'Strange New Worlds' is the most enjoyable 'Star Trek' show since the original
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. This week Paramount+ unveiled a new science fiction series, but it's also, in a way, a series that's very, very old. It's called "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds." And basically, it brings to fruition a TV series that NBC first proposed and made an unsuccessful pilot episode of in 1965. The "Star Trek" universe, like the "Star Wars" universe that followed it a decade later, obeys the laws of physics of our own universe. It's constantly expanding. And like "Star Wars," the original adventures of "Star Trek" ended up in the middle of the canon with other stories added that were either sequels or prequels.
"Star Trek" as it was first broadcast began on NBC in 1966 and ran for three years, never cracking the top 20, but making an ever-widening pop culture footprint. William Shatner starred as James T. Kirk, captain of the Starship Enterprise, and Leonard Nimoy played his half-human, half-Vulcan sidekick, Mr. Spock. Eventually, other "Star Trek" TV series and movies followed. On TV alone, counting only the live-action, non-animated "Star Trek" shows, there have been four sequels - "The Next Generation," "Deep Space Nine," "Voyager" and a current Paramount+ offering, "Picard."
As for the prequels, which cover the territory before Kirk and Spock teamed up, there's been the series called "Enterprise" showing that starship's maiden voyages, and "Star Trek: Discovery," another current Paramount+ show. And now we have "Strange New Worlds," a new "Star Trek" narrative that pulls characters and plot points not just from "Discovery," but also from the very origins of the "Star Trek" series itself. And here's the surprising, exciting part. I've seen five episodes of "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds," and they're really, really fun. This is the most enjoyable "Star Trek" show since the original.
It's a genuine throwback in more ways than one. The captain in "Strange New Worlds" is Christopher Pike, played by Anson Mount, who played the same character throughout Season 2 of "Discovery" and now gets to deliver this new show's opening narration, a major nod to the original "Star Trek."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS")
ANSON MOUNT: (As Captain Christopher Pike) Space - the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission - to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPACESHIP WHIZZING)
BIANCULLI: The nostalgia doesn't end there. The creators of this new series are all about connecting all the "Star Trek" dots. Pike is called back from self-imposed retirement to take charge of the USS Enterprise once again, and his crew members include a new recruit named Uhura and a returning Starfleet science officer named Spock. This younger version of Spock is played by Ethan Peck, who nailed the role on "Discovery" and nails it again here, reuniting with Pike as the captain beams up to the bridge of the Enterprise.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS")
MOUNT: (As Captain Christopher Pike) How are you, Mr. Spock?
ETHAN PECK: (As Spock) Systems are all nominal. But as you know, no simulations were run.
MOUNT: (As Captain Christopher Pike) Thank you, Chief Kyle.
PECK: (As Spock) The main AI has been upgraded. Personal rotation was in process. A few officers will have to billet after the mission. That includes the chief engineer and Lieutenant Kirk, whom I know you requested.
MOUNT: (As Captain Christopher Pike) Seems like a million years ago.
PECK: (As Spock) Three months, 10 days, four hours, five minutes, actually.
MOUNT: (As Captain Christopher Pike) I asked how you were, Spock.
PECK: (As Spock) I am well, Captain. Although I confess, each time I return to space, the weight I carry for the loss of my sister feels heavier.
MOUNT: (As Captain Christopher Pike) Sorry. I miss her, too.
BIANCULLI: The sister they're referring to is the central character of "Discovery," who, like that series, has time-jumped 900 years into the future. So that makes "Discovery" no longer a prequel but a sequel, and that's getting way too deep into the sci-fi weeds. All you need to know is that "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds" is a true prequel but a modern one - both retro and shiny, old-fashioned and sleek. Its episodes are fairly self-contained. Its characters are playful and clever. And to those who know the original "Star Trek" series, there's that extra jolt of revisiting familiar characters.
There are major upgrades, for example, of Nurse Chapel and T'Pring, both of whom are better written and played by better actors than in the old series. Even Number One is here, who was a character in the never-broadcast "Star Trek" pilot from 1965, the one made before Shatner starred as Captain Kirk but instead featured actor Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike. It also had Leonard Nimoy as a more robotic Spock. And here's how that unsold pilot began - with him issuing an order. Consider it the Big Bang of the entire "Star Trek" universe.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")
LEONARD NIMOY: (As Spock) Check the circuit.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) All operating, sir.
NIMOY: (As Spock) Can't be the screen, then.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Definitely something out there, Captain, headed this way.
BIANCULLI: And now headed this way is a new series that picks up the original "Star Trek" story and that already is set to introduce the Kirk character in Season 2. Just as the original "Star Trek" by Gene Roddenberry, it manages to comment on today's society and problems while presenting adventures that are both imaginative and, on occasion, inspiring. More than 55 years later, it's still a winning formula.
(SOUNDBITE OF JEFF RUSSO'S "STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.