For the first 40 years of “Star Trek” history, the character of Christopher Pike was little more than a footnote in the franchise’s lore. Captain of the Enterprise in the failed original NBC series pilot “The Cage,” Pike, as played by Jeffrey Hunter, wound up as the dry run for William Shatner’s James T. Kirk, a square-jawed hero doing square-jawed hero stuff who fell a few inches short of being right for the job. Gene Roddenberry, ever the environmentalist, recycled scenes from that unaired pilot for a two-part episode of the original series called “The Menagerie,” which allowed for, until 2009, Pike’s greatest contribution to popular culture: his transformation into a hideously scarred burn victim who lived in a large black box that beeped whenever someone asked him a question.
It’s not much build off of, but Pike has become increasingly important to “Trek” as the franchise looks to its past to build a future. Bruce Greenwood played the role J.J. Abrams’ big screen reboot “Star Trek” in 2009, as a mentor figure quickly sidelined for the people who actually mattered, but it wasn’t until Pike became a regular on the second season of “Star Trek: Discovery” that the character came fully into view. Stepping into the vaguely dad-shaped space left by Greenwood in Paramount+’s “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” Anson Mount offers up something surprisingly rare on TV these days: a charming, straightforward good guy. His affable presence is maybe not the best reason to produce yet another “Star Trek” prequel series — but it’s not the worst, either.
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Not that Mount is the only thing “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” has to offer. The new series is full of familiar character names, taken both from that failed pilot and from the original series proper. These include Ethan Peck as Spock and Rebecca Romijn as Number One, both reprising roles they first played on “Discovery,” as well Celia Rose Gooding as communications prodigy Noyta Uhura and Jess Bush as Nurse Christine Chapel. Trivia fans will recognize Doctor M’Benga from two episodes of the original series (here played by Babs Olusanmokun), and the eyebrows of anyone familiar with the franchise will likely be raised at hearing the name of the Enterprise’s new chief of security, La’an Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong).
As fan service goes, it’s reasonable enough, only occasionally veering into the overly cute. But fan service on its own does not a show make, and the question “Strange New Worlds” has to answer right from the start is: why? “Trek” has done prequel series before, but both “Enterprise” and “Discovery” at least tried to find new angles on the material, with varying degrees of success. “Strange New Worlds” is telling the story of a captain whose most important action was sitting in a chair before someone else used it. Where’s the novelty? What’s the point?
Going by the first five episodes of its first season, “Strange New Worlds’” answer is more or less: who cares? The new series wallows in references to the original, and while some of the nods offer a different perspective on established canon (for example, a chance to hear T’Pring’s side of the story a decade before she forces Spock and Kirk to fight to the death in “Amok Time”), there’s no serious attempt at subversion here. Where “Discovery” spent most of its first season putting on and taking off half a dozen different identities, “Strange New Worlds” is content to fall back on the basics: a likable cast traveling the galaxy, having wacky sci-fi adventures, and generally having a hell of a good time.
By and large, this approach works. While it lacks “Discovery’s” ambition, “Strange New Worlds” also avoids that show’s struggles with serialization and scope, as each episode limits its focus to the story at hand. The result is as straightforward and direct as the show’s leading man, and nearly as likable. There’s no strain here, and while the more episodic style may be old-fashioned, it’s refreshing to watch something that isn’t pretending to be a 10-hour movie. There’s none of the bait-and-switch that so often plagues modern streaming shows, the promise that the fireworks factory will be along soon, provided you keep watching. Characters develop and change, but their narratives don’t display the overstuffed exhaustion that comes from needing to drag a single plot out over the span of an entire season.
Anyone who’s watched a modern “Trek” show will recognize the franchise’s current fixation on broad emotional beats, with every heartfelt moment landing with all the subtlety of a Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercial. It’s an approach that can wear thin over time, especially given the soundtrack’s insistence on underlining every earnest confession and inspiring speech with the musical equivalent of a firehose. But even there, the episodic storytelling helps, as the show rarely gets bogged down for long by angst or despair. In some ways, the broadness feels reminiscent of the original series, back when every scene felt about three minutes away from a fist-fight or a hook-up, and if the vibe these days is more family friendly, that may be for the best.
It helps that the cast is clearly enjoying themselves. Mount’s brand, “chill silver fox with occasional worries,” sets the tone; efforts to tie in his time on “Discovery” with the current series are somewhat strained, but the overall effect of his performance is laidback and welcoming. Peck remains a strong presence as Spock, lacking Nimoy’s intensity but balancing the character’s stoicism and drier-than-dry wit with aplomb; Romijn gets more to do here than on “Discovery,” and rises to the occasion admirably. Of the rest, Chong’s security chief may be the standout, if only because her grim practicality helps to differentiate her from what is, on the whole, an aggressively lovable bunch. But there’s no deadweight to speak of, and the first five episodes give all of the main ensemble their chance to shine.
“Strange New Worlds” isn’t trying to break new ground, which is something of a relief. The show looks great, moves quickly, and does everything it can to keep the audience entertained. At times, its excess of charms can border on cloying, and some of the attempts at moral lessons are distractingly ham-fisted, but everything passes by so smoothly it’s hard to hold a grudge. The going may not be as bold as it once was, but it’s fun and rarely insulting, and most of the time, that’s enough.
“Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” premieres May 5 on Paramount+ in the U.S., with new episodes dropping weekly on Thursdays.
Correction: Dr. M’Benga appeared in Season 2 and Season 3 of the original series of “Star Trek,” not in the original pilot, “The Cage.”
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