Recently, while watching the second season of Star Trek sequel/spin-off Picard, I was struck by something. In the opening episode, we’re given a brief window into a Starfleet ship called the Stargazer, captained by Cris Rios (Santiago Cabrera) and staffed with a crew of professionals all solving unusual problems out in the galaxy.
This is really just a nod to Starfleet in general, as moments later Rios, Picard (Patrick Stewart) and their friends are thrown into a complex parallel universe/time-travel story, but a thought lingered. "Why isn’t this just the show?" I thought as I watched Rios’ crew at work. "Why can’t they just make a normal Star Trek show any more?"
While there are more Trek TV shows than ever at the moment, a longstanding complaint from fans has been that none of them really 'feel' like Star Trek anymore. Traditionally, this means a crew of professional Starfleet officers on a ship or space station dealing with episodic sci-fi threats and mysteries, with a generally optimistic take on the universe.
We haven’t had that for a while now. For the last decade or so Star Trek fans have either had increasingly bombastic movies or the 'New Trek' that started with Star Trek: Discovery, which takes a different approach by relying on more serialised storytelling that drags out over the course of an entire season.
More like this
Discovery and Picard have their moments, but they feel like any other modern sci-fi show. For a while, the closest things fans have had to a 'classic' Trek show are animations like Star Trek: Prodigy or Lower Decks (both of which are great) or even Seth MacFarlane’s blatant TNG rip-off/parody The Orville.
But now, with Strange New Worlds they’ve got the real thing at last – a live-action, modern series that actually feels like Star Trek. Watching the first three episodes of this show was like sinking into a warm bath, and I was reminded of just how satisfying this format can be.
Its creation feels like an easy win – which makes it all the stranger that this show almost didn't exist at all. Based on the USS.Enterprise crew from the original Star Trek’s unaired pilot, Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), Number One (Rebecca Romijn) and Spock (Ethan Peck) first cropped up in Discovery for a season two storyline, and proved so popular that they were brought back for their own spin-off.
In many ways, this allows the show to serve as a prequel for the original 1960s Star Trek series. Ignoring Spock himself, the series also shows the early careers for Uhura (played by Nichelle Nichols originally, now Celia Rose Gooding) and smaller characters like Nurse Chapel and Dr M’Benga (Jess Bush and Babs Olusanmokun in this series).
Like the JJ Abrams Trek movies, there’s plenty of foreshadowing about the roles these officers will play in the main series, though it doesn’t overpower the show – if you came to this entirely fresh, you’d still get it.
And there are plenty of new characters anyway, including a crotchety Andorian Engineering Chief, a bolshy pilot called Ortegas and a Security Officer with links to a classic Star Trek villain. Arguably, given his limited appearances in the main series Mount’s version of Captain Pike has something of a clean slate as well, delivering a fatherly performance that still seems distinct from William Shatner’s superficially similar Captain Kirk.
Pike has something of an arc in the series – during the events of Discovery, he learned the events of his grisly future (something catalogued in The Original Series), and is aware that his days are numbered. But alongside this Strange New Worlds manages to tell episodic, optimistic stories about the Enterprise crew finding new civilisations, solving ethical dilemmas and encountering strange creatures. And if you’re wondering whether these missions sometimes uncannily reflect a personal issue a crew member might be dealing with that week… oh boy, we’re in business.
In a world where television is made to be binged and streamed, and not aiming for a casual audience on broadcast networks, it feels positively retro to tell a story like this (even Doctor Who went serialised for its last season). But it also feels great – not everything has to be so intense, universe-ending and emotionally driven. Sometimes it’s fine to just tell satisfying, close-ended stories, and that’s what Strange New Worlds delivers.
During the episodes I was able to watch we had new alien races, Prime Directive/General Order One debates, strange alien eggs trying to communicate, space-zealots in love with a comet and a (slightly topical) energy virus that causes some strange effects among the crew. There are some things you wouldn’t see in 'classic' Trek – a bit more sexiness, a more updated visual style and analogies that more closely reflect the real world we currently live in, rather than the '60s, '80s or '90s – but the basic tenets feel the same.
It's not a perfect show. A couple of the cast give slightly wooden performances, and despite an extended backstory in the third episode Romijn’s First Officer still feels a little underdeveloped and extraneous – like Kirk, Pike seems to prefer hanging out with Spock.
But these feel like normal issues for a series to work out in time (remember, it was a while before Jonathan Frakes grew his beard). Overall, Strange New Worlds is absolutely nailing the basics of what used to make Star Trek great – and I can’t wait until they boldly go to seek out new civilisations (i.e. officially announce when it’s coming out in the UK) so I can see more. Hit it!
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds comes to Paramount Plus in the US on May 5th, and will air in the UK at a later date. For more news, reviews and features, check out our dedicated Sci-Fi page or find something to watch now with our TV Guide.