Star Trek Explores “Strange New Worlds” and Returns To Its Roots

At last, here is the long-awaited Star Trek: Strange New Worlds review, starting with the first episode, which is entitled simply “Strange New Worlds”.

Warning! Spoilers under the cut!

The episode starts off with a Star Trek classic, namely a first contact situation. Only that we see it from the POV of the contactees, similar to the Next Generation episode “First Contact”. And so a group of stereotypical bumpy-foreheaded and spotty-faced Star Trek aliens are stunned to suddenly see a Starfleet ship appearing in their orbit. However, this ship is not the Enterprise, but the USS Archer, named after the captain of the first Enterprise from the eponymous series. It’s not even the only callback to a character from another Star Trek series in ship naming patterns. There also is a shuttle named Stamets, obviously named for Discovery‘s chief engineer and inventor of the spore drive, who buggered off to the far future prior to this series.

Before we can see how the first contact will evolve, there is a shift of scene to Earth, specifically Montana, in winter. The camera zooms in on a person on horseback riding through the snow and if not for some distinctly twenty-first century looking wind turbines, we might have been in a nineteenth century western. The person on horseback heads for a wooden ranch house, which again could be straight out of the nineteenth century. We finally see that it’s Captain Christopher Pike, though he has grown a long hair and a beard since we last saw him. Pike also continues the tradition of Star Trek captains coming from landlocked parts of the US. After all, James T. Kirk hails from Iowa, Kathryn Janeway hails from Indiana and now Christopher Pike hails from Montana. Finally, Pike also upholds the tradition of Star Trek captains living their civilian lives in rather old-fashioned surroundings, see Chateau Picard and now Pike’s wooden ranch house.

We also see that Pike has a lover, a fellow Starfleet captain whose name I did not catch. Pike makes pancakes for her, while watching the original 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still. “It’s a classic”, he replies when his lover asks him why he is watching a more than two hundred years old movie. The brief clip of The Day the Earth Stood Still is also foreshadowing for later in the episode, when we get a replay of sorts of the famous ending speech with Pike in the role of Klaatu.

But for now, Pike is done with Starfleet, though his lover tries to persuade him to return to his duties aboard the Enterprise.  Pike, however, replies that he still has a week to make that decision, while the Enterprise is receiving repairs and upgrades in spacedock. As for why Pike is wavering on whether to return to the Enterprise, getting a vision of his eventual fate (which Star Trek fans have known about since the first season episode “The Menagerie”) in the Discovery episode “Through the Valley of Shadows” has left him understandably depressed, even though he knows that fate is still more than a decade away.

In the end, Pike’s decision on whether to return to the Enterprise is made for him, when a shuttle arrives and spooks Pike’s horse during one of his rides through the snow (“You’re going to spook the horse, idiot,” I yelled moments before the horse did spook). The person who emerges from the shuttle is none other than Robert April, Pike’s predecessor as captain of the Enterprise and now a Starfleet admiral.

Robert April is portrayed by Adrian Holmes, one of those actors who are instantly recognisable, because they’ve been in everything. The casting of Holmes led to some outrage among the usual suspects, because Adrian Holmes happens to be black, while the one time he was seen in screen in Star Trek: The Animated Series, Robert April was an older white man. Now we see these reactions a lot, whenever a character who used to be white in a previous version of the story or even one who was assumed to be white (see the uproar when Rue from The Hunger Games, a character explicitly described as black in the books, was portrayed by a black actress in the movies). Just recently, there was a really nasty case, when twelve-year-old actress Leah Sava Jeffries was inundated with hate, because she had been cast to play Annabeth Chase, a character described either as white or not at all (I honestly don’t remember, though I did read the first book) in the Percy Jackson novels, in the upcoming TV adaptation. Previously, we had similar uproars surrounding black elves in Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel and actors of colour playing main characters in The Wheel of Time TV shows.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, these complaints about black actors playing characters previously portrayed as or assumed to be white, is pure racism. And the uproar about a black actor playing Robert April is one of the sillier examples, because the character only appeared once forty years ago in a single episode of a cartoon show, which as far as I know isn’t even available to watch anywhere right now. Robert April is less character than the answer to a trivia question. Of course, you’d think people would be less likely to complain about changing the race of a character seen only in animated form than they would be with someone who had live action appearances, but then you’d think wrong. Some He-Man fans are outraged that the characters of Andra, who was only seen once in a single comic hardly anybody remembers first hand, and King Grayskull, heroic ancestor of He-Man who only appeared in a single episode of the 2002 Masters of the Universe cartoon, were both black in Masters of the Universe: Revelation and white in their previous appearances. Toxic fans will be toxic.

Robert April brings bad news. The first contact between the USS Archer and the bumpy forehead aliens seems to have gone wrong. Contact has been lost and the Archer‘s crew is missing. What brings Pike in is the fact the the commander of the USS Archer was none other than Una Chin-Riley, better known as Number One, Pike’s first officer aboard the Enterprise.

So Pike is back in the saddle and the Enterprise‘s stay in spacedock is cut short. However, the Enterprise still needs her science officer, so the scene switches to Vulcan, where we see Mr. Spock out on a date with T’Pring, his finacée from “Amok Time”. And yes, Spock on a date is as awkward as you would imagine him to be. T’Pring doesn’t really mind though and actually asks him to marry her, because apparently on Vulcan, it’s the women who ask. Spock and T’Pring decide to seal their engagement with a kiss, which is apparently a shocking display of emotion by Vulcan standards, so shocking that Spock and T’Pring are asked to leave the restaurant, which they happily do for engaging in even more shocking displays of emotion in private. Yes, we see Spock about to have sex with T’Pring, when his communicator beeps and Pike interrupts them to recall Spock to the Enterprise. “Are you naked?” Pike asks. “No, but he was about to be”, an annoyed T’Pring replies.

Of course, every Star Trek fan knows that Spock and T’Pring will never get married. Though I still liked seeing them together in happier times, since “Amok Time” only gave us the end of their relationship. Besides, Strange New Worlds gave us a scene of Spock about to have sex in its very first episode, which is sure to reel in the fans, even casual ones like my Mom, for whom “Spock almost has sex” has definitely bumped Strange New Worlds up in the to-be-viewed queue.

Once aboard the Enterprise, we also meet the rest of the crew: Dr. M’Benga and Nurse Christine Chapel, both of whom appeared in the Original Series, Cadet Nyota Uhura, another very familiar face from the Original Series, helmsman (or helmswoman) Erica Ortegas, a character who was male in “The Cage”, and La’an Noonien-Singh, a young woman with a troubled past (and not just the troubled past her surname suggests), who fills in as First Officer while Number One is off on her own mission. There’s also a young male Asian transporter operator and an Asian woman pilot whose names I did not catch. It’s early yet, but in general I think the reinterpretations of Original Series characters like Uhura, M’Benga and Christine Chapel work well, though the actors don’t resemble their Original Series counterparts all that much. Christine Chapel also has had her bio upgraded from nurse to civilian bio researcher assigned to the Enterprise who fills in as nurse.

In his review at Tor.com, Keith R.A. DeCandido notes that Original Series characters like Dr. M’Benga, Christine Chapel and Nyota Uhura being aboard the Enterprise during Pike’s tenure contradicts “The Menagerie”, where at least Uhura and Christine Chapel don’t seem to know or recognise Pike or at least show no reaction to the state he is in.

Now I used to be vary much in favour of maintaining continuity, though I have relaxed a little on that front in recent years, considering that a whole lot of franchises I enjoy have multiple continuities coexisting. Marvel Comics continuity is different from Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity, which is different again from the continuity of the Sony Spider-Man or Fox X-Men movies. DC Comics reboot their continuity every year or so (which is part of the reason why I always preferred Marvel, because with DC you never knew which continuity was the correct one these days), plus the DC movies and the DC TV shows have different continuities again. And in fact, based on the sheer number of Batman films and TV shows out there, there are multiple different continuities for Batman alone, some of which also include Superman or the Justice League. Masters of the Universe, finally, has had several different continuities in forty years from seven different cartoons (five He-Man and two She-Ra cartoons), lots of different comics, audio-dramas and the 1987 live action movie, many of which contradict each other. And while Mattel had someone in charge for a while, who tried to tie the different Masters of the Universe continuities together (just as Star Wars had someone like that in the Lucasfilm days, though Disney does not seem to have continued the practice), the various cartoons and comics still pick whatever they like from the continuity on offer.

So my older self has moved on to, “Yes, continuity is important, but not so important that it should get in the way of the story.” Until season 2 of Discovery, all we ever saw of Christopher Pike’s tenure on the Enterprise was “The Menagerie” and “The Cage”, which was hardly ever shown until the 1990s. But now that Pike and his Enterprise have their own TV series, should it really be tied down by “The Menagerie”, a single not-all-that-great two-parter which was broadcast fifty-five years ago, or should we ditch “The Menagerie” continuity, if it gets in the way of the story, just as Strange New Worlds ditched the precedent set by the one appearance of Robert April in The Animated Series almost fifty years ago or Picard ditched the sole appearance of Picard’s mother as an old woman and had her commit suicide, when Picard was a boy.

After the introductions have been done, the Enterprise is off to the planet Kiley 279, where Number One and the USS Archer were last seen. The USS Archer is still there, in orbit, albeit empty. The Enterprise also discovers the Warp signature that led the USS Archer to initiate first contact, since the Federation only contacts worlds once they have developed Warp technology. However, scans of Kiley 279 indicate that the planet is about at the technological (and social, it turns out) level of 21st century Earth, i.e. not nearly advanced enough to have Warp technology, unless they got it from someone else. Plus, their Warp signature does not seem to hail from a Warp drive, but a Warp bomb.

This is unexpected, because so far every world that developed Warp technology used it to build stardrives. However, it can also be used as a devastating weapon, similar to how nuclear fission can be used to build nuclear bombs as well as to build nuclear power stations. Though in the real world, nuclear power was a byproduct of the nuclear bomb and the world would be a better place if neither technology had ever been developed.

As for how Kiley 279 got Warp technology two centuries early, that goes back to the season 2 finale of Star Trek Discovery. it turns out that the massive battle against the rogue AI control and the wormhole which took Discovery into the future happened close enough to Kiley 279 that the inhabitants could detect the battle and the resulting Warp signature with their long-range telescopes and reverse engineer Warp technology. So the Enterprise and Discovery themselves accidentally violated General Order One (as it’s still called at this point in time) a.k.a. the Prime Directive. Oops.

So the Enterprise crew not only have to rescue Number One and the rest of the Starfleet personnel, they also have to find a way to rescue them (since they are held too far underground to just beam them out) without violating General Order One even further. This is where Doctor M’Benga and Christine Chapel come in, since they have developed a way to temporarily change the genes in order to superficially make humans (and Vulcans) resemble a different species. And so the away team, consisting of Pike, Spock and La’an Noonien-Singh, undergo gene therapy to make them look like natives of Kiley 279. The change is excruciatingly painful, so Christine Chapel wants to administer an anaesthetic first, which La’an refuses for reasons connected to her troubled past. Changing Spock also proves an additional challenge, because of his mixed Vulcan and human genes.

Once the transformation has been successful, Pike, Spock and La’an beam down to Kiley 279 and also gain appropriate local attire, which includes a weird shorts suit for Spock, who is not at all amused about having to wear short pants. Walking around the city, Pike, Spock and La’an chance to see video footage of some kind of unrest shown on a public screen. That footage has since caused some controversy, because it is not footage that was shot specifically for Strange New Worlds (which would have been expensive, given the number of extras required, and also difficult because of covid restrictions), but stock footage of the 2013/14 Maidan protests in Kyiv, Ukraine, as James Whitbrook explains at io9. Now when Strange New Worlds was shot and edited, no one could of course predict that Russia would invade Ukraine and that eight to nine-year-old stock footage would suddenly become a lot more relevant. Nonetheless, the integration is clumsily done, because the footage is recognisable for what it is and at one point you even prominently see a Ukrainian flag. Nevermind that it feels tasteless to take a pivotal event in the history of a non-US country and just repurpose it as a protest on an alien world, assuming that no one will recognise it, whereas footage of protests in the US (there is footage of the January 6, 2021, protests and attempted uprising later in the episode) is only used as exactly what it is. Honestly, the best solution would have been to use fictional protest or riot footage from a movie or TV show. Paramount surely has some of that somewhere in its vault.

This is as good a place as any to talk about the costume and set design, which does a good job looking modern, while also capturing the feel of the original and the retro feel in general. The scenes on Kiley 279 are shot among the sort of 1960s/70s Brutalist buildings that have been standing in for “the future(TM)” for more than fifty years now. Even the original Star Trek used Brutalist buildings to portray space colonies, e.g. in “Operation Annihilate!”), as did pretty much every other science fiction series or film well into the 1980s. The Enterprise bridge, med bay and corridors manage to look modern and are not exact recreations of the original Enterprise set, but also recall the look of the Original Series with their bright colours. The uniforms do have the bright colours of the Original Series, but the fabric and cut are more modern. Hairstyles are mostly modern, though we occasionally see styles that recall the beehives of the 1960s, e.g. the disguise that La’an wears during the mission. The civilian clothing we see the people on Kiley 279 wear looks retro, but it is a mix of styles from fashions and hairstyles that recall the 1940s and 1950s in the crowd scenes to an outfit and hairstyle that would not have looked out of place in the 1980s episode of Dynasty for the president of Kiley 279. Even the special effects try to emulate the psychedelic of the 1960s.

Pike, Spock and La’an trace both the missing Starfleet personnel as well as the Warp bomb to a highly secured building, which is being picketed by protesters, suggesting that the people of Kiley 279 are no happier with their government experimenting with weapons of mass destruction than people elsewhere. However, the security measures, which involve scanning badges and retinas, make it impossible for the away team to just walk in. Therefore, La’an fakes an accident in order to distract two of the Kiley scientists, before Spock nerve-pinches them.

There’s a short debate what to do about the unconscious scientists. Pike suggests beaming them into the Enteprise‘s med bay, where they’re out of the way, and keep them sedated, so they won’t be telling any tales about aliens kidnapping them and beaming them to their spaceship to subject them to medical examination, even though that’s exactly what M’Benga and Christine Chapel do in order to allow Pike, Spock and La’an to infiltrate the compound. I’ve always liked First Contact in reverse stories and over the years, Star Trek has served up quite a few of those, and I really like the idea of someone being abducted by aliens, sedated and subjected to a medical examination for what are ultimately benign reasons.

Of course, the sedation wears off quicker than expected and so both Kiley scienists wake up in understandable confusion. Dr. M’Benga managed to re-sedate one of them quickly, but the other runs off, leading Christine Chapel on a merry chase through the corridors of the Enterprise. He stumbles into a turbolift, where he meets Uhura, who is not at all shocked or surprised to see an alien loose on the Enterprise. Instead, she says “Hi” and then starts talking about a popular ballgame on Kiley 279, which as communications officer she has seen in broadcasts from the planet. The scientist is taken aback – just as we would be when we found ourselves abducted by aliens only for the aliens to want to talk about football – and distracted just long enough for Christine Chapel to sneak up on him and sedate him again. She doesn’t get much to do in this episode, but I have to admit that I really like Celia Rose Gooding’s take on Uhura.

Dr. M’Benga and Christine Chapel are able to conjure up the proper uniforms, badges and retina alterations to get Pike and La’an into the complex as scientists. However, there is a problem with Spock, because due to his half-human, half-Vulcan physiology, the genetic alterations don’t hold and he keeps reverting back, which not only almost gets him stopped at the security checkpoint, but also causes him intense pain. In fact, I have to wonder about the wisdom of taking the one person with an unusual genetic make-up on a mission that requires superficial genetic changes, but then Spock is a main character and “Spock in danger” has been a popular generator of drama since the days of the Original Series.

M’Benga and Chapel work their genetic magic just in time to get Spock past the checkpoint, but more trouble ensues, when Spock’s ears start reverting to their natural pointed shape in an elevator full of Kiley people and even Pike’s attempt to distract the woman who notices don’t really work.

The elevator finally takes the away team to the holding cells and here they find Number One and two Federation scientists. Number One and one of the scientists have been injured in altercations with the Kiley 279 security forces. It also becomes clear that Number One and La’an know each other, a little tidbit La’an did not mention before. Eventually, La’an comes clean about her troubled backstory. She and her family were captured by the Gorn, when La’an was a kid and subjected to all sorts of tortures. Only La’an survived, which is why she is so tough. It is Gorn custom to send the survivor back into space on a kind of life raft. They’re not really expected to survive, but La’an did thanks to a passing Starfleet ship rescuing her. Number One was one of her rescuers, which is why La’an was so eager to go on this mission.

Pike tells La’an that she should have trusted him and told him the truth. But first, they all have to get off Kiley 279. Number One and the scientists started hacking a hole into the concrete wall of their cell, which should allow a transporter signal through. However, they are too deep under the surface to beam them out, so they first have to get to a higher level of the complex. On the way there, they are intercepted by security guards and a fight breaks out. Pike calls the Enterprise and orders them to beam everybody out except for him and Spock, who has by now fully reverted to his usual Vulcan form. “Is this wise, Sir?” Spock asks, “After all, I look visibly alien.” Pike replies that that’s exactly the point.

After all, there is still the matter of the Warp bomb, a technology which could destroy all life on Kiley 279 and which they wouldn’t even have, if Starfleet hadn’t messed up and had a massive battle within the range of their telescopes. Pike plans to set this right. And so he allows Spock and himself to be captured. “Take me to your leader,” he says.

This is exactly what the Kiley security guards do – but then they already know from the appearance of the USS Archer that there really are intelligent spacefaring aliens out there. And so we next see Pike having an audience with the president of Kiley 279, a woman who looks as if she stepped straight out of a 1980s episode of Dynasty. Pike basically says, “Sorry, you were never supposed to have this technology in the first place, but now that you’ve got it, you really shouldn’t use it to build weapons, because you might destroy your whole planet before you ever naturally make it to the Warp stage. Also, maybe negotiating with your opponent is the better solution.”

The President, however, is not impressed. First of all, she’s not going to let some alien tell her what to do. Besides, she insists that her opponents are so bad that they just cannot be reasoned with. They have the Warp bomb now and they are going to use it.

Pike, meanwhile, just smiles and says, “Well, if it comes down to who has the bigger stick, then I guess that’s me.” Then he orders the Enterprise to enter the atmosphere of Kiley 279.

Now the entire planet knows that aliens exist. This – according to a rather breathless news reporter – brings the President and her opponent to the negotiation table for the first time in years. However, they’re still yelling at each other, while the rest of the planet watches with bated breath.

So it’s up to Pike again to make them see the light. And so he steps up to the podium and gives them a little history lesson. He shows them images of Earth in the 21st century at about the same technological level as Kiley 279 is now. Pike says that there was a lot of conflict and unrest at the time – illustrated by footage of the January 6 protests and riots in Washington DC (which unlike the footage of the 2014 Maidan protests gets to be exactly what it is, since American protests and riots are by definition of universal importance). As on Kiley 279, the conflict parties wouldn’t even talk to each other, until World War III broke out, illustrated by special effects footage of Washington, New York, San Francisco and Paris getting nuked.

Pike tells the leaders of Kiley 279 that they are on the same path as Earth was in the 21st century. However, they still have a chance to avoid total destruction and eventually join the Federation. The choice is theirs.

I guess I’m not the only one who noticed that this is basically Klaatu’s speech from the end of The Day the Earth Stood Still (and by 1951 standards, that’s a remarkably diverse crowd listening to Klaatu) and the clip from the actual movie does foreshadow this even further.

I’ve said several times that the main qualification a Star Trek captain needs to have is the ability to hold inspirational speeches and Christopher Pike as portrayed by Anson Mount has this in spades. I have to admit that I wasn’t particularly impressed with Anson Mount before Discovery, but then all I’d seen him in was The Inhumans TV show that Marvel would rather forget (and that show had plenty of issues which had nothing to do with Anson Mount, who actually wasn’t a bad Black Bolt) and a guest role as an assassin in an episode of Hawaii Five-0. However, I liked Mount a lot in season 2 of Discovery and he is chiefly responsible for turning Christopher Pike from the answer to a trivia question into a fully fledged character. And I suspect it was the strength of his performance as well as those of Etha Peck as Spock and Rebecca Romijn as Number One/Una Chin-Riley that got Strange New Worlds greenlit.

There have been some complaints that the moral message delivered by Pike is way too blunt and “too woke”, to which I have to reply, “Duh, have you ever seen Star Trek?” Cause it’s always been blunt in its moral messaging – “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, anyone? – and it has always been what is called “woke” these days. Social justice and blunt moral messaging are as much part of the DNA of Star Trek as transports, phasers, tricorder and aliens with bumpy foreheads. As for that Fox News piece, where the author, one David Marcus (not Kirk’s long lost son, obviously) complains that Star Trek is trying to influence US elections now, “Dude, get over yourself.” Yes, one might view Pike’s message as directed at the Democrats and Republicans in the US. You could also view it as directed at Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy with regard to the war in Ukraine (and in fact I think that the war in Ukraine is a much bigger risk to escalate into nuclear war than the January 6 riots in the US ever were). Or you could apply it to any other conflict currently going on in the world.

The people of Kiley 279 obviously made the right choice, because we get a neat montage of children in remarkably British looking school uniforms learning about the day the aliens came and playing with Enterprise toys.

Meanwhile, back in spacedock, Robert April tells Pike, Number One and Spock that he persuaded Starfleet not to court martial them all for violating General Order Number One, since in theory it had already been violated and Pike was only doing damage control. Pike is also revigorated and decides to return to duty. Since Una Chin-Riley is back to take over as Number One again, La’an is made the new security chief of the Enterprise, since the previous security chief, Commander N’gan traveled to the future with Discovery. We also see two more crew members arriving, an albino Andorean and one Lieutenant Kirk, who turns out not to be a young James T. Kirk (whom we’ll supposedly be seeing in season 2), but his lesser known brother Sam, who was first (and last, since he dies in that episode) see in the Original Series episode “Operation Annihilate!” back in 1967. Sam Kirk is another one of those trivia answer characters, so it will be interesting to see how Strange New Worlds fleshes him out.

Is Strange New Worlds the show we would have gotten, if “The Cage” had gone to series back in 1965? No, it isn’t. If you look at “The Cage”, Pike’s Enterprise was still very male and very white, Number One and Yeoman Colt notwithstanding. And the mere idea of a female first officer was apparently too shocking for the network. However, based on the first episode, Strange New Worlds is a fun reinterpretation of the characters and the ship we only briefly saw in “The Cage”, a look at what might have been.

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1 Response to Star Trek Explores “Strange New Worlds” and Returns To Its Roots

  1. Pingback: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Meets the “Children of the Comet” | Cora Buhlert

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