Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Episode 1 Review

The first episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is a thrilling return to the foundational principles of the franchise, anchored by Anson Mount's fantastic central performance.

Photo: Paramount+

The following contains Star Trek: Strange New Worlds spoilers

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Episode 1

As the Star Trek franchise has expanded in recent years, so has the debate about what these series are supposed to be and do. What makes a show quintessentially Star Trek? What kinds of stories are these properties meant to tell? After all, in the year 2022, the world seems more divided than ever before, reeling from the lingering effects of a global pandemic, rising inflation, and a political environment that seems targeted to anger the worst in us, rather than exhort us to be our best. 

Our entertainment is increasingly bleak, often full of edgy anti-heroes, disheartening conspiracy theories, grim monsters, and dangerous technology. Even Star Trek has dipped its proverbial toe into darker narrative waters, with both Star Trek: Picard and Star Trek: Discovery frequently wrestling with much more complex themes and nihilistic stories than any of their predecessors did (with varying degrees of success).

In light of all this, is it incredibly naive to still believe in Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a future where humanity has conquered its worst impulses in the name of becoming its best self? That we might one day all actually be able to boldly go together into a better, more perfect future? Or given, well, everything happening around us, is his determined message of hope and a belief in a better tomorrow somehow more necessary than it’s ever been?

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Star Trek: Strange New Worlds appears to be the franchise’s attempt to answer that question, a big-hearted, rollicking return to the foundational principles of the show that started it all, firmly grounded in the deeply personal story of the captain at its center. It is joyous, impeccably cast, and (something I haven’t regularly said about Star Trek in some time) incredibly fun to watch. From its off-handed callbacks and Easter Eggs to its thoughtful character dynamics and gorgeous visuals, everything about this show reflects the care that has been put into creating it. And if we are going to trust the U.S.S. Enterprise to anyone, who better than some obvious fellow nerds who clearly love it as much as we do?

Yes, the premiere episode “Strange New Worlds” has an awful lot of set-up lot to do, but the series’ introductory hour never drags or feels bogged down by its expository duties. The series pilot initially picks up with everyone we originally met on Discovery, and where their stories have gone post-Season 2 finale. Captain Pike (Anson Mount) is in Montana wrestling with the foreknowledge of a future that includes radiation disfigurement, paralysis, and physical agony​​; Spock’s (Ethan Peck) getting engaged to a woman who seems way much cooler than he is on Vulcan; and Number One (Rebecca Romijn) is a workaholic on a first contact mission with the U.S.S Archer

It is her disappearance on that mission that brings Pike and the Enterprise crew back to space a bit earlier than originally scheduled; they’ve got to find her and bring her home. It’s also an easy excuse to introduce us to the rest of the series’ main cast, which includes a mix of new and familiar classic faces (or, well, at least characters whose names we’ve heard before). 

There’s Cadet Nyota Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding), the show’s new take on a younger version of the iconic Star Trek: The Original Series character, here presented as a young woman fresh out of Starfleet Academy and a linguistic prodigy who is clearly deeply excited about all the adventures that await her. Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun)—a character who appeared in all of two episodes of The Original Series but still!—is running things in sickbay alongside Nurse Christine Chapel (Jess Bush) whose demonstrable smarts and ability to think outside the box indicate she’s likely going to have much more to do on this series than pine after Spock.

New security officer La’an Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong) has a familiar name and a dark history of her own, and though feisty helmsman Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia) has little in the way of defining characteristics as yet she at least seems pretty fun. While we may not know much about most of these people as yet, the show nevertheless quickly establishes the larger group’s chemistry as easy and believable. 

But it’s impossible to talk about why Strange New Worlds works so well without talking about Anson Mount, whose central performance as Captain Christopher Pike remains as note-perfect as it was when he was guest-starring on Discovery. There are moments where it feels like we all essentially willed this entire show into existence simply because his casting in this role is so perfect, and I’d like that to be true because, whew, y’all we were right. Aggressively normal in all the best ways and bursting with everyman charm, Pike blends the best of classic Trek nostalgia with more modern sensibilities, resulting in a leader who is as skilled at empathy, kindness, and consensus-building as he is fighting. 

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I’ve written elsewhere at some length about why this Pike is so necessary and important in the Star Trek universe, and I’m happy to tell you that Strange New Worlds has fully leaned into this interpretation of the character, refusing the temptation to turn his story into a dark tragedy but instead embracing the idea that his journey is ultimately one of self-determination and hope. After all: If nothing we do matters—then all that truly matters is what we do. In the end, if Original Series episode “The Menagerie” is always going to be waiting for him no matter what, then the true question Pike must answer isn’t how to feel about that fate, but what he’s going to do with the time that’s been given to him until it comes to pass.

There are certainly plenty of interesting places to take that sort of story: Will Pike make riskier choices simply because he knows that he is not going to die on a random away mission? Will he make less dangerous decisions because while he can essentially guarantee his own safety he can’t say the same for his crew? Or will he do his best to let his shipmates—and those they come into contact with—find their fates for themselves? 

Strange New Worlds may clearly be setting itself up to tell easily digestible weekly adventures—and I think there is certainly space within this franchise of space shows for one that just wants to roam the galaxy in search of new cultures and cool aliens. But after watching this pilot, it seems clear that it’s also inevitably going to be a story about the nature of fate and the consequences of the choices we make—for ill, yes. But also, inexorably and relentlessly for good. Because goodness—the idea of being a good person, of doing good in the world—is still something we have to choose to do every day. 

“Perhaps somewhere all your ends are written as indelibly as mine. But I choose to believe that your destinies are still your own,” Pike tells the warring factions of Kileans, as part of an uplifting speech about why they don’t have to tear themselves apart the way those on Earth did once. “Maybe that’s why I’m here. To remind you of the power of possibility.”

In the end, that seems to be nothing so much as a mission statement for Strange New Worlds writ large: That it is always better to travel hopefully, to lead with empathy, and to believe that our better angels can carry the day, in the end, even if we have to bend the rules a little bit along the way to help them do so. To remember why we fell in love with this franchise in the first place and the simple powerful message it still carries. In hope, all things are possible. 

So, as Captain Pike himself would say: Hit it.

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Rating:

5 out of 5