Strange New Worlds–Pike & crew return to Jonathan Archer territory in The High Country

Review by C.J. Bunce

One of science fiction’s best tie-in writers, John Jackson Miller takes the concept of Gene Roddenberry’s “wagon train to the stars” literally in the very first novel from Strange New Worlds.  In a story worthy of the best Star Trek series since Voyager, Miller taps a lesser episode of Star Trek Enterprise and provides a full-fledged sequel bigger and better than the source material.  It’s a sprawling journey that will make any fan of the series think they’ve experienced the first Strange New Worlds movie, supplying both Uhura and Number One with what may be their most riveting stories yet in any incarnation.  That’s saying a lot considering how many opportunities writers rooms have had with Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura.  But at last fans get a story that leverages the strengths of the character that have not yet made it to the screen, and that serves as a great tribute to the actress behind the role.  It’s in the new novel Strange New Worlds: The High Country, now available here at Amazon, the umpteenth voyage to the Old West trope, which predates all but one of the Western episodes in Star Trek continuity.  The novel also highlights Lieutenant Hemmer, the best character in the Paramount+ series’ short first season.

The Enterprise episode that Miller returns to is “North Star,” which found Scott Bakula’s Captain Jonathan Archer going incognito to a planet in the Delphic Expanse that looks a lot like an old U.S. town called North Star (a fictional town somewhere around Kansas or Missouri).  Our suave Captain Christopher Pike is doing what all rogue captains do, heading a shuttlecraft–this time an experimental shuttlecraft–down toward a planet with Number One (Una Chin-Riley), Spock, and Cadet Uhura aboard.  They are searching for the crew of the Braidwood, which was searching for the Skagaran, as promised by Archer years before at the end of the episode.

An atmospheric problem results in the shuttle crash landing, scattering the four Enterprise crew members on the unpredictable surface of the planet.  The inhabitants aren’t believed to have acquired warp technology so the Prime Directive is in order.  And readers will learn the circumstances of the capture of peoples across the galaxy weren’t as previously reported–Hoshi Sato got the translation wrong.

Is Miller looking to provide a possible explanation for those The X-Files-type alien abductions and the end of The Day the Earth Stood Still reboot movie?  Could be.

Miller, who wrote the two powerhouse big franchise books Star Wars: A New Dawn (reviewed here) and Star Trek Picard: Rogue Elements (reviewed here), takes readers through four crew members’ survival in very different circumstances.  An over-riding power is preventing technology use on the planet beyond a certain level, in a bit of a supernatural Harrison Bergeron Handicapper General kind of way.  Each community consists of races from everywhere, specifically acquired with an environmentally conscious Utopian goal in mind.  That’s until four strangers come to town.  The Ba’ku of Star Trek Insurrection should come to mind, along with the proto-Vulcans of Who Watches the Watchers?  Pike of course gets to get back in a saddle in the footsteps of both Kirk and Picard, here in a rural community where Miller uses up his one incredible coincidence of the novel, as Pike runs smack into someone from his past.  Spock’s route is a bit more of a mystery.  Number One/Una runs into a naturalist/survivalist in a location where they must dodge the local scary, over-sized wildlife.  And Uhura’s journey is the most interesting as she gets her own sidekick–which takes the full range of her communication skills to understand, a cool new life form which can only be described as a cousin to Hal Jordan’s deflector of evil.

Miller’s Western tale is steeped in the aura of Akira Kurosawa stories like the best Westerns are, with a subplot out of Henry V, with similar humor to that of the Firefly tie-in novels, especially Firefly: The Magnificent Nine and Firefly: Generations.  Is the humor why fans love Strange New Worlds most?  Maybe.  Captain Pike has a unique, overt, outgoing brand of humor, and Miller’s take on the character conjures Bruce Greenwood’s movie Pike as much as Anson Mount’s TV Pike.  But it’s not just Pike.  Number One/Una is fantastic primarily because she’s inhabited by Rebecca Romijn (and Majel Barrett was similarly stunning and full of smirks in those early Star Trek days, too).  This Number One/Una is so much more than the character of Season One of the new series.  It’s 100% Romijn, that brilliant force from The Librarians as much as from the supporting character the show has only touched on.

Uhura’s lantern pal is the kind of life-form Star Trek never puts on the screen.  Maybe because it would be expensive and it isn’t a human biped, but it’s the kind of “new life” The Orville created with its Yaphit character and made that series stand out.  More, please!  Of the four stranded crew members, Spock gets the least of the roles, but he’s still valuable, and brings in his own interesting mash-up of characters.  We’ve all seen enough Spock, but we could use more Uhura stories–everything new we learn about her makes us love this key franchise character even more.

And Lieutenant Hemmer gets significant page count, too.  The story takes place after we learn of Doctor M’Benga’s daughter and before Hemmer’s death in the series.  It’s a reminder that her death and Hemmer’s death were the two misfires of that first season–a first season where most everything else was handled so wonderfully.  Hemmer is one-of-a-kind, and Miller will make you want to write letters to get CBS/Paramount to find a way to bring the character back.

Fans of the TV series already know that Pike has seen his future, so any story in this window of time makes the viewer want to push their favorite characters to be close to Pike at all times–stick close to Pike and your odds of survival go up.  But the other characters don’t know that.  It’s difficult not to keep that in mind while reading Pike scenes.  You know the stakes aren’t that great for him, so it’s all about enjoying how he talks his way through each new quandary.

Strange New Worlds: The High Country is the next episode of the series, and more like a movie.  Even if you’re not a fan of Star Trek’s numerous returns to the Old West, it’s better than any single episode of the series, even if La’an and M’Benga get little coverage and Ortegas and Chapel get even less.  And it’s another great sci-fi tie-in from John Jackson Miller.  Not to be missed for Star Trek fans, Strange New Worlds: The High Country is available now here at Amazon.

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