Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, My Rambling Review

The show about the future that’s stuck in the past

Dave Gutteridge
My Rambling Reviews

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The most glorious head of hair in the galaxy.

This is possibly the best Star Trek show to come out since The New Generation in the eighties. Which is not to say it’s fantastic or groundbreaking, but, oh man, if you look at the absolute dumpster fire that is Discovery, and the pointless meandering of Picard, this show is like CPR for the dying body on the floor that is the Star Trek franchise.

The cast is good, the design is nice. They’ve done a really good job of bringing the aesthetic of the original show from the 1960s into a modern context.

For example, I think it’s really cool that some of the crew are wearing mini skirts. Maybe it’s just the second in command character, Number One, who also has a pony tail and gold nail polish. Anyway, it’s not clear if it’s something to do with choice or rank or department or whatever, but, it’s fun. We’ve yet to see a dude in a mini skirt, but, could happen. It has, after all, happened before.

A Star Trek guy wearing a mini skirt in The Next Generation.
Remember this guy from The Next Generation? Don’t tell me the 80s weren’t woke. Sometimes.

Anyway, style aside, there are a few quirks. The main thing being that this is an anthology style show, where there’s not much of an over arching plot. There are some continuing threads, but every episode is more or less stand alone, visiting different planets and solving some big issue.

In this era of ten episode seasons with single over arching stories lines, it feels like it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a show like this, and I forgot how it feels. In order to get to a conclusion by the end of an episode, they have to make some pretty big quantum leaps in terms of figuring things out or character development.

So the show can seem a little simplistic or rushed at times, but, I don’t think that’s a flaw. It’s more just how this kind of structure works, and you like it or don’t. You can read short stories or a novel, but you can’t expect a novel’s worth of detail and exploration in the space of a short story.

Sometimes it works better than others, which will be true of any approach to telling a story. Some episodes feel like they’re trying to cover too much ground in too little time. In one episode, for example, the crew instigate a mutiny on another space ship, and it went to slow and awkward at first, and then way too fast later. Pacing is hard. But, on the other hand, if any episode doesn’t work for you, the next one might. So, all in all, it’s fine.

More concerning is how this show is carrying on traditions that I wish Star Trek as a whole would abandon. For example, that all alien races are all defined by simple traits that uniformly apply to all members. The Klingons fight, the Romulans are sneaky, the Vulcans are logical, and so on.

For example, around episode five or so, there’s a delegation of some random alien species who are on a star base to talk about the possibility of their planet joining Starfleet. Captain Pike is part of a negotiation team assigned to welcome them. The negotiations go better and worse at various times for dramatic purposes. At one point, it seems like these aliens are not happy and might not join up. In the end, though, Pike comes in with a winning negotiation, and saves the day.

How did he do it? By realizing that these aliens value empathy above all else, so he used an approach of seeing things from their point of view, appealing specifically to their empathetic nature, and boom, everything works great. So, by zeroing in on the one universal trait that is true for every individual of this species, Pike is able to play them perfectly.

The same thing happens when the Enterprise encounters the Gorn, a species we met way back in the original Star Trek series but never since, and get into a space ship battle with them. Referencing the fact that the Gorn are so ruthless that they will sacrifice their own ships if need be, the crew of the Enterprise are able to lay traps and set strategies that perfectly exploit this singular species wide behavior. How is it credible that any space faring species ever won any battles ever if they are so ridiculously predictable?

When I looked for this image, I learned that it seems that the Gorn also appeared in Star Trek: Discovery. But Discovery is dead to me, so whatever.

It’s a truly terrible, outright harmful, metaphor for race and culture. Ironically, it comes from a place of trying to be understanding and accepting, a sort of “different but equal” standpoint. But where it ends up is reductivism, where different races are depicted as monolithic and their behavior is both built in and unchangeable. That’s not a good basis on which to understand people who are different.

The show is also stuck in the past in that it gives us a future technologies imagined in the sixties. Which could be kind of a cool retro-futurism if there were any indication that it was as deliberate as the aesthetics. However, I feel like the show doesn’t attempt to integrate what we know about where our future is going because they’re afraid the implications of certain technologies will shake up Star Trek culture as much as it’s shaken up our own.

There’s one episode where two senior officers discover the crew are playing a game of “Enterprise Bingo,” which is a scavenger hunt of going around to various place and doing specific tasks on the star ship. These officers decide to play the game themselves. So, in one scene, one of them shows up with a tablet computer that has the rules of Enterprise Bingo on it.

The thing is, she mentions that she took this tablet from the quarters of one of the crew that they knew was playing the game. You’re telling me that this information isn’t stored on a network? The crew aren’t sharing the game in a group chat? Instead of simply downloading it from somewhere, this officer had to go and physically steal something in order to get this information? Given what we know about technology in our current world, that’s insane.

The other problem Star Trek just loves to have is a narrative virus that infects almost all science fiction and fantasy, and probably everything else as well. Maybe this problem goes back even further than I know, but I feel like ever since Darth Vader revealed he was Luke Skywalker’s father, in every story, all main events and significant characters are all related to each other in an incestuous ball of improbability that is made all the more ridiculous in space opera style science fiction, where we have entire galaxies of individuals to draw upon.

One of the main characters in this show is a woman with the last name Singh, and she’s a great grand daughter, or whatever descendant, of the famed Star Trek villain Khan Noonian Singh. Because in an entire galaxy of who knows how many billions of individuals, only about a half dozen families and a few circles of acquaintances do everything that matters. We’ve yet to see why her relationship to Kahn is important, but they’ve set it out so that it’s only a matter of time before they force fan service references on us.

Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!

In the latest episode I saw when I wrote this, we’re introduced to the fact that there’s some super dangerous Vulcan character lurking about, getting ready to get up to some villainous business. Which is fine. But, he is, we’re told, a long lost brother of Spock. Keep in mind that Discovery introduced us to the fact that Spock had a never before mentioned adoptive sister, so they’re not just abusing the trope of everyone being related to everyone again, they’re beating this trope to death with the exact same dude who has another never before mentioned relative. Ugh.

It’s the laziest of writing, because instead of doing the work of having us get to know characters and learning why they’re good and bad, and building relationships where we can see with our own eyes why both the characters and we the audience should care, we’re instead just told, “it’s dramatic because they’re related.” Am I the only one who’s tired of this short cut being exploited?

The last of the problems that Star Trek loves to have, which is also not exclusive to Star Trek, is the curse of prequels. This show takes place in a time before the events of the original series, where we have seen that Captain Pike gets injured, disfigured, and debilitated. So that means this show is obligated to account for how that comes about in his future. The only question is, are they going to end the series on Pike doing something heroic to end up that way, or are they going to try and find some alternate time line, planned misdirection, twin brother confusion, or some other equally contrived way to weasel out of it.

Captain Pike from the original series.
Apparently after suffering some disfiguring and debilitating injuries, Pike also decided to start dying his hair blond.

It’s so tedious to have shows where the future is known. They could have literally made this exact show, with all the same actors, same design, same setting, same everything, but just given them all different names and been free to go whatever direction they want. It could have been set on the Enterprise, after the events of TOS, but before TNG, and there would be little to no need to account for the events of any other series. But, as it is, every time Uhuru, Spock, Nurse Chapel, and Pike go anywhere, I know they’re not in real danger, because I know where their characters need to be in their established futures.

I mean, it’s not like this show is likely to put characters from the main cast in legitimate mortal danger anyway, but, it’s a matter of principle. I want to suspend my disbelief that they’re in real danger, which I can’t do if they’ve explicitly shown me that these characters exist in the future. There’s zero chance of any of these characters getting Tasha Yar’d.

Tasha Yar from The Next Generation lying dead on the ground.
Main characters in Star Trek can, in theory, be killed.

It’s a completely unnecessary limitation that only exists because of the intersection between fan service and corporations wanting to work with safe and established intellectual property.

There are some more minor quirks, particularly with some very dubious lines of dialog. For example, in the first episode, the character Singh distracts some guards by pretending that she’s injured, and then other characters are able to overcome those guards. A little later, Captain Pike commends Singh on her move, and she explains how she did it by saying this weird thing about how predators will be drawn to prey they think are weak… Uh, yeah, I think we all understand the concept of “distracting” people. You don’t have to break it down into evolutionary terms, you weirdo.

There’s also progress. Pike actually listens to his crew, which is a sign of the times. When Kirk, and even to an extent Picard, were running the ship, the idealized captain, and to an extent the idealized man, was portrayed someone who always knew what to do, often in spite of more knowledgeable people suggesting different things.

Back in the sixties, Spock would say the odds of a strategy working was low, and Kirk would almost always do exactly what Spock recommended against. Because not only did he know better, he was so capable, he could defeat the odds anyway. Picard listened more, but commands would often get filtered through him and restated by him in his own words, so it was like he listened, but ultimately the final idea was his.

Pike will get a suggestion, sometimes not even asked for, and he’ll simply respond, “Yeah, do that.” There’s more of a feeling of mutual trust and less hierarchy on this bridge, which reflects the zeitgeist. The ideal leader in our current thinking is one who empowers others to do what they do best without getting in their way. I suppose in fifty years we’ll think this approach is quaint and have an even more refined ideal of how leaders should behave. Or, if the US continues on its trajectory towards a Handmaid’s Tale style theocracy, perhaps the ideal leader will be portrayed as speaking for God and therefor needing no contributions from underlings. Who knows.

Maybe we’ll realize the Borg had it right all along and a leaderless collective is the way to go. And I say that knowing they came up with this whole stupid Borg Queen concept, which I simply reject from my head cannon, because that was a terrible premise that upended everything that made the Borg interesting.

They’ve also given more depth and dimension to more of the cast than either the original series or TNG. Partly because there’s more recognition these days that if you flesh out the cast more, there’s more potential for spin off series, merchandising, and appealing to varied demographics. It’s capitalism that writes our culture, after all.

There’s a little more quipy dialog, which doesn’t always land, but, hey, quips are hard to write. More than that, though, characters are more likely to show surprise or express confusion in small moments scattered throughout scenes. There’s something a little more casual and irreverent about this crew, and I like it. It does have the risk of going too far and becoming cutesy and tiresome, but for now I find it humanizing. Humanizing characters is often thought of as giving them big moments of despair or angst or whatever, to reveal insecurities or troubles under the surface. That still happens, but I find it conveys humanity more to have lots of little moments where people react a little more naturally.

All in all, this show is a nice easy watch. It doesn’t make you think too hard, but it doesn’t insult your intelligence either. Visually, it looks great, not just in terms of the degree to which current special effects can convey realism and spectacle, but also this show has a distinct aesthetic. The rockabilly leather jackets they wear on away missions are rad as hell. I can hear the collective sewing machines of cosplayers everywhere working in frantic overdrive.

I kind of dread the inevitable meeting of Captain Kirk, and the resolution of Captain Pike’s future condition. All the prequel bullshit I can do without. Until then, though, I’m enjoying bopping around planet to planet and seeing what’s up with different humanoids with slightly different brows than us.

So, on a last note, in the first episode, we’re shown a news report on a large screen in a town square, which introduces us to the idea that the planet we’re on is undergoing some civil unrest. The thing is, the images they’ve used are from the democratic uprisings in Ukraine in 2014. You can clearly see the Ukrainian flag.

Not cool, Star Trek.

It’s common for movies and shows to take scenes of riots and conflict from the real world and have them stand in for fictional scenarios. But, the key is to anonymize them by editing out or avoiding specifics that let an audience know the source. Otherwise, you’re reducing real world struggles and actual human suffering into being of no significance except as a prop. It’s dehumanizing, and very, very uncool. Especially for a show that has long prided itself on conveying allegories for issues of justice.

I know it wasn’t intentional. Benefit of the doubt is that it was just missed, and hopefully it wasn’t the case that someone just assumed the Ukrainian flag wouldn’t be recognizable. A decision that would become even worse as Ukraine became the world’s top news story in February of 2022, a couple months before this show aired, probably when post production was wrapped.

Still, news or not, this shouldn’t happen. I personally think it’s a big enough deal that they should re-edit and re-release, but I don’t know how those decisions get made, so, we’ll see.

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Dave Gutteridge
My Rambling Reviews

I don't post often because I think about what I write. Topics include ethics, relationships, and philosophy.