It’s 1965. The pilot episode for Star Trek is submitted to NBC for consideration. Sold to the network as a space western, the series starred Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike and Leonard Nimoy as Mr Spock, and charted their adventures through the stars. Or it would have: the pilot was rejected by NBC for failing to live up the initial ‘Wagon Train to the stars’ pitch, ultimately deemed “too cerebral” to go to series.
It’s 1966. A second Star Trek pilot is submitted to NBC, given a rare second chance despite the expensive failure of the first. Jeffrey Hunter opted not to reprise his role as Captain Pike, choosing instead to devote his energies to his film career; Hunter was replaced by William Shatner, playing new character Captain James T Kirk. This version of Star Trek was more successful, and is commissioned by NBC for a further 28 weekly episodes.
It’s 2022. Star Trek has gone from a failed television pilot to an expansive media franchise, encompassing 844 episodes of television across nine different spinoff series (to say nothing of the thirteen cinema outings). It’s the centrepiece of new streaming service Paramount+, which aims to have a new episode of Star Trek almost every week of the year. Their flagship show is Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, explicitly positioned as a back-to-basics prequel, starring Anson Mount as Captain Christopher Pike. Nearly 60 years later, the original Star Trek pilot has finally gone to series.
After the experiments and innovations of Discovery (often good, rarely great) and Picard (decent first season, catastrophic second), Strange New Worlds steers Star Trek back to a formula that originated in the 1960s. There’s an episodic ‘planet of the week’ structure, an ensemble cast who each get their own feature episode, and it offers its own take on almost obligatory Star Trek staples like ‘the crew catch a strange virus’ or ‘this week it’s a medieval costume drama, don’t question it’.
All of which is to say that Strange New Worlds is openly and unashamedly a throwback – and often, it has to be said, a welcome one. There’s a lot to be said for that episodic planet of the week structure, which allows the series to indulge in a number of different tones and styles, and means that it’s never shackled to a serialised plotline that doesn’t work. It tells new and complete stories each week, some better than others – Spock Amok is a highlight, while Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach is… not – but always complete within a 50-minute window. The result is a series with more range than its closest genre neighbours, and in a literal sense more to recommend it too: if you don’t like this week’s, you might like the next’s.
Beyond that, it helps that the ensemble cast itself is a particularly strong one, with most of the fun of Strange New Worlds borne of their collective charms. Anson Mount is dynamic and charismatic, and Ethan Peck is pitch-perfect as a younger Spock – pleasingly, though, Strange New Worlds really does function as an ensemble, and finds space for each character to shine. It has clever character takes on some of them, especially for a prequel: young Uhura’s ambivalence about Starfleet, only staying when she realises the difference she makes there, neatly mirrors actor Nichelle Nichol’s own near departure from the series before Martin Luther King encouraged her to stay. For others, it simply trusts – often rightly, in fairness – that if the performances are solid, that’s enough.
Where the series falls down, though, is in another detail borrowed from the 1960s. Even after Star Trek went to series, it was always on the verge of running out of money; footage from the original pilot episode was eventually recycled into a flashback episode as a cost-saving measure, with a wheelchair-bound (and heavily scarred, because Jeffrey Hunter wasn’t available) version of Pike returning too. That’s something Anson Mount’s version of Pike is aware of. He has visions of himself, scarred and in a wheelchair, which are shot like a horror movie. Foreknowledge of his life changing – ending, as he puts it, the series framing disability like death – is a recurring motivator for the character in one of Strange New Worlds’ few lightly serialised elements.
Much as there’s a thematic appeal to a character in a prequel that, like the audience, knows their eventual fate, there’s something deeply uncomfortable about how Strange New Worlds integrates that into its storytelling. It’s hard not to feel like this new series has also embraced 1960s morality along with its television stylings – even conceding, charitably, for the fact that foreknowledge of future disability would elicit a complicated reaction, Strange New Worlds doesn’t allow for that complexity. It takes the simple stance that a wheelchair and scars are equivalent to death, and that’s undeniably and uncomplicatedly ableist.
Within that, you start to see what could or should be the roadmap for Strange New Worlds into its second season (beyond hiring more disabled writers and directors, anyway). It’s found a way to retrieve the best bits of the 1960s, to dust them off and make them work again. Now it needs to find a way to abandon the worst of them – and then, hopefully, it can start to boldly go somewhere entirely new.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds begins on Paramount+ in the UK on Wednesday 22 June. I’ve seen the first 7 episodes of an eventual 10 before writing this review. You can read more of our TV reviews here.