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 Into Darkness

Who doesn't like a good hamburger?

Hamburgers are a pretty casual, always-tasty meal that can range from a bland and simple fast-food cheeseburger to a gourmet bacon burger.

Me, I'm a big ribs guy! They're my favorite. Lone Star Steakhouse always made the best ribs - ribs fit for a Caesar's Memorial Day barbeque - but it's hard for me to say "no" to just about any rack of ribs. Sadly, all the Lone Stars in town are closed, and I've yet to find a true successor.

Star Trek Into Darkness poster

How does this relate to Star Trek Into Darkness? The original Star Trek series and Star Trek: the Next Generation are like those Lone Star ribs to me. They're my favorite. A really good science fiction movie - like 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Terminator, or Moon, or maybe even the recently-released Oblivion - is like a visit to [say] Famous Dave's to have some ribs. It's good, but it's still not Lone Star good! These new Star Trek movies, however, aren't even like ribs to begin with. They're more like hamburgers. Yeah sure they're a satisfying meal, but sometimes, I don't want a hamburger; I want ribs!

Into Darkness isn't what I wanted in a "Star Trek" movie at all. Even worse, it's worth as a movie is mostly superficial.

Into Darkness reminded me a lot of two other Star Trek movies: Star Trek V: the Final Frontier and Star Trek Nemesis.

The Final Frontier is widely-regarded as the worst original-cast Star Trek movie (and rightfully so). It's premise is silly. The script is poorly-written (although still much more coherent than many of today's movie scripts - including Into Darkness). And the special-effects are atrocious! It was like one of those really bad episodes of the original series brought to life on the big screen with a slightly higher budget. But it did have one redeeming characteristic. The beginning and end of the movie consist of the camping scenes with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, and these scenes are actually really good. They're character-driven scenes in which we learn a little bit about the adventurous spirit of Kirk, his greatest fear, and the desire to explore that drove him to join Starfleet. It manages to further develop a character that had been around in movies and television for over 20 years, and whom one would have thought couldn't be further developed at all.

Kirk: I'm not trying to break any records. I'm doing this because I enjoy it. Not to mention the most important reason for climbing a mountain...
Spock: And that is ... ?
Kirk: Because it's there.
   -Star Trek V: the Final Frontier

As bad as that movie was, this simple exchange in this simple scene exemplifies what Kirk, Starfleet, and Star Trek are all about: the desire to go out there and experience the universe! Even if it's dangerous, the rewards of the experience, and the discovery that it brings is worth the risk. This is one of the prime ideologies behind Star Trek. Sure we could send probes out to collect data and send it back to us in the comfort and safety of our laboratories on earth. But why do that when we can go there and experience the universe for ourselves?

And that is a spirit that is sadly missing from Abrams' interpretation of Star Trek. Why does Kirk join Starfleet? Is it because he has a passion for adventure and discovery and expanding the horizons of human experience? Not according to these movies. In these movies, he does it because Captain Pike dared him to. Or maybe because he wants to pursue hot alien pussy, because both movies still treat Kirk like a cartoon horn dog whose eyes pop out of his head whenever a skirt walks by.

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The first set photos from J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot sequel have been released by Paramount. The photos show Trek newbie, Benedict Cumberbatch facing off against Spock and Uhura on what has been described as a "space barge".

Supposedly, Cumberbatch is playing an existing Trek villain, but Paramount and Abrams have not been forthcoming regarding exact plot details or the exact identity of this villain. The set photos don't really clear up the issues all that much. In fact, it blows speculation wide open, as the character is likely not the shoe-in villain, Khan.

Star Trek 12 - Benedict Cumberbatch battling Spock
Benedict Cumberbatch's unidentified character battles Spock in this set photo from the Star Trek reboot sequel.

A very close examination of the photo shows a Starfleet insignia on Cumberbatch's black undershirt, so it is possible that he is a Starfleet officer or someone involved with Starfleet. This doesn't rule out the idea that Khan is not going to be in the movie; Kirk could have supplied Khan's crew with clothing. It is also possible that Cumberbatch isn't Khan, but rather one of Khan's second-hand men. Peter Weller may be portraying Khan, even though that would seem to conflict with his identity as a "C.E.O." that was given by his agent. Alice Eve could also be playing Marla McGyvers, and a set on a "space barge" is still consistent with the Botany Bay. So we still can't rule out Khan as the villain, but I think there are much more likely possibilities.

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Star Trek 2009 poster

When I saw the movie on opening night, I loved it. It was fun. It was fast. The opening scene was gripping and intense. The visuals were flashy. It had plenty of humor. And Karl Urban as Leonard McCoy ROCKED!

Over time, though, my nitpicky cynicism started to kick in, and started to seem more and more like a Hollywood bastardization. It started with the observation (on opening night) that the crew of the Kelvin had the Enterprise "delta shield" flight patches on their tunics, instead of the ship-specific flight patches that were in use during the original series and before.

Really, who are these people?

Eventually, I started to be bothered by the insistence that all the characters have to turn out exactly like their original series counterparts, despite having their origins and life histories significantly changed. Apparently, in the J.J. Abrams' Star Trek universe, a person's "destiny" is a complete matter of "nature" rather than "nurture".

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