Review by C.J. Bunce
Two episodes in, the latest—and potentially best ever—series of the 56-year-old Star Trek franchise is underwhelming, a gloomy rehash of tired plots, weak writing, and painful performances. Fans of Captain Pike’s “old is new again” Enterprise from the second season of Star Trek: Discovery saw their wishes come true with the first season of the Paramount+ series Strange New Worlds. It looked like Paramount would stay on-theme. Season One was about the fun of exploration, and in its first episode the cast and Enterprise crew seemed so happy to be back. The electricity didn’t fizzle all season. So what happened? The second season started with an episode excluding the series’ best component: Anson Mount’s Captain Christopher Pike, the most engaging and motivational character since Commander Riker. He didn’t get much more to do in Episode #2. If it weren’t for Melissa Navia’s awesome, cocky young pilot Ortegas, back again and as great (and funny) as ever, we’d think we weren’t watching the same show at all.
The first episode, “The Broken Circle,” featured Star Trek’s most tired component: Klingons. Again. Plus… super-powered medical staff? Huh? It’s like the writers don’t understand what makes the franchise great and at the same time are afraid to move ahead. Shoe-horning stunt casting even with the likes of Carol Kane isn’t going to be enough if Paramount wants to match Season One.
Episode #2 revisits a classic Trek trope: a valued crew member on trial. There’s a lot to live up to with this one—from Spock’s court martial in “The Menagerie” to Riker’s prosecution of Data in “Measure of a Man.” “Ad Astra Per Aspera” falls closer to the Jack the Ripper episode from The Original Series “Wolf in the Fold.” (You remember: Scotty is suspected of murdering a belly dancer. No? Exactly). The first season ended on a dramatic cliffhanger with Rebecca Romijn’s Number One’s arrest for breaking the Federation’s anti-eugenics laws. As a closeted Illyrian, her (undisclosed) genetic modifications violate Federation law. The Enterprise crew launches a passionate defense of their beloved first officer, but the trial itself is painful melodrama.
The viewer gets the sense the writers have no understanding of jurisprudence or criminal procedure, and the actors are making it up for it by cringeworthy over-emoting. But the worst part is that there’s no reason to care about Una’s case. Viewers—and the court—are told the Illyrians have suffered persecution, and therefore Una deserves understanding and mercy for concealing her identity. But at no point is it explained why these genetic modifications are so important to Illyrian culture or such a threat to the Federation, so it’s difficult to muster any sympathy for them as a persecuted people.
Even mentioning a specific modification or two would help (How is someone modified? Why is that scary?). Or give viewers a deeper historical context to the practice of modification: Is it a religious observance? Did the Illyrians agree to give up the custom in order to join the Federation, but some orthodox factions continued to practice in secret, while Federation authorities pursued them, Inquisition-style? Viewers just don’t know—and therefore can’t care very much. Romijn is an incredibly versatile actress, and her work in the Marvel X-Men franchise and The Librarians is fantastic, re-watchable TV and movies. Similar praise can be heaped on Melanie Scrofano. It’s not the actors. It’s the material.
Hopefully the writers remember the spirited and adventuresome storylines that captured the wonder and excitement of science fiction at its optimistic best. We’ve had several decades now of Dark Trek, and Strange New Worlds offered such a refreshing reboot of Gene Roddenberry’s vision that it made us excited about Star Trek again. Will the series live up to its potential to be one of the greatest Treks of the fleet? Or will we be heading for the escape pods on this series, too?
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is streaming now with new episodes arriving weekly on Paramount+.