On Thursday, the first episode of the highly anticipated Star Trek: Strange New Worlds premiered. The series follows the U.S.S. Enterprise as her crew makes its way across the galaxy seeking out new life and new civilizations, and confronts conveniently placed ethical dilemmas along the way.
If you’ve never seen any Trek, I can’t fault you – it’s an intimidating series, that much is sure. It isn’t Star Wars, where the mainline movies only take about 20 hours to watch. It’s not something like Marvel, either, where the chances are that even with no interest in the franchise, you’ll have seen a couple of the movies. Instead, Star Trek spans 56 years, 13 movies, 12 television shows and more episodes than I care to add up.
Strange New Worlds, with its stellar cast and massive budget, makes for the perfect entry point for those that aren’t ready to jump into the Extremely High Camp of the original series’ lizard alien in a gogo dress or the profound meditations on the nature of imperialism in Deep Space Nine.
In many ways, Strange New Worlds’ story is tried and true. Its alien-of-the-week format mimics the original Star Trek series closely, which makes sense considering that Strange New Worlds’ pilot was actually made in 1965.
When Star Trek was first being developed, its initial pilot was called “The Cage.” It was an alien encounter episode, like most are, featuring Captain Pike (Jeffrey Hunter), Number One (Majel Barrett <3) and an uncommonly expressive Spock (Leonard Nimoy <3 <3 <3). NBC executives panned the show, calling it “too cerebral” and saying that creator Gene Roddenberry either had to get rid of the woman or the alien. (He chose the woman, and Nimoy’s Spock went on to become one of the most iconic characters of all time.)
The main trio, now played by Anson Mount, Rebecca Romijn and Ethan Peck, respectively, are finally getting their own time in the spotlight as the crew of the Enterprise. It’s an Enterprise before Captain Kirk and the familiar faces of the original series arrive, with some notable exceptions.
The first episode of Strange New Worlds follows Pike returning to the beloved Enterprise – newly revamped for the 2020s while retaining its 60s charm – after a year’s gap from the events of Star Trek: Discovery’s second season, in which he sees his future (complete with a tragic accident). He, Spock and an entirely new bridge crew must find Number One after she’s been held hostage on a planet not unlike Earth in the 21st century, complete with a quickly-mounting civil war threatening to tear their society in two.
The show is, in many ways, exactly what I wanted. Mount is incredible as Pike, bringing a sense of charm and charisma that’s almost addictive to watch. His dynamism permeates through the show, bringing both depth and levity exactly when they are needed. A magnetic, borderline-casanova Captain is a fun addition to a lineup of characters who are closer to Horatio Hornblower than Zapp Brannigan.
The rest of the cast, too, is an early standout as one of the best parts. Peck’s portrayal of Spock is so clearly influenced by Nimoy’s, down to the way he says “recORds,” while still making the character his own. He works within the – sometimes questionable – characterization to bring new facets to the Vulcan. Celia Rose Gooding plays a young cadet Nyota Uhura (originally played by Nichelle Nichols) and, though she only has a few scenes in this episode, brings us an Uhura that’s playful, curious and eager. Jess Bush as a version of Christine Chapel (also originally played by Majel Barrett) that actually has a personality is another welcome addition.
The heavy-handed parallels to current day, for better or for worse, were also classic Trek. I’m not going to say using actual footage of the January 6 insurrection as a lead up to what’s known in canon as “The Eugenics War” was particularly tasteful, but it certainly got the message across. I mean, if the original series can use half-white and half-Black painted aliens to talk about racism in one of its most acclaimed episodes, I guess tact isn’t a priority.
Of course, the episode wasn’t exactly perfect.
In one of the first scenes, Spock finds himself on Vulcan courting his fiancée, T’Pring. I have thoughts. I do not intend to offend any writer on Strange New Worlds, but let me say this: I know Spock better than you. It is an irrefutable fact of life that Spock is for The Girls only. I hope you understand that you are wrong here. I will not elaborate.
There’s also the elephant in the room: Pike’s future that’s laid out for him, the future that he’s so certain equates to his death, is not, in fact, his death. Instead, it’s an accident that, though scarring his face and rendering him immobile and nonverbal save for a metal machine, he survives. Pike knows that he survives. He’s even still able to communicate, using one beep on his machine for yes and two for no.
In 1967, when “The Menagerie” (the first episode that shows Pike post-accident) aired, its ableism was harmful but may have been understood as a product of its time. But even in 2022, it seems, the writers can’t conceive of a life for Christopher Pike where he is both disabled and fulfilled. It reads as clumsy writing of Pike’s own grief and shock at his future at best and blatant ableism at worst.
“I know exactly how and when my life ends,” Pike tells Spock over a Saurian brandy. Mount's delivery makes the anguish of the moment clear. But nothing in the narrative so far poses a challenge to the notion that his disability is death, only in that he has control over how he deals with it. I can hold out hope that, as Pike reckons with his destiny more throughout the season, we see a progression in how both he and the writers at large frame disability. However, I'm not entirely convinced that it will be successful.
Strange New Worlds, while having a few growing pains in its first episode, seems to have come out of the gate at warp speed. The cast are engaging and lively even in the face of sometimes less-than-perfect writing, with a gorgeous set and incredible special effects to match. For new fans, it’s an exciting, episodic adventure. For those like me, who have been talking about this show to anyone that will listen for the past six months, it’s a tribute to the original while making its own signature clear.
Fingers crossed for the return appearance of the best original series alien.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds streams on Paramount+ at 2 A.M. Central Time on Thursdays.
Thumbnail image by Jayna Kurlender.