In 2020, when Paramount announced that they’d given the green light to yet another new Star Trek series set aboard the classic USS Enterprise, I had serious reservations. Where each of the other new Trek shows that had been produced during the franchise’s streaming era flaunted some unique twist on its time-tested format, Strange New Worlds was sold as a deliberate return to form, with a familiar setting, crew, and episodic structure. What more could a new series about Captain Pike and a young Mr. Spock have to offer, aside from an apology to fans who didn’t like how much Star Trek had changed in the past decade? I was concerned that this new prequel would lack its own identity or be preoccupied with filling out the universe’s lore, disappearing into the shadow of the series it was meant to emulate.
What a thrill to be so mistaken. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds has not only become the standout series in the modern franchise, but an affirmation of the flexibility and accessibility of episodic television. The series bounces week to week from light-hearted adventure to cosmic horror to screwball comedy, showcasing not only imaginative ideas and spectacular visual effects, but one of the most charming and versatile ensembles in the business. And, rather than being bogged down by the franchise’s mythology, it’s gleefully self-contained and new-viewer friendly. After hitting the ground running last year, Strange New Worlds returns with a confident sophomore season that can stand up next to the franchise’s best entries.
The first season of Strange New Worlds marked a return to the format of Star Trek: The Next Generation, wherein most episodes spotlight a one or two characters as they take point on the sci-fi problem of the week. This wandering eye allowed each of the Strange New Worlds cast an opportunity to thrive, not only by giving their characters time at the forefront, but establishing their chemistry and dynamics with each of their shipmates during their respective turns. In just ten episodes, an intricate web of relationships established that feeling of home and family that fans love about ‘90s Trek, which the serialized, star-focused Discovery hasn’t accomplished in four seasons.
Season two immediately benefits from this investment. Most episodes still have a central character, but because they each have a number of attachments, their stories naturally have repercussions on the rest of the crew. For example, an episode centered around first officer Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn) has immediate stakes not only for herself and for her friend and commander, Captain Pike (Anson Mount), but for her mentee, Lt. Commander La’an Noonian-Singh (Christina Chong).
Strange New Worlds also exhibits an obvious trust between its writers room and its cast. Rather than being precious about the established legacy characters, such as Mr. Spock (Ethan Peck) and Nurse Christine Chapel (Jess Bush), this series allows them to take on a life of their own as if there was no established precedent for how they ought to be employed in a story. Season Two continues to place Peck’s Spock at the heart of the show’s broadest comedy and steamiest romance, because regardless of whether that’s something you’d do with Leonard Nimoy’s Spock, it’s clearly working here.
This trust is equally apparent when it comes to the show’s own characters, such as La’an and Ensign Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia), who continue to develop even as Star Trek icon James Kirk (Paul Wesley) and real-life comedy legend Carol Kane join the cast in recurring roles. Every cast member has found their groove, capable of contributing across the show’s broad spectrum of tones, which in turn allows every character to be more than one thing. Dr. Joseph M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) is both a compassionate physician and a weathered war veteran, while Ensign Nyota Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) is the franchise’s most rich and complicated “eager young space cadet.” This is, unquestionably, the strongest Star Trek ensemble since Deep Space Nine.
Of course, it’s not only the on-screen talent that’s flexing. Star Trek needs to be as much about big ideas as it is about big characters, and in this regard, Strange New Worlds is also fully functional. While still guilty of Trek’s infamous heavy-handed allegory and the occasional genre cliché, most of the six season-two episodes Paramount provided to critics in advance contain more than one interesting sci-fi concept, or use an idea for more than one thematic purpose. A planet with memory-suppressing properties, for instance, becomes an avenue for exploring nature vs. nurture, class stratification, the grieving process, and one character’s tumultuous love life. Nearly everything, from the individual episodic thought experiments to the long-term character subplots to the additional levels of dramatic irony for viewers studied in the show’s fictional history, is working in concert, and rarely in a pandering or self-satisfied way.
The comparison against the lore-stuffed, nutrient-free fan candy of the final season of Star Trek: Picard is night and day. So much media during this age of the perpetual franchise extension feels like it could be written by an AI, absorbing the previous hundred hours of a saga and extrapolating what the next hundred hours might look like, without the benefit of any real imagination. It’s not new, it’s merely more. Strange New Worlds was willed into existence by a campaign of fans who were hungry for the familiar, but it nevertheless feels fresh and vital. It has the unmistakable flavor of real human investment. Its Spock/Chapel/T’Pring love triangle may have been suggested by The Original Series, but it belongs to this series, and to these storytellers. Its Ensign Uhura honors the memory of Nichelle Nichols, but she is her own entity, and a joy to watch on her own merits. If Strange New Worlds were suddenly to divert from the Star Trek canon entirely and veer off into its own continuity, never reconciling with the classic series, nothing of value would be lost. That, for my money, is the highest compliment you can pay to any prequel.