james debate
james debate

Friday 23 September 2022

Created by Akiva Goldsman
Network Paramount+
Starring Anson Mount, Ethan Peck, Celia Rose Gooding
Genre Sci-Fi
Running Time 46-62 minutes

star trek strange new worlds pike spock uhura discovery paramount best new show 2022 awards
It would be an understatement to say that CBS/Paramount's attempts to revitalise the Star Trek franchise have been met with mixed reception. The first attempt, Star Trek: Discovery, went to great lengths to distance itself from earlier entries in the series, instead seeking mainstream relevance by becoming a derivation of other recent successful media such as Game of Thrones, managing to alienate new and old fans alike in the process. The second attempt, Star Trek: Picard, drew all the wrong lessons from this, attempting to paper over the tonal and pacing issues with gratuitous nostalgia. Both have their flaws and, occasionally, strengths, but neither were able to consistently overcome poor writing and paper-thin characterisation.

So it is something of a minor miracle that the third attempt, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, has actually managed to nail the formula. SNW strikes the ideal blend between capturing the magic of the old series, while providing a modern refresh for today's audiences. 

A big reason for this improvement has been the shift back to episodic storytelling. Classic Star Trek certainly had its long-running story arcs, but Discovery and Picard took this to an extreme, with each season essentially becoming a ten-hour movie. This is a format derived from the worst excesses of the TV bingeing era, and there's a number of problems with it. Frankly, there aren't that many stories that are so good they justify a continuous, uninterrupted ten hour run-time. The second season of Star Trek: Picard had a decent story, but it could easily have been told in four episodes rather than ten. The strict focus on a season-long arc also necessitates a greater bias towards action and large-scale drama, without allowing time for the more cerebral or character-focused storytelling that Star Trek has always done so well.

Even the most interesting TV story arcs, shows like Lost or Breaking Bad, were broken up into individual short-form stories to keep the audience engaged. Doing so allows for a greater variety of storytelling and provides a more elegant opportunity to fill in supporting plot details, such as character backgrounds and traits. This format places more emphasis on character-based storytelling, and the result is a supporting cast that is more fleshed out, just a few episodes in, than Discovery's bridge crew even after four seasons (seriously, four years in and I challenge anyone to name every member of the Discovery bridge crew without looking it up).

This has always been the heart of Star Trek. The Sci-Fi trappings are just the spice. At its core, Star Trek is about the characters. You need to be invested in the characters and care about their personal journeys (and I can't believe I need to say it, Discovery, but they need to "have" journeys to begin with), otherwise it just doesn't work. 

SNW's creative team have also struck a better balance in the tone of the series. Star Trek has always been mostly lighthearted. It's a family friendly series, one which shares as much DNA with the weekly sitcoms of old as it does with higher concept drama and fantasy. SNW understands this, and the characters are all the more appealing and relatable for it. I can only hope this is the end of the schlocky, grimdark stylings experimented on with Discovery (and to a lesser extent Picard).

But above all else, the writing here is simply "good". The individual stories are compelling and thought-provoking. The characters are rich and their motivations relatable and believable. The dialogue feels natural and organic. The acting is solid. Each character behaves as you would expect a professional doing a job to behave (no more gratuitous whisper-dialogue, teenage tantrums and crocodile tears). Everything here is just right.

It still isn't perfect. Behaviourally and aesthetically, the characters here draw a little too much on contemporary culture, something which will age poorly. Ron Moore (showrunner of Star Trek: The Next Generation) famously said that Star Trek almost had to be written as more of a period drama, like something out of Jane Austen, to ensure that its voice and manner of dialogue were not tied to a specific moment in time. There is nothing quite so bad here as Discovery's "InstaLOL" character Tilly, but there are certainly a few characters that I can imagine looking back at twenty years from now and thinking how dated they look and sound. SNW also finds itself occasionally constrained, in terms of storytelling, by the fact that it is yet another unnecessary prequel series. Hopefully the success of this show will give the writers the confidence to take the franchise forward with a true sequel.

But these nitpicks are more stylistic issues, and none of them take away from what is otherwise a marked step forward for the franchise and a return to form. At long last, the Star Trek franchise has re-discovered its identity and delivered a series of quality for new and old fans alike.

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