Forgive me if this column is a bit briefer than usual, but I’m recovering from hand surgery and my typing speed is down to a crawl, so apologies in advance if I let the graphics and videos do most of the heavy lifting on this one!
*****SOME SPECULATIVE SPOILERS*****
“We’ve just finished 18 months redesigning and refitting the Enterprise…”
A while back, just before it was officially announced by ParamountPlus, I presented my case for a possible Captain Pike “Star Trek” series and well, almost 18 months later, the first season of “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” has just wrapped and is expected to stream on ParamountPlus sometime in 2022. These all-new adventures of Captain Kirk’s immediate predecessor, Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) may well hold a record in TV history as the single longest gestation between pilot and series of all time–since the original unaired pilot of The Original Series (TOS) Star Trek (1966-1969) was Gene Roddenberry’s “The Cage” was first produced in December of 1964, and is only now becoming a full series of its own. “The Cage,” which featured Jeffrey Hunter (1926-1969) as Pike, didn’t sell the “Star Trek concept, though a second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” (featuring William Shatner’s Kirk) would seal the deal.
However, there were some fascinating elements to the long-unaired first pilot, which was later incorporated into a two-part episode of the series proper called “The Menagerie” (the only 2-parter in TOS’ three season run), thus making it canonical to the series. Pike’s First Officer was a no-nonsense woman enigmatically named “Number One”, and was played by “M. Leigh Hudec” (later known as Majel Barrett–producer Roddenberry’s then-mistress, and later wife). While relatively commonplace today, a woman holding a high-ranking military position (or even quasi-military position) was unheard of in 1964. There was also a pointy-eared, half-Vulcanian Science Officer named Spock (Leonard Nimoy) who shouted a lot, and would even grin at the sight of singing plants on an alien planet. Spock was the only character to survive Trek’s unsold pilot, and he would undergo a personality change when he became the logical, unemotional First Officer to William Shatner’s more extroverted Captain Kirk in the series.
But there was something so intriguing about the cooler, more introspective Chris Pike that intrigued fans for over half a century. The character returned in books, fan films, and was reimagined on the big screen by actor Bruce Greenwood in “Star Trek” (2009). Captain Pike would be resurrected once again, this time for ParamountPlus’ Star Trek: Discovery’s second season, with Ethan Peck playing a younger Spock and Rebecca Romijn playing Number One. Anson Mount’s Pike took temporary command of the USS Discovery (following repairs to his much more luxe USS Enterprise) and arguably became the sophomore series’ most valuable player. Pike’s introspective quality from “The Cage” remained largely intact, but that version’s brooding was largely excised, which made sense, since Pike made peace with the issues he’d faced in “The Cage” a few years earlier. This new Chris Pike now handled the burdens of command with grace, charm and affability–readily trusting his temporary crew on the USS Discovery.
The popular captain’s eventual return was a must for fans.
Meet the New (and Old) Characters.
Now that Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is a reality, here’s a video introducing us to some familiar and new faces aboard Chris Pike’s USS Enterprise:
Anson Mount’s Pike is a fan favorite, and I look very forward to the continuing adventures of his Captain Christopher Pike. One thing I noticed right off were the redesigned uniforms of the USS Enterprise crew, with same-color collars, similar to those seen in “The Cage” only much smaller, and made from a thinner fabric than the insanely heavy velour seen in TOS Star Trek. The shoulders also feature very subtle, emblemed patterns reflecting the division of each wearer (star for command, atom for science/medical, etc). The brief glimpses we see of the Enterprise’s interior suggest a slightly brighter lighting scheme, reflecting the look of TOS Star Trek, not the dimmer ambience of “The Cage” or Discovery’s second season.
Ethan Peck’s Spock also returns, and his slightly rumpled hair is much closer to the similarly unkempt hair seen on Spock in “The Cage” before he stuck with the standardized Vulcan bowl haircut we saw him wear at the end of Discovery’s second season, and when he first came aboard the Enterprise in the Short Trek, “Q&A.” One assumes that Spock is trying to ‘find himself’ (as young people do) and that as he gets older, he eventually settles on the haircut most common for Vulcans. There is also a hint of a smile on his face, implying that he may not yet possess the firm grip on his feelings we saw with Leonard Nimoy’s version of the character. Quite logical…
After nearly 57 years since “The Cage” went before cameras, the mysterious Number One finally gets a full name; “Una Chin-Riley.” Una, of course, means “One,” and the hyphenated Chin-Riley (Chinese and Irish surnames) suggests a diverse familial origin. While the commanding Number One of “The Cage” was fairly simple, Rebecca Romijn promises a far more complex character. As we saw her further developed in Discovery and Short Treks, her no-nonsense, almost gruff demeanor at times is offset by a closet ‘freaky’ that gives her a bit more in common with the younger Spock than either character initially realizes. As realized by Romijn, Number One reminds me of head nurse “Major Margaret Houlihan,” as played by Loretta Swit, from TV’s groundbreaking series “MASH.”
In addition to the return of Pike, Spock and Una, we also see a few other faces familiar to fans of TOS Star Trek reporting for duty aboard Captain Pike’s Enterprise…
One of the biggest surprises for me was the return of Nyota Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding), who serves as a fresh-faced cadet aboard Chris Pike’s USS Enterprise before serving as lieutenant and chief communications officer for Captain Kirk a few years later. While Celia Rose Gooding certainly looks terrific in the role, I have a nagging concern that seeing too many high-profile familiar faces from Kirk’s Enterprise might unwittingly sabotage this new series’ attempt to find its own voice with its original characters (more on those below). However, the casting is spot-on, and Uhura’s experiment with shorter hair suggests one of the many hairstyles the character would adopt throughout the course of TOS and the later Star Trek movies. We also saw Cadet Uhura (Zoe Saldana) serving on Pike’s Enterprise in the Kelvinverse movie of “Star Trek” (2009).
Nurse Christine Chapel, formerly played by former “Number One” Majel Barrett Roddenberry in TOS, is now being played by Jess Bush, who retains the character’s silver-dyed hair from her earliest appearance in TOS Star Trek (“The Naked Time”). Chapel was famous for her long-nursed (excuse the pun) crush on the emotionally reserved Spock. Like Uhura, Chapel would also adopt a series of experimental looks throughout TOS and the movies, going from silver to blonde to auburn tresses. In addition to being McCoy’s trusted right hand (though capable of pushing back when she has her own opinions), Chapel is also, apparently, another holdover from Pike’s command as well. It would be an amusing in-joke if they made Chapel a cousin or some other blood relative to Una Chin-Riley, given that both characters were originally played by Majel Barrett. Just a thought…
Another addition to Pike’s medical staff is Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun), who was originally played by the late Booker Bradshaw in two episodes of TOS Star Trek (“A Private Little War” and “That Which Survives”). This is a character ripe for further exploration, since he doesn’t even have a canonical first name yet (original scripts used “Joseph” but it was never spoken or titled onscreen). We do know that M’Benga served in a Vulcan medical ward, so, unlike McCoy, he has extensive knowledge of Vulcan anatomy and care–which may explain Spock’s initial resentment of Dr. McCoy’s unfamiliarity with Vulcan physiology in TOS. While Spock had interactions with M’Benga in TOS (as a command-level officer and under M’Benga’s care), I would be interested in seeing a backstory behind their relationship.
While I’m slightly apprehensive regarding Strange New Worlds’ potential for overusing Kirk-era characters, I was also pleased to see some fresh new faces on Pike’s Enterprise, including some who speak directly to Star Trek’s 55-year history of championing diversity in its casting choices.
Bruce Horak plays “Hemmer”, a member of the pale, antennaed, blind Aenar; a once-mythical offshoot of the blue-skinned Andorians (a race first seen in TOS’ “Journey to Babel”). The Aenar were first established in the 4th season of the Star Trek prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise as a sightless, though psychically gifted race who can read minds and have remote telepathy as well. Star Trek has featured blind characters before, most notably LeVar Burton’s Chief Engineer “Geordi La Forge” in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but this is the first time that a visually-impaired actor is playing the sightless character. Personally I’m very eager to embrace this character, as I hope it opens new avenues of opportunities for other disabled actors, such as Discovery’s Kenneth Mitchell. Mitchell played several Klingon characters in the show’s first two years until his advancing amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) saw him return to the series in its third year as a disabled human character, Dr. Auriello, who moves with the aid of a hovering, 32nd century ambulatory device.
Christina Chong is playing La’an Noonien-Singh. That last name, of course, is familiar to Star Trek fans as the middle and last name of Khan Noonian Singh (different spelling, and sans hyphen). While I have nothing but best wishes for Chong, and for the success of this new series, I must admit I’m getting a ‘red alert’ with the writers/producers seeming attempt to shoehorn in a pointless connection with the character of Khan, as played by Ricardo Montalban (TOS’ “Space Seed” and 1982’s “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”) and by Benedict Cumberbatch (2013’s “Star Trek Into Darkness”). Hope I’m wrong. We’ll see how they play it, but I’d advise caution against too direct a connection to the Khan character, and against this trend of casting Khan as Star Trek’s Darth Vader (Star Trek doesn’t have a Darth Vader–that’s kinda the point; it doesn’t need to rely on two-dimensional black hats).
Rounding out the announced cast of characters is Melissa Navia as Lt. Erica Ortegas. Very little is known of the character, other than she is a mainstay on the USS Enterprise bridge, and that the actress playing her has a lot of enthusiasm for her role in the Star Trek’s ongoing story–always a good thing (see her downright contagious excitement in the video).
“To Explore Strange New Worlds…”
Strange New Worlds is rumored to return to the more episodic storytelling style of TOS and TNG Star Trek, something that has fallen out of favor in the post-Netflix generation. Audiences today tend to stream shows almost as visual novellas, expecting each episode to be but one chapter in a greater story arc. Star Trek itself helped to pioneer arc-based storytelling back in the mid-1990s with Deep Space Nine but it also featured plenty of standalone stories as well. Here’s hoping that Strange New Worlds will strike a similar balance.
It took nearly 57 years from the filming of Captain Pike’s earliest adventure on the USS Enterprise in “The Cage” to this new series. With its enthusiastic cast, gorgeous sets and motion picture quality visual effects, “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” is being afforded every opportunity to succeed. To quote the omnipotent “Q” in TNG: “The hall is rented, the orchestra is engaged…now it’s time to see if you can dance.”
Also Boldly Going…
Speaking of Q, a wickedly exciting trailer for Season 2 of “Star Trek: Picard” sees Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) forced to travel back in time to our 21st century at the urging of the omnipotent Q (John de Lancie) to prevent the 24th century from lapsing into fascism–couldn’t have a more timely message:
Star Trek Day also featured a very promising trailer for “Star Trek: Prodigy”, which sees a group of aliens finding and using an abandoned (but functional) Federation starship. This series has potential to be the “Star Wars Rebels” of Star Trek.
Where to Watch.
All Star Trek TV series, including Lower Decks, can be streamed on ParamountPlus. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current COVID pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 654,000 as of this writing (over 4.5 million deaths worldwide), so please wear masks and get vaccinated as soon as possible to prevent infections and protect your loved ones. With a bit of Star Trek optimism and medical science, we can persevere through this pandemic.
Live long and prosper!