"Strange New Worlds," the newest Trek series' eponymous pilot, is the best-looking, best-produced episode of TOS ever made. That is to say, it's a TOS-style story made with 21st-century filmmaking. Of course it looks great. Pretty much every episode of these new shows looks great. The secret is "Strange New Worlds" looks great while delivering a classic Star Trek experience. This is not a groundbreaking hour of television, but it's a good, solid execution of a classic formula.
Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) is coaxed (ordered) from an extended leave following the Enterprise's joint mission with Discovery to take down Control. (He gets his order from Admiral Robert April, played by Adrian Holmes, who almost immediately looks like one of Trek's better admiral characters.) You'll recall in the process of that arc, in second season's "Through the Valley of Shadows," Pike vividly experienced his future in which he would be gravely injured and permanently disabled after very nearly dying. "Strange New Worlds" picks up in the months after that revelation, and it has shaken Pike to his core. He's having trouble getting motivated to go back to work as the Enterprise gears up for redeployment after being repaired, and it's hard to blame him.
The mission that gets Pike back in the captain's chair is to find out why his first officer, Una "Number One" (Rebecca Romijn) has gone missing on a planet that the Federation is on the verge of making first contact with. "Strange New Worlds" is a solid retelling of the "two warring factions" (I chuckled when the episode used the phrase verbatim in dialogue) and Prime Directive (here still referred to as "General Order 1") stories, perhaps the staplest of Trek staples. It turns out the inhabitants of the planet analyzed the nearby warp signatures from the mission where Discovery went 900 years into the future, and they've used that scientific research to develop technology that can be used not as a means for travel, but for weapons of mass destruction. Pike becomes convinced the planet will destroy itself if the Enterprise doesn't intervene, so he takes an away mission to recover the missing crew members and try to put the genie back in the bottle.
This episode does an economical job of introducing most of its major characters alongside Pike. There is, of course, Spock (Ethan Peck), who is interrupted from engagement sex with T'Pring to go back on duty. Also Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding), who has a few things to do but doesn't make a huge impression yet, Doctor M'Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) who exudes a Zen-like calm, and Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) who has a notably larger personality than Majel Barrett played her. Kirk joins the crew at the end of the episode, but it's George Kirk (Dan Jeannotte), James' brother.
Anson Mount, as he was on Discovery, remains the standout performer, making Pike a charismatic and respectable leader who has an easygoing lead-by-example style. He's the sort of boss everyone wants: competent, understanding, personable. I was a little concerned early on by his dark and brooding demeanor that he would lose that charisma in favor of a more hardened edge, but my fears were allayed here by seeing that Pike ends up pretty well-rounded, with that new taste of death informing him as a piece of wisdom rather than simply darkness.
The other standout in this outing is Christina Chong as La'an Noonien-Singh, whose name raises viewer eyebrows but is not yet addressed here. She stands in temporarily for Number One while Una is missing. There's a scene here where she talks about death in a way that's compelling, because it deals with it in terms of human psychology: We all deny it's going to happen until a moment where it becomes certain it's absolutely going to. Pike is going through such a moment right now and can relate.
Pike's breakthrough in getting the planet to stop their escalating feud is to show a history of Earth's 21st century, where the world was nearly destroyed by World War III (which grew from a combination of the Second American Civil War and the Eugenics Wars, both notable new developments/retcons in the Trek timeline that make an effort to place all the events after our current time but well before First Contact in 2063). Placing footage of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection into the historical video feels a little on-the-nose, whereas nobody could've predicted the volatile and more unease-generating implications of Russia invading Ukraine when this was filmed more than a year ago.
The set design is crisp and bright, a welcome change of pace that hearkens back to the original Enterprise sets but also notably owes to the retro-futuristic aesthetic of the J.J. Abrams films. The photography is clean and straightforward. This is solid and well-done Trek in a classic template, plain and simple. For fans tired of the unrealized promise of over-padded serialization in Discovery and Picard (myself included), SNW signals a welcome return to an episodic format that is Trek's more natural state, and something where individual plots can live or die on their own merits rather than servicing a larger story that takes too long to come together (or, more likely as the cases have been, not). After so many seasons of that format failing to bear fruit, it's good to see the producers of SNW making a course correction.
Next episode: Children of the Comet
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