Saturday, May 7, 2022

Strange New Worlds, Season 1: Strange New Worlds

Strange New Worlds, Season 1
"Strange New Worlds"

Airdate: May 5, 2022

1 of 10 produced

1 of 10 aired



Kurtzman and Co. are back again and this time, they swear it will be optimistic and episodic. For realsies this time! Captain Pike is in self-imposed exile in Montana, unwilling to return to the captain's chair because of his harrowing experience seeing his own mutilated future. But Admiral Robert April lures him back with a mission to rescue his Number One, who is stranded on a first contact mission gone awry.

 We know it's the future because nothing is rectangular!




Matthew: I've been thinking about this episode since I watched it last night. Which is unusual, since generally I can't keep Kurtzman Trek in my brain for very long after the end credits roll.  This is a good thing, so let's start with that. The basic premise of the sci-fi story is fairly solid - the events of Discovery have led to a pre-warp civilization being exposed to warp drive energies, which has allowed them to reverse engineer warp drive to create weapons. When Pike discovers this, he feels obligated to try and set this civilization on a peaceful path, by "scaring them straight" with a speech and a video montage of 21st century Earth and its subsequent nuclear war. So look. I think it was ballsy to posit that the Trump insurrection is the start of a second civil war, which is the start of Trek's WWIII. But the idea just isn't given enough breathing room in the story. It takes up about 5 minutes of a 55 minute teleplay. We only meet one alien leader, and we are told but not shown that she is at an impasse with another faction on their world because... of something that isn't explained. Pike gives a speech, and the music swells, and the images are effective at making me feel something, but not shown to be effective at making them feel something. I don't know why these aliens were fighting with each other, or why Pike's appeal to them changed their minds. I contrast this with episodes like TNG "First Contact" and VOY "Friendship One," which have very similar themes (a paranoid culture not being ready for warp; and a culture being damaged by exposure to Federation technology). Those episodes gave us much greater insight into the "alien of the week" and why they were the way they were. This episode feels like a Cliff's Notes version of Star Trek - like the Kurtzman team has been reading criticism of their previous dreary, meandering, pointless, violent slogs of shows, and this is the best they could come up with as a tonic for it (this is an Akiva Goldsman episode). Which is an improvement, to be sure, but I do not want to oversell the level of quality here.

Kevin: So I agree with your critique substantively. The core idea is very Star Trek but was just a little compressed by the other business of a premiere episode to get the depth it needed. The aliens are little bit cardboard cutouts, so their conflict and their feelings about it don't provide the connective tissue for the stakes you would really want for a great story. That said, I found I enjoyed the episode pretty much all the way through. I'll say it this way, I would actually want to see this story get a fuller treatment rather than no treatment at all, my usual position. I also appreciate, if only for the ballsiness of it, the elision of the Eugenics Wars into World War III. That is some top notch spackle job on a glaring continuity problem. It doesn't entirely work, but I'm in awe at the attempt regardless.

Matthew: There is plenty to criticize here, as well. In addition to the brevity of the putative "A" story, there is a lot of the same lazy and screenwriting that pervades the other live action Kurtzman shows.  Something that really annoyed me is Spock - he is shown mating with T'Pring on Vulcan because... everyone has to be constantly oversexed for the titillation of the viewing audience? But this directly contradicts TOS "Amok Time," in which Spock's relationship with T'Pring is based on a betrothal at age 7 and no further contact. They don't love each other, and don't want each other. That was the point of that whole episode. But here, they are desperate to be with each other. It's the kind of story choice that, while perhaps defensible in a vacuum, shows that the creators of this show simply do not care about squaring this iteration of Trek with the others, which is very bothersome for me. Don't try to trade on my nostalgia for a thing without actually respecting that thing. If you want to tell these stories, make it a different Vulcan on a different ship with a different captain. Similar bizarre violations of continuity include: Kahn Noonien-Singh's descendant being a bridge officer (odd that no one remembered this in TOS "Space Seed"), Uhura being a bridge officer.... because, Dr. M'Benga being CMO but not Dr. Philip Boyce, Nurse Chapel being on board instead of with Dr. Korby, Spock being all wise and besties with Pike instead of raw and green as depicted in "The Cage," (I guess he just swapped best friends when Kirk came on board), and Samuel Kirk being Spock's subordinate in the Sciences (again, odd that this was never mentioned in TOS "Operation -- Annihilate!).

Kevin: So here I am again, agreeing with all of your critiques but not that mad at them. In a way, at least all of the fan servicing decisions, like having Uhura on board or depicting Spock's relationship actually feel like choices they made about the show they want to make. You can disagree with those choices, sure, and I largely do, but it's not the frenetic shoehorning of references that Discovery and Picard get in a way that makes my fillings ache. I agree they should just have made them all new characters. Spock and T'Pring had chemistry and I would be freer to enjoy if it I didn't have to check it against canon.

Matthew: There was a fair amount of dum-dum plotting to move the story along, too. The away team is sent down to find the warp energy, with genetic alterations of some kind intended to disguise them as aliens. But the alterations are kind of iffy with Spock, and might come undone at any moment - WHICH THE MEDICAL STAFF IS AWARE OF. Why would they send him down in this state? Oh, right - to manufacture drama. The Enterprise beams up some unconscious aliens to hide them, but fails to keep them properly sedated, leading to one of the aliens making his way to the bridge. Does Nurse Chapel call security? Does anyone stop the obvious intruder from reaching the command center of the ship? No, because otherwise he couldn't have a funny scene with Cadet Uhura. Sigh. It's the kind of lazy, jokey, Marvel Movie style writing that has completely taken over TV and movie writing these days, at the expense of verisimilitude. Other logic deficits include Number One.... commanding a ship of three people on a delicate first contact mission? Why? Oh, right, to manufacture drama and stakes. If there had been more crew aboard, they wouldn't have needed Pike to be cajoled back onto the Enterprise. Pike surrenders himself to the aliens in order to "Scare them straight." But why wouldn't they just throw him in the same brig as Number One and her team? Surely she tried to reason with them, too. Did the aliens need to be man-splained instead of woman-splained?

Kevin: Yeah, other than the fact that he is an above the title character, there is no reason to send Spock if the treatments don't work. I also question why they were necessary. This culture didn't seem advanced enough to detect only the superficial changes other episodes have used in their outings. And as for verisimilitude, it's not that I need flawless reality, indeed many great episodes of Star Trek have elided those questions nicely, it's that you have make small enough jumps nestled in otherwise functional stories to get me not to care, at least while I'm watching. For those scenes, I was asking those questions while still watching. But in the plus column, I thought a lot of the episode did really work. I continue to be somewhat in awe of how the writers solve the problem of knowing Pike's destiny. Having him also know is an interesting character twist that will invite all kinds of fun philosophical discussions about death and destiny. The scene where Spock tells him the only way through is to find some good to be had in the knowledge was nicely pitched. Pike figuring out how to exist in the present also provided a solid, if not perfect framing device for the story as a whole. It's not a perfect execution by any means, but I can see the basics in a way I normally can't in modern Trek.

Kevin: I will also add that I loved the opening scene with Pike and his FWB Captain Batel. They had genuine rapport, seemed to actually like each other, and she managed to express genuine concern without being ignorant of his boundaries or the contours of their relationship. A frank and positive depiction of grown up relationships is something even my favorite Treks have struggled with, so I'm thrilled to know that people can hook up in the 23rd century without it ending in marriage, disaster, or incubating alien parasites.


Matthew: Anson Mount is a good actor, full stop. He is able to communicate his character's inner struggles and turmoil, delivers comedic lines with good timing, and generally cuts a fine figure as Captain Pike. Ethan Peck is also pretty good as Spock, despite the bad writing choices. He has done a good job adopting a relatively emotionless affect while still giving us comedic timing.

Kevin: Anson Mount is really fucking hot, and I'm saying that out loud in hopes of dispelling any unconscious bias while analyzing his acting. He is a good actor and was present in all the story, and it helped carry the scenes when the script hadn't done the detail work we wanted. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I have actually really come around on Peck. Maybe it was just the painfully stupid story in Discovery that was to blame, but I never thought he came off as something close to Nimoy's Spock. In his scenes with T'Pring, he actually felt in the same genus as Nimoy with the use of dry humor to cut across the Vulcan stoicism. And Gia Sandhu was great as T'Pring for me. My only problem with them interacting here is the glaring continuity problem. As a basic pair of hot people who want to bang (something I heartily approve of), I entirely believe it, and Sandhu did a great job of coming off like she was advocating for what she wanted in a relationship rather than just the shrill girlfriend who doesn't get How Important My Job Is.

Matthew: The rest of the cast is pretty good, too, with Rebecca Romijn (Number One) and Babs Olusanmokun (Dr. M'Benga) probably being the standouts in terms of charisma. Christina Chong was also convincing as La'an Noonien-Singh, a character I should hate because of the retcon, but actually want to see more.  Everyone else gets their Marvel Movie one-liner or two.

Kevin: There is just no reason to make her related to Khan. Just none. That said, she did a good job portraying wounded in a way that informed rather than swallowed her character. Celia Rose Gooding actually nailed it as Uhura for me. Again, I don't think they needed to make her an established character. But there was something about her cadence and energy that read as channeling Nichelle Nichols without doing an impression. I'll say this across the board, everyone was grounded and felt like a real person in a real place rather than dramatic dialogue dispensers. So, there's that.

Production Values

Sets and effects are predictably glossy and movie quality. I am fine with the various redesigns of the Enterprise sets - they're better than the Abrams movies by a significant stretch, actually seeming like spaces people could work in. Oddly, these gleaming sets are actually lit darker than the movies - it is very strange to have so many light sources everywhere and yet still have character faces in shadow.

Kevin: The bridge continues to look too big for me, but that may just be a me thing. The bridge of the D is supposed to feel like the luxurious end point of Starfleet design, and I think this Enterprise bridge is more square feet. It undercuts the idea that this is Starfleet on the edge of known space. But overall, I agree, they did a good job modernizing the design, and without so many clear panels with projected stuff on them for no reason. I dare say, I even felt a twinge during the obligatory flyby and launch scenes.

The music sucks. Trying to make it the TOS theme but changing a few notes here and there  makes it sound both derivative and badly played. Just commission a new theme that can live or die on its own merits, or play the old music, which is wonderful. Certain props are TOS accurate (tricorders and communicators) while others, especially medical ones, look more futuristic than Voyager.

Kevin: I didn't mind the music. I thought the opening credits were pretty good. They can clearly do more discreet particles than we could in Voyager, and they are showing them off. I agree the medical stuff is a little too fancy to really fit, but overall I think they did a good job reigning everything in. There is not an abuse of lens flares or wacky camera angles, so I am actually fairly happy. 


Matthew: This is a 3. It's got the germ of a good Trek story, submerged in a tidal surge of pointless retcons, lazy, artificial drama and stakes, and cheap characterization shortcuts. We already have two characters with deep dark pasts (Pike and La'an), and my understanding is that more are on the way (we've all been eagerly awaiting Uhura's traumatic childhood!). It shoehorns in political commentary (which is fine by me) but doesn't develop it into a comprehensible narrative with understandable competing positions (which is not). BUT: the story was done after one hour. There isn't something mysterious threatening ALL LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE. There is no gratuitous swearing or gore. They actually seem, at least so far, to be delivering on their promise of individual episodic quasi-morality tales.  This is not nothing. I want it to be better. But this is the same creative staff that produced six prior seasons of nearly irredeemable trash. So I guess I'll take what I can get. This has my most lukewarm endorsement. It is not yet horrible. I will probably get around to watching the second episode. I haven't been able to bring myself to willingly invest the same amount of time in Picard Season 2 (which I tapped out of after 3 episodes) or Discovery Season 4 (which I tapped out of after Season 3). 

Kevin: I agree with the three for a total of six. I agree with just about all of Matt's criticisms by and large, but somehow, all of this went down smoother than I thought it would, certainly more than it has in Picard and Discovery. Maybe it's because they did just tell one story, framed by an emotional arc for the lead character to help give it stakes. And maybe it's because, even if I thought the episode were a failure, they have nine more swings at it, rather than nine more hours of this story I'm not excited about. There's plenty of time to mess it up, but for now, the basics seem there and while I love Prodigy and Lower Decks more, I am at least looking forward to next week. I'll say this, I gave Enterprise's premiere a 3 as well, but head-to-head, and having watched them so close together, I think might have enjoyed this one a little bit more. This was a little more energetic and enjoyable to watch. Even the gratuitous sexual content felt a little more earned here. There. I said it.


  1. I agree it is a 3, so I Informally confirm the 6. :-). There is a worrying tendency that they spend time on psychological dialogues that honestly make no sense, which is very Discovery, leaving not enough time for the plot. I didn't mind all the things you listed above, but I'm bothered that they keep bringing up the Gorn in a time before first contact with them.

    1. Absolutely. It's just the sort of thing (along with T'Pring) that tells us they have only the barest, most superficial understanding of past Trek stories. Which, hey, if you want to tell new stories, great. But don't claim you respect continuity just to trash it.