Star Trek: Strange New Worlds — streaming on Paramount+ from Wednesday, 22 June — has arrived when Star Trek fans need it the most.
It’s been something of a bumpy voyage for Gene Roddenberry’s space opera since it entered the age of ‘prestige’ TV.
Recent outings including Discovery and Picard have, at times, felt rather joyless. More a slog than a trek. Storylines have been flimsy yet arduously protracted, as though the writers haven’t yet got to grips with the task of plotting a season-long arc.
Where has been the humour? What happened to the playfulness and that sense of optimism which was baked into the Original Series and the Next Generation?
Well, it seems that all these elements were being saved up for this latest iteration, the title of which — Strange New Worlds — can be traced back to James T Kirk’s mission statement. Only it’s not Kirk in the captain’s chair on this gleaming new bridge – rather his predecessor Christopher Pike, played with homespun charm by Anson Mount.
Where William Shatner’s buccaneering hero was acknowledged to be a sci-fi Horatio Hornblower, Mount’s captain is a folksier figure, a kind of futuristic Pa Walton, but with a sculpted quiff that grows taller by the episode.
And yet despite it featuring a lead character who isn’t as familiar to the passing viewer as Kirk would no doubt be, this is the sole show out of the five spin-offs currently in production to capture the spirit of what Roddenberry created back in the 1960s.
It helps, of course, that we’re back on board the USS Enterprise, a starship cherished by fans but also instantly recognisable to the layperson. It's a terrific hangout. A place you instantly want to inhabit. And on board are certain crew members, including Spock (Ethan Peck) and Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) that those with just a passing knowledge of the franchise will already be aware. All, I must add, wearing souped-up versions of those classic blue, red and gold Starfleet uniforms.
Read more: Takei responds to Shatner's 'bile'
But look past the set and the costumes and what you have most importantly is that key upbeat ethos of exploration. Of vistas being beamed onto. Aliens encountered for the first time. And presented to us viewers as good old-fashioned episodic TV.
Now this is going to annoy Deep Space Nine devotees (of which I’m one) who loved the seasons-spanning Dominion War, but Star Trek is not at its best when the storytelling is serialised. And if the most recent season of Picard proved anything, it’s that characters deserve more than to be stranded in 21st century Los Angeles doing not very much for weeks at a time. The galaxy is a vast place – and Strange New Worlds is wisely opting to give us a tour.
So, despite debuting in the era of binge-watches and multi-part narratives, what we have here is a welcome back-to-basics approach. Uncomplicated yet undeniably stylish, with engaging planet-of-the-week dramas and knotty ethical dilemmas. Because, yes, that’s another key feature that Strange New Worlds is resurrecting: the allegory.
A little too on-the-nose at times, but since when was Star Trek’s moralising and sermonising ever that subtle? And at least the episodes feel that they’re striving to be about something. Whisper it, but the main preoccupation of Picard did seem to be deferring gratification in order to reach a damp-squib finale that failed to reward our investment.
Admittedly, things aren’t perfect on Pike’s Enterprise. The inclusion of Christine Chapel (Jess Bush) in the sickbay feels off, as her personality is at odds with what actor Majel Barrett gave us in the 60s. Then there’s the use of the antagonistic Gorn, which may leave fandom struggling to square their actions here with what’s the already established canon.
Aenar chief engineer Hemmer (Bruce Horak) is underused in the opening half of season one, as is the enigmatic Number One (Rebecca Romijn). And then there are the huge living quarters and state-of-the-art graphics, which look far more sophisticated than anything featured in Shatner’s day – odd, as this is essentially a prequel to that beloved Original Series.
But these are minor gripes in the grand scheme of things. After five years barely getting by on impulse power, it finally feels as though Star Trek has recharged its dilithium crystals.
It certainly made this jaded old fan a believer again, so here’s hoping this particular captain’s log stays open for a good while to come.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds boldly launches with three episodes on Paramount+ from 22 June, with new episodes released weekly. Watch a teaser below.