Nu Trek is part of the new normal in television: 10 episodes and out. That means currently there are only 20 episodes of Paramount+’s TOS revival, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. After Anson Mount’s well-received performance as doomed Captain Christopher Pike in Disovery‘s second season, resurrecting TOS and going five years before Kirk seemed like a no-brainer.
So we get an updated Enterprise, mainly because the 1965 version would look horrible on a streaming screen. Though you have to be impressed how that set or its replicas lasted as part of Trek until 2004, when an Enterprise fan film set doubled as the bridge of the doomed Starship Defiant in Enterprise. But love it or hate it, the color scheme and layout are just part of the callbacks to the original. Number One (Rebecca Romijn) is, of course, back, now with her name revealed: Una Chin-Riley. And they kept DC Fontana’s assertion Una is an Ilyrian, though that has different meanings here. Spock is now played by Ethan Peck, and we are treated to his relationship to T’Pring (Gia Sandhu), herself squeezed by tradition and an overbearing mother. The Enterprise is piloted by smart-mouthed Latinx Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia), the self-described “best pilot in Starfleet,” and Jenna Mitchell (Rong Fu.) The chief engineer is not the unseen Chief Bouvier (or the voiced but unseen Pettyjohn from “Q&A”), but an Aenar named Hemmer, a sort of blind(ish) Obi-wan type played by Bruce Horak. Hemmer is killed by Gorn near the end of Season 1, and a 4000-year-old woman simply wanders into the role. Her name is Pelia (Carol Kane), and she’s probably had every senior officer as a student, as well as a certain junior lieutenant found in a Gorn raid, one Montgomery Scott (Martin Quinn, who is actually Scottish, whereas Simon Pegg merely married a Scot, and Canadian James Doohan specialized in accents.)
Chapel shows up on the Enterprise, and she not simply Majel Barret stepping into a placeholder in the script. (They really didn’t give Chapel enough to do in the original.) Played by Jess Bush, we can believe this Chapel will go into the V’Ger Incident as a full MD. She’s no-nonsense and already a veteran of the Klingon War. But M’Benga is the surprise. Originally played by Booker Bradshaw, who played the role with a vanilla southern accent, he is now played by Babs Olusanmokun, who is Nigerian by birth. M’Benga is established as Kenyan and is shown to be an unorthodox doctor with something of a dark side and secretly hiding his ailing daughter in a transporter buffer. He and Chapel served together in the Klingon War.
The final legacy character to be brought back is Nyota Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding), who comes aboard as a cadet (and apparently stays for 33 years over two Enterprises.) Uhura is not Nichelle Nichols’s experienced, confidant officer, nor Zoe Saldana’s somewhat jaded version in the Kelvin movies. She’s not even sure she wants to be in Starfleet. Hemmer takes her under his wing, and it’s one of the best relationships in all of Treks, the mentor and apprentice. Over the course of Season 1, Uhura blossoms and accepts her commission to become part of Pike’s crew.
Strange New Worlds doesn’t dodge the elephant in the room, that being Pike’s fate. Discovery laid the groundwork by showing Pike his fate. So, instead of having to dance around it and making ironic comments, Pike has to face it head on, knowing he is either dead or a shell of a man within a decade.
Perhaps the most unexpected character in this iteration of Trek is La’an Noonien Singh, and yes, she’s a descendant of Khan. Ironically, when James T. Kirk appears, she develops a crush on him, one Kirk would reciprocate, but he’s busy setting up that subplot in Star Trek II. Played by the veddy English Christina Chong, La’an is tough, but is a mirror held up for the genetically engineered Una. She also is one of the very few people to have seen the Gorn and lived.
Season 1 concentrated on getting back to loose story arcs, along the lines of TNG. The show focused more on episodic adventures with the spirit of TOS. However, the biggest chance they take is the Gorn. All we have seen of them comes from the TOS episode “Arena” (where he’s a man in a rubber suit stumbling around Vasquez Rocks) and a more believable CGI version in a Mirror Universe episode of Enterprise. In theory, no one’s seen a Gorn up to this point. La’an points out lots of people have seen Gorn, just no one who survived to tell about it. The Gorn are shown to be xenomorphic. While CGI would be a no-brainer for these updated reptilians, the producers opted for puppeteering, which makes the Gorn younglings scarier. More over, we see one full-grown Gorn in a spacesuit in season 2. While it’s enough to tell they’re the same creatures from 1967, the EVA suit and the rubber Gorn suit combine for 100 pounds of animatronic costume.
Season 1 only hints how season 2 will swing for the fences every time. Hemmer, the Aenar chief engineer, falls victim to the Gorn and sacrifices himself to save the crew. Killing off a main character before the first season ends is a ballsy move. Even ballsier is Pike’s time slip, where we see how “Balance of Terror” would go under Pike instead of Kirk. Oh, and Jim Kirk shows up. This alternate future is shown to convince Pike to meet his fate head on. If he doesn’t, Spock will die, and the best hope of lasting peace with the Romulans dies with him. (Note: In Discovery‘s later season, the Romulans complain about their reunified polity with Vulcan seceded from the Federation during the Burn. Yes, the Romulans want to be Federation. Eventually.)
Season 2 gets in-your-face with a strong second episode dealing with Una’s deception concealing her genetic modifications. Two standout episodes are “Those Old Scientists” and “Subspace Rhapsody.” The former is a crossover with Lower Decks with Jack Quaid and Tawny Newsome playing live action versions of Boimler and Mariner respectively. Pike’s crew finds their constant references to history strangely specific until Boimler learns a much-needed piece of Archer’s Enterprise is somewhere aboard. Suddenly, Ortegas and Uhura geek out, which Spock finds annoying. And yet this works, including an improvised line while Boimler straddles Pike’s “historic saddle” and quips “Riker!” (as Jonathan Frakes looks on from the director’s chair.) Ortegas declares Mariner “a good bad influence” as the future lower decker introduces the Enterprise crew to Orion cocktails.
The penultimate episode sees a musical with the crew–and classically styled Klingons–bursting into song every few minutes. We are treated to a returning Bruce Horak as a Klingon captain forced by a subspace anomaly to sing K Pop while trying to threaten Pike. (Doesn’t really work, but Spock endures a round of bloodwine binging to make things right.) If it works for you, you notice it advances the plot. If it doesn’t, you really do just say to yourself ’tis a silly episode and move on.
Strange New Worlds walks a fine line between pastiche and original stories. Props have to be given to bringing in Kirk years earlier than his time as Enterprise captain. Paul Wesley does not imitate Shatner or Chris Pine, but he does make his Kirk believable, gradually working in those original mannerisms. And his interactions with Sam Kirk show a side of the character we haven’t seen before.
SNW is often cited as the best of the Nu Treks. Some say the best ever. It certainly belongs alongside the Legacy Treks of the 90s and honors what TOS already did, even giving a nod to the Meyer-era movies.