Strangely Familiar Yet New Worlds
In which we share some thoughts about a new Star Trek TV series
As of the writing of this post 7 episodes of the new TV series Star Trek: Strange New Worlds have aired, with three more to air before the end of the season. At this point we’ve gotten a good chance to experience the new series and form some thoughts. Let’s take at look at the new series. Warning: there will be spoilers!
Strange New Worlds (ST:SNW) is technically both a sequel to Star Trek: Discovery (aka Disco1) and a prequel to Star Trek: TOS (The Original Series, which debuted in 1966). TOS introduced the world to characters like Captain James T. Kirk; Mr. Spock (half-human, half-Vulcan science officer); Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, chief medical officer; and chief engineer Montgomery Scott (“Scotty”) as they and the rest of the crew of the starship U.S.S. Enterprise explored the galaxy as part of their “five year mission”.2 Chances are you already know all of this, but best to be thorough.
Star Trek: Discovery begins ten years before the start of TOS and features a previously unknown crew and starship. Discovery debuted in 2017, more than 50 years after the debut of TOS and it contained several links back to TOS, which we will mention briefly in this article.
Christopher Pike, the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise just prior to James T. Kirk, is the main character of SNW and that character has ties to all three shows. Pike (played by Jeffery Hunter) was originally introduced in The Cage, the original pilot episode for TOS which never aired in its original form and which was replaced by a second pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before. If The Cage had been accepted by NBC, Pike would have been the TOS Captain and we would have had a (mostly) different set of characters to follow. As it turned out, the only character to survive to the second pilot and rest of TOS was Spock.
Jeffery Hunter as Christopher Pike and Leonard Nimoy as Spock in The Cage/The Menagerie
We first learned about Christopher Pike in the two part TOS episode called The Menagerie, which recut The Cage as a flashback while putting a new framing story around it, featuring Spock performing one final service for Pike, his former captain. We’ll dig more into that later in this review. Pike was portrayed as a character that was undergoing a minor crisis: should he remain a starship captain or quit? (spoiler: he did not quit) As a contrast, Captain Kirk was focused on being a captain about 99.8% of the time (practically to the point of obsession3) and only wavered in some extraordinary circumstances. Clearly, the two characters were shown to be different men and different leaders and the network preferred Kirk.
Anson Mount as Christopher Pike in Star Trek: Discovery
Pike was not seen for many years on the small screen4 until his return as a recurring character in the second season of Discovery. Pike (played by Anson Mount) was commanding the Enterprise when it was damaged in an accident and removed from service for repairs for a number of months. Pike temporarily took command of Discovery during the show’s second season and returned to the Enterprise by the end of that season. Spock is part of Pike’s crew and he becomes a recurring Discovery character before the end of Season 2.
Mount’s Pike was an appealing character, a good captain and the concept of Pike’s Enterprise proved to be popular enough to merit a whole new TV series, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (or SNW).
SNW begins 7 - 8 years before the start of TOS and in addition to Pike and Spock it features some other characters originally featured in TOS and The Cage. There are 10 episodes in Season One and SNW is a step back to the practice of having stand-alone episodes without a master plot for a season. Each episode can be enjoyed as a self-contained story, similar to both TOS and Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) but there are several plot and character arcs that reoccur throughout the series, unlike TOS. We already know that SNW has been renewed for a second season, so there’s hope that some of the plots featured in the first season will continue to bear fruit in Season 2.
We’ll analyze SNW to date under three categories: Stellar (stuff we really like); Red Alert (trouble, disappointments) and Yellow Alert (potential issues, proceed with caution).
There’s a lot to like, if not love, about SNW. The characters are generally good to great, even when they are new takes on old favorites. The writing ranges from serviceable to excellent and while the show does revisit some older plots and themes, it generally remixes or refreshes them enough to be interesting.
The new takes on classic characters are generally successful. We are already familiar with Pike and Spock from the second season of Discovery and both characters are appealing and well delivered even though they have been tweaked and updated for a new era. Pike is demonstrably warm, charming, thoughtful and inspiring in ways that Kirk isn’t. He seems to run his ship a bit more loosely than Kirk (I can’t see Ortegas, the wisecracking helm officer, lasting long with either Kirk or his future counterpart Jean-Luc Picard, despite her obvious talent) but Pike still manages to get the best from his crew.
Spock, a lieutenant at this point in his career, has many of the qualities we’ve come to love and expect in Nimoy’s Spock, but he’s a younger man and still trying to figure out who he is. He has much of the stoic demeanor and logical outlook of the later versions of the character, but we see questions and self-doubts that seem mostly resolved by the time of TOS. Ethan Peck has giant shoes to fill as Spock and his take on the character is a bit different but still worthy.
Ethan Peck as Lt. Spock, a somewhat familiar but different take on the classic character
Other TOS characters are capably re-introduced, including: Uhura (currently a cadet in SNW); Dr. M’Benga (who appeared twice in TOS and is chief medical officer of the Enterprise at the beginning of SNW); Kyle (a minor TOS character who is now played by an Asian actor); and Nurse Christine Chapel. In fact, one of the things that this series does really well is featuring lesser characters, giving us a chance to know them better and given the actors some decent material to work with.
Jess Bush as Christine Chapel
I particularly want to commend Jess Bush’s portrayal of Christine Chapel and the series writers for building this version of the character. The TOS version of Chapel was poorly developed and seemed to exist for one reason: to suffer from unrequited love and pine for a romantic relationship with Spock5. We knew almost nothing else about her.
By contrast, Bush’s Chapel is competent6, quirky, funny, strong as hell and shows some emotional depth. I was originally confused by the character because she seemed to have a Southern accent so I wondered if she was actually a fusion of classic Chapel and McCoy. It’s an interesting choice but I think that this Chapel is an unique creation. In a homage to TOS, there are clear indications7 that Chapel is attracted to Spock but she works to build a friendship with him, even acting as his confidante, which is both smart writing and refreshing, as well as potentially setting the stage for future heartbreak.
And the Enterprise itself is great: a good blend of classic TOS design with some modern elements.
In terms of writing, I especially want to single out Memento Mori, the fourth episode, a suspenseful episode which manages to be a gripping and scary reintroduction to classic aliens the Gorn without ever showing them.
Lots to like about this first season!
Thankfully there are no real Red Alerts with the series at this point. The quality of writing, effects and acting are generally very good. There are some potential Red Alerts which I’ll address in the Yellow Alert section.
There are three main Yellow Alerts that I want to call out at this time. With 3 episodes and at least one season to go some things could change so bear in mind that this is a point in time assessment.
1. Number One
The character of Number One was originally introduced in The Cage, she was the First Officer of the Enterprise8. She doesn’t get a lot to do and we know next to nothing about her, not even her real name.
We meet the character again in the second season of Discovery, this time played by Rebecca Romijn (see picture above). Number One is smart, no-nonsense, resourceful as hell and always has a PADD in hand. She is a great XO with a strong personality who takes no crap and fears no one. When questioned by Starfleet about the fate of the U.S.S. Discovery she is more concerned about getting back to work than she is cowed by the investigator.
By the time Strange New Worlds begins, Number One is more muted. She’s still extremely competent but she’s less assertive and I haven’t seen a PADD in her hands for more than 2 seconds. She’s still very loyal to Pike and she’s definitely his closest confidante on the Enterprise, regularly addressing him as “Chris”. She is also one of the few people he trusts with his biggest secret (I’ll get to that later). It’s not bad but I feel like something has been lost in the transition to the new series.
Number One (whose real name is Una Chin-Riley, clearing up a decades old mystery), is given some additional backstory, revealing her non-human origins. In and of itself, not a big deal except that I find it almost impossible that no one found out before this.9 I expect this particular plot element will resurface in a challenging way later on.
2. The fate of the courtship of Spock and T’Pring
During TOS we learned that Spock had a Vulcan fiancee named T’Pring. The relationship ended during Amok Time, one of the better TOS episodes, when T’Pring carried out a plan to end their betrothal because she had secretly chosen a different partner.
In SNW we are introduced to a younger version of T’Pring who seems committed to Spock and their relationship while being understandably concerned about a long distance relationship with a Starfleet officer. The two actors have good chemistry together and there’s a fun episode where they accidentally swap minds and must pretend to be each other.
However… knowing that this relationship is going to go bad in 7 - 8 years is a bit of a writing challenge as is T’Pring apparently being a good person when we meet her in SNW. Will the writing staff and actors be able to plant the seeds for what must come?10 I’m a bit dubious that they can pull it off but hopefully it will all be… logical.
3. The fate of Christopher Pike… and what he already knows about it.
The tragedy of Christopher Pike in The Menagerie and in Star Trek: Discovery
One of the challenges of a prequel is that we already know how the story must end.11 Normally the characters themselves don’t know what’s going to happen to them but SNW breaks this rule in one important case and I’m a little bit concerned about how this could play out.
We are led to believe that all Star Trek shows generally follow an established history or canon. Certain major events will happen and the events will shape the lives of the characters. Christopher Pike’s fate is no exception.
In The Menagerie (way back in TOS) we learn that Pike has been horribly injured and disfigured while rescuing some trapped crew. He is wheelchair bound and can only communicate using a blinking light: he has it even worse than Stephen Hawking did. Spock, out of loyalty to his former captain, breaks a ton of Starfleet rules to deliver Pike back to a planet where he can live out a life of sorts, unbound by his physical limitations, even if it’s just an illusion.
In season 2 of Discovery, due to some weird timey-wimey handwaving plot device, Pike learns of his future accident and injuries: he even learns the names of the crew that he will save. Not only that, he is firmly convinced that his fate is irrevocable. With this decision, Pike is, at some level, given the same awareness of the audience: he knows how his story ends.
If you extrapolate this knowledge for a moment, this causes a story-telling challenge. If the audience believes in his future fate and Pike also does… then we all know that he can’t die or be seriously injured before that fateful accident. This knowledge must be a crucial factor in an episode like Memento Mori, when Pike orders the Enterprise to make some very risky maneuvers near a black hole and nearby star, at seemingly great risk to the ship. Realistically there is a small chance that this will be successful but the Enterprise manages to safely escape the dangerous situation with most of the crew unharmed and a ship that can be repaired back to normal.
Here’s the question though: does Pike’s knowledge of his future fate enter into his decision to take the Enterprise into such a risky situation? If he didn’t know about his future, would he have made the same decision? And will he ever become complacent enough to put the ship in an impossible situation in the future, knowing that he’ll survive no matter what?
I’d like to say that Pike, as portrayed to date, is enough of a mensch that he’ll do whatever it takes to keep his crew alive and safe.12 There is always the possibility that the showrunners could eventually decide to make SNW split off the main timeline as a alternate future, possibly leading to a different fate for Pike, but this seems unlikely. Therefore, the thoughtful viewer is always going to remember that Pike has this forewarning and therefore any direct threats to his life will always need to be viewed with some skepticism.
Having said that… given that actors sign multi-year contracts, it’s exceedingly unlikely that Pike would be killed off prematurely, so in a sense it’s a moot point. And this is why you have secondary characters and guest stars. You might not be able to kill Pike, but you can make him feel both happiness and sadness over what happens to the other characters on the show. And if this is done thoughtfully, it can guarantee a successful series. If not… it will be a huge shame.
I’m going to give Star Trek: Strange New Worlds a B grade based on what we’ve seen so far, with occasional flashes of A grade potential. It has arguably the best debut episode of any live action Star Trek series and it’s been solid, even occasionally brilliant. Like any series it has some flaws but overall the series is greater than the sum of its parts and I think it’s a worthy achievement.
This post is titled Strangely Familiar But New Worlds, which I think summarizes SNW quite well. We’ve returned to some familiar places, like Vulcan and Earth, and visited a few new ones, but overall this series is a return to the tried and true formats of TOS or even TNG. Everything is executed well enough that I’m encouraged to remain part of the crew to the end of the mission. I recommend watching at least the first 5 episodes, hopefully you’ll like them too.
.A scene from the first season of Discovery featured two crew in T shirts with the word DISCO on them.
Technically we only saw three years of a live action series but many would argue that Star Trek: The Animated Series filled in some of the remaining two years. But we won’t go there in this post.
One TOS episode was actually called Obsession, but that was different.
An alternate version of Pike did appear in two of the Star Trek movies that were released in 2009 and 2013. Pike was played by Bruce Greenwood.
Was never gonna happen Christine, sorry. Totally illogical. Also, I believe that I stole this idea from David Gerrold’s book The World of Star Trek.
To be fair, TOS version of Chapel was also quite competent but suffered from the characterization limitations of 1960s television.
Clear to the viewer, at least.
Number One was played by Majel Barrett (Roddenberry) in The Cage; she later played Christine Chapel in TOS and Lwaxanna Troi in TNG and DS9 (Deep Space Nine).
DS9 fans will remember a similar situation arising with Dr. Julian Bashir… wait, I’ve said too much.
I guess this can be done and done well from what I hear about Better Call Saul.
See the Star Wars prequel trilogy.
It would also be a terrible way to end his career.