How the latest ‘Star Trek’ spinoff resurrects the Buck Rogers brio of the original
With “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” premiering Thursday on Paramount+, the franchise goes once again into the past, with a series you can consider, in quantum fashion, both as a spinoff from “Star Trek: Discovery” and a belated order for the original series’ rejected pre-Shatner pilot, “The Cage,” which starred Jeffrey Hunter as starship Enterprise Captain Christopher Pike and Leonard Nimoy as Spock. When “Star Trek” repurposed that footage into the two-part “The Menagerie,” it made Pike canon, and established that he and Spock were crewmates before James T. Kirk ever entered the picture.
Before it jumped 1,000 years into the future, “Discovery” brought back Pike, played by Anson Mount, as an interim captain in its second season, along with Ethan Peck as a younger Spock and Rebecca Romijn as Una Chin-Riley, a.k.a. Number One (a character from “The Cage,” played by Majel Barrett, not picked up for the series). And here they are, back home on the Enterprise, with some other familiar, less familiar and unfamiliar shipmates.
Characters with roots in the old show include Nyota Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding), still a cadet, not yet a lieutenant, but a “prodigy” who speaks 37 languages (like Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura, she sings, and does that thing where she puts her hand to her ear when she’s at her post); nurse Christine Chapel (Jess Bush), originally played by Barrett, a recurring “Star Trek” character; and Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun), a guest character now getting a regular gig. New are Christina Chong as tough-cookie security officer La’an Noonien-Singh (as in top villain Khan Noonien-Singh, a relation); Melissa Navia as pilot Erica Ortegas; and Bruce Horak as Hemmer, an Aenar Andorian and the new chief engineer. He has antennae. A “Kirk” is also mentioned, about a quarter of the way through the pilot, creating an expectation.
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As our story opens, Pike is hanging out — almost hiding out — on Earth. We meet him thickly bearded, hair beautifully unkempt, snow all around his plush Montana lodge while the Enterprise is in dry dock, avoiding answering his communicator, and watching the thematically resonant 1950s science fiction classic “The Day The Earth Stood Still” on his 23rd century flat-screen television. (Much like our own!) Something is eating him: Viewers familiar with “The Menagerie” will recognize that the strange reflections Pike sees of himself represent a vision of his future, and it’s not one he likes to contemplate. It’s the opposite of a tragic backstory — a tragic forestory.
Nevertheless! Number One has gone missing on a first-contact mission, so Pike loses the beard, puts some product in his hair and gets back into his swivel chair. Spock is fetched back from Vulcan and a deadpan rendezvous with T’Pring (Gia Sandhu), his very long-term fiancée, but not before they get a hot scene to add to the very short list of Spock Hot Scenes.
What “Strange New Worlds” brings back is some of the Buck Rogers brio of the original series, on whose opening theme it plays a minor-key variation. Like all pre-streaming “Star Trek” series, it’s episodic in nature, rather than serial, with problems that can be established and overcome in an hour — “Complicated problems solved in no time” is a “Star Trek” trademark. (It would be printed on their cards, if they carried cards.) The plots, reflective of contemporary social issues — “shades of Old Earth,” says Pike, set down on a planet riven by competing factions, in case you’re slow off the mark — feel close enough in spirit, even the letter, to the original series to call this almost an homage. There are alien temples and libraries, inspirational speeches, an ever-popular infection story. In time-honored tradition, the least expendable officers go on the most dangerous missions. And based on the three episodes available for review, there is seemingly little interest in soap-operatic shipboard relationships, unlike, say, the teary love fest that is “Discovery.” (A teary love fest of which I’m quite fond.)
That isn’t to say some characters don’t get a little backstory, or a secret to keep and reveal when the time comes. Psychology creeps in everywhere these days. But dealing with personal trauma, gaining closure, resolving their own issues do not seem to be what will mainly occupy the crew of the new old Enterprise. There is an old-fashioned emphasis on taking care of business, of working on other planets’ problems — without bending rule No. 1, not to interfere with their destiny, past breaking. (Watch for a nice Prime Directive joke.)
Not least, “Strange New Worlds” prioritizes the mutually bemused interplanetary quasi-bromance between a human captain and his half-human, half-Vulcan science officer. There is enough of William Shatner’s puckishness in Mount that one may easily forget that this is the Pike and Spock Show, and not the Kirk and Spock Show.
Spock [responding to something or other]: Fascinating.
Pike: I’m all ears.
Spock throws a look.
Pike: Just a figure of speech.
Full of ideas and emotions, the ever-expanding ‘Star Trek’ canon is still finding new ways to go where no TV show has gone before, 55 years on.
Peck catches the essence of Nimoy’s Spock, inhabiting the character rather than imitating the actor. Mount more or less ignores Hunter’s midcentury-masculine Pike — indeed, dark premonitions notwithstanding, he might be the chillest of all “Star Trek” captains. He’s a pourer of drinks, a griller of ribs, a teller of stories in which he is the butt of the joke. And Romijn, who has her own chummy relationship with Pike, makes Number One feel like a person with more weight and canonical influence than the character was ever allowed to have.
The franchise always means to be funny, even at its self-referential expense (“Why is it always an alley?“ wonders Pike, beamed down into an alley), and “Strange New Worlds” might need a little time on this account, as characters get to the point where a raised eyebrow can serve as a kicker. Meanwhile, the series is most amusing when Mount, who appears to be enjoying himself, delivers some throwaway aside, like “I love this job” or “I like this plan,” or squeaking out a sheepish “Hi” when beaming in to interrupt a high-level diplomatic summit.
It is in the “Star Trek” way of things to get a little cornball, a little goofball, a little silly. This is more feature than bug. Earnestness has the edge over sense; science, if you want to call it that — it often amounts to magic here — just serves the drama, the philosophy and the themes. The real mission of the Enterprise and every other ship in the franchise fleet is to spread understanding and justice to the stars, while perhaps learning a thing or two about human limitations in the process. “Prejudices kept people from helping each other for centuries, with no scientific justification,” Dr. M’Benge will say. “After we met our new neighbors in the galaxy, we have new bigotries.” “Negotiation, debate — these are the tools to build a lasting peace,” Pike will optimistically declare after he lands in the middle of that alien summit. But, of course, they are talking to us.
‘Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’
Where: Paramount +
When: Any time, starting Thursday
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