Star Trek Strange New Worlds

CBS and Paramount are finally learning. After years of trying to force some offensively awful Star Trek down our throats, they've finally given us something palatable. Well, I guess that's not entirely fair. I actually like Lower Decks. But Lower Decks is a self-parody animated comedy, so it's not really "serious" Star Trek, even though it's far more worthy of the franchise than the first season of Discovery or Picard.

Well, now Paramount+ also has a live-action Star Trek show worthy of the name, in the form of Strange New Worlds.

The first episode of Strange New Worlds is much more in-line with what I expect from a Star Trek show. I already talked up the virtues of an episodic format in my Lower Decks review, but focused mostly on how the self-contained nature of episodes allows some to be bad without dragging down the entire season or series with them. But the episodic nature of Lower Decks and Strange New Worlds also highlights another fundamental advantage of the episodic format: those self-contained episodes can tell more high-concept stories.

Star Trek Strange New Worlds - past mistakes © CBS
Strange New Worlds is about learning from past mistakes and getting better.

The first episode of Strange New Worlds isn't the most creative or the highest of concept stories, but it's a serviceable story that is true to the spirit of classic Trek, and I'll be spoiling a lot of its plot in the coming paragraph. A first contact goes wrong, and the Enterprise has to be called into rescue the missing crew of a small scout ship. They find a pre-warp civilization that learned to reverse-engineer a warp drive from observing the events of Star Trek: Discovery. Except these people didn't use the technology to build a propulsion device; they're using it to build a weapon that they plan to use to end their own civil war. Realizing that Federation activity has already influenced the cultural development of the planet, Captain Pike decides that General Order One (the non-interference Prime Directive) does not apply. He choses to share the history of Earth's World War III (which this series assumes lies in our real-life immediate future) in an attempt to convince the warring factions to reconcile instead of risk mutual destruction.

Put simply, the first episode of Strange New Worlds differs from Discovery in that it is about preventing a war instead of starting one. It's about learning from the mistakes of past history so that they aren't repeated. And it's a stark warning of what might go wrong in today's society if political tensions don't cool off, without having to depict a future for humanity in which no social progress seems to have happened at all.

It's the type of forward-thinking story that I like about classic Trek, but which is absent from Discovery and especially from Picard (well, the first season anyway). Those shows give us a view of the future in which all the same problems that exist today still exist in 2 or 300 years. Strange New Worlds goes back to depicting a future in which humanity has learned from its past mistakes and improved itself. It's the hopeful, optimistic future that I loved from the older shows. I want to see more modern science fiction depicting futures for its audience to aspire to, instead of all the bleak, dystopian settings that dominate modern sci-fi and makes our future feel hopeless.

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Star Trek: Lower Decks - title

It took me a while to get around to watching this one. After having been immensely disappointed and frustrated with both Star Trek: Discovery and Picard, I was not going to give CBS a single penny of my money. I still haven't watched the second season of Discovery (let alone the third), despite having heard that the second season is an improvement. In fact, I've been so bitter at CBS that I didn't even bother activating my account to stream the second season of Twilight Zone, even though the first season was good enough that I was curious to see the second season. I also didn't bother reactivating my CBS account to stream Star Trek: Lower Decks, even though my partner really wanted to watch it.

I was willing to cut a little more slack for Lower Decks, on the grounds that "surely an animated comedy will not be considered 'canon', so I don't have to take Lower Decks as seriously." But then I started seeing events, characters, and ships from Lower Decks showing up in articles on the Memory Alpha Star Trek wiki, and the thought of having to take Lower Decks seriously as canon tanked my interest in watching the show. I wouldn't be able to sit back and enjoy Lower Decks in the manner that I enjoy something like The Orville; I would have to watch it with my critic glasses on, and the baggage of expectations that comes with carrying the Star Trek torch.

I told my partner I didn't want to pay for CBS, so we would wait until all the episodes had aired, do the free trial with a new email address, and binge them all in like a weekend or something. And maybe I'd check out season 2 of Twilight Zone while I was at it. But we didn't keep track of the progress of the show, it fell onto the back-burner, and we just didn't get around to it.

Then, a few weeks ago, a friend offered to let me borrow his downloads of the show, as well as offering pretty high praise. My partner and I still wanted to give Lower Decks a chance, so I accepted, and we watched it.

... And it's ... fine. It's fine. It's OK.

The Best "Trek" that CBS has to offer?

Lower Decks is entertaining enough. It provides a decent laugh here and there. And it's actually telling some high-concept sci-fi stories -- albeit wrapped in a layer of absurdist comedy. As a stand-alone show, without the baggage of the "Star Trek" title, it's perfectly serviceable. It's not quite up to the level of The Orville -- at least not once The Orville had set aside the Family Guy antics and started focusing more on its characters and stories.

Star Trek - freighter
- ST: Animated Series "More Tribbles, More Troubles", episode 5
Star Trek: Lower Decks - NCC-502 freighter
- ST: Lower Decks "Terminal Provocations", season 1, episode 6
Lower Decks remains faithful to the aesthetic of Star Trek, while still establishing its own visual identity.

And you know what, as an official installment of Star Trek, Lower Decks ain't bad either. Lower Decks is certainly the best Star Trek show that CBS has created for its streaming service so far, and definitely [ironically] the most worthy of "canon" status.

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