Pilots are hard. Not only do they have to establish the show in terms of settings, characters, etc., but they also have to manage to tell an actual story while doing so. Episode 1 of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (somewhat awkwardly also titled “Strange New Worlds”) manages this in spades.
In fairness, “Strange New Worlds” isn’t a pilot in the traditional sense—it’s not designed to sell the show to the network. Rather, it’s simply the first episode of a season. This means there aren’t any awkward “pilot-y” kinks to work out (such as the very pilot-y “Encounter at Farpoint” from Star Trek: The Next Generation or the two pilots from the Original Series. So while we don’t vastly different characterizations of some members of the crew in this episode vs. the next one (looking at you Deanna Troi), we still have a fair bit of groundwork to lay for the majority of the cast, including La’an Noonian-Singh (Christina Chong), Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia), Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun), and Christine Chapel (Jess Bush). Each is given their proper introduction, and we get to learn about each in their interactions with Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) and the rest of the cast.
On one hand, La’an Noonian-Singh immediately establishes that she is completely no-nonsense in her first encounter with Pike and Spock (Ethan Peck) as she is introduced as the “New Number One.” On the other, Ortegas fits in more with Pike’s apparent less formal style of command (at least compared to captains we have seen in the past).
Dr. M’Benga appears as someone who is somewhat gregarious and clearly has a history with Pike. Nurse Chapel, who in this story is a civilian rather than in Starfleet, also appears highly competent and also gives as good as she gets in a brief interaction with La’an.
Noonian-Singh: “You make disguises.”
Chapel: “And you boss a rocketship, if, you know, we’re going all simplistic here.”
Plots and Connections
The plot often comes almost as a second thought in these pilot episodes, again because establishing the characters and they world they are in typically takes priority. In “Strange New Worlds,” however, we are introduced to two stories: the overall season arc of Pike still coming to grips with foreknowledge of his future1There has been considerable debate about how Pike equates his pending injury to death and whether that constitutes ableism. While I do agree the subject could have been handled better, I also struggle with those who might refer to Pike’s attitude as being a mentality towards disability that belongs back in the 1960s. Pike doesn’t merely suffer an injury that necessitates the use of a wheelchair. He is effectively “locked in” to a body that can do nothing but respond “Yes/No.” Surely there is some sort of middle ground here? and the episodic story of the disappearance of Una Chin-Riley a.k.a. Number One (Rebecca Romijn) on Kiley 2792A fantastic TOS-style planet name and the ramifications of that encounter.
The overall arc is a good one and does much to establish Pike’s character (I’ll talk about this throughout all of these reviews). In Episode 1, we see Pike at his most vulnerable, second-guessing whether he wants to return to Starfleet and to the captain’s chair that he knows will ultimately lead to tragedy for himself. When we first meet him in the snowy wilderness of Montana, he’s more than willing to simply let his beard grow out and to make pancakes while watching THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (an absolute classic that ties into the story later). Gentle nudges from his girlfriend/fling/FWB (?) Captain Batel (Melanie Scrofano) and more forceful (verbal) shoves from Admiral Robert April (Adrian Holmes) still leave him doubting whether he is up to the task of command. When he ultimately confides in Spock about his experience on Boreth and how it’s caused him to question his ability to effectively command because he cannot anticipate how knowledge of his fate will affect his decision-making, Spock’s advice to “seek out the good” in knowing his future is what ultimately leads Pike to solve the other problem of the episode.
This latter, episodic story is a wonderful example of a classic Star Trek trope: the Prime Directive Conundrum (though at this point in the Star Trek timeline, it’s still referred to as General Order 1, and there’s even a joke made about that). It’s interesting to me that this story too is somewhat dependent on the viewer having seen season two of Star Trek: Discovery. It is, of course, in “Through the Valley of Shadows” where we learn that Pike knows his future involves a horrific accident and that he actively chooses that future to save Discovery’s crew and possibly all sentient biological life in the galaxy. Yet we also come to learn that the current situation on Kiley 279 is entirely the result of the events of “Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2,” because the Kiley were nearby observers of the battle pitting Discovery and its allies against Control’s ships3The idea that a society like the one on Kiley 279, who appear to be about the level we are at today, could come up with a warp drive/bomb simply by watching the skies and seeing a battle between starships is…dubious..
Because of their proximity to that conflict, the ruling class of Kiley 279 were able to reverse-engineer a warp drive that they plan to use as a weapon against a resistance group—as Spock calls it, a “warp bomb.” This also means that the crew must rescue Una and the other crewmembers from the USS Archer (all two of them, which seems low to me but…) without violating General Order One and contaminating the culture of the planet.
This leads to some fun heist shenanigans that begin in sickbay where Nurse Chapel “messes with the genomes” of Pike, Spock, and La’an. We also get a bit more background into La’an as she refuses to be sedated during the gene therapy procedure—hints at her backstory are sprinkled throughout this episode and the next two before culminating in the events of episode four (stay tuned). La’an also demonstrates her ability to think on the fly as, after some fun beaming-in comments about alleys and Spock’s lack of pants, she quickly comes up with a “Damsel in Distress/Vulcan Neck Pinch” solution to getting into a secure area.
After breaking Una and the others out of prison, the crew’s escape is hampered by Spock rejecting the gene therapy and reverting to his normal Vulcan appearance. In a moment that honestly made me cheer the first time I saw it, Pike responds to being held at gunpoint by the Kiley guards with that classic science-fiction trope: “Take me to your leader.”
The climax of this episode is pure Star Trek. Pike’s initial conversation with the Kiley leader doesn’t go over very well, at which point he decides to completely throw General Order One out the window, revealing Enterprise to the population in a moment that is both right out of the Captain Kirk playbook (see, for example, “A Piece of the Action”) and also channels Klaatu (Michael Rennie) from that classic science-fiction movie he was watching at the start of the episode.
When it looks like nothing is going to stop the Kiley government from going to war with the opposing faction, Pike beams down right into their meeting. Unlike THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, he doesn’t threaten to destroy the Kiley. No, he’s going to let them do that themselves if they so choose. But he does have a message and a warning for them first. He then proceeds to tell the history of his/our planet, how we nearly destroyed ourselves, and how we survived to overcome petty grievances to reach for and travel among the stars.
This scene is quite simply Star Trek at its best.
Much has been made about the inclusion of footage from the January 6, 2020, riot in this sequence, with some complaining that it made them uncomfortable or that it was unnecessarily politicizing the show4I will be honest and say I felt a touch of schadenfreude over seeing the same people celebrating the return of the White Captain to Star Trek being the ones who were hit over the head with the climax of the episode.. Baloney. If you don’t think Star Trek has been political in the past, then you just haven’t been paying attention. And if seeing that riot footage lumped in with a nuclear cataclysm that became World War III makes you uncomfortable well then, good. It should! I am glad that the showrunners had the guts to include this in the show because it makes people uncomfortable.
And if you decide that it makes you too uncomfortable, then maybe it’s not the show for you. Just remember that this is also the show that showed a race war sparked by which half was black and which was white. Subtle? No. Effective? Damn straight.
Like I said above, if you’re only noticing a political message in Star Trek now, you just haven’t been paying attention.
Perhaps somewhere all your ends are written as indelibly as mine. But I chose to believe that your destiny’s are still your own. Maybe that’s why I’m here. To remind you of the power of possibility. Maybe that’s the good in seeing my future. That I might remind you that right up until the very end, life is to be worn gloriously. Because until our last moment, the future is what we make it.Christopher Pike
ll that’s left is a bit of perfunctory wrap-up. La’an is given the opportunity to stay aboard, which she of course accepts. We see Chief Engineer Hemmer for the first time, beaming up to join the crew. And we get the payoff of the brief mention of “Lieutenant Kirk” being due to come aboard early on in the episode. Except it’s Samuel Kirk (Dan Jeannotte)! I’ll admit it…I loved this, because it never occurred to me that it might be someone we saw ever so briefly laying there dead on Deneva Colony in “Operation—Annihiliate!”
With the entire crew aboard and Captain Pike, seemingly for now at least, recovering from his trauma, all that’s left is to warp away to begin the next nine episodes of adventures. “Hit it!”
Moment(s) of Melumad
As I mentioned in my first post for this rewatch, I’m a BIG fan of what Nami Melumad has brought to the world of Star Trek music. For each episode, I will focus on a moment in that episode’s score that stood out to me.
And for this first episode, I’m already going to cheat by choosing two, because I just can’t help myself.
The first is our introduction (in this show at least) to Captain Pike, first in his cabin with quiet, contemplative strings—including a brief melody that sounds an awful lot like Jeff Russo’s Discovery theme—and then a wonderful swell as we cut to Pike on horseback riding through the snow. It’s the sort of writing that lends itself to the creation of character motifs and other thematic elements woven throughout a series and something that I honestly feel has been lacking in the latter seasons of Star Trek: Discovery.
The second is a bit from the end of the episode. Here, Melumad introduces a motif for Pike that plays over at least two scenes of him looking out the window under very different circumstances. Here, he is at peace with what is to come, referring to himself in his captain’s log as, “a lucky man,” which then shifts to some wonderful treatments of Alexander Courage’s original themes and Jeff Russo’s take on that material (including one moment played on bassoon, indicating that at some Trek composers remember that double reeds still exist).
- Through this entire review, I realized that I neglected to mention the early Spock on Vulcan scenes with T’Pring (Gia Sandhu). The idea of retconning the Spock/T’Pring relationship from “Amok Time” is quite honestly brilliant. Spock’s refusal to consider T’Pring’s feelings about him returning to duty absolutely squares with the T’Pring we saw in TOS, and the development of her character throughout the season is another way Strange New Worlds builds upon existing Trek canon.
- I continue to be confused that Pike shuttles over near Enterprise and then beams over from there.
- The chase scene between Nurse Chapel and the Kiley individual is goofy, but it does provide Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) with a chance to show, once again, how competent she is.
- As a fan of mid-century modern architecture, I would happily live in Pike’s quarters. Heck, I’d love to live in his cabin as well.
- I like Dan Jeannotte, but a part of me wishes Sam Kirk had just been Paul Wesley in a mustache.
- What’s wrong with the house dressing, Dr. M’Benga?
Akiva Goldsman & Alex Kurtzman & Jenny Lumet