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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 bleak 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.

Star Trek Strange New Worlds - General Order 1 © CBS
Violating the Prime Directive: a staple of Star Trek story-telling.

In fact, this story of learning from the mistakes of the past might even be a meta commentary on CBS and Paramount's recent history with Trek itself. The mistake that the Enterprise crew has to fix was explicitly a plot point in Star Trek: Discovery, almost as if CBS themselves are saying "oops, our bad. We'll do better in the future."

Now, that isn't to say that I am without complaints about Strange New Worlds. I really wish that CBS / Paramount would get some science and technology consultants into the writing rooms, and maybe also some actual science fiction writers, instead of a bunch of TV writers and executives. And if there already are science and tech advisors, then I wish the writers would listen to them more. Strange New Worlds, like all modern Trek since J.J. Abrams and Alex Kurtzman got their hands on it, plays very casual with its science and tech.

An episode of Next Generation probably would have had a prolonged round-table discussion and debate about the merits of the Prime Directive and the pros and cons of violating it in this particular instance. Strange New Worlds is in too much of a hurry to bother.

The Enterprise is repeatedly depicted entering and exiting warp from with a solar system. Sometimes even from within the orbit of a planet, and inside the orbit of that planet's moons. In past Trek shows, traveling at warp that close to planets isnt really done, and ships usually travel at sublight speeds until they clear the orbit of outer planets. Traveling at warp speeds within a solar system is something that would typically only be done in extreme emergency situations, or in the rare case that the crew was trying to slingshot around a star to trigger a time warp. And given that we've learned more about the configuration of our outer solar system, I would specifically have liked to see the Enterprise clear the Ort Cloud before going to warp.

Star Trek Strange New Worlds - warp from orbit © CBS
Enterprise goes to warp from within planetary orbit.

I would also like to see Strange New Worlds keep a consistent warp speed scale. A captain tells Pike that she's going to be away on mission for a month, and the travel from Earth to the planet of the episode's setting only seems to take a few days (if that). That's not a lot of time. Granted, the Federation in this time period is much smaller than it is in TNG or Voyager, but a month is a ridiculously short time for any deep space assignment, and a few days should not be long enough for a ship of this era to travel across Federation space, even at high warp. Inconsistent depictions of warp travel has been one of my pet peeves in Star Trek for a long time, and I'm frustrated to see that it will probably continue into this new series.

At one point the Enterprise also moves from outer orbit, into the atmosphere of the planet, close enough to be plainly visible from the ground. And it does that within the span of a few seconds. Again, that's not the kind of maneuver that should be cavalier in Star Trek. I'd like to see more thought be put into stuff like this.

I'm also not keen on the genetic disguises that Nurse Chapel has invented. I've never liked when Star Trek has depicted genetic changes as something that immediately metamorphizes a person. Such a change shouldn't happen for at least one full generation of cell reproduction. In the case of skin cells, that takes a few weeks. I think Nurse Chapel gave some hand-wavy line about using a catalyst to speed up the process, but this is still a tough thing for me to suspend my disbelief about. Star Trek has done stuff like this before, but I would rather see new entries in the franchise fix silly stuff like this, instead of doubling-down on it.

Nitpicks aside, I liked the premiere of Strange New Worlds, and am looking forward to seeing more of it. I would like for the writers to take it more seriously, but I doubt that will happen. I might have to just accept that the Star Trek full of techno-babble and philosophical debate, and which at least tries to be scientifically accurate, is gone and not coming back. But that's still not going to stop me from demanding it, or from bemoaning its loss. Strange New Worlds still isn't that Star Trek, but it's an order of magnitude closer than Discovery and Picard.

Star Trek Strange New Worlds - plasma torpedoes © CBS
The only explosion in the premiere is when Enterprise is struck by harmless plasma torpedoes.

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