Thursday, July 7, 2022

Strange New Worlds, Season 1

My reviews of seasons of different Star Trek series have tended to be based on DVD-watching binges months or years after the episodes were first broadcast. It gives me a little tingle to reflect that this is my first time covering a season of Trek immediately after the season finale aired. Just watched it today on Paramount+, and with that I might just cancel my subscription unless the streaming service hurries up and says, like, "We'll be airing Season 2 starting in two weeks" or maybe, "Tune in for the next 10 Thursdays for the second half of Prodigy Season 1."

Arguably a spinoff of Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 – or, as some fans prefer to think of it, the real follow-up to the original Star Trek pilot of 1965, "The Cage" – SNW features the Starship Enterprise (registry no. NCC 1701) before it was captained by James T. Kirk. Its captain is currently Christopher Pike, originally played by Jeffrey Hunter (Jesus in King of Kings), later by Bruce Greenwood in the Kelvin timeline films, and now played by Anson Mount (late of Hell on Wheels). First officer is Commander Una Chin-Riley, a.k.a. "Number One," originally played by Majel Barrett (a.k.a. the original Nurse Christine Chapel, Lwaxana Troi and the voice of the Enterprise computer on Star Trek: The Next Generation), who happened to be married to Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and here played by Rebecca Romijn (Mystique in the X-Men films and Eve on The Librarians), who happens to be married to Trek cast member Jerry O'Connell (Ransom on Lower Decks). And the science officer is, of course, the half-Vulcan, half-Human Mr. (Lt.) Spock, previously played by Leonard Nimoy from "The Cage" on through 2009's feature film reboot, as well as Zachary Quinto (late of Heroes) in the Kelvin timeline movies. Here, he is played by Ethan Peck, the grandson of Gregory, who starred in the teen TV series 10 Things I Hate About You and played Kelso in childhood flashback scenes of That '70s Show. What we know about these characters going in, or find out during this season, is that Pike struggles with foreknowledge of his awful fate in a reactor explosion, less than a decade in the future; Number One has a secret that's going to bite her on the butt sooner or later; and Spock hasn't fully committed yet to purging his emotions and is a bit insecure about where he fits in either Vulcan or human society.

In the sickbay we find Nurse Chapel, played in this case by Australian model/actress Jess Bush, as initially a civilian doing genetic research who develops a tragic crush on the emotionally unavailable, and also engaged-to-be-married, Lt. Spock (his fiancee, T'Pring, is played on multiple appearances by Gia Sandhu). Meanwhile, the chief medical officer is Dr. Joseph M'Benga, who appeared in two TOS episodes played by Booker Bradshaw and is now played by Nigerian-born actor Babs Olusanmokun. His little secret, up to a certain point, is the terminally ill daughter, Rukiya, played by recurring guest Sage Arrindell, whom the doc keeps in the medical transporter to slow the progress of her disease.

Up on the bridge is Cadet Nyota Uhura, with Celia Rose Gooding playing a younger version of TOS's communications officer (originally played by a racial boundaries breaking Nichelle Nichols, and later by Zoë Saldana). Best known for playing Frankie in the Broadway musical Jagged Little Pill, she plays a younger Uhura who isn't sure she's cut out for Starfleet, but doesn't know what else to do with herself and her linguistic genius. Then (moving from left to right) is security officer and third-in-command Lt. La'an Noonien Singh, a descendent of genetically augmented war criminal Khan, who at this point was last heard of in the late 20th or early 21st century and was one of the reasons the Federation has a thing against being genetically modified. She's played by English actress Christina Chong, who once appeared on Doctor Who and also starred in the British police procedural series Line of Duty. Her main character notes include being all-business and fanatical about security, and harboring childhood trauma from surviving a colony that was destroyed by the reptilian Gorn.

At the helm is hot dog pilot Erica Ortegas, played by Colombian-born actress Melissa Navia as a high-spirited, wise-cracking junior officer with no other specific character notes other than a broad suggestion of butchness. Playing the ship's chief engineer, Hemmer, and a member of the Andorian subspecies known as the Aenar (cf. Enterprise Season 4), is vision-impaired actor Bruce Horak. A gruff father figure, particularly to Uhura, his character was designed with a built-in exit hatch, as this SPOILER review will point out in due time. He's the guy with the funky face ridges, antennae, albino-pale skin and filmy eyes, who compensates for his blindness with other senses that humans don't have, including a bit of telepathy and prescience. He actually doesn't appear in that many episodes, and there's a big question mark about whether he'll return for Season 2, but despite not being developed very much, his character showed promise this season.

Other significant recurring or guest characters include Adrian Holmes (19-2, Red Riding Hood) as Admiral Robert April, Pike's predecessor as captain of the Enterprise; Dan Jeannotte (Good Witch, Reign) as Lt. Sam Kirk (James T.'s older brother, a life sciences officer); Paul Wesley (The Vampire Diaries) as Capt. James T. Kirk; and André Dae Kim (Degrassi: The Next Generation) as a baby-faced Transporter Chief Kyle.

So, here's a quick run-down of this 10-episode season, which (thank the Great Bird of the Galaxy) aren't one big serialized story arc but actually 10 free-standing episodes. In the self-titled episode Strange New Worlds, April recalls Pike from a leave, during which the captain is reconsidering his entire career, to rescue Una from a first contact mission gone horribly wrong. The episode deftly introduces all the main characters (except Hemmer, who is barely glimpsed) and preaches a sermon about conflict threatening to destroy a world before it's ready to turn toward the stars. Children of the Comet faces the Enterprise with an ancient comet, or maybe it isn't a comet so much, that appears to be on a deadly collision course with a pre-warp planet. The trouble is, anything they do to try to stop the collision riles a spacefaring alien cult that calls themselves "Shepherds" and that consider the comet, or whatever, to be holy. The episode focuses on Uhura's unique abilities and gives credit to the possibility of something like divine intervention.

Ghosts of Illyria explores an abandoned colony of a race that practiced genetic modification, which is verboten in the Federation. It also reveals what Una's secret is (just guess). Memento Mori is about the Enterprise's cat-and-mouse chase with a Gorn ship, a superbly suspenseful episode that unearths some of La'an's buried memories. Spock Amok is a romantic comedy romp in which Spock and T'Pring perform a ritual to get to know each other better, and inadvertently switch bodies. It also starts the clock on Christine's slow-burning attraction to Spock. Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach is the episode where Pike helps ensure that a child, designated as the "First Servant" of his world, makes it to his "ascension" to what turns out not to be so much a throne as a torture device that will drain his lifeforce to power a levitating city.

The Serene Squall takes its name from a pirate ship that attacks the Enterprise, but the entire affair turns out to be a ruse to blackmail T'Pring (who runs a logic restoration center for Vulcan criminals) into giving up one of her inmates – hinted to be a certain seldom-mentioned half-brother of Spock's. (Cf. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.) The Elysian Kingdom is the one where Dr. M'Benga steps onto the bridge and finds himself in the world described in the fantasy novel he has been reading and re-reading to his daughter. There turns out to be one of those incorporeal entities behind it, offering Rukiya an alternative to spending what's left of her life in the transporter buffer. All Those Who Wander is the season's horror episode, taking place on an Enterprise-like ship that has crashed and become a hatching ground for baby Gorns. They're kind of like a mash-up of Predator and Alien, with heat vision and that whole "bursting out of people's chests" thing, and let me just say, not all of the main characters make it out of this one alive.

The season concludes with A Quality of Mercy, in which Pike spots an opportunity to save the life of a future Starfleet cadet who is destined to die in the accident that will leave him (Pike) paralyzed and deformed. As he's contemplating what to do about it, a future version of himself materializes, offering a bizarro It's a Wonderful Life opportunity to see what the world will be like if he doesn't take it on the chin. The episode reenacts TOS Season 1's "Balance of Terror," only with Pike in the captain's chair instead of Kirk, and because of who he is in contrast to Kirk, the result is what future-Pike calls "end of the world stuff."

It's kind of an odd way to bring Pike and Kirk together, and looked at from a certain angle it might be interpreted as saying Kirk would be a better captain than Pike – an odd position to take in a series in which Pike is the hero. Really, the lesson (for Pike at least) is that you can't mess with the timeline. And the dreadful reality, from his point of view, is that he and the cadets involved in the accident are just going to have to go through it, despite what he knows about what will happen. You could say his situation parallels that of the Romulan commander in this episode, as far as facing-up-to-an-incredibly-grim-duty goes. Just imagine the strength it would take to do that, especially with nearly a decade for his imagination to play with it. Ouch.

My overall judgment is that this is an almost blameless Star Trek series. Every episode was excellent, and the season as a whole was terrific, with satisfying story shapes, well-written dialogue, fine acting and beautiful production values. It consistently succeeded in all the ways the latest crop of live-action Trek series has failed and failed and failed again. I'd only quibble about a few things. First, "Woke Trek" stole a few of its patented "rubbing the audience's noses in radical gender politics" marches, which seems inescapable but at least was done with a little more subtlety and not in such a way that it stalled the momentum of the storyline. Second, the show purposely burned up at least one of its main characters without really even trying to fulfill all of their potential; only a hint dropped by the actor in an interview, suggesting that his Trek career may not be over, mitigates this sense of waste. And finally, there are some cute things the show tries to get away with, like suggesting that the Gorn (a cold-blooded species with practically nothing in common with humanoid lifeforms) communicate in a Morse Code-like replacement cipher based, apparently, on the English language. For just one example.

Nevertheless, I'm happy to report that I'd have a hard time coming up with Three Scenes That Made It For Me without just going with the first three that randomly come to mind: (1) In "Spock Amok," Spock and his betrothed explain to Pike that they've switched bodies and T'Pring (in Spock's voice) adds, "You can likely tell the very clear differences between our mannerisms," to which Pike deadpans, "Yeah, totally." (2) The game of brown dwarf chicken with a Gorn ship in "Memento Mori." (3) Pike screaming "Stand down!" at Erica in "A Quality of Mercy," a tipping-point moment when it becomes heartbreakingly evident that he's the wrong captain at the wrong time. Don't mess with the timeline, kids!

Of course, I could have made a lot of different choices. They're coming at my brain already, so I'd better cut this short.

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