Star Trek’s ‘Strange New Worlds’: In defense of episodic TV
Two generations after its 1966 debut, the universe of “Star Trek” has become a vast and sprawling mural in these heady days of streaming TV.
There’s the dark and bingeworthy “Star Trek: Picard,” a deep character study of an aging and beloved captain confronting his demons — and saving life as we know it twice in two seasons. There’s “Star Trek: Prodigy,” a rich, 3D-animated story aimed at kids and full of wonder. There’s the more traditionally animated “Star Trek: Lower Decks,” a wacky variation on the theme that unfolds on an also-ran starship and is brimming with fan-service moments.
And smack in the center of the mural sits “Star Trek Discovery,” the epic journey of a Federation starship and its crew across an entire millennium as it saves the galaxy not once (rogue AI!) , not twice (“The Burn!”), but three times (“The Dark Matter Anomaly!”) in four seasons and counting.
Intricate story arcs. Deep serialization. A requirement for sequential viewing and a serious attention span. That’s a lot of commitment, even for a binger. So what’s a planet-of-the-week fan of the original series and its episodic aesthetic to do?
The answer, of course, is “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” which is chronicling the voyages of the USS Enterprise before Kirk became its captain. Led by Capt. Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), the show is essentially a workplace drama in deep space — the intergalactic equivalent of looking in on a really interesting office and getting various tastes of what exactly it is that everyone does.
“Strange New Worlds,” whose first-season finale “airs” Thursday on Paramount+ in the United States, has been a true errand of mercy for those “Trek” fans who love old-fashioned, self-contained episodes, and want the opportunity to experience a Whitman’s Sampler of sci-fi from week to week.
So far, the show’s peregrinations — one-and-done plots, even as character development reaches across episodes — have been varied and wandering in the most satisfying of ways.
Season One has featured, among other genre journeys, forays into comedy, horror, submarine thriller, contagious-disease drama and full-on medieval fantasy. Each has been suffused with humanism, optimism and the complex moral questions and allegories that made “Star Trek” so relevant in that other period of unrelenting upheaval, the 1960s.
Viewers — not merely longtime fans — are eating it up. The show has a preposterously high rating of 99% on Rotten Tomatoes and seems to appeal to both traditionalists and newer acolytes. But why does this iteration of the “Trek” universe hit so rightly at this exact moment? As Spock might say, a number of possibilities present themselves.
First, consider the baseball card and the postage stamp — both fodder for collectors for a century and a half. People love them for many reasons, but they share a key trait: Each, when collected, is an assemblage of variants of an appealing form. And though the form is familiar and generally consistent, inside its borders anything goes.
What’s more, not every specimen has to be earth-shattering (or galaxy-shattering). For every rare 1909 Honus Wagner card or 1918 “Inverted Jenny” stamp, there are countless others that are simply small glimpses of the day-to-day — the journeyman infielder, the forever stamp with the flower on it. They’re not world-changers on their own, but each is a sterling example of the breed, and together — when collected — they form a larger tapestry.
When it comes to “Strange New Worlds,” though, the appeal runs even deeper than that. Oddly enough, it’s also about normalcy.
The creator of “Star Trek,” Gene Roddenberry, pitched it originally as “Wagon Train to the Stars,” pushing out onto the (final) frontier. But boiled down, the original series — and “Strange New Worlds,” on a 21st-century level — is a meditation on the workplace.
The coronavirus pandemic has taught us a lot about the workplace — both being in it and not being in it — and about the desire for the normal rhythms of existence. Lots of people are craving routine, day-to-day problems again, while navigating the blurring of barriers between work and home. “Strange New Worlds” is the Trek-verse iteration of all that.
The Enterprise is to “Strange New Worlds” what Grey-Sloan Memorial is to “Grey’s Anatomy” and Dunder Mifflin is to “The Office.” It’s a canvas. And behind all the fantastic allegories that the best of “Trek” has offered are more prosaic ones — ones that evoke our own workplaces and getting along with other departments and meeting cool new colleagues (talkin’ to you, Erica Ortegas) and, sometimes, dealing with a public that may occasionally seem downright alien.
Members of the Enterprise crew on “Strange New Worlds” are living their lives. They’re doing their jobs, even when their jobs really suck — like when they lose one of their own or are under attack. Like us, they find themselves in different moods from episode to episode, from scene to scene. They’re silly one moment, crisp and efficient the next, emotional the next and then, maybe, silly all over again. It all feels more like the cadence of actual life than one of these deep dives into a single, relentless story arc.
And while nothing is reset at the end of each week — characters evolve, pain endures, progress is made — to begin each episode with a new story feels strangely like an act of optimism. With humanity navigating such huge issues — climate change, guns, racism, abortion, war — why wouldn’t the chance for a narrative fresh start each week be immensely appealing?
Saving life as we know it? Sure, when it’s needed. That’s part of what sci-fi is all about. But DEALING with life as we know it? That’s the sweet and timely spot here, too. Aboard this version of the USS Enterprise, each is equally in play. And in these jumbled times, at the intersection of both, “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” is thriving.
Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation for The Associated Press, has written about American culture (and how “Star Trek” fits into it) since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted(asterisk)