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‘Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ is Exactly What Franchise TV Should Be

4 min read

(Paramount +)

When and James first went where no one had gone before in 1966, it's hard to imagine anyone expected (1966-1969) to birth a global . In the subsequent 56 years, Star Trek has released TV shows, movies, conventions, and all manner of tie-in materials. Look around now, and that puts Star Trek in the same breath as , , and DC in terms of sweeping franchise diversification to keep up with our intellectual property (IP) obsessed pop culture. Yet, while those peers wade through a fractured web of quality control and personnel issues, Star Trek continues to deliver exciting projects through +. Star Trek: Discovery kicked things off in 2017, and now, the recently premiered Star Trek: (2022-) solidifies the case for Star Trek as the singular success story for storytelling. 

(Paramount)

On paper, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds abides by the same franchise rules as comparable shows. It is both a spinoff of Discovery and a direct prequel to the events of the original series. Strange New Worlds follows Christopher (Anson Mount) and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise as they go forth into the universe to explore. Among the slew of new characters, Strange New Worlds also features versions of franchise favorites like Spock (Ethan Peck) and Nyota (Celia Rose Gooding). These versions of Pike and Spock debuted on Discovery, seeding the way for Strange New Worlds to fully commit to reimagined iterations of longstanding fan favorites. The central narrative engine of the show is itself a running back of the original premise. The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise ‘boldly going' into the unexplored recesses of the universe. 

So, what distinguishes Strange New Worlds from its franchise contemporaries? Putting it up beside (2022) offers a useful case study. Kenobi is the Star Wars comp for the structure Strange New Worlds employs. The show focuses on the defeated Jedi knight Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). We follow his attempts to protect young Luke Skywalker (Grant Feely) on Tatooine. Then jet off-world when Princess Leia Organa (Vivian Lyra Blair) is kidnapped. Like Mount, Peck, and Gooding, McGregor plays a version of an original text character reimagined for a prequel story. The narrative also channels both The Phantom Menace (1999) and (2019-) in its ‘child in danger' and ‘hero pulled between conflicts' storytelling. In short, the foundation resembles Strange New Worlds

However, that similar starting point rockets off into disparate directions once each show gets rolling. For Kenobi, the approach is relying almost entirely on nostalgia to carry audiences along. Plot machinations strain to remain with established canon. Everything progresses in service to ensure as much Kenobi vs. Darth Vader (Hayden Christensen) action as possible. The result is a meandering and tonally incoherent mini-series that, if there is any higher power listening, will stay as is. Star Wars launched its TV wing with the rousing Mandalorian, but even that show's season two finale revealed a Skywalker-shaped injection of nostalgia where it was broadly unnecessary. Add to that the similarly misguided The Book of Boba Fett (2021-), and it's hardly a stretch to consider Star Wars franchise TV a currently tenuous endeavor. 

(Paramount)

Hopping back to the Enterprise, Strange New Worlds thrives because it shakes off the very issues that Star Wars seems incapable of staying away from. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with incorporating longstanding characters. But, they do require a logical story reason for existing within a project. Gooding's Uhura is a prime example of what a show should do. Uhura was an experienced Star Fleet member in the original series. Yet, for all her legacy, she was a character often sidelined in favor of her male counterparts. Strange New Worlds introduces a younger Uhura struggling with her place in the world. She already has her famous proficiency with language, but she's still figuring out whether Star Fleet is a good fit. Yes, we may know where she is likely to end up. Her story works because the show commits to exploring untold angles.

In a macro sense, Strange New Worlds also excels at refusing to tether itself to any plotline that exists solely to heap on nostalgia. Take “Spock Amok,” the Spock-centric fifth episode. A riff on the classic body-swap narrative sees Spock and his fiancée T'Pring (Gia Sandhu) trade consciousnesses. One part comedy of errors. Two parts moving exploration of the challenges inherent in Spock's half-human, half-Vulcan existence. “Spock Amok” is a brilliant stand-alone episode of television. It also happens to be a reimagining of an original series episode titled “Amok Time,” In that episode, Leonard Nimoy's Spock, in short, has to go to Vulcan and have sex with T'Pring or he might die. Its story foregrounds the importance of Kirk and Spock's relationship while treating T'Pring as a plot device. Therefore, “Spock Amok” tells its own story while critically engaging with the past. 

Altogether, Strange New Worlds offers a blueprint for how franchise TV can engage with legacy without being sunk by unhealthy worship of it. For every “Spock Amok” that intentionally remixes the past, the show also delivers inventive experiments. Consider “The Kingdom of Elysian,” a heartfelt adventure episode centered on Dr. M'Benga (Babs Olusanmokun). M'Benga was a throwaway supporting character in two episodes of the original series, but Strange New Worlds empowers Olusanmokun to sculpt him into a vital member of the crew, and “The Kingdom of Elysian” is a poignant romp that stands alone as a beautiful episode of television. All of this embodies lessons the likes of Star Wars should learn from Strange New Worlds. Nostalgia is not enough to justify a story, and the sooner other franchises understand that the quicker TV can have more shows like Strange New Worlds.