Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is Classic Trek, for Better and Worse

Ever since Star Trek was relaunched on streaming television in 2017 with the glossy serialized adventure series Star Trek: Discovery, the franchise has been expanding in multiple new directions, each a bit further afield from the familiar. The latest new series, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, has been pitched as a return to form: it’s set aboard the original USS Enterprise, features a number of characters from the classic 1960s series, and consists of self-contained, hour-long episodes rather than seasonal storylines. With its debut episode, also titled “Strange New Worlds,” writers/co-creators Akiva Goldsman, Alex Kurtzman, and Jenny Lumet demonstrate that their commitment to doing old-school Star Trek is not just superficial, as they immediately try their hand at an essential Trek episode format:tThe crew arrives on an Earth-like world facing a dilemma that’s relevant to the audience, and they have roughly 50 minutes to push them/us towards solving it. The result is a lively and fun “message episode” whose political arguments are as reductive as they are well-meaning. In short: Strange New Worlds is 100% uncut Star Trek, and as charming and entertaining as that is, its platitudes are a cold comfort in the wake of this week’s disastrous blow to American civil liberties.

Two Minutes to Midnight

“Strange New Worlds” opens in an underground bunker where a woman in uniform receives news that the unidentified spacecraft in orbit is definitely of alien origin. The camera pivots to reveal that, while the uniforms and war room setting are nearly identical to what you’d see in an alien invasion movie set on 21st century Earth, these people are clearly not human. Our point-of-view characters for the teaser are bumpy-headed aliens, and the UFO in their local space is a distinctly Starfleet design. The rest of the episode plays out as a clean introduction to the classic Star Trek formula in which the “aliens of the week” represent our modern world and the humans are basically aliens, centuries ahead of us in terms of both social and technological evolution. We get acquainted with a society whose problems are a caricature of our own, and it all wraps up with Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount, Hell on Wheels) delivering an inspiring speech to the aliens/audience.

Here’s the scenario: The civilization on the planet Kiley 279 develops warp technology, the tools to propel a spacecraft faster than the speed of light. This is the benchmark that the United Federation of Planets uses to determine that a world is culturally prepared for first contact with interstellar life, so they dispatch a small Starfleet survey ship to say hello. When Starfleet loses contact with their welcome wagon, they send Captain Pike and the USS Enterprise to investigate. There, they discover that Kiley 279 has stumbled across warp technology about a century ahead of schedule, and is still in a phase of development on par with early 21st century Earth. In other words, instead of being ready to join the interstellar community as one united world, they’re on the brink of annihilating themselves, and warp technology only offers them a faster way to do it. It turns out that Starfleet is partially responsible for Kiley getting a jump-start on building their “warp bomb,” so Pike needs not only to rescue the captured crew of the survey ship but to find a way to convince the planet’s rival factions to the make peace before it’s too late.

Meanwhile, Pike himself is struggling with an existential crisis of a more personal nature. During the events of Star Trek: Discovery’s second season, Pike saw a premonition of an accident about a decade into his certain future, during which he will sacrifice himself to save a crew of cadets from a radiation leak. The event will leave Pike alive, but physically disabled to the extent that he will no longer be able to express himself. (To see where this story ends, see the Original Series two-parter “The Menagerie.”) Throughout the episode, Pike grapples with how knowledge of his grim fate should inform the life he has left. At the episode’s end, his predicament inspires him to grant the people of Kiley 279 a glimpse at their own possible future, in the hopes that they will do what he can’t — change their fate.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Trek 101

The episode isn’t very concerned with fleshing out the details of the conflict on Kiley. This is the series premiere, after all, tasked with setting the tone and introducing all of the series regulars. Most of the main cast gets to play an active role in the mission and get involved in some light peril and hijinx, as Pike, stoic science officer Lt. Spock (Ethan Peck) and prickly security officer Lt. La’an Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong) beam down to the planet disguised as locals in order to rescue the captured crew of the first contact team. Their alien makeovers are provided by the warm Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) and the vivacious Nurse Christine Chapel (Jess Bush), who get their own brief but entertaining subplot watching over a pair of sedated Kylie citizens while the away team borrows their identities. Fellow principals Commander Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn), Ensign Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia), and Cadet Nyota Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) have less to do this week, but they each get moments to establish their characters and make strong first impressions.

In fact, “Strange New Worlds” feels like a friendly introduction to Star Trek as a whole. While this series is technically both a prequel to The Original Series and a spin-off from Discovery, a viewer with no prior experience with the franchise should have very little difficulty getting on board. There are a few references to the events of Discovery’s second season and a handful of calls-forward to TOS, but only enough to make a new viewer curious, not confused. The episode revolves around Starfleet’s diplomatic mandate and the rules surrounding it, and provides an opportunity to explain the status quo of the 23rd century and how it came to be. There’s even a lot of clever use of the transporter, showing off the franchise’s signature gadget as if it’s a new and exciting idea. “Strange New Worlds” never seems to take the audience’s interest for granted. The episode addresses not only the question “What is Star Trek?” but also “Why is Star Trek?”

Appropriately, “Strange New Worlds” also serves as a cursory introduction to the franchise’s politics. The most basic tenet of Star Trek’s political ethos is that — given enough time, patience, and good faith — any conflict can be resolved and all enemies can eventually become allies. We’d all like to believe this to be true, of course, and if this were a universally held belief, we’d be living in a much better world. This is what Star Trek has always taught its audience, and however much the franchise has and will continue to change over the decades, it’s the one core idea without which you really can’t call something Star Trek. So, it’s only natural that Strange New Worlds should close its first episode with a mission statement to that effect, delivered as directly to the audience as the artifice of the show will allow.

Ah, but there’s the rub.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

The Civility War

In an effort to convince the leaders of the two competing factions on Kiley 279 to make peace, Pike shows them a montage of the fall of 21st century civilization on Earth, repurposing footage from our recent past before jumping ahead to shocking images of a nuclear holocaust to come. It’s always been part of Star Trek’s mythology that humanity hits rock bottom and blows themselves halfway to hell before turning things around, the timeline has merely shifted to accommodate the audience having not lived through it yet. As a result, “Strange New Worlds” adds a new wrinkle based on more contemporary fears: that the United States collapses into a second Civil War in our near future, which (interrupted by the canonically mandated Eugenics Wars from which sprung the villainous Khan) eventually leads to the long-foretold World War III. Pike’s intent is basically to scare Kiley and the audience straight. Their/our present path leads to certain disaster, says Pike. And, hell, who could argue?

The part of me that was raised on Star Trek fundamentally believes in the thesis of Pike’s argument: that empathy, the willingness to listen, is the silver bullet that resolves conflicts and ends injustice. The part of me that has lived through the tumult of post-9/11 America is insulted by the implication that the country stands at the brink of self-destruction simply because factions refuse to debate with each other. The conflict between the two alien factions is deliberately lacking in detail and nuance, as if to suggest that the details do not matter because the solution is always the same. This is a fine message for a fable to have, but if you’re explicitly drawing a one-to-one analogy with modern American politics, the details absolutely do matter. What do the revolutionaries want? What concessions has the government offered?

Though Pike rightly spends most of the episode trying to prevent the ruling party from taking violent action against their constituents (as our government frequently does on a smaller scale through police action), there’s also an implicit condemnation of the revolutionary faction for being too stubborn and uncompromising, a criticism often lobbied at the American left. It’s a call for civility, a classic Star Trek value, but when drawing the direct comparison to our modern dilemma using contemporary footage, the episode highlights the far-right insurrection of January 6th, 2021, a mass protest attempting to overturn an election. You’ll note that it doesn’t use any equally dramatic footage from, say, a Black Lives Matter protest, because that would draw a false equivalency. Some causes are worth making noise and destroying property over, and some aren’t. The episode condemns one and not another because, well, because they know better, and this immediately undercuts their argument.

It’s not that I expect anyone to be able to artfully unpack centuries of sociopolitical baggage and the massive economic forces behind them in the space of an hour and have room to spare for an action-adventure plot. I can’t even say that this attempt fell totally flat with me, especially upon my first viewing, and it has not killed my excitement for the show or even the episode in general. But, having had the privilege to watch and rewatch it for the past two weeks, I cannot deny that it feels a lot more galling after news of the upcoming Supreme Court decision that will potentially roll back a half-century of civil rights progress across multiple fronts. It’s very hard for me to imagine that this could have been avoided if only the public had yelled at each other less over the past fifty years. The hubris to say so, while very Star Trek, is also very frustrating.

But there is one thing about Pike’s message that rings very true to me: the notion that we need to accept the fragility of our civilization, and that we do not have forever to heal the divisions in our society. Survival depends on the awareness of one’s mortality, and that applies to individuals and nations alike. The prospect of a second American Civil War feels significantly nearer now than it did even a week ago. I would like to believe that it can be averted by keeping open ears and open hearts. But, for as much as it showed me a good time, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds has not made a believer out of me.