Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Full Season Review

As much as I enjoyed the return of Star Trek to television in the form of "Star Trek: Discovery," there was something about it that smacked of a change in tone. On the plus side, the visual effects are marvelous, there's plenty of forward momentum on the franchise's view of the future, and some wonderful new characters and playful use of mainstays like the Mirror universe. But reviews bemoaned the amount of weepy sincerity, the "Lost" variety of aimless serialization of the plot arcs, and the dour themes of galaxy-spanning war and trauma. These reviews weren't wrong; none of that stuff feels particularly like Star Trek, even if it feels absolutely correct for TV today. Star Trek does bear the burden of depicting the far-flung future while constantly refreshing to adapt to the present times, so "Discovery" reflects the increasingly turbulent world that spawned it.

I honestly think "Discovery" is a good entry-point for modern audiences into the Trek lore, and it's something of a spiritual successor to "Deep Space Nine," a very specific flavor of Trek willing to dig down further into the moral quandaries and societal consequences behind the sunny, utopian future. The structural problem is that DS9 had already earned its venture into darker territory after "The Next Generation" spent its latter seasons reconnoitering audience sensibilities. You don't get the Dominion War without the Borg, essentially. And for today's Trek, CBS/Paramount decided to jump directly into the murky side of the bog with "Discovery." The second season smacked of many tweaks to soothe the discerning fans, not the least of which was the introduction of the NCC-1701 herself, along with shiny new versions of Captain Christopher Pike and Mr. Spock. And while these narrative attempts to knit "Discovery" into the established canon were sweaty and clumsy at times, they also provided welcome glimpses at the bright, optimistic wonder in which the franchise is more commonly steeped.

Enter "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds," a spin-off devoted to the ten years of Enterprise's explorations under Pike's command, before the original '60s series. Was this going to be a Rogue One or Solo kind of cynical Easter egg hunt for diehard fans? Yeah, a little bit. Would it be a timeline-shattering departure like the trilogy of recent Trek films? Not exactly. As it turns out, Akiva Goldsman, Alex Kurtzman, and Jenny Lumet created a Star Trek series that is a potent hybrid of modern streaming TV and pure throwback to TOS and TNG. It at once feels fresh and timely while also adhering to some of the elements that made the older Treks classics.

"Strange New Worlds" might be the first big-budget science fiction adventure show in a decade that strives to be episodic rather than serialized. The season's ten episodes all function as standalone stories that any new viewer could jump into, much like any episode of the older shows. This is a bold maneuver in the era of "Stranger Things" and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, wherein audiences are conditioned to keep watching via cliffhangers and various narrative doggie treats. How does this model work? How is it that SNW has cultivated a devoted and giddy fanbase without some world-splitting mystery box attached?

For one thing, the show is remarkably character-driven. "Discovery" has great characters who respect each others' skills and qualities, but "Strange New Worlds" invests so bullishly in making the crew of the Enterprise instantly endearing. I genuinely would love to watch them all just hang out. Which they do, often casually in the form of quiet drinks or warm dinner parties in Pike's lavish kitchen quarters. Spock has a love life. Cadet Uhura is uncertain about the next step of her career. Number One worries about how the crew sees her as a stick in the mud. Much like Picard's crew of the Enterprise D, they feel more genuine the more they relate to each other in between crises, and when the crisis boils over into peril, we care far more about them even if we accept that they wear impenetrable plot armor. 

More importantly, the cast has an absolute instant command of these dynamics. Anson Mount's rendition of Captain Pike was such a welcome balm to "Discovery" after a first season consisting of conniving, sadistic, manipulative commanding officers and an achingly earnest lead character. Mount carries over to SNW his Pike's playful optimism, a pleasing blend of Kirk's cocksure adventurism and Picard's careful sense of duty and diplomacy. I quite want to be invited to his quarters for ribs night. Ethan Peck, as the newest actor to step into the role of Mr. Spock, plays the very example of "still waters run deep," with a wry curiosity and subtle warmth that Leonard Nimoy would be proud of. These two were the known quantities going in, but the most pleasant surprises come from the corners of Enterprise's bulkheads: Melissa Navia's rakish and enthusiastic turn as Lt. Ortegas, Celia Rose Gooding as the brilliant but vulnerable Uhura, and Babs Olusanmokur providing a grounding and passionate performance as Dr. M'Benga. 

The show would work almost exclusively as a workplace comedy-drama, and sometimes I wish it would. While not nearly as flit or glib as animated Trek sibling "Lower Decks," there's a nagging impulse on the writer's staff to cling to familiar details to fill out the world, like casting the Gorn as the recurring enemy species or giving the new security chief the dubious honor of being related to Khan Noonian-Singh. This is not to say it lacks in thrilling weekly adventures. Each episode touches on a fundamental tradition of Trek of yore. The away team disguises themselves to infiltrate an alien civilization. The Enterprise engages an enemy starship in the turbulent haze of a nebula like Horatio Hornblower. A hostile virus infects the entire ship, forcing the medical staff to race to find a cure. We even engage in an extended fantasy episode in which the whole crew are re-cast as knights, wizards, and fair maidens. 

It's pure candy for lovers of the older series, but don't worry if it sounds a little too boilerplate or reverential. It's done with the razzle-dazzle special effects of $8 million budgets per episode, and frankly a more zippy pacing than any of the older shows ever achieved. The finale episode--without spoiling anything--is actually a sharp thesis statement for the series itself, commenting on the differences between the Enterprise of the 1960s and the one of the 2020s through the lens of a pivotal Season 1 episode of TOS, and how Star Trek's grand kaleidoscope of peace and technological prosperity has evolved by necessity as our real society takes the occasional baby-step towards such a possible future.

As much as "Discovery" felt like a necessary first expedition in reviving Trek on television by giving it a modern tone and context, "Strange New Worlds" brings back the keystone ingredients that captured imaginations six decades ago: hope and humanity. Though not as bold of a leap into fresh territory, it breathes new life into a property that lately has struggled to ignite fans as potently. It's a terrific place for Trek newbies to jump in, or for veteran fans to seek out a fresh fix.

Season Rating: A

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