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Saturday, July 2, 2022

Star Trek Strange New Worlds Review: Classic Trek is Back

Anson Mount's Captain Christopher Pike stands hands on hips at the front of the USS Enterprise's bridge, as officers work at stations in the background behind him.

Get ready for some of the funnest boldly going Star Trek’s done in a while.
Image: Paramount

Star Trek’s grand return, first with Discovery, and now with what feels like a whole flotilla of series, transformed the franchise into a series of heavily serialized adventures for the most part—a distinct break from the style that had largely guided the franchise for half a century prior. With Strange New Worlds, it re-embraces that format once more: and in doing so, stands apart among its contemporaries as some of the best Trek around.

On the surface Strange New Worlds, set to premiere May 5 on Paramount+, sits at a peculiar crossroads. It is, technically, a spinoff-prequel-sequel to the second season of Star Trek: Discovery—a show now waiting for its fifth season on the horizon—which introduced the main trio of Enterprise officers Strange New Worlds returns to: Anson Mount as Captain Christopher Pike, Ethan Peck as a younger Lieutenant Spock, and Rebecca Romijn as “The Cage” pilot episode character Number One, now finally named all these decades later as Lt. Commander Una Chin-Riley. As Discovery went on after its second season to blaze a path in a future farther than any Star Trek show had seen before, Strange New Worlds inherits that show’s original legacy as a predecessor to the titan of all Trek, the original series.

Image for article titled Strange New Worlds Has the Classic Star Trek Vibe You've Been Waiting For

Image: Paramount

That is the other shadow that Strange New Worlds finds itself in, perhaps even more explicitly so than Discovery ever was. Where that series juked away from the aesthetic and tonality of the original Star Trek to differentiate itself, Strange New Worlds wholeheartedly embraces it from top to bottom. Not just because it is set on the Enterprise mere years before Captain Kirk will sit in its command chair—hell, Kirk’s meant to appear in the show’s second season in some capacity. But because Strange New Worlds’ earnest embrace of the retro-cool look of the original Trek is worn on its sleeves with pride. Modernizing a Technicolor ‘60s aesthetic that balances the lavish streaming-platform budgets of its contemporary shows with everything from bright-colored classic Trek uniforms to dazzlingly, gleefully retro knobs and switches, all lit up across the Enterprise’s rainbow-colored bridge, Strange New Worlds maybe sets a gold standard for Star Trek trying to provide a contemporary imagining of its earliest history. And that translates into the vistas the crew visits week in, week out on their adventures: dangerous, beautiful space anomalies, stunning landscapes, alien cities, or even sumptuous Federation star bases. Strange New Worlds feels like it’s just gagging to show you a big and often eventful universe, and hopes you have as fun looking at it as its heroes are meant to.

Image for article titled Strange New Worlds Has the Classic Star Trek Vibe You've Been Waiting For

Image: Paramount

All that aesthetic embrace of classic Trek applies to Strange New Worlds’ structure as well. Yes, of course, the ship and its crew persist from episode to episode, and their arcs grow across multiple stories, but Strange New Worlds is a show that is unabashedly a weekly adventure series. Refreshingly so, in an era where Star Trek has leaned deep into serialization with shows like Discovery and Picard telling grand-scaled stories across entire seasons. Strange New Worlds is more fanciful in this regard—its not that its adventures don’t carry gravitas, but the series moves with such a rapid clip that it is free to bounce between tones and genres as it leaps from one adventure to the next. Haunting mysteries of a long-dead race one week, a “Balance of Terror” meets “Year of Hell” style submarine chase on the edge of a black hole the next, a shore-leave comedic farce the week after that, Strange New Worlds is surprisingly hard to pin down because of the way it’s willing to just completely turn its head on what the show is going to be each week.

That’s incredibly exciting, and it’s clear that the creative team behind it relished this sense of freedom—it’s a fitting mood for a show that is meant to be about what the wonder and danger of exploring the Star Trek galaxy is like. Some weeks you’re fighting for your life against a menacing threat, sometimes you’re breaking peace between warring factions. Sometimes you go meet gods, or go to Ye Olde Timey Planet. That’s Star Trek, it always has been, and Strange New Worlds lovingly carries on that spirit—in many ways, its most comparable counterpart among the current crop of Trek shows is Lower Decks. The animated series is a little more fun about it, but both shows are loving, if gently-mocking, celebrations of how weird and silly Star Trek has been and should be, through the vision of Starfleet officers who absolutely love the hell out of how bizarre their lives can be. Everyone is clearly having a good time, and it’s enough to make you feel like you’re along for that good time too.

Image for article titled Strange New Worlds Has the Classic Star Trek Vibe You've Been Waiting For

Image: Paramount

Exploring those lives is, in fact, the closest that Strange New Worlds gets to diving into serialized storytelling. Although some get more focus than others among the main cast, at least every member of the main crew gets some spotlights across the first five episodes, development and little arcs to carry them throughout the variety of the season. Anson Mount’s Pike, it’s not a spoiler to say, still has lingering stresses over the visions he received in Discovery’s second season, grappling with the knowledge of his personal future. Ethan Peck’s Spock, meanwhile, finds himself being pulled between his duties as a Starfleet officer and life as a newly-engaged fiancé to T’Pring—played with delectable delight by Gia Sandhu in multiple guest appearances—who is presented as something of a traditionalist when it comes to Vulcan culture and expectations of her husband-to-be.

This also applies to the bulk of the “new” characters coming onboard Enterprise for Strange New Worlds—but particularly to Celia Rose Gooding’s Cadet Uhura, who arguably has some of the biggest Starfleet-issue boots to fill among the newcomers as she follows in Nichelle Nichols’ legendary performance (and admirably gives us a young, fearsome, charismatic, and often feisty take that is every bit Uhura). We also get tidbits of introductions across the first five episodes for Christina Chong’s stern La’an Noonien-Singh—who gets to explore both emotional beats pertaining to her family name and also kick a decent amount of ass as the Enterprise’s security chief; Melissa Navia’s Erica Ortegas—a fun, but if so far still relatively unexplored hotshot pilot for the Enterprise; and Bruce Horak’s Chief Engineer Hemmer—a gruff Aenar who has to learn to warm up to his new crew mates. Thankfully, a decent amount of time is also given to Jess Bush and Babs Olusanmokun’s Nurse Chapel and Dr. M’Benga as well, who make a great pair even when Strange New Worlds’ attention is drawn away from Enterprise’s sickbay on a regular basis, and never feel too isolated from the rest of the cast in the way some crew doctors could be in the past. The nature of Strange New Worlds might not give this particularly sizeable main cast the time for truly deep stories in what we’ve seen of the show so far, but there is enough to make them feel more than the sum of their parts, and likeable, fleshed-out personas that put them more in the ballpark of the Lower Decks and Picard main crews than Discovery’s still disappointingly under-explored bridge officers.

Image for article titled Strange New Worlds Has the Classic Star Trek Vibe You've Been Waiting For

Image: Paramount

And that’s really what Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is: something quite simple yet also more than what it seems, in a very refreshing way. It’s not trying to be a heady, introspective examination or deconstruction of what Star Trek is, or this big, ongoing mystery box to unlock week by week. It’s a fun, breezy adventure, full of daring spectacle and a lot of humor, driven by the heart of a big, exciting crew that’s clearly having a lot of fun even when they’re being thrown across a shaking Enterprise bridge and fighting for their lives. If you’ve missed some of the classic Star Trek feeling that other contemporary shows have moved away from to explore their own strengths in other niches, then Strange New Worlds will feel like a missing piece of a much larger puzzle being slotted into place at long last—with all the satisfaction such a feeling entails.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ first season premieres on Paramount+ this Thursday, May 5.

Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

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