Review of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, The First Season

snwIf you follow this blog, you know I’ve been reviewing, episode by episode, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Basically, it’s Kurtzman NuTrek designed to appeal to the old school “Star Trek” fan like me. Did it work?

Sort of.

First of all, let’s be clear that you can’t make a television show (or any art form) in 2022 and have it seem like it was created in 1966. All art is a reflection of its time. If you remade films like Casablanca (1942) or Gone With The Wind (1939) today, they wouldn’t be anything like the original classics because approximately eighty years have passed.

So expecting SNW to be like the original Star Trek starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy is completely unrealistic.

That said, I totally miss that era in science fiction and in television in general.

There’s almost no way to compare the two shows and yet, it begs the question was SNW “Star Trek?”

What makes Star Trek “Star Trek?”

I guess that’s a matter of opinion. One element that Star Trek requires is hope.

Starting in the 1970s and continuing on until today, science fiction has become increasingly dystopian. Instead of the future ultimately yielding a happy ending, it ended up generally being depressing, frustrating, ghastly, inhuman, and yes, hopeless. I think it’s probably why the superversive movement in science fiction was launched. Even the so-called “happy endings” in modern science fiction often thumbed their proverbial noses at the values Roddenberry’s original Star Trek embraced.

Often I hear that Roddenberry’s original work (and science fiction in general) was always progressive (one person on twitter even said Roddenberry was a Communist), but it never distained families, children, strong male characters, basic morality and ethics, hard work, creativity, and the sense that tomorrow can be better than yesterday.

I must admit that SNW did try to communicate that. There were speeches Pike (Anson Mount) gave in the pilot episode and “Memento Mori” that harkened back to that sense of hopefulness in the future. Dr. M’Benga’s devotion to his daughter was another nice touch. The idea that there are still families and that Dads can still love their daughters was wonderful. There was a suggestion that M’Benga was married and that his wife died, but it was never explored, which is a pity.

As much as some people will hate me saying this, there wasn’t a tremendous amount of “woke” in the series. Oh it was always present, but the writers managed not to rub the audience’s collective nose in it too much (at least not to the nauseating degree that Star Trek: Discovery does).

You see, I don’t believe, as I said HERE, that every single moment, in every single work of science fiction or fantasy absolutely, positively MUST be dripping with social justice and representation themes and nothing else at all. That’s not good writing, that’s the writers stroking themselves because it feels good (and as comedian Louis C.K. discovered, that isn’t a very good thing for those of us being forced to watch).

So there was hope…sometimes.

Okay, I’ll admit it. The original series wasn’t always great. The shows were uneven. The third season is all but unwatchable. If it had been originally broadcast in the age of social media, it might have been ripped to shreds. The original series was almost cancelled after season two, and after the miserable season three it deserved it. Only when it went into syndication in the early 1970s, did audiences somehow find the magic and it’s taken off ever since.

Besides hope, what makes Star Trek “Star Trek” are the characters. We have to not only see ourselves (everybody, the majority, not just certain “special” groups) in them, but see the future.

That, however, can be a double-edged sword.

uhura

Promotional photo of Nichelle Nichols as Uhura for Star Trek.

In the original series, having a black woman (Uhura played by the recently departed Nichelle Nichols) and an Asian man (Sulu played by George Takei) on the bridge of the Enterprise was risky business. People thought the show would never be accepted in America’s “Bible belt”. In fact, the first Star Trek pilot The Cage was rejected by the studio, in part, because they thought no one would accept that a woman (Number one played by Majel Barrett) could be second-in-command of the Enterprise.

But surprise, surprise. No one breathed a word. What happened, without any social justice pontificating, was that audiences just accepted that in the future, any racial issues would be resolved and everyone would naturally live and work together.

Contrast that with today and the SNW episode The Serene Squall where very prominent trans, non-binary actress (pronouns she/her) Jesse James Keitel played prominent trans, non-binary pirate Aspen/Angel, so much so, that it was all over news and social media with the warning to audiences “you’d better like this or else.”

I’m not exaggerating all that much.

If Keitel was just inserted into the story and it played as is, much like the old school Star Trek rogue Harry Mudd (Roger C. Carmel), we would have accepted the tale for what it was (other flaws included) and that would have been that. Objectively, Keitel looks like she had a lot of fun in the role (although Ethan Peck had to really play up being an absolutely inept Spock) and frankly, the character was compelling enough to deserve a comeback in season 2. The extra social justice emphasis only detracted from what could have been a pretty good story. It was kind of why actress Brie Larson pretty much ruined the film Captain Marvel with her “promotion” of the movie.

Back to the characters. A number of familiar names were included. Pike, Spock, Number One (Rebecca Romijn), Christine Chapel (Jess Bush), Nyota Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding), and T’Pring (Gia Sandhu). I’m going to add James T. Kirk (Paul Wesley) just because, you know…Kirk.

Absolutely none of them behaved the way their original series characters behaved. None.

urban

Karl Urban as McCoy in Star Trek (2009)

At least the J.J. Abrams film Star Trek (2009) featured the fabulous Karl Urban as McCoy. Urban absolutely nailed the role. Although Simon Pegg wasn’t really like James Doohan’s Scotty, he had the dual benefits of being a real Scot and being funny. I even liked Bruce Greenwood’s Pike, certainly better than Mount’s. Oh, it’s not that Mount is terrible in the role, but most of the time, he’s more of a cheerleader than a Captain.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I really did feel sorry for Paul Wesley. I’m sure he’s a terrific actor, but if you’re going to play such an iconic role, you either have to nail “Shatner” or forget it. It didn’t work so well for Chris Pine either.

Particularly good episodes were the pilot, “Memento Mori,” “All Those Who Wander,” and “A Quality of Mercy.” I say that with the understanding that if you’ve read my reviews of them, you know they had a lot of holes.

Really bad episodes…well the worse was “Spock Amok.” I’m critical of “The Serene Squall” for the reasons I mentioned above. All of the others went from “meh” to irritating (particularly “Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach,” the child abuse episode).

Special mention of “The Elysian Kingdom.” I loved how the actors were allowed to be completely different characters (often better than who they usually play) except for M’Benga, Ortegas (Melissa Navia), and Hemmer (Bruce Horak) although the latter seemed to have a great time playing “engineer/magician.” It also pulled on my heartstrings with M’Benga having to give up his daughter so she could live.

The whole Pike “I know I’m going to be horribly injured in the future and trying to figure out my fate” arc could have been done away with. I mean, what the heck? Kirk didn’t struggle with the foreknowledge of dying on Veridian III in the film Star Trek: Generations (1994). We got along just fine following the adventures of Kirk and the Enterprise crew week after week without having the Captain fret over his future demise.

The season was only 10 episodes long, and again, I’ve mentioned before, that’s hardly enough time to become attached to characters enough to mourn them when they are gone, such as M’Benga’s daughter and Hemmer. The first season of the original series contained 29 episodes, almost three times the number. We had so much longer in that first run to learn about and understand Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and the rest.

I know television has changed in fifty or sixty years, but it seems like this could be a case of trading bigger budgets per episode for good storytelling and character development.

Oh, and I hate Pike’s “Johnny Bravo” hair. I hate Spock’s ridiculous sideburns, too.

Obviously, I’m arriving at this show late in the game. I did hear about the episodes from my son who watched them as they were being streamed so I knew something of what I was getting into. But there’s no substitute for experiencing a story for yourself.

I suppose SNW is about as close as you’ll get to “Star Trekness” in the 2020s. There was the good and the bad. At least through the lens of nostalgia, it’ll never be as good, as grounded in old school “space operaness.”

In 1966, Gene Roddenberry did something no one had ever done before. He created the first science fiction television show that wasn’t an anthology, that had continuing characters in the same internally consistent universe. He did something incredibly special. That’s what captured me as a twelve-year-old boy, and by the time it went into syndication, that’s what captured the world.

Star Trek went on to be a highly successful franchise, spawning a seemingly endless series of films and spinoff shows. Ultimately, it went in directions, Roddenberry probably could never have imagined, but that all still had his vision at the core.

Recently, William Shatner said that Roddenberry would be turning in his grave at the thought of NuTrek. Actress Melissa Navia (Ortegas) fired back at him in social media, asking if he’d ever watched any of the new shows.

roddenberry

Promotional photo on the set of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I wonder if it matters?

Navia was born in 1984 (her birthday’s on August 24th so it’s coming up) and Roddenberry died in 1991. That would have made Navia seven years old when he passed on, so even if she’d met him, she would have been a child at the time.

Shatner had a decades long working relationship and friendship with Roddenberry, so he’s probably better equipped to determine what would or wouldn’t make him “turn in his grave.”

I suppose the “proof of the pudding” is whether or not I’ll watch the second season. I haven’t made up my mind yet. Maybe I will out of morbid curiosity or just to continue these reviews which I do enjoy. But reviewing isn’t the same thing as watching to be entertained. There’s no real magic in these shows the way there was in the original series, Next Generation, or the others that followed. Of course, most Star Trek spinoffs never found their “legs” until the second or third seasons, so maybe there’s hope.

That’s what I’m looking for, not just from Star Trek or science fiction, but from the future…hope.

Here’s my three minute or less review on TikTok. Remember to support your indie authors and publishers. In a few years, we might be the only good storytellers left.

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