'Star Trek: Strange New Worlds' has promise, and the usual frustrations

There's a fun show in there, buried under clanky dialogue and odd plotting.

Marni Grossman / Paramount+

There are reasons that Star Trek: Strange New Worlds exists beyond the need to keep the Trek content pumping so nobody thinks too hard about canceling Paramount+. It’s designed to quell some of the discontent in Star Trek's vast and vocal fanbase about the direction the live-action shows have traveled under the stewardship of uber-producer Alex Kurtzman. It’s also a slightly bewildered response to the criticism of its predecessors, Discovery and Picard, made by the same people behind those two shows. In short, it’s designed to appeal to people who, when asked what their favorite live-action Trek show is, unironically say The Orville.

We open on Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), the once-and-future captain of the Enterprise after his sojourn leading Discovery in its second season. There, a magic time crystal told him that, in less than a decade, he’ll be non-fatally blown up in a training accident. Armed with a standard-issue Grief Beard™, he refuses the call to return to the stars until the siren song of non-serialized space adventure becomes too great. It isn’t long before he and Spock are reunited to rescue Rebecca Romijn’s Number One from a spy mission on a pre-warp planet gone wrong. Sadly, Paramount’s restrictive embargo on discussing the first few episodes forbids me from discussing much of what I've seen, so things will get vaguer from here on out.

It looks like it was August 2020 when Alex Kurtzman said that the show would be episodic rather than serialized. This was a way to address the criticism of the heavily serialized, go-nowhere, do-nothing grimdark mystery box stories that sucked so much of the joy from Discovery and Picard. Strange New Worlds is, instead, a deliberate throwback in the style of The Original Series, albeit with serialized character stories. So while we visit a new planet each week, characters still retain the scars, and lessons learned, from their experiences.

There are more refreshed Original Series characters than just Pike, Spock and Number One along for the ride. Babs Olusanmokun is playing a more fleshed-out version of Dr. M’Benga, while Jess Bush takes over for Christine Chapel. André Dae Kim is the new Chief Kyle, who has been promoted from intermittent extra to transporter chief. Then there’s Celia Rose Gooding as Cadet Uhura, whose semi-canonical backstory is now firmly enshrined as a Dead Parent / Troubled Childhood narrative. Uhura aside, most of these roles were so under-developed in the ‘60s that they’re effectively blank slates for the reboot. Oh, except that everyone is now Hot and Horny, because this isn’t just Star Trek, it’s Star Trek that isn’t afraid to show characters in bed with other people.

Rounding out the cast is Christina Chong as security chief La’an Noonien-Singh, a descendant of Khaaaaan! himself, Trek’s in-series Hitler analog. From what we learn of her so far, she also gets saddled with a Troubled Childhood / Dead Parent narrative, as well as a case of the nasties. I expect her character will soften further over time, but right now she’s officially the least fun character to spend time with. Of more interest is Melissa Navia’s hotshot pilot Erica Ortegas who can launch the odd quip into the mix when called upon, and Hemmer. Hemmer is a telepathic Aenar (a type of Androian first introduced in Enterprise) played by Bruce Horak. Horak plays Hemmer as an old-fashioned lovable grump and mentor figure for some of the other characters and will clearly become a fan-favorite.

And having now seen the first half of the first season (a second is already in production) I can say that Strange New Worlds will be a frustrating watch for fans. Frustrating because there are the bones of a really fun, interesting Star Trek series buried deep inside Strange New Worlds. Sadly, it’s trapped in the usual mix of faux-melodrama, clanging dialogue and dodgy plotting with the usual lapses in logic. Many writers are blind to their own flaws, which is why it’s so amusing that this is what Kurtzman and co. feel is a radical departure from their own work.

Maybe I’m being unfair, but this is the seventh season of live-action Star Trek released under Kurtzman’s purview. The three lead characters all had a full season of Discovery to bed in, too, so it’s not as if everyone’s starting from cold. But despite the gentlest of starts, the show still manages to stumble out of the gate, trying to do too much and not enough at the same time. The first four episodes, especially, feel as if someone’s trying to speed-read you through a whole season’s worth of plot in a bunch of partly-disconnected episodes.

An aside: Ever since the mid ‘80s, Paramount was desperate to reboot Star Trek with a younger cast to cash-in on that Kirk/Spock brand awareness. It eventually happened, but only in 2009 with J.J. Abrams’ not-entirely-successful attempt to reboot the series in cinemas. While a Young Kirk movie made sense in the ‘80s, mining that seam for nostalgia today seems very weird indeed. After all, most people under the age of 50 will likely associate TNG as the One True Star Trek. The fact that not-so-closet Trek fan Rihanna’s favorite character is Geordi La Forge speaks volumes about where millennial love lies. But I’d imagine a La Forge spin-off series was never going to fly with any generation of Paramount executives.

Now let’s talk about that emotional continuity, because while people will take their experiences with them, little effort has been made to pre-seed conflicts before they erupt. Arguably the weakest episode of the bunch tries to cram four (4!) A-plots into its slender runtime. One of which is a coming out narrative for one crewmember – and once they’ve come out, another character reveals a deep-seated antipathy toward that group. It would be nice, if we could have let this particular battle brew, but it’s introduced about 25 minutes in and resolved with a punchfight by minute 40. We’re not shown the person wrestling with the decision to come out and risk their professional and personal relationships beforehand, either. Just… punchfight.

A lot of these episodes don’t properly resolve themselves either, which is the standard problem for any 50-minute TV show. It’s hard to build a new world, flesh out new characters, establish and resolve their problems in the space of two episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. But at least three episodes feature conclusions that either aren’t clear or take place entirely off screen, explained away with a line of dialogue. I don’t know if it was a production problem, or if a majority of the show’s 22 (yes, twenty-two) credited producers signed off on it, but it feels a hell of a lot like cheating. It's almost as if the writers wanted to provoke surprise in the subsequent scene — how did this get resolved!? — over concocting a satisfying emotional and narrative catharsis on-screen.

In fact, I’m going to harp on about this one particular episode because it’s not content with just dropping one major character revelation. The episode basically stops 10 minutes early in order to – shock horror – drop another Kinda Dark Secret About A Crewmember You Barely Know. One thing I said when Discovery started was that if you never get to know the characters in their default state, it’s not valuable to see their bizarro-world counterparts straight away. It’s the same here, Strange New Worlds refuses to do the painstaking work of filling in these characters before they start changing as a result of their experiences together.

The cast is all solid, and clearly working hard to elevate the material they’ve been given, because the dialogue here is so rough that I think they all deserve danger money. Now, nü-Trek dialog has always been awkward and/or impenetrable, but it’s beyond dreadful here. Kurtzman and co. forgot the whole “show, don’t tell” nature of screenwriting, and so characters just stand there and tell you everything, constantly. This is made worse because rather than giving space for these talented, well-paid actors to act, they’re instead forced to say what they’re feeling.

Here’s an example of that: In one episode, a character is trying (and failing) to remember a key memory from a traumatic experience in childhood that holds the key to saving the day. But rather than use the performer to convey that, they have the actor in question stand there, blank-faced, and say “I am trauma blocked.” Then there are scenes in which two characters describe what’s happening in front of them with the sort of faux-gravitas that only Adam West could pull off.

Remember when I said there was promise? There really is, and you feel like if the writers could get out of their own way, things could improve massively. There’s one episode you could easily describe as the (actually fun) comedy romp of the season and it’s great. Every Trek fan knows that The One With The Whales is the most financially successful Trek property ever made. And yet whenever a new Trek property is made, it’s always with the promise of more grimness, more darkness, more grit, more realism. Yet here we are, with the fun episode reminding you why you watch Star Trek in the first place, and making the characters fun people to hang out with. If the series could continue in that slightly slower, more relaxed groove, then Strange New Worlds could be brilliant.

I haven’t talked much about the production design or effects, both of which are great – this new Enterprise is gorgeous inside and out. Nor the series music, with Nami Melumad’s score being smart, subtle and lush in all of the right places. That’s a compliment not shared with Jeff Russo’s now standard fare, which neither matches the delicacy of a good prestige drama intro nor the soaring bombast associated with Star Trek. The best and worst thing I can say about the intro theme is that it sounds like it came from one of Interplay’s mid ‘90s CD-ROM games.

Fundamentally, I can only really damn Strange New Worlds with the faintest of praise – it can be fun, every now and again. I would imagine, and hope, that things will improve as time goes on, and the show’s makers won’t indulge their worst impulses. Given that I walked away from Picard after the end of its first dreary-as-hell run, the fact I’m at least prepared to stick around here speaks volumes.