Strange New Worlds

Number One, Pike, Spock
Source: Paramount+

Classic Trek is back. And so is Captain Pike. If you consider “The Cage” to be a pilot, then Strange New Worlds is the first television series to take 55 years to get picked up. The studio head behind it died in the 1980s, the creator in the 1990s. A second pilot had only one familiar face, and the actor playing him now wasn’t even born when NBC screened the pilot.

Hell, television changed several times between 1965 and 2022. Star Trek‘s first season ran 32 episodes before settling into the more familiar 26. Syndication revived the show in the 1970s, made it viable for original spin-offs in the 1980s, and widely available in the 1990s and 2000s. You would think Star Trek was tailor-made for the 10-episode streaming format of today.

Well, yes and no. Picard‘s first season came from Michael Chabon, a writer more associated with the likes of Jonathan Franzen than likely to work for JJ Abrams or George Lucas. So forget the hero’s journey that first season. That ain’t the only way or even the best way to tell a story. But Discovery…? Four years on, I’m still trying to figure out what that show is about. Season 1 was a way-too-modified prequel to the original series. Season 2 served as a backdoor pilot (or second pilot) to Strange New Worlds. Season 3 basically rebooted Discovery in a post-apocalyptic Federation (a premise Rick Berman toyed with after Enterprise bit the dust.) Season 4? Maybe they’re learning, but the first half of the season bored the hell out of me. Give me Lower Decks, which is incapable of taking itself so seriously. Give me Prodigy, which does a better job with the story arc, mainly because Janeway – both real and virtual – is guiding us along and filling in some blanks.

Give me Strange New Worlds. Episode 1 shows us a Star Trek that a young Shatner or Pine could walk into at some point. And they seem to be setting that up from the get-go. Just from the trailers alone, I already have my favorite character. I thought it would be Number One, now with a name and played coyly by Rebecca Romijn. But no, it’s Erica Ortegas, the sharp-tongued pilot who seems to be the voice of the audience. “Why does this always happen when I’m in the captain’s chair?” Having the conn is an honor we’ve seen countless rookies over the last half century jump on. When it’s your fiftieth time minding the store while Captain April/Pike/Kirk/Sulu/Picard/et. al. are down on Planet Hell fighting the styrofoam monster of the week, you get a little annoyed having to deal with the crises on board the Enterprise.

But what about the show? One episode in? Did it meet expectations?

The hype did not live up to the reality. We start with Number One, whom we can now call Una Chin-Riley, having a first contact go sideways. We don’t see Una, only hear her log entry. What we do see is something that looks very much like any air force installation run from any major power on Earth since World War II. The staff is excited. They’ve spotted a UFO. Only when we start seeing their faces do we realize that we are the aliens.

Meanwhile, living in James Holden’s childhood home in Montana (No, really. They put an Expanse Easter egg in this. Maybe have Dhani from The Orville show up in Engineering next?), Christopher Pike is contemplating quitting Starfleet, a theme we saw in “The Cage.” Only back then, he didn’t know he would be burned and sitting in a motorized wheelchair unable to speak. Now, it haunts his every waking moment. So, why go back? Why not hang out with his horses and spend a lovely two weeks with his girlfriend? Admiral April, yes, that April, the original captain of the Enterprise, has other ideas. Go get Una. And we’re off.

We meet T’Pring and learn exactly why she divorced Spock in “Amok Time.” Even Vulcans resent work intruding on sexy time. “Spock, are you naked?” “He was about to be, Chris. It’s a special night.” he returns to the Enterprise dodging the probing question, “How are you?” Pike and Number One know about Michael Burnham. They know about T’Pring, or at least, Pike does. None of the legacy characters returning get looped in. (Sidenote: Now there’s an opportunity to bring Sybok in, maybe even have a character who knows about Spock’s background ask, “What is it with you? Six people on this ship know your father’s Sarek. You hiding a whole Brady Bunch back on Vulcan?”)

And what of the rest of the crew? La’an Noonien Singh is the new Number One while Una is missing, as well as the chief of security. She has… issues, and Khan does not seem to be high up on the list of them. She’s aloof, sarcastic, and not at all patient with Spock. M’Benga was already unconventional when we met him in TOS, Although, in the 60s, Booker Bradshaw played him American, Babs Olusanmokum, a Nigerian actor, keeps his native accent and establishes M’Benga both as an old friend of Pike’s (filling a void left by not having Boyce in the cast) and a Kenyan. Both Bradshaw and Olusanmokum play him extremely chill, casually explaining bizarre medical procedures to the crew.

Jess Bush provides us a very young Nurse Chapel who has an attitude. She chases an escaped alien through the ship and, like M’Benga, thinks nothing of “messing with your genome.” Celia Rose Gooding plays a young, wet-behind-the-ears Uhura. She channels both Nichelle Nichols and Zoe Saldana’s performances to give us a cadet who, unlike her Kelvin timeline counterpart, is not as sure of herself. She is, however, very talented and quick thinking, distracting said alien by asking him about his world’s obsession with their version of sportsball.

And, of course, there is Anson Mount as Captain Pike. He’s already established the character through a single (and so far, the best) season of Discovery, along with three Short Treks. Here we get to see a few of Pike’s warts, and it plays to Mounts talent for westerns. At home, Pike is mopey but very much taken by his lady friend. He snaps at his boss and former captain when he’s ordered back on duty. April, played by Adrian Holmes, doesn’t take any of Pike’s shit. Like Spock, the mask slides into place the moment he’s back on the Enterprise.

Much is being made about  Robert April. Originally, April appeared in The Animated Series (or TAS, as fans call it), looking very much like an aged Gene Roddenberry and voiced by James Doohan (aka Scotty.) Adrian Holmes is black. Naturally, a few heads exploded about wokeness. (I call those people morons.) April, however, showed up on one episode of a series whose canon was already cherry picked to pieces back in the 1990s. So, my question was if Holmes could sell me on April. Since the more recent fan film tendency is to make April an angsty American with a degree of gravitas, Holmes slid right into that perception, older, wiser, more confident. He had the authority and presence to be Pike’s mentor and superior officer. For a guy who had less than 20 minutes of screen time in 55 years, he’s pretty much a blank slate. Holmes was the right choice to fill it.

Una is there at the beginning, almost establishing the show as very much part of the Kirk era Star Trek, but unseen. She appears in the last fifteen minutes. What you see is what she gave us during her time on Discovery, including nonchalantly dismissing her near-miss with the stockade at the end. The trailers suggest more, and an upcoming episode, “The Ghosts of Illyria,” reveals that some novel material, including DC Fontana’s Vulcan’s Glory, will be used as source material. Hey, we’re lucky we got what we did of her and Ortegas with this first ep.

Disappointingly, Hemmer does not show up until the very end, beaming aboard the Enterprise as the last of the crew comes aboard for their five-year mission. As with Una and Ortegas, the show can only focus on so much, and just via one-liners alone, it’s already packed with backstory and gap-filling. Even a Kirk makes an appearance (but not James T. Kirk, though he makes an appearance next season.)

The episode itself has shades of both The Original Series and The Next Generation. It’s a standalone. There’s enough of a story arc laid down to make it bingeworthy, but the episode stands alone. It’s not a 10 hour movie like Picard or Discovery. Loose enough to connect the whole thing, but episodic enough to keep someone from getting lost.

And, it must be said, this is the first time in a long time where I rewatched an episode more than once before the next one aired. Yes, I want more of this crew.