emergency discussion

Hooray, Star Trek Feels Like Star Trek Again

In its tone, characterization, and storytelling, Strange New Worlds shows Star Trek learning from its past while charting a new course for its future. Photo: Marni Grossman/Paramount+

Occasionally, it is necessary to convene a conversation between Vulture writers to discuss an important and timely issue in culture. This time, critics Angelica Jade Bastién and Kathryn VanArendonk discuss their mutual admiration of the newest Star Trek television series, Strange New Worlds, and what makes it feel more like Star Trek than any of its recent predecessors in the franchise.

Angelica Jade Bastién: I’m so excited to get into this. A fun Star Trek series? What a concept. I want to start with a simple question, Kathryn: What’s your relationship to the Star Trek franchise?

Kathryn VanArendonk: My first Star Trek was The Next Generation, and my earliest memories of it are of surreptitiously trying to watch it over my father’s shoulder so he didn’t realize I was watching and then turn it off. Within a few years, I was trying to catch it whenever it happened to be on because that’s how TV worked in the early ’90s, and for decades I was haunted by seeing only half of “The Big Goodbye” before being told it was dinnertime. (How did the holodeck become real, Angelica?!) At some point, I made my way through all of Deep Space Nine and most of the movies, but my relationship was then and has largely remained fond familiarity rather than “able to hold my weight in a grad-student Star Trek trivia game where you have to know the name of the service tunnels.” How about you?

AJB: Anyone who truly knows me knows my love of Star Trek is lifelong. When I was a young girl, my mother would sometimes play TNG when braiding my hair at night, and the curiosity and camaraderie of the series set something aflame within me. While I hold the belief that TNG is the platonic ideal of a Star Trek series, DS9 is the best the franchise has ever been — not just curious but bristling in its confrontations toward capitalism and fascism, while feeling intrinsically Black thanks to Avery Brooks as Captain Benjamin Sisko. I have seen every film and series, some of them, like TNG and DS9, several times over. I can hold my weight in a Star Trek trivia game with the best of them.

So I feel confident in asserting that the problem with modern Star Trek, with Discovery as the nadir of this, is that it has internalized all the wrong lessons about the franchise’s history. It sometimes feels like these creators are uncomfortable with being Star Trek, so they try to conform its trappings into shapes that don’t work. Star Trek is wholly political (I’d say even edging toward communism sometimes) and culturally curious. It should not be relentlessly grim, dim, and cruel, nor should it be empty fan service that mentions its past but doesn’t learn from it.

What makes Strange New Worlds work so much better — I’d argue it’s the best Star Trek has been in decades — is that it has learned from its past while charting a new course for its future. I was extremely hesitant when I learned it was happening as a prequel to the original series, which I actually don’t much care for beyond the films. I have also grown tired of Spock as a linchpin, especially since Leonard Nimoy’s performance is so, so damn good and specific. But Strange New Worlds surprised me. I think the show is indebted to DS9 far more than people are talking about — looking at Captain Christopher Pike cooking for his crew!

KVA: I am 100 percent onboard with your assessment that Strange New Worlds is the best the franchise has been for a long time. The thrill of Discovery and Picard was always wrapped up in the potential of streaming TV more broadly: What could TV be if it weren’t so stuck inside the commercial constraints of network television? What if it didn’t have to bend to episodic limitations or act breaks that could squeeze in ads for new cars? That frontier seemed so exciting and so wide open, and given the approach to other genre franchises (and to shiny, expensive TV more generally), it was not hard to feel excited about what a modern-era Star Trek could be. It could be heavily serialized; it could be grimdark and finally take stuff seriously; it could jettison all the goofy side plots where everyone just sits around playing poker and Data talks about his relationship to cat ownership. And sure, all of that is very exciting in the way that anything you’ve never seen before sounds like a fun new experience.

What Discovery, Picard, and now the sharp left turn of Strange New Worlds suggest, though, is that if you take out episodic storytelling and quiet human character beats and jam-pack every episode with multiple timelines and mirror worlds and perpetually looping elaborate backstories, what you have is … no longer Star Trek. The reason Strange New Worlds feels like the best Star Trek has been, for me, is that it feels like the only recent installment in the franchise that is actually a Star Trek show.

AJB: Exactly. I feel like Discovery and Picard are Star Trek in name only. The episodic nature, the silliness, the sweet interpersonal dynamics among the crew — that’s what makes this franchise what it is. They’re baked into the concept as much as the series’ curiosity and utopian, communal beliefs.

Before getting further into what works about Strange New Worlds, though, I want to touch on one issue I have: For all its grandeur and beauty, I do worry about Star Trek’s inability to look beyond its own past (beyond Discovery, which is terrible). Where is a post–Dominion War series, damn it?! Strange New Worlds is genuinely fun and nimble and dynamic, but I hope those in charge now do not interpret its success to mean the franchise should remain rooted in its own past. We have to move forward and beyond Spock.

Which brings me to how the show is handling characterization. We should start with Spock specifically, but the rest of the crew is full of revered legacy characters at the beginning of their Starfleet careers, like Uhura, and new characters who are connected to old ones, like La’an Noonien-Singh, who is related to the franchise’s infamous villain Khan. How are you feeling about Spock? Do you think the series is finding new dimensions in the character?

KVA: Ethan Peck’s Spock, for me, succeeds because it does not feel like a Nimoy impression. There are influences, certainly. The way that character relates to everyone else and his role in the ship’s overall group dynamic feel tied to the original Spock without being overly beholden or nitpicky. In general, I dislike prequels, especially those with an earlier version of a beloved character — that later iteration feels like homework, and watching Guy You Know But Young Now tends to have that sense of wanting the writers and performers to show their work. I know the answer is Spock, so now they have to solve for Spock.

There is still some of that in Strange New Worlds, but Peck’s Spock and Celia Rose Gooding’s Uhura both have a shining inner sincerity that pushes against the cynical foreknowledge of why these characters are in this series at all. It could come off as so cloying, but by and large, I find I’m just happy to spend time with them.

AJB: I think all the performances of legacy characters we’ve seen on Strange New Worlds are pretty impressive overall. The writing nods to what we’ve seen before while giving these actors the space to try to make the characters their own. Mr. I’m Gregory Peck’s Grandson is striking a good tone with Spock, and I’m surprised to find myself interested in his rendition of the character even as a Nimoy loyalist.

I’m more hesitant about Uhura, whose writing I find a little too neat. I think I struggle with Uhura more than anyone else on the show simply because her position as an emblem of Black racial progress for people like Martin Luther King Jr. makes her the trickiest to develop out of all the original series’ characters. How do you square Uhura today? How do you nod to Blackness in a universe where racial division on Earth is no longer in effect?

KVA: What really strikes me about this version of Uhura is the choice to give her some ambivalence about Starfleet. Trying to square that character now, both in terms of her cultural legacy in our world and as a Black woman in a Star Trek universe where contemporary racial identities no longer carry the same meanings, is an impossible task! But of all the ways they could’ve gone, starting from the idea that Uhura should be actively choosing to be here and that everyone onboard should start from the idea that they would be lucky to have her if she so chose — I was happier to see them go in that direction than in many of the other possibilities.

Uhura and Spock were always going to be tricky characters to pull off, but I think excellent iterations of them are bonuses: great if they work but not instantly a disaster if one of them had been a real dud. For me, if the Christopher Pike character had not really, really nailed it, the show would be sunk. I say this not out of any special love for Captain Pike! But if the Star Trek captain sucks, then very little could ever save the rest of the series. Anson Mount as Captain Pike, happily, is everything my swashbuckling pompadour space-daddy Star Trek desires could have wanted.

AJB: Oh yeah, he is totally a fine-ass space daddy. And I don’t usually go up for white men like that! So far, I am most enamored with Captain Pike and his No. 1, Una, played with steely force and precise care by Rebecca Romijn. Their characterization alchemizes dynamics we’ve seen in Star Trek before but in a bold new way.

I think a major reason the characterization is working so well comes back to the structure of the series itself. Strange New Worlds smartly takes a page from DS9’s early years in the sense that it’s episodic in nature but has overarching considerations rooted in the emotional lives of the characters, which don’t outweigh whatever new problem on a new world they have to solve, whether it’s outrunning the Gorn or Spock switching bodies accidentally with his betrothed. By having the through-lines be emotional — with Pike’s fear and resignation about his own death — allows the show a lot of space to play.

I’m now going to say something spicy that betrays me as a film critic at heart: The problem with a lot of modern television — Star Trek included — is that it has forgotten what makes television work and seems even anathematic toward the episodic, the contained, the balance necessary for a television show to work. Strange New Worlds does not have that loathsome problem.

KVA: My only argument is that I refuse to let you claim that as a film-critic stance because plenty of TV critics have been marching to the beat of that argument for a while now!

AJB: I don’t want to get into a tiff, but while I see TV critics saying this, sometimes I see a lot of grading on a curve for television shows that doesn’t bear that out. I’ll quote this 2018 piece from The Baffler: “If a decline in quality writ large is indeed evident on the networks and streaming services, one could hardly guess it from the continuing tone of TV coverage.” I know we disagree on this, but I bring this up only to say that Strange New Worlds isn’t being graded on a curve just because the Star Trek works coming out around it absolutely blow chunks.

KVA: The episodic rhythm of Strange New Worlds feels like an immense relief in the current TV landscape. It feels like such a relief that I am almost waiting, afraid, for the moment when the show suddenly abandons episodic structure and slowly bleeds into a more serialized plot. Some would be fine! A nice two-parter as a treat! But aside from the way that episodic plotting creates a solid structural framework, there’s something crucial about the way an episodic format allows Strange New Worlds to play with a variety of tones. Not every hour of the show needs to feel the same. The palette is broader, and there’s something so lovely about not knowing exactly what each new episode will feel like. I’d argue that it’s not necessarily a problem for Star Trek to be grim. The problem is when it’s grim all the time. Your point about character-based emotional through-lines fits in here, too. We can have some backstory about why Captain Pike feels haunted, but we could also have emotional through-lines about romance plots or friendships or a much broader spectrum of emotional experiences. Episodes! Are! Our! Friends!

AJB: DS9 definitely got grim at points, especially toward the end, but we still had those sweet, sweet holodeck episodes. Episodes are not only our friends; they are the structure necessary to contain the wonder a television show can produce. Limits are important to great storytelling. With Strange New Worlds, Star Trek feels at once beautifully constrained in how it wants its narrative to develop within the episodic format and limitless in the ways it can induce awe, challenge the viewer, and offer the kind of hope we all are desperately in need of — onscreen and in life.

Hooray, Star Trek Feels Like Star Trek Again