Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Boldly Stumbles in an Uneven Start
Regardless of your feelings towards the myriad of newer Star Trek series, it’s safe to say that Star Trek as a whole is in a drastically different spot than its humble beginnings. Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard have taken the franchise far from its roots of a bright, optimistic future and have instead delved into a bleak, violent, and pessimistic vision of the days to come (more so, Picard, but Discovery is surely giving it some funny looks).
Reception to this approach has been mixed, to say the least. It’s clear these showrunners see the state of what audiences want in current science fiction with popular (and admittedly quality) shows akin to The Expanse, or films like Blade Runner 2049. Dark, violent dystopia often makes for great science fiction, but what has always set Star Trek apart is its vehement adherence to the exact opposite. This seems to be where the division arises with the newer Trek series. They hit all the checkboxes for what makes a popular dark sci-fi series but have couched this dark sci-fi in a franchise whose unique characteristic is its unflappable optimism.
There are, of course, seven seasons of elephants resting squarely in this room that need to be addressed. It is true that this isn’t the first time Star Trek has tackled the darker side of science fiction; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a thoughtful, in-depth examination of how the Federation’s ideals hold up when truly pushed to their limits. While it could be argued as to whether or not the newer series manage that same level of nuance, we’re not here for a Star Trek: Picard autopsy.
The main takeaway from the discourse over Trek’s new direction is that the cry for a return to form was growing louder from a fanbase longing for the days of Kirk and classic Picard (and Janeway, barring her treatment of poor old Tuvix). Enter Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Clearly, these showrunners have heard the criticisms leveled at Discovery and Picard and are testing the waters with a series at least more in the direction of classic Star Trek. With only the pilot to go on, the result so far is… Well, strange.
To be fair to Strange New Worlds, pilots are always tough, and Star Trek is no stranger to rocky pilots. Deep Space Nine’s pilot, “Emissary”, is far from the best the series has to offer (and that’s putting it lightly), and The Next Generation’s “Encounter at Farpoint” is… not great. That being said, I suppose it is rather on-brand for Strange New Worlds’ premiere episode to be less than stellar. The problem is, that the issues seem to lie in the fundamental approach the writers have to the material. While it certainly takes a more light-hearted approach, the overarching concern from Star Trek: Picard can’t help but echo in Strange New Worlds: It doesn’t seem like these Star Trek writers have watched much Star Trek.
Now, Strange New Worlds isn’t quite as egregious as Picard in this manner; we don’t have Seven of Nine completely ignoring the fundamental basis of her character from four whole seasons on Voyager with lines like “Those aren’t people out there, they’re Borg” as she proceeds to gun down innocent drones. No, the devil is in the details for Strange New Worlds.
All things considered, Strange New Worlds starts off alright. A cute nod to The Day the Earth Stood Still, a splash of development for Pike and his charmingly fake beard, and a clear goal for our characters to achieve by the end of the episode. Things start getting a little shaky when we receive the revelation that Pike has psychically witnessed his future demise due to… standing too close to a Klingon moon-rock? That apparently occurs naturally? That’s both oddly specific yet incredibly arbitrary, but we’re already 20 minutes in; we’ll roll with it. It’s unclear why Pike needs to be aware of his future as a narrative beat aside from showing us dramatic flash-forwards, but there’s hopefully a character-oriented end-goal in mind further into the season.
We arrive on the bridge, where the main dilemma of the episode is laid bare: A reasonably developed society has somehow gotten their hands on warp technology before they should have. Their society has not advanced to the point of creating warp technology, yet a warp signature has been detected. The twist? It’s not a warp engine; it’s a warp bomb. Couple this with a missing crew of Starfleet officers that brought the Enterprise out here initially, and we have quite the conflict brewing. If Pike and co. are going to stage a rescue of this missing crew, they’ll need to blend in with the denizens of this new planet. The crew heads for the sickbay for some old-fashioned genetic manipulation to blend in with the local populace.
This is where the wheels start to come off, and it’s hard to tell where to even begin.
In a very Star Trek fashion, our crew is disguised to look like the local population a la Next Gen’s “Unification” or Deep Space Nine’s “Apocalypse Rising”. Once on the planet, our Starfleet officers decide they need to infiltrate the complex where they are receiving a signal from the missing crew. And, as Starfleet officers, what is our plan A? Sucker-punch (or, in Spock’s case, sucker-pinch?) the first people we see and beam them to our sickbay to steal their identities. In true slapstick fashion, this decision cascades into a comedy of errors.
Now is as good of a time as any to mention how absolutely all over the place the “science” is in this first episode. Now, theoretical science and techno-babble are staples of Star Trek, but Strange New Worlds pushes those concepts to their absolute limits. We’ve got pre-Kirk transporters that are capable of beaming a free-form liquid substance directly into Spock’s bloodstream, a pre-warp civilization gaining the necessary knowledge to build a functioning warp-bomb because they glimpsed part of a warp-drive through their TELESCOPES… It’s a mess. To say they’re playing fast and loose with the science would be a generous understatement. Star Trek has never been afraid to bend the rules in terms of scientific accuracy, but seldom has it been this blatant in terms of hand-waving away obstacles and plot holes. Why does this civilization have warp technology? Well, because they kind of saw it, I guess? Moving on!
We’re getting distracted, though. Yes, the science is a mess, but that’s still not Strange New Worlds’ biggest issue. Back to the plot, such as it is. So our crew has their kidnapped aliens in sickbay, and, as one might expect, they wake up. Doctor M’Benga and Nurse Chapel are able to subdue one while the other escapes out of sickbay. Now, if these Star Trek characters were to act like Star Trek characters, they should be immediately alerting security, yes? An alien species we are unfamiliar with is loose on the ship. We should be alerting security immediately, right? Why aren’t you looking at me, Strange New Worlds?
No, Doctor M’Benga (who I have to assume is our top-ranking medical officer) and Nurse Chapel exchange amused smirks as they decide the best course of action is to let Nurse Chapel have a wacky mad-cap chase through the halls of the Enterprise by herself with an unknown alien species. At one point, the fact that an alien is loose and actively making his way to the bridge is relayed to acting-captain Ortegas, and she also proceeds to not inform security, opting instead for a cheeky quip. Now, if the point is to have characters acting as recklessly and illogically as possible for the sake of a goofy set-piece, then mission accomplished, but it’s difficult to watch these kinds of scenes and think, “Yes, this takes me back to old Star Trek.” No one is acting even remotely like Starfleet officers, and it just serves to make every character look grossly incompetent.
Remember the admittedly less-than-great Next Generation episode “Transfigurations”? Doctor Crusher is treating a member of an alien species in her sickbay. Eventually, he breaks loose and escapes into the decks of the Enterprise. Does Crusher roll her eyes with a comical smirk as she barrels down the hall after him? No! She gets Worf on the horn and tells him, “An incredibly dangerous alien is on the loose, get a security team ready.” They handle the situation like they’re in a Star Trek show, not an episode of Three’s Company.
Yet, even with all of that, Strange New Worlds has a bigger fish to fry when it comes to its myriad of issues. No, the chief concern with this pilot episode lies in its messaging. Don’t worry; this isn’t about to take a political turn; this has more to do with the fact that the episode’s big, inspirational message at the end is completely undercut and contradicted by every action the crew takes. Eventually, Pike and friends do track down the missing Starfleet crew. As they are attempting to sneak out of the facility, Spock’s disguise fails right in front of a group of aliens. There is a brief pause as the Starfleet crew, and the aliens stare at each other for a moment, at which point, our upstanding Starfleet officers spring into action and throw the first punch. That’s right; our Starfleet officers are the aggressors.
Now, this isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker for Star Trek, given Kirk’s tendency towards “cowboy diplomacy.” Where the problem takes form is at the end of the episode. If we fast-forward to Pike’s rousing speech, he’s giving a presentation on Earth’s many struggles with conflict and violence throughout the years and how responding to conflict with violence is never a fortuitous solution.
…Except when your crew’s first response to literally every situation this entire episode was to swing first and ask questions later? Pike is giving this extravagant monologue about how violence can’t be the answer to your problems, yet every problem they faced was answered with violence. Beam down to the planet and immediately sucker-punch some doctors. Spock’s disguise fails? Attack and batter all witnesses unprovoked. When their backs were to the wall, their solution was to throw the first punch. So excuse me, Pike, if I find your “violence can’t be the solution” speech to be ringing a tad hollow.
This doesn’t even factor in Pike’s offer for this alien species to join the Federation. Not only is he fully aware that he is currently in violation of basically every Starfleet protocol just by being there, but he then offers a civilization that is clearly not ready to join the Federation a seat at the table while actively operating with full disregard of his position in Starfleet. Not only is that just not how any of that works, Pike has absolutely no grounds to make that offer in the first place, regardless of how advanced the species may be. He’s a Starfleet captain, not an official ambassador of the Federation that can just invite his new friends on a whim. It again raises concerns as to whether or not these writers know that Starfleet and the Federation are not the same thing. But again, this is all minutia around the larger issue.
The showrunners seem to know that Star Trek: Strange New Worlds needs to be more hopeful than the franchise’s recent outings, but they don’t seem to know how to write a story that doesn’t undermine that positive message. When conflict arises, their go-to is “everyone gets punched in an exciting action scene.” Then, when it’s time for the big moral message at the end, it’s “Acting violently doesn’t solve your problems.” If they want to truly explore interesting science fiction ideas, they need to put their characters into situations they can’t just punch or shoot their way out of.
As critical as this may seem about Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, it’s far from hopeless. The show clearly wants to be a more traditional Star Trek; it just needs to find out how. As mentioned earlier, as bumpy as this pilot episode proved to be, many Star Trek series faced this same issue. There are positive pieces in this puzzle, and that gives reason to hope moving forward. Anson Mount is an effortlessly charming lead, even when Pike is at his most dower. The production value is excellent, and the cast as a whole seems engaged and excited to be in a Star Trek series.
There’s plenty of time for Strange New Worlds to find its footing. The Next Generation took the better part of two seasons to finally hit a consistent stride, and Voyager’s strongest seasons are well into the back half of its tenure. Nothing is broken so far that can’t be fixed, but there’s quite a bit that needs fixing. Here’s to hoping the pilot for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is simply caught in the same snag that Star Trek has always had with pilot episodes, and we can simply file it away alongside “Encounter at Farpoint.”
Color me cautiously curious for episode two.