Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Star Trek: Strange New Worlds' goes there, boldly

Cadet Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) is assigned to the Enterprise on <em>Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.</em>
Marni Grossman
Cadet Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) is assigned to the Enterprise on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.

Today's Trek fan gets to belly up to a buffet heaped with an array of options; there's a flavor for every taste.

There's Star Trek: Prodigy for kids.

And Star Trek: Lower Decks for yuks.

And Star Trek: Picard for some old familiar faces.

And of course Star Trek: Discovery for ... um. Space fungi, I think? Oh and time travel, lots of that. And heavily serialized storylines that have a tendency to get way more complicated than seems strictly necessary.

And now comes still yet another option, piled high right there next to the rest of them, glistening under the sneeze-guard — Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, on Paramount Plus. And any still-hungry Trek fans out there should know that they can come to Star Trek: Strange New Worlds for, well.

For Star Trek.

Old school Star Trek, that is. Original recipe Star Trek.

A crew of optimistic space explorers noodlin' to and fro around the galaxy. Who are led by a handsome, charismatic and deeply empathetic captain. Who talk a big game about never interfering with other planets' development, constantly invoking this "Prime Directive," only to gleefully stomp the holy hell out of it everydamnwhere they go. Who meet an endless string of uncannily humanoid aliens whose species differ from one another only by virtue of their skin color and/or whatever specific arrangement of nodules got slapped on the actor's nose and forehead in the makeup trailer.

Yeah, it's that old school.

"Fan service!," some will cry. "Retread! Cynical money grab!"

Maybe so, but it's not mere nostalgia that's powering Strange New Worlds' warp core, it's also the simplicity of its premise: The Enterprise Before Kirk.

Ten years before Kirk, specifically, when the ship was under the command of Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount). Also along for the ride: A first officer aka Number One (Rebecca Romijn) and Science Officer Spock (Ethan Peck). All three actors debuted in these roles in Star Trek: Discovery (see above, in re: lots of time travel), but if you aren't keeping up with that show, don't worry about it; Strange New Worlds seems determined to shrug off Discovery's muddy continuity and blaze its own space-trail.

It's not mere nostalgia that's powering Strange New World's warp core, it's also the simplicity of its premise: The Enterprise Before Kirk.

Which is not to say the show doesn't outfit its characters with Starfleet-issued emotional baggage. Pike knows exactly when and how he will suffer a grim (and firmly in-canon) fate, Spock's wrestling with his half-human, half-Vulcan nature (must be Tuesday) and Number One is hiding a secret. But these actors became fan-favorites for a reason — Mount's take on Pike as a wry, charming leader who always seeks consensus before acting makes for a nice contrast with the brash, impulsive jerk we know will take over the captain's chair a decade later.

But it takes a village to fly a starship, so the Strange New Worlds' crew also includes a no-nonsense Security Officer (Christina Chong), a ship's doctor who's (wait for it) hiding a secret (Babs Olusanmokun), a too-cool-for-school Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) and, in the series' biggest swing, a young, fresh-out-of-the-Academy Cadet Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding).

Fans who didn't bat an eye when Peck stepped into Leonard Nimoy's boots (and ears) still might blanch at the thought of another actor taking over Uhura from Nichelle Nichols, given the iconic nature of Nichols' portrayal. The show seems to understand this, and Gooding wisely doesn't set out to adopt any of Nichols' mannerisms. Her Uhura is a young, wildly overacheiving young woman who isn't yet convinced that she's destined for a career in Starfleet. It's true that in the first five episodes made available to press, Uhura often seems like the kind of uber-wunderkind that historically dogs the franchise, and while the character does risk going Full WesleyTM, the net effect is to convince us that this Uhura might not become the Uhura viewers know. If she can do anything, as she does here, then who knows if she's still fated to end up rocking that signature earpiece?

Which ties into the overarching theme of Strange New Worlds — the nature of fate. In different ways, this Enterprise crew is struggling against the roles they've been assigned, and ceaselessly question themselves and others. And while there are, in those first five episodes, a few recurring narrative threads that will likely unspool over the course of the season, the series seems most at home telling old-school, strictly episodic Trek stories — the kind that get resolved at exactly the :50-minute mark, come hell or high water.

Contemporary visual effects (and a Paramount Plus budget) have given the Enterprise a facelift. Its hull is now studded with hundreds of teensy, warmly glowing windows, its bridge is more sleek and interactive, its sickbay more Apple-store-chic, and its crew cabins far, far more lux than you remember.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds doesn't make any apologies for that, which is part of its charm. It doesn't particularly care about the version of the Enterprise or its crew you may or may not be holding in your head, and heart. It simply wants to tell Trek stories the way they used to be told — one space battle, one diplomatic summit, one alien virus, one spatial anomaly, one transporter accident at a time.

Listen to Pop Culture Happy Hour on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.