Star Trek: Strange New Worlds review: Neither strange nor new, but it does get fun
Let's get to the good stuff. The fourth episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds hurls the U.S.S. Enterprise into a high-tension starship duel. Shields down, sensors faulty, torpedoes depleted, a brown dwarf, a black hole: Uh-oh times a million! Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) maintains a chipper disposition, but the sweat pouring off his forehead isn't just from the giant gas cloud of death. Something is hunting his crew. It's a matter of time until the Enterprise explodes, unless it implodes first.
That's episode 4. Episode 5 of the new-ish series (premiering Thursday on Paramount+) downshifts into loopy character comedy. There's a body swap, a blossoming love triangle, some neutral-zone diplomacy. Two total badasses worry they aren't fun enough, and that is the B-plot. Mount exudes a casual charisma: Imagine a non-creepy professor who cares, hotly. The whole cast has fun playing people who have fun. Paranoid space-submarine combat followed by raucous shore-leave farce? If that was Strange New Worlds, I'd give the show a B+ and call it the best Trek since Voyager made you love a hologram.
If, if, if. This fifth streaming Trek series arrives almost five years after Star Trek: Discovery's premiere. It's been a dizzy half-decade of departed showrunners and mission tweaks. After Discovery's generally dour first year (they snapped the cool gay doctor's neck!), Mount came aboard in season 2 so Pike could literally promise to "try to have a little fun." Then Star Trek: Picard's debut season was one of the worst things ever written by a Pulitzer Prize winner. You'll find fans of both shows, not to mention the animated Lower Decks and Prodigy, and the sheer breadth of Trek activity should be exciting.
I don't know. "New" is right there in the title, but this latest Trek marks the fullest embrace of the canon's history ever, really. Pike parted ways with Discovery when that crew wormholed to the future, and now Strange New Worlds spins him off onto the first starship Star Trek ever flew. This feels like a retrenchment, if not an outright admission that the new stuff hasn't worked out all right. Fifty-six years after the original series premiered, here's a TV show about the Enterprise, starring Spock, Uhura, and even Nurse Chapel.
Technically, the origin of Strange New Worlds predates its own franchise. Jeffrey Hunter played Pike in Trek's snoozy original pilot, which was heavily retooled and Shatner-ified on the road to broadcast. Mount was already delightful as Pike on Discovery, and this show leans into his charm. We meet him on a bearded furlough in Bear Creek, Montana, while Spock (Ethan Peck) gets alone time on Vulcan with his fiancée T'Pring (Gia Sandhu). They're called back to Enterprise on a rescue mission to find Number One (Rebecca Romijn), Pike's missing first officer. New crewmates include Nyota Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding), a language ace with a tragic backstory about losing her family, and La'an Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong), a tough security chief with a tragic backstory about losing her family. I was going to praise Babs Olusanmokun as another new character, sensitive Doctor M'Benga, before I realized Booker Bradshaw played M'Benga back in a couple '60s appearances.
So, yes, this is still a Star Trek show co-created by Alex Kurtzman. The franchise's current Admiral loves dour-flashback characterizations and seems to require everyone be either the Younger Version of or Distant Relative to a famous pop culture icon. (La'an's a distant relation to KHAAAAAAAAAN.) Not for nothing is Kurtzman the namesake of the Alex Kurtzman Rule, which states that producers must not work in more than four separate pre-existing universes per decade. Strange New Worlds's concept is very pre-existing. There's no serialized narrative, something all the other recent Treks struggled with. Instead, the original Enterprise is back doing weekly missions. An approaching ion storm is weirder than the average ion storm. A mysterious ship does mysterious things. An infectious space disease does weird stuff with light. That comet is no normal comet.
Some of this is fun. It's a kick to see Trek rediscover the appeal of hourlong storytelling. A couple new additions pop right away. Helmsman Ortegas (Melissa Navia) summons the brash swagger of the original Trek, while Chief Engineer Hemmer (Bruce Horak) honors the tradition of prickly-yet-lovable know-it-alls. Picard worked overtime to make the central crew dislike each other, but episode 2 of Strange New Worlds sits everyone down for a Pike-cooked meal. The vibe can get frisky. Spock goes shirtless ASAP. Chapel was a controversial character on the original series, but Jess Bush gamely plays her as a Gen-Z weirdo with a zest for bio-science. There's a scene where Chapel and Ortegas talk space-dating, and the joy of keeping relationships "casual" with "no attachments." Somewhere, beyond our frail conception of reality, this is blowing Gene Roddenberry's mind.
Fanatics will note how the 23rd century has changed since Trek explored this material half a century ago. Chapel's eyebrows are now thick as Spock's. Peck's hairless pecs make Leonard Nimoy's chest look positively Bear Creek. We've returned to the color-TV-just-happened costume palette, which means Mount dresses in heinous long-sleeve yellow and the occasional green wraparound tunic. I do love that tunic, but the production design is generally a bit shiny-bland. I miss the chunky warmth of the '90s Trek bridges, a gray-brown all-sofa-everywhere austerity precisely evoked on Seth MacFarlane's The Orville (which returns this summer on Hulu).
I'm talking a lot about the older shows. How can we not? The style is very neocon pop, so much familiar iconography reheated with maximum zhuzh. You can bet any enigmatic aliens will have a franchise past. Gooding is very good as a thoughtful rookie. But it's not clear why she has to be Uhura, and it certainly isn't clear why there is a focal episode about Uhura deciding if she wants to stay on the Enterprise. Guys. She's Uhura. I think she's on board.
On the other hand, Peck has found his Vulcan groove after his Discovery stint. He has wider eyes than Nimoy, so this Spock always looks mildly shocked. That's a big shift from Zachary Quinto, whose Spock always looked mildly angry. I am willing to declare Peck the second-best Spock actor ever, but why are we even playing this game? The show has already cast Paul Wesley as James Kirk for next season. The theme song sounds like a public domain riff on the original theme song. Are we strange and new, or ordinary and old?
Like I said, things get better. Co-showrunner Henry Alonso Myers worked on The Magicians and seems to have imported some plucky Syfy yuks. A couple swings for topicality land on the wrong side of preachy, but what monster would complain about preachy Trek? There are so many high jinks happening that one character declares, "Spock, I don't like high jinks." Mount mounts his Captain's chair with aplomb, and has a knack for looking believably scared in a funny way. When the warp drive is ready, his trademark command says it all. "Hit it." Who wouldn't? B