Two years ago, sometime after Star Trek Discovery’s second season finale, I made a case on behalf of other Star Trek fans for a possible Captain Pike “Star Trek” series. Well, two years later, and the powers-that-be at Paramount+ have heard our pleas. “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” is a reality now, continuing the voyages of the legendary starship USS Enterprise under Captain Christopher Pike, who commanded the ship before Captain James T. Kirk. Taking place in the unexplored years before Kirk’s five-year mission presents new story opportunities. “Strange New Worlds” (SNW) is also diverging from modern streaming television’s more binge-watch friendly, chaptered storytelling and returning to an almost-quaint, episodic format—a format that modern Star Trek hasn’t embraced since its return to television in 2017 with the heavily-serialized “Star Trek Discovery,” and “Star Trek: Picard.”
If you count the original unsold Star Trek pilot, “The Cage” (1964) as the first true pilot for a Captain Pike-led series, then SNW marks the longest pilot-to-series approval in television history (it’s been over 57 years since NBC’s rejection of “The Cage” to the debut of SNW on Paramount+). The charismatic Anson Mount more than ably assumes the role of Captain Pike, a role originated by the late Jeffrey Hunter (“King of Kings”), while Rebecca Romijn takes over for the late Majel Roddenberry (Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s wife) as first officer, “Number One”, who is finally given the full name of Una Chin-Riley. Ethan Peck has the biggest ears to fill, playing a younger, pre-TOS Mr. Spock; the role so memorably played by the late Leonard Nimoy.
For the first episode of Strange New Worlds (also titled “Strange New Worlds”), I decided to break out the digital HD projector and 7 ft/2 m screen to give this long awaited series a semi-theatrical launch.
S1.1: “Strange New Worlds.”
The story opens with an elegant narration about the wonders and risks of “first contact” from the Enterprise’s first officer, Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn), who is on temporary assignment with the USS Archer overseeing a first contact mission on a planet called Kiley 279. We hear the narration as the Kileyans, whose development is a near-exact match for 21st century Earth (paranoia and all), are tracking a dangerous incoming “UFO”–the USS Archer–over their skies.
The paranoid Kileyans go to high alert, misinterpreting the vessel’s presence as an act of alien aggression. First contacts, as established with the Vulcans, are predicated on the discovery of warp drive signatures–yet somehow the Kileyans were not ready, as they don’t seem to have an actual warp drive operating on or over their planet. Something’s very wrong…
We then cut to a couple waking up in a rustic cabin after spending the night together; a heavily bearded Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), and another Captain on shore leave named Batel (Melanie Scrofano). Pike is making a pancake breakfast for two of them, with 1951’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” playing on a TV monitor; “It’s a classic,” Pike notes. Over breakfast, Pike is reluctant to answer his communicator–he’s still struggling with depression after he saw his sealed fate in a horrible accident sometime in the next decade or so. After Pike suggests that he and Batel get together again soon, she tells him that she hopes he’s not here next time, implying he needs to get back to his ship. Alone again, Pike decides to go for a horseback ride in the frigid Montana snow…
Note: “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” directed by Robert Wise (“Star Trek: The Motion Picture”) is the fictional story of a first contact between a benign spaceman named Klaatu and his menacing robot Gort. Klaatu’s space alliance is frustrated with humanity’s warlike ways, so he stymies Earth’s entire power grid for half an hour as a warning to get our act together–or else. The movie is, in ways both subtle and overt, the framework for SNW’s first story as well.
Riding through the snow, Pike’s horse is overtaken by a Starfleet shuttlecraft, which sets down right in their path. Out of the shuttle emerges Admiral Robert April (Adrian Holmes), who meets with Pike in person after the on-leave captain failed to answer his communicator (a gag we also saw in 1989’s “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier”). April tells his former first officer that the USS Archer has gone missing, and one of its three crew were on a delicate first contact mission–being led by Pike’s own first officer, Una. Hearing his “Number One” is in jeopardy forces Pike out of his melancholy and back into action. As we saw in “The Cage,” Pike has a tendency to brood.
Note: Some internet trolls have taken issue with the casting of Adrian Holmes as Robert April, who was established in the Star Trek: The Animated Series (TAS) episode (“The Counter-Clock Incident”) as caucasian (voiced by the late James Doohan), but this has never been affirmed in live-action. Personally, I have no issues with a Black actor playing a previously caucasian character (a character almost no one remembers). My only nit is that the character of Commodore (not Admiral) April was a septuagenerian facing Starfleet’s then-mandatory retirement age of 75. Actor Adrian Holmes is nearly 30 years younger than that, but honestly, so what? Few people, save for nerds like myself, even remember TAS, let alone care about April’s exact age. Moving on…
We then see Pike’s science officer Spock (Ethan Peck) reunited on Vulcan with his semi-betrothed, T’Pring (Gia Sandhu), who formally proposes a wedding, but suggests that Spock stay with her on Vulcan instead of returning to Starfleet (setting up her later infidelity we saw in TOS’ “Amok Time”). T’Pring thinks Spock’s Starfleet career amounts to “gallivanting around the galaxy”, like a youthful phase. Pike signals Spock just as he and T’Pring are about to get horizontal (major case of coitus interruptus). Pike then orders a bare-chested Spock to report back to the Enterprise…
Note: Some may suggest that this scene retcons TOS “Amok Time”, but in the fine print, it doesn’t. “Amok Time” implied that the arranged couple of Spock and T’Pring hadn’t seen each other since they were children, but it isn’t explicitly stated as such. We also know from “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock” that Vulcan males begin experiencing the mating urge (pon farr) sometime in their teens, so it makes sense that Spock would’ve already ‘met’ his fiancee several times, at least. Either way, it’s open to interpretation, and this scene exploits their relationship both for its comedic and canonical potential…
We then see a freshly-shaven Pike taken a shuttle up to the refit Enterprise (this story is set after the events of Discovery’s second season). The melancholic Pike takes a good look at the USS Enterprise as the shuttle circles round fore and aft, but with time of the essence, Pike beams directly onto the ship.
Note: The shuttle Stamets’ brief ‘inspection tour’ is a riff on the six minute-long travel pod inspection that Kirk (William Shatner) and Scotty (James Doohan) took during the ‘rushed’ launch of a similarly refit Enterprise in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” but Pike is not feeling the same ship-love as Kirk; he wants to get right down to business. The Stamets is, of course, named for the “late” USS Discovery engineer, Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp).
Arriving on the bridge just as the ship prepares to depart, Spock welcomes a few familiar faces along with some ones, including new tactical officer, Lt. La’an Noonien Singh (Christina Chong). With Number One missing, Singh will be acting as Pike’s temporary first officer as well. There is also a reference made to an unseen “Lt. Kirk” who’s just been transferred to the ship…
Note: While I appreciated Christina Chong’s performance as Lt. Singh, I’m concerned that the character’s forthcoming connection to the villainous “Khan” (from TOS and “The Wrath of Khan”) will be overplayed at some point. Here’s hoping they keep it subtle, or nearly invisible, as I’ve always felt Khan’s importance to the Star Trek franchise was long overhyped, to be honest. He was a second-rater when compared to other threats the Enterprise faced during her voyages (Nomad, V’ger, Gary Mitchell, the Doomsday Machine, etc). Here’s hoping they tone down the character’s Khan-nection. What, too soon…?
Pike also meets the eager young xeno-linguistics’ “prodigy”, Cadet Nyota Uhura (Celia Gooding) as he settles into the center seat. Looking into his reflection on the chair, Pike has a distracting vision of his future self–his horribly burned future-self, confined to a mechanical wheelchair, and unable to speak. Spock notices the captain’s distraction, and Pike snaps out of it as the orders the ship to get underway…
Note: Celia Rose Gooding does a genuinely fresh and interesting take on Uhura, that is different from both Nichelle Nichols and Zoe Saldana’s interpretations. This is an eager young woman, thrilled at the prospect of finally venturing into the stars–a first-timer, who’s able to put into practice her gift for xenolinquistics (alien languages)–a skill she was given in “Star Trek” (2009); anyone who remembers TOS-era Uhura also remembers her struggling with basic Klingon in the TOS-era movie “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991). but once again, I’m okay with this; I much prefer a gifted, multi-talented version of Uhura, anyway. It’s a nice way to honor the pioneering work of Nichelle Nichols by adding these new dimensions to her character, since these traits go into the character’s collective history now.
Alone in the ship’s lounge (a bar very similar to the one we see in the Kelvinverse’s Enterprise in 2016’s “Star Trek Beyond”), Spock and Pike have a talk. Spock tells his captain that he hasn’t seemed the same following his encounter with the time crystals on the planet Boreth. Pike confesses that he’s seen his own future as a mute, mutilated version of himself, following an accident roughly ten years from now. A sensitive Spock reminds Pike that, no matter his fate, he can only be the person he is in the present–the captain. Pep talk received, the two leave for a tactical briefing before their arrival at Kiley 279.
Note: I really enjoyed this scene, as it foreshadows Spock’s later actions in TOS’ “The Menagerie”, when Spock defies orders and takes Pike to Talos IV, so that his ex-captain could live the remainder of his life as the vital, strong man he was…even if only in an illusion. The scene also sets up how TOS-Spock knew of Pike’s condition, well before (his current) Captain Kirk. Margaret Wander Bonnano’s non-canon Trek book “Burning Dreams” details the positive influence Pike had on Talosian culture following his return–making Pike’s return to Talos IV a win-win for all.
After arriving at Kiley 279 and locating the abandoned USS Archer in orbit (she only had a crew of three for this first contact mission), Lt. Singh recommends raising shields. Spock mentions that act might be seen as an act of aggression during first contact, but Singh persuades Pike to do so anyway. As Singh anticipated, the Enterprise is attacked with sophisticated plasma weapons that are beyond Kiley 279’s current stage of development–without shields up, the damage could’ve been far worse. A puzzled Spock notes there is also no evidence of an active warp drive anywhere on or above the planet. Spock surmises that the ‘warp signature’ detected by the Archer was actually a warp-bomb; a device using matter-antimatter annihilation for destruction, not faster-than-light travel. Worse, it’s later revealed that the technology for the warp bomb came directly from the Kileyans’ observation of a warp-wormhole that was opened up near their space–the same artificial spacetime conduit the USS Discovery used to escape into the 32nd century.
Note: Couple notes. It’s a little odd that the Archer only had three people in her crew; where are the diplomats one would assign to a first contact mission? Secondly, the ‘warp bomb’ was a weapon that was first mentioned in the 1994 Star Trek novel, “Federation”, by Judy and Gar Reeves-Stevens, in a non-canonical timeline which saw warp-drive creator Zefram Cochrane hounded throughout his lifetime by Col. Adrik Thorsen, a World War 3-era madman seeking a “warp bomb” from the creator of warp drive.
Arriving in sickbay to get their faces and DNA changed in order to blend in with the natives, Pike gives a warm hug to his new chief medical officer and old camping buddy, Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun of “Dune: Part One“). We also meet Nurse Christine Chapel (Jess Bush), who left a career in bio-research to sign aboard the Enterprise (see: TOS’ “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”). Chapel’s career in genetic research gives her expertise in temporarily altering the crew’s appearance in order to match other humanoid aliens the ship may encounter; in this case, temporarily altering a landing party’s DNA to blend with the Kileyans.
Note: Dr. M’Benga was originally played by Booker Bradshaw in TOS, where he also had an American accent as well. The new M’Benga has a Kenyan accent more fitting with the character’s name and birthplace. His years of service under Pike also explain his TOS-affirmed expertise with Vulcan anatomy, since Spock is (at this time in Star Trek’s history) the only Vulcan serving in Starfleet.
Note: These two characters were both still working with Dr. McCoy under Kirk’s command. Nurse Christine Chapel later learns of her fiancé Roger Korby’s fate in TOS Season 1’s “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” Chapel also nurses (forgive the pun) a crush on Mr. Spock during TOS, but we don’t yet see evidence of that future attraction in SNW. The character of Chapel, like Number One, was originated by the late Majel Roddenberry, who, at the time of TOS’ production, was Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s mistress (eventually marrying him in 1969). When NBC network rejected “The Cage” but green-lit the series, the character of Chapel was hurriedly written into the show to give Majel another role. Like Uhura, this version of Chapel is similarly amped up as well, with more drive and initiative than the Chapel we saw in TOS.
During Chapel’s temporary gene-altering procedure, Lt. Singh refuses sedation, despite the warning that the procedure causes great pain. She grits her teeth and bears it, after the injections cause her face to reshape in seconds. Spock also receives a shot (with sedation), but his unique half-Vulcan/half-human heritage makes duration of the treatment iffy at best; his appearance may not last as long as the others. With Pike, Singh and Spock’s appearances approximating natives of Kiley 279, they are beamed down, with their uniforms changed as well. Helmsman Lt. Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia) is left in command.
Note: Not reflecting on Christina Chong’s performance, but the character of Lt. Singh is a bit problematic for me (besides her Khan heritage angle). She has a by-the-numbers martyr complex. While she does have some smart ideas, she wears her anger and bitterness like badges of honor, and frankly, it’s a little distracting–this will get old quick. On another note, Lt. Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia) wasn’t given a lot to do during this first episode, but I predict the character’s sardonic wit and easygoing charm could make her a fan favorite. Like most characters in this first episode, Ortegas made a strong first impression, even with relatively little to do.
Noticing a trio of technicians walking near an entrance to where the warp signature was detected, a quick-thinking Lt. Singh feigns collapse, causing several nearby technicians to assist her. While they’re bent over, she signals Spock to neck-pinch them, which he does–though he requires a bit more prompting before he gets the message. They beam the three technicians back to the ship, under sedation, so as not to risk cultural contamination with them seeing the ship (see: TNG’s “Who Watches the Watchers?”). With the landing party’s new access passes, things get complicated–Spock’s appearance needs stabilizing, as his Vulcan features begin to revert. Chapel realizes they need to somehow beam another sample of Kileyan DNA directly into his system, which is complicated when a panicked Kileyan (and would-be donor match) flees sickbay…
Note: When Ortegas orders transporter chief Kyle to devise a method of beaming Kileyan DNA directly into Mr. Spock, we briefly meet another TOS-era character, Mr. Kyle. However, this Mr. Kyle doesn’t resemble blonde British actor John Winston anymore; he’s now being played by André Dae Kim, with a North American accent. While it’s not made clear, it’s possible this is not the same Mr. Kyle we knew in TOS Star Trek. Like Admiral Robert April, I give it a hand-wave…
In a cute scene that boosts two characters at once, Chapel and Uhura work together to capture the escaped Kileyan, who’s fled into a turbolift. The quick-thinking Uhura has already been monitoring the planet’s comm traffic, which familiarizes her with some of their local games, such as “tagball.” The mention of tagball relaxes the Kileyan just long enough for Chapel to sedate him and transport him back to sickbay. Phew!
A undetectably-restabilized Spock is now able to pass through DNA scanners, along with Pike and Singh, for entry into where the detention area where the USS Archer‘s party are being held. Once there, they find an injured Number One (Rebecca Romijn) along with the two other members of the ill-fated first contact mission, one of whom was fired upon by a local’s ‘projectile weapon.’ Breaking the trio out, Spock’s Vulcan features once again revert, which causes him excruciating pain. The half-Vulcan’s screams (this is a younger, less-disciplined Spock) draw the attention of nearby security. Pike orders Lt. Singh to transport with the others back to the ship, leaving he and Spock behind. Momentarily confused, Spock reminds Pike that his Vulcan appearance will be clearly seen as alien to the locals. Pike tells him he’s counting on it. Surrounded by armed security, Pike quips, “Take me to your leader…”
Note: It’s clear why “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is a favorite movie of Pike’s…
Realizing that the Federation is (however unintentionally) responsible for the technology which created the planet’s newfound doomsday weapon, Pike decides to blow their cover and disobey “General Order One” (soon to be renamed “the Prime Directive”). Pike, back in his Starfleet uniform and in full human appearance, appears to the squabbling planet’s delegates during their fruitless negotiations, and (in a reworded version of Klaatu’s speech from “The Day the Earth Stood Still”) warns them of the dire situation their world is currently facing. Calling to Uhura, he links the starship’s library with the delegates’ main viewer, showing them videos of Earth’s bloody 21st century (including images from the recent attack on the US Capitol from January 6th, 2021).
Pike tells the assembled Kileyans that never-ending strife on Earth led to a second US Civil War, followed by the Eugenics Wars, and eventually a nuclear World War 3, which instantly killed more than 600 million people on Earth. Pike offers the Kileyans the same choice Klaatu offered in “The Day the Earth Stood Still”; live together in peace, join the Federation and explore the stars…or self-destruct. The choice is theirs. Realizing the Kileyans only respect force, Pike then orders Ortega to lower the ship into the atmosphere. The impressive size and power of the Enterprise impresses the inhabitants of Kiley 279, and serious peace talks begin in earnest…
Note: Using the images of the Jan. 6th US Capitol riots to help make his case about humanity’s ugly past was both powerful and very appropriate; this is what Star Trek does best–holding a mirror to our own ugliness as commentary for other ‘strange new worlds.’ This is exactly the kind of show Roddenberry intended Star Trek to be back in the 1960s, though he was frustrated by the need to circumvent TV network censors. Now there are no excuses; Star Trek can use its social commentary platform, loudly and openly, to say those things that need to be said–for this age, and the future (if we survive to have one).
After the mission to Kiley 279, we see Starbase One in Jupiter space, which serves as a meeting place between Pike and his superior officer, Admiral April. April had to smooth things over with the Federation council, who were ready to drop the hammer on Pike for his blatant violation of the Prime Directive. However, given the Federation’s direct responsibility in creating the situation on Kiley 279, Pike was allowed to remain in command thanks to a loophole in the Directive, which was exploited by April. Pike then recounts how the geodesic bio-domes of Starbase One–containing a rich variety of Earth’s flora and fauna–were originally launched into space to prevent their destruction during World War 3. Later, as Earth began to heal, the domes were incorporated into Starbase One to further humanity’s exploration of the stars. Pike reflects on this, after the recent mission reminded them all of Earth’s own dark past…
Note: Like the Titan missile used to launch the 2063 warp vessel “Phoenix” (“Star Trek: First Contact”), Starbase One’s bio-domes were fabrications necessitated by war, and later used to advance an era of peaceful exploration.
Back on the bridge of the Enterprise, a rejuvenated Pike is ready to get underway once again. The department heads make their reports in the affirmative, as an ongoing gag involving the unseen “Lt. Kirk” (Dan Jeanotte) is finally paid off–it’s not Lt. James T. Kirk; it’s his older brother, George Samuel Kirk. Pike welcomes Lt. Kirk personally, before settling back into the captain’s chair.
Note: George Samuel Kirk is, of course, the research scientist who will (in TOS’ “Operation: Annihilate!”) meet his maker on the planet Deneva after he and his wife are attacked and killed by flying rubber vomit. In that episode, George Samuel Kirk was seen briefly as a corpse, with William Shatner given graying hair and a fake mustache to blur the resemblance. It’s never stated that George Kirk was actually in Starfleet, but given that he was “assigned” to the Deneva research colony, it’s not far-fetched, either. All the same, I’m just glad it wasn’t James T. Kirk–it’s way too soon for that.
Summing It Up.
Written and directed by well-established hit & miss screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind,” “Batman & Robin”), who is also show-running, “Strange New Worlds” marks a welcome return to classic standalone Star Trek storytelling, but with enough updated details to keep it from feeling too retrograde. There is also much healthier diversity in casting of the show, and the sets/costumes/makeup/visual FX are all feature-film quality, or better. More important than the cosmetic changes is that the spirit of classic Star Trek seems very much intact.
While there may be minor casting nitpicks among some fans regarding some of the characters, none of it is deal-breaking. Some continuity bits from previous Star Treks are glossed over, while other bits are stringently adhered to; i.e., the Kirk fake-out near the end was a cheeky defiance of expectations, though rather pointless. Clearly the show is written and produced with great love and affection for Star Trek, but not detrimentally so–there’s still some wiggle room. Returning to standalone adventures again was also a wise move for the franchise at this point, given how hit-and-miss Picard and Discovery have been with their arc-based storytelling.
All in all, this was a lovingly-made and smartly crafted pilot (or second pilot, if you consider “The Cage” a first). The characters had their moments to shine, save for the new Aenarian Chief Engineer “Hemmer” (Bruce Horak) who is introduced in the very last moments of the episode. One of the most important characters, the USS Enterprise herself, has never looked better–even in the recent feature films. With Anson Mount’s rejuvenated-but-haunted Captain Pike, and a colorful cadre of main characters, this series definitely has the potential to become the best Star Trek of the 21st century.
Where To Watch.
“Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” is streaming exclusively on Paramount+ in the United States, and can be streamed on Crave in Canada (it will also air on CTV’s Sci-Fi Channel). Paramount+ will also be unveiled in the UK on June 22nd, and in other European markets later on, so all of Paramount+’s Star Trek content, including “Strange New Worlds”, should soon be accessible to overseas fans as well. Hopefully all fans everywhere will soon enjoy this new incarnation of Star Trek. Live long and prosper!
16 Comments Add yours
I thought it was firmly in the category of “okay, not great.” The cast is all pretty endearing, but it already seems dogged by the same amateurish writing that has hobbled pretty much all the modern Trek shows. Like, why bring Spock on the mission if the gene therapy doesn’t work on him? There’s no reason they couldn’t have sent someone else instead.
I’m also frustrated by them stringing us along with La’an. If she is connected to Khan, why not explain that connection now? If she just coincidentally has the same last name, why troll the audience like that? At the very least, you’d think the other characters might have some reaction to working with someone whose name is the equivalent of “Lieutenant Hitler.”
That said, it does at least seem to have a genuine sense of fun and adventure, and that could be its saving grace. I’ve always said the problem with Discovery isn’t so much how dumb it is, but the fact it takes itself so seriously. Dumb can work if you embrace it and have fun with it. If SNW goes that route, it could work out to a decent show.
It’s just really hard to have any faith in any new Trek at this point, especially after the utter disaster of Picard’s second season. I’m beginning to worry Prodigy’s opening season being so good was just a fluke…
PIC S2 started off so strong and quickly went off the rails.
As for DSC? I think part of the problem is also the serialized format; if you pick a subpar story for the arc, you’re stuck with it. Episodic TV allows a freedom that I could almost feel radiating from SNW’s first episode.
I would love to see DSC’s cast try and do episodic for a year; I’m guessing the show would become a lot more fun.
That was definitely the issue with the most recent season of Discovery at the least. It wasn’t that bad of a story, but it absolutely didn’t need to be 10+ episodes. A two-parter would have been fine.