takes place some years before that and follows the adventures of a younger Captain Pike (Anson Mount) as captain of the Enterprise.
Joining him on his deep space voyages is a richly diverse cast of his fellow crew members. There’s Una “Number One” Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn), a young Spock (Ethan Peck, grandson of Gregory Peck, as the gentlest, least interesting Spock yet), young Cadet Ahura (an endearing Celia Rose Gooding), and security officer La’an Noonien-Singh (a joyless, permanently sulking Christina Chong) among others. Their mission? To explore strange new worlds, seek out new civilizations, and boldly go where no one has gone before.
Strange New Worlds is theoretically a sequel to the second season of Star Trek Discovery and for those, like me, diving in with but a basic understanding of these characters, the references to events in Discovery can be disorienting. Thankfully creators Alex Kurtzman, Akiva Goldsman and Jenny Lumet ensure Strange New Worlds is accessible to newcomers and invite us to strap in, sit back and just go along for the intergalactic ride of funky space adventures on the fancy spaceship.
What struck me early on during the first two episodes (five of the first season’s ten episodes were sent to critics) is just how simple, shallow and watered down the proceedings are, especially considering the screenwriting royalty (Goldsman) and world-building wisdom (Kurtzman) behind it. The first episode, for example, is essentially Rescue Mission Impossible with the crew trying to go undercover to save one of their own who’s imprisoned on a planet consumed by civil war. And in this world, Captain Pike making an impassioned speech at the end of the episode can immediately bring peace to both sides. But it gradually becomes clear that there’s a self-awareness to Strange New Worlds’ corny simplicity that works in its favour. These are bright, optimistic, large-hearted adventures each advocating peace and unity.
But even amidst its well-intentioned spirit and better together messaging, the characters don’t exactly leap off the page. It took me several episodes to care about what felt like a bland collection of the uncharismatic, broken up by the few crew members that are awarded some actual personality – the charming Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) and Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia). The cast share a dull chemistry that only be described as “co-workers” and the “playful quips” often feel more annoying and forced than enjoyable. Strange New Worlds is kept running then, by its new-mission-per-episode structure with the fantastical situations and scenarios making up for the lack of substance on offer.
“Anyone wanna tell me how a comet can put up a forcefield?” The more imaginative second episode follows a bunch of religious space monks sworn to protect a comet that’s on a collision course with a neighbouring planet. A race-against-time episode that involves our heroes saving the day by literally singing to a comet. (I wasn’t kidding about that corniness). The third and fourth episodes bring in a much-needed sense of urgency and upped stakes, dealing with a contagious pandemic aboard the Enterprise, followed by a space shootout with the Gorn. But even here the action-ness of the show feels benign and unremarkable. There’s a sense of disjointedness in the cross-cutting between the external view of the Enterprise taking a beating, and the internal view of the crew members onboard the ship.
In a world of IP-led event TV, the Star Trek franchise should be a lot more exciting than it is. Strange New Worlds doesn’t have the thunderous entertainment or booming scale of Halo or The Mandalorian (or any of Disney+’s string of MCU and Star Wars shows), or the dazzling imagination and world exploration of smaller shows like Doctor Who. In the end what you’re left with is a pleasant, watchable series that has its heart in the right place and works best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously. But it’s that very enjoyable genericness that makes it unable to transcend passive viewing, rather than the kind of show you’d actively return to week after week. A more fitting title might have been Star Trek: Familiar Old Comfort Watch, but I guess that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
Film: Star Trek Strange New Worlds
Cast: Anson Mount, Ethan Peck, Jess Bush, Christina Chong, Celia Rose Gooding, Melissa Navia, Babs Olusanmokun, Bruce Horak, Rebecca Romijn
Creators: Akiva Goldsman, Alex Kurtzman, and Jenny Lumet