Strange, New, Needed

Late last week, some genuine actual good news was releasedStar Trek: Strange New Worlds is the new Star Trek TV show, focusing on the Captain Pike era of the Enterprise. Anson Mount’s definitive portrayal of Pike, Ethan Peck’s subtle and interesting new take on Spock, and Rebecca Romijn’s series-stealing hyper-competent Number One are all set to return. This command crew were seen to varying degrees in the second season of Discovery and all three have been thoroughly and enthusiastically embraced by the audience.

Of course, the first question to be asked about Strange New Worlds is: what’s it going to be like? Both Discovery and Picard have dealt with mature real world issues including PTSD, the moral imperatives of the services, bereavement, and whether or not Picard’s dog is in fact the goodest of boys.

Spoiler: He is.

I love Discovery’s take on Trek. Others, not so much — they worry the Star Trek they remember and the Star Trek of today are wildly different The hope for Strange New Worlds is it will balance these demands with a less serialized approach and a hark back to the fictional models of previous incarnations of Trek.

Which is a really roundabout way of saying ‘Is Strange New Worlds going to be fun?’

Yeah it is. And I have proof.

Two Starfleet Officers Walk Into A Turbolift…

The Short Treks anthology series is one of the best strands the show has ever had. That makes Netflix’s inability to promote or show them before the next season of the show arrives all the more frustrating; doubly so with the second series. Three of them, ‘Q&A’, ‘The Trouble with Edward’ and ‘Ask Not’, spotlight the Pike-era Enterprise crew. They are Strange New Worlds Season 0 and if the show is half this good, we’re in for a real treat.

‘Q & A’ (written by Michael Chabon, directed by Mark Pellington) focuses on Spock’s first day on the Enterprise. Actually it focuses on Spock’s first hours on the Enterprise, most of which are spent locked in a frozen turbo lift with Number One.

Peck and Romijn are one of those comedy double acts that sneak up on you. Peck’s Spock is not quite as buttoned down as the later versions, clearly thrilled at where he is and vibrating with the need to prove himself. Number One invites him to ask her questions until she gets annoyed, and he bounds at that like a pointy-eared puppy. It’s adorable and in line with every other version of the iconic character, while still being unique to this era.

Romijn’s Number One has a completely arresting combination of total authority and brassy, wry charm. Her take on Number One is more buttoned down than her charmingly grumpy Colonel Baird on The Librarians, but is also more aware of the price she pays for it. This is a pivotal scene for both these officers and the future Starfleet they’ll help build. Spock is painfully honest and open. Number One lets herself be open just enough and in the best beat in the episode she and Spock share a moment of glorious theater nerd geekery. It’s a beat of pure, honest joy… and it’s all Number One allows herself, or Spock.

There’s too much to do, the universe is too wide, too many strange new worlds. It’s a touching, delicate note to finish their conversation, Una suddenly all too aware of the professional bruises she’s trained herself to ignore. One of the strongest beats in all three Short Treks this season is a moment where she feigns having to check Spock’s name. The look that passes between her and Pike, and her and Spock, says everything about how instinctively these three work together.

From the constant, playful teasing of ‘Enterprising Young Men’ in the score to the final moment on the bridge, ‘Q&A’ is a charming, sweet-natured and nuanced look at life on Starfleet’s flagship, the price that’s paid for it and the people who gladly pay it. Strange New Worlds’ emotional core is here, running the gambit between Number One’s frank assessment of Pike to a joyful, soaring rendition of Gilbert & Sullivan.

We Need To Talk About Edward

‘The Trouble with Edward’ is about an idiot. Who may be a genius. And a spy. Edward’s a complex guy.

Written by Graham Wagner and directed by Daniel Gray Longino, ‘The Trouble with Edward’ is a screwball comedy that, under the fluffy surface, is all meat. Pike cameos as he says goodbye to Lynn Lucero, an Enterprise science officer promoted to captain of the science vessel Cabot. Lynne, played with total charm and bone dry comic timing by Rosa Salazar, is excited, confided and focused.

Edward, played by Archer’s whiskey-drenched soul, H. Jon Benjamin, is… also present. On Captain Lucero’s debut mission, the crew are assigned to help feed a planet. Edward has ideas involving tribbles, meat, their convenient lack of faces and gene therapy.

The word is no. Edward therefore goes anyway.

It does not go well. We learn Edward and his gene tinkering are responsible for the tribbles’ famed exponential reproduction. They of course immediately swarm the ship, and Edward embraces his “dare to be great” moment. It’s barely audible over the sound of a tidal wave of eternally pregnant, faceless furry meat pebbles.

‘Edward’ is very funny, and elevates to breath-stealing hilarious for fans of Trek continuity gags. Salazar and Benjamin sparring is one of the most instantly entertaining things I’ve seen in a long time.

Hidden beneath it are surprising implications. Edward appears to be wearing a Section 31 jacket when he engineers the tribbles. The planet the Cabot is sent to assist just happens to be on the edge of Klingon space. Captain Lucero, newly minted and young for command, makes for an easy scapegoat. The tribbles may just be meat under their fur, but ‘Edward’ has its teeth in a pivotical piece of Trek history.

And finally, ‘Ask Not’. Directed by Sanji Sanaka and written by Kalinda Vazquez, it stars Amrit Kaur as Ensign Thira Sidhu. Alone at a supply station when her Starbase is attacked, Ensign Sidhu is tasked with guarding the prisoner responsible for the attack. This prisoner:

Tested to Destruction

What follows is a Mirror, Mirror of ‘Q & A’. Pike is Pike: driven, idealistic, bit of a problem with authority, bit more of a problem with his own being questioned. Anson Mount clearly revels in getting to play Starfleet’s King Arthur. You know he’s not the bad guy. Right? He’s PIKE! But at the same time when he’s facing down Sidhu you can’t help but wonder…

But what makes ‘Q&A’ the best of the season two Short Treks is Kaur. Sidhhu is terrified, worried, preemptively grieving, out of her depth and Not Budging An INCH. She’s a pit bull with a phaser, completely unwilling to let the possible impact the definite. Like all good Starfleet officers she works the problem in front of her, matching Pike’s alternate entreaties and rules laywer’ing beat for beat. She never stops calling him ‘Sir’. Or drops the phaser.

The end of ‘Q&A’ was when I realized CBS had to be pushing ahead with a Pike-era show. The Engine Room is too beautiful a cacophonous science fiction proscenium to be intended for a single shot. Sidhu is too riveting a character —  marked but unbowed by tragedy, maintaining a long-distance marriage — to never be seen again.

If ‘Q&A’ is a glimpse at the heart of Strange New Worlds, then ‘Ask Not’ is a glimpse at its soul: resolute, focused, idealistic, and just a little bit rock and roll.

So what do these three episodes teach us?

First, that Strange New Worlds is a show grounded in original series Star Trek without ever feeling dated or stale. ‘Q&A’ reveals another in the long line of celtic Starfleet engineers (petition for a Manx ensign?) while ‘Edward’ provides a unique perspective on a classic critter. ‘Ask Not’ continues what Discovery started, confronting Starfleet’s darker tendencies straight in the face and, like Sidhu, not backing down. Wonder and joy spliced with determination and grit.

The shorts also show us that this is a show with a welcome modern approach to casting. Pike and Spock aside, the entirety of the rest of the Enterprise crew we see present as women, and an overwhelming proportion are not white. All of them are fun, nuanced, interesting characters who breathe life into a very different era of a very familiar ship.

The three shorts embody the exact qualities Mount, Peck and Romijn mention in the announcement. The curiosity of a new science officer on the biggest assignment of his life. The welcoming presence of a captain simultaneously the paragon of virtue and who just wants his damn red thing. The optimism of the benchmark of Starfleet first officer. The unifying ideals of an organisation that has its best days ahead of it. The future. Out there and getting closer all the time.

Like the man says, ‘Hit it.’

Both seasons of Star Trek: Short Treks are available now on blu-ray. They are some of the best examples of Trek, and TV drama, in any form, I’ve seen. Go get them

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is in early production now.

Star Trek: Discovery’s first two seasons are available in the UK on Netflix. If you bounced off season one, give season two a try, it’s a very different show.

Star Trek: Picard’s first season just finished on Amazon Prime.

Star Trek: Lower Decks has begun airing in the US and…so far nowhere else I know of.

Star Trek: Short Treks’ second season will presumably show up on Netflix at the same time Discovery season 3 does. One episode, ‘Children of Mars’, is actually a vital lead-in to Picard. Turns out distribution rights are why we can’t have nice things. Or at least timely ones.

This piece originally appeared as part of my weekly newsletter, The Full Lid . If you liked it, and want a weekly down of pop culture enthusiasm, occasional ketchup recipes and me enjoying things, then check out the archive and sign up here.

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