From the moment Anson Mount first appeared on the screen in “Brother,” Discovery’s second-season premiere, the notion of a Captain Pike-focused Star Trek show started to take root in the nerdosphere, and those roots grew stronger and stronger with Rebecca Romijn showing up as Number One in “An Obol for Charon,” and then Ethan Peck for the back half of the season as Spock.
Three years after that debut, two years after it was announced, Strange New Worlds has finally debuted, to absurdly high expectations.
I’m pleased to say that those expectations are met. This show is wonderful.
The episode opens with one of my least favorite Trek tropes: first contact with people who are just like us, only aliens. We saw this in TNG’s “First Contact” and Voyager‘s “Blink of an Eye,” among others, and we get it here with the natives of Kiley 279, who make contact with the U.S.S. Archer, currently under the temporary command of Number One. (That ship name is one of several Enterprise callbacks, including a comment Spock makes about how Vulcans invented first contact.) But the Archer goes quiet, and Admiral Robert April forces the Enterprise to leave spacedock early from her scheduled maintenance to find out what the heck happened.
This gives us another of my least favorite Trek tropes, the guy who is thinking about leaving Starfleet, a trope we ironically first saw in “The Cage,” the original pilot that introduced Pike, and also used twice on DS9 (“Emissary,” “The Way of the Warrior“). The episode opens with Pike living in a remote house in Montana, hair and beard having grown quite long, with occasional company from a fellow captain (with whom he sleeps and for whom he cooks breakfast), and his horse. He keeps refusing to answer his communicator, so April shows up in a shuttle while he’s out horseback riding. (“You spooked my horse!” Pike accuses. April, who was established as Pike’s predecessor as Enterprise’s CO in the animated episode “The Counter-Clock Incident,” is played by the African-American Adrian Holmes, a casting choice that has already caused comment, and has served as a nice way of revealing the racists among Trek fans.)
Pike is still suffering some major PTSD from the glimpse into his future that he got in Discovery’s “Through the Valley of Shadows,” and that we all knew about from the original series’ “The Menagerie“: that he will rescue a bunch of cadets, but will be in constant pain, confined to a chair and only able to communicate “yes” or “no” to people.
(There’s another trope here that’s problematic, and is worth examining separately at some point, which is both Discovery and this show perpetuating the yucky 1960s stereotype that made up the spine of both “The Cage” and “The Menagerie,” to wit, that being physically impaired is the end of your life.)
Pike has been putting off making a decision, and as usual, Anson Mount plays every emotion on his face beautifully. It’s clear he does not want to go back out there, though he refuses to actually make that decision until he has to, but then April then drops the bomb that it’s Una who’s in trouble.
At that point, there’s nothing else he can do. He still doesn’t want to go, but he can’t abandon his first officer.
So Enterprise heads back out. We get to meet the rest of the crew, including the helm officer Lieutenant Erica Ortegas, the new chief of security La’an Noonien Singh (filling in as first officer until they get Number One back), new chief medical officer Dr. M’Benga, Nurse Christine Chapel, and Cadet Nyota Uhura, doing her fourth year field assignment on the Enterprise.
Now’s as good a time as any to bring up another issue I had with the cast announcement. I was fine with M’Benga and Chapel being on board the ship at this stage, but I had a significant continuity issue with Uhura having served under Pike. It’s the same problem I had with the D.C. Fontana novel Vulcan’s Glory which had Scotty serving as a junior engineer on the ship during the events of “The Cage.” The problem is that this is something that should’ve come up in “The Menagerie” when the injured Pike came on board the Enterprise. If Uhura and Scotty—who were both in the episode (hell, Scotty was part of the court-martial, initially)—served with Pike, why didn’t they show any reaction to his state?
As it happens, I’ve seen the second episode—I was fortunate enough to go to the red-carpet premiere in New York that included this episode as well as next week’s “Children of the Comet”—and between those two, I’ve been completely sold on Celia Rose Gooding’s cadet iteration of Uhura. She has less to do in this first episode, but I love her “Cool!” at the end when Pike gives their mission statement.
That declaration by Pike, by the way, is the second time he gets to do the “space, the final frontier…” speech in the episode, the first being over the opening credits. Mount absolutely nails it both times, and it’s glorious. And the credits use the font that the original series used also!
It may sound like I was disappointed by this episode, and I need to emphasize very loudly that I’m not (which is why I made sure to lead with saying it was wonderful). I was utterly captivated by this premiere episode, and my anticipation for this series is greater than it’s been for any show since TNG debuted in 1987. While I found some of the choices irritating, they worked out okay.
In particular the they’re-just-like-us nature of the Kiley natives was there to make the plot work better. The idea is that Kiley is pretty much where Earth was before first contact, on the verge of a horribly destructive war.
The twist here is that normally the Federation wouldn’t make contact at this stage of a planet’s development. But the Archer detected a warp signature. However, it takes the just-upgraded Enterprise sensors to make out that what they have on Kiley is a warp bomb. Worse, they only have it because they had the capability to observe astronomical phenomena many light-years distant—including the fleet of Starfleet, Klingon, and Kelpien ships that battled Control before Discovery buggered off into the future in “Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2.” They were then able to reverse-engineer the warp signatures they observed and make a weapon of mass destruction.
Pike, Spock, and La’an beam down in disguise. The disguises are accomplished by genetic therapy developed by Chapel, and I just adore this touch. It was established in the original series’ “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” that she put her career in bio-research on hold to sign onto a starship in the hopes of finding her fiancé Dr. Roger Korby. So having her actually be responsible for bio-research is a lovely touch, and one that shows Chapel building on the work pioneered on Enterprise by Dr. Phlox to help Federation folks disguise themselves as natives for observation and covert missions and such.
Spock’s modifications don’t take, and once Pike realizes that it’s Starfleet’s fault that these people have a warp bomb, he abandons any notion of being covert (which was out the door when Number One and the other two members of her crew were captured in any case), and confronts the local government. He even says, “Take me to your leader”!
Realizing that Kiley 279 is on the brink of the same cataclysm that befell Earth, Pike shows them footage of Earth’s twenty-first century. And, like the just-finished second season of Picard, we have a twenty-first century that is a mix of the reality outside our doors with some of what Trek previously thought the twenty-first century would be like mixed in. As a result, we get mentions of the Eugenics Wars and World War III alongside footage of things like the 6 January 2021 insurrection.
We get some flash-forwards to show how the Enterprise‘s influence is a general positive, in much the same way the Vulcan ship that arrived at the end of First Contact was shown to be a general positive to the people of Earth in Enterprise‘s “Broken Bow.” It’s a nice bit of optimism, and helps Pike see that knowing your future doesn’t mean you need to be bound by it—another reason why Kiley 279 needed to be as much like Earth as possible, otherwise the analogy to human history doesn’t quite hold.
I love pretty much everything about this episode, and more to the point, I love the feel of the show. The production design is superb, a perfect mix of what we got in the 1960s with what a 2020s audience would expect from a science fiction show. It’s a tough needle to thread, as the Enterprise we saw fifty-plus years ago looked like what people thought the future would look like back then, but in truth the Enterprise that Jeffrey Hunter and William Shatner were in command of was—once you remove the transporter and warp drive—less technologically sophisticated than my house. It is to the great credit of the production designers and art directors and visual effects folk that they’ve found a way to make the Enterprise look like what we think the future will look like now, while still being true to the general ambience from 1964. (I’m sure this show will look just as dated when people watch the reruns in 2086…)
The acting is superb, but that’s almost a given. One consistent feature of all the Secret Hideout-produced shows so far has been phenomenal acting, and we already knew that Mount, Peck, and Romijn were amazing from Discovery and Short Treks. Mount in particular nails every single line he’s given, every single magnificently eloquent facial expression he provides. Peck continues his excellent work that simultaneously channels Leonard Nimoy (and Zachary Quinto to a lesser degree) and still makes it his own. This is definitely Spock, but a noticeably younger Spock, which is as it should be. And while Romijn is horribly underused in this one, she still nails the role of Number One. The easy camaraderie between Babs Olusanmokun and Jess Bush as M’Benga and Chapel is a delight, and Christina Chong does excellent work as the hyper-competent but way-too-close-lipped La’an. (I just hope they explain her last name soon, because yet another connection to Khan and the Eugenics Wars is, um, tiresome.) Melissa Navia doesn’t get much to do as Ortegas, though I love that when a Kiley native gets loose on Enterprise, leaving Chapel to chase him through the corridors, Ortegas mutters, “Every time I’m in command,” which I hope becomes a running theme.
But what I love best about this episode is that it does something prequels are uniquely capable of doing, and something Discovery did well on several occasions: provide texture for previous episodes that take place in this show’s future. Specifically, they do a wonderful job of doing that with both “Amok Time” and “The Menagerie.”
When we first see Spock in this premiere, he’s on Vulcan with T’Pring, as they solemnize their engagement. As originally established in “Amok Time,” Spock and T’Pring were bonded when they were children, but it makes sense that there would be a second step taken when both are adults. Spock states that he’s committed to marrying T’Pring, but she’s a bit more skeptical, referring to him “gallivanting” off to Starfleet. This nicely sows the seeds of T’Pring’s actions in “Amok Time,” as we know damn well that Spock isn’t going to stop gallivanting, and we know that T’Pring’s seeking out Stonn has its roots in her dissatisfaction with being affianced to a prominent Starfleet officer. Tremendous credit to Gia Sandhu who puts her own spin on Arlene Martel’s aristocratic Vulcan woman from the original series, and her chemistry with Peck as Spock is letter-perfect.
And when Pike takes Spock into his confidence with regard to what he saw on Boreth, it also fixes one of “The Menagerie’s” biggest flaws. It never made any kind of sense that the logical, emotionally controlled Spock who pooh-poohs so much human behavior and who is a firm believer in law and order would commit several crimes (kidnapping, assault, disobeying orders, theft of Starfleet property, impersonation of a captain, etc.) to get Pike to Talos IV just because Pike was his captain. But now, with Spock knowing that Pike believed this to be the end of his life, and knowing that he can make it so that it isn’t the end of his life, it so totally makes Spock’s actions in the original series episode much easier to take.
There’s a bit of tweaking going on here, too, as Pike and Spock discuss a “Lieutenant Kirk” whom Pike requested for a posting. Combined with the revelation of Paul Wesley playing Jim Kirk in the forthcoming second season, I suspect a lot of heads will explode at the Kirk mention, since Kirk said in “The Menagerie” that he didn’t meet Pike until he took command of the Enterprise. Except in the end, we discover that it’s Sam Kirk, Jim’s brother. He’s serving as a science officer on the ship, which doesn’t violate any continuity. (As for Jim Kirk showing up in season two, we now have two ways in which he can appear without meeting Pike, via either Sam or Spock, or both. Indeed, I expect there to be a season-two storyline that shows the heretofore-untold tale of how Kirk and Spock actually met, but there’s no requirement that Pike be part of that storyline…) Dan Jeannotte plays him with a very unfortunate mustache…
I’ve watched this episode twice now, once on a big screen in a theatre full of people, the other time in the privacy of my living room, and both times I was suffused with joy and optimism—which is what Star Trek is supposed to be. This is Trek at its most basic: a hopeful future about a group of people working to make the galaxy a better place.
I must make one more minor complaint, though: the episode title. Seriously, we already have an Enterprise episode called “Strange New World,” we’ve got a comic book, an anthology series, a role-playing game, and a collectible card game all called Strange New Worlds, we’ve got a show that’s called Strange New Worlds and the best title you can come up with for your premier episode is to just rehash your show title? Really?
Keith R.A. DeCandido also reviewed the second-season finale of Picard, which is also live here on Tor.com today.