Strange New Worlds, Three Episodes In

We’ve gotten no less than four new Star Trek shows these past few years, five if you count the Short Treks anthology series. It’s a lot, but last month has marked the launch of yet another series, the first live-action episodic show since Enterprise mercifully ended in 2005. I’ve watched the first three episodes and was so excited I had to write this post. Let’s take a look at what Strange New Worlds has to tell us, shall we?

Science-fiction set in the far future is optimistic by its very nature. If humans are still around and have the capacity to build spaceships, it means we’ve overcome at least some of the challenges facing our species at present. Star Trek has long been an example of such a future, where humanity has evolved past its baser instincts. It’s interesting to note that we first stumble before reaching that point, as there is supposedly a World War III to come, according to Rodenberry and co. These days, it feels almost prescient.

What is it good for?

War is the topic of the first episode, which takes place on a planet not unlike ours, where a faction is set to use a “warp bomb” to obliterate its enemy. But war breeds war, and a civilization this advanced is running headlong into mutually-assured destruction. Captain Pike isn’t convinced getting both factions to talk again, after a century on mute, will be enough to avert catastrophe, so he makes a final appeal: Blow yourselves up if you want, he says, or look to the stars and join our federation of planets.

This could be another element reminiscent of the Cold War, a space race instead of a weapons race, but I see it as a classic Star Trek theme, of seeing that the world is larger than a single people, a single planet. In the face of a federation of planets, terrestrial conflicts are small indeed. The montage at the end indicates this is perhaps the course the people of this planet have chosen as they, like us viewers, see this starship stuff as something to which they can aspire.

Pike and Number One in leather jackets, gazing into the distance while on an away mission

You are my density

Destiny is the theme that will likely follow Pike throughout the series. He’s seen in season 2 of Discovery how his life—as it currently stands—will end, how he’ll end up in that chair, unable to move or communicate save by beeping. Strange New Worlds’ second episode also plays with destiny by presenting us with a comet that will destroy an inhabited planet if its course isn’t changed, yet seemingly knows it won’t hit the planet. It’s a comet with a brain, of sorts. A prescient brain.

Another kind of destiny is weighing on Uhura’s mind, because the question of whether or not we belong somewhere is another spin on this theme. “Am I supposed to be here?” Uhura doesn’t know if she’s “Starfleet;” it’s where she ended up after tragedy changed her life trajectory. And it does seem like she belongs, as she manages to keep her head in a crisis to help save the day.

Pike still has doubts at the end of this one. He space-googles the children who’ll grow up to be the cadets he’ll end up saving in nearly a decade and mulls over his future. Can it be averted? Should it? It’s an odd message, because while Number One and the episode try to spin the comet story in a positive light, it seems like a solid point for the “destiny is written in stone” camp. But even if it is, some sacrifices are worth it. Aren’t they?

Nurse Chapel in sickbay, looking at someone out of frame

I got you, babe

The third episode gives us a light-craving epidemic while putting the spotlight on Number One. Una is indeed the hero of this story, with a little help from nurse Chapel’s medical acumen, but the more momentous information is that Una is Illyrian. This is a species that has delved heavily into gene modification, something the Federation is firmly against, Earth’s Eugenics War having left a bad taste in its collective mouth.

Due to this history of genetic manipulation, the Illyrian have been denied entry into the Federation. This impacts the episode in two ways: it means that Number One lied to get into Starfleet, and it led to the extermination of an Illyrian colony, one which the Enterprise crew is exploring. These Illyrian wanted to be admitted into the Federation, so they started reversing their modifications. Ironically, it left them vulnerable to the effects of the epidemic, which draws people to light sources with complete disregard for their own safety. It’s unfortunate, then, that a ginormous ion storm reared its luminous head.

But Una wasn’t part of that colony. Her DNA’s fully juiced up, giving her strength superior to that of humans and a kick-ass immune system that protects her from the epidemic. And from radiation. When she reveals her true nature to Pike near the end of the episode, she also tenders her resignation and submits herself to disciplinary action. The captain refuses because, duh, she’s Number One. Afterwards, she wonders privately whether she would have been given the same lenience had she been anyone else.

What the episode is saying is that when you belong to a minority—Una may be white, but she is an outsider as an Illyrian—you have to be exceptional to be given the benefit of the doubt. It shows that while humanity has come a long way, prejudice is still present. Even the Star Trek future isn’t perfect. It can be dispiriting and comforting at the same time to know there will always be room for improvement. If Starfleet and the Federation, these supposed bastions of honour, still have these issues, then maybe we aren’t too far gone.

Uhura and La'an standing in a hallway of the Enterprise

It also says the show sees us. It sees the many queer fans, the many BIPOC fans, and it knows it’s hard for them, for us. “We’ve got you,” it seems to tell us, based on this episode and the previous two. At first, I also wrote “fans with disabilities,” but the jury’s still out on this one. Pike’s future is portrayed as a kind of death, which has to be frustrating for these fans. On the other hand, he’s not simply in a wheelchair, he’s so paralyzed he can only express himself with beeps. Stephen Hawking could speak with a vocalizer, but the damage Pike suffers is so severe that he can’t. This has to be an artifact of The Original Series (the pair of episodes in which chair-bound Pike appears aired in 1966), one that the writers will have to figure out how to deal with, because it seems unbelievable Starfleet couldn’t do more for someone in his situation.

So far, so, so good

Strange New Worlds has served up very decent Star Trek plots, three episodes in, but its strength lies in the whole package. I love the character moments and the characters themselves. I can hardly wait to see more of them and their interactions. The tone is optimistic, even fun and upbeat, without shying away from the world’s problems. I want to see more, and you can bet I’ll be watching episodes four and five as soon as I can.

Things can change, and I know episode four takes a darker turn. Still, we’ve been served a strong start to a brand-new Star Trek show, and that’s the best I dared hoped for. Now, can it match the excellence of Lower Decks? Probably not, but stay tuned to find out!

All pictures belong to Paramount Global. Courtesy of IMDb

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