Star Trek’s ‘Strange New Worlds’: In Defense of Episodic Television

Two generations after its 1966 debut, the “Star Trek” universe has become a vast, sprawling mural in these heady days of streaming television.

There’s the dark and bingeworthy “Star Trek: Picard,” an in-depth character study of an aging, beloved captain confronting his demons — and saving life as we know it twice in two seasons. There’s “Star Trek: Prodigy,” a rich 3D animated story aimed at kids and full of wonder. There’s the more traditionally animated “Star Trek: Lower Decks,” a goofy take on the theme that takes place on an equally executed spaceship and is full of fanservice moments.

And right in the center of the mural is “Star Trek Discovery,” the epic journey of a Federation starship and its crew through an entire millennium as it saves the galaxy not once (rogue AI! ), not twice (“The Burn!”), but three times (“The Dark Matter Anomaly!”) in four seasons and counting.

Complex story arcs. Deep serialization. A requirement for sequential viewing and a serious attention span. That’s a lot of engagement, even for a binger. So what’s a fan of the original series’ Planet of the Week and its episodic aesthetic to do?

The answer, of course, is “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” which chronicles the voyages of the USS Enterprise before Kirk became its captain. Directed by Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), the show is essentially a deep-space workplace drama – the intergalactic equivalent of staring into a really interesting office and having different tastes of what everyone else is doing. world does exactly.

“Strange New Worlds,” whose first-season finale “airs” Thursday on Paramount+ in the U.S., was a true mission of mercy for “Trek” fans who love old-school, standalone episodes. and want the opportunity to experience a sci-fi Whitman’s Sampler from week to week.

So far, the series’ wanderings — unique storylines, even as character development spans through episodes — have been varied and wandering in the most satisfying way.

The first season featured, among other genre journeys, forays into comedy, horror, undersea thriller, infectious drama, and full medieval fantasy. Each was steeped in humanism, optimism, and the complex moral questions and allegories that made “Star Trek” so relevant in that other time of relentless upheaval, the 1960s.

Viewers — not just longtime fans — are eating it. The show has a ridiculously high rating of 99% on Rotten Tomatoes and seems to appeal to both traditionalists and new bandmates alike. But why does this iteration of the “Trek” universe hit so right at this precise moment? As Spock might say, a number of possibilities present themselves.

Consider first the baseball card and the postage stamp – both fodder for collectors for a century and a half. People love them for many reasons, but they share one key trait: each one, when collected, is an attractively shaped assemblage of variants. And while the form is familiar and generally consistent, within its boundaries anything goes.

Also, not all specimens have to be earth-shattering (or galactic). For every rare 1909 Honus Wagner card or 1918 “Inverted Jenny” stamp, there are countless others that are just little glimpses of everyday life – the infield companion, the forever stamp with the flower on it. They don’t change the world on their own, but each is a prime example of the race, and together, when collected, they form a greater tapestry.

When it comes to “Strange New Worlds,” however, the appeal runs even deeper than that. Curiously, it is also a question of normality.

“Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry originally billed it as “Wagon Train to the Stars”, pushing on the (final) frontier. But in summary, the original series – and “Strange New Worlds”, on a 21st century level – is a meditation on the workplace.

The coronavirus pandemic has taught us a lot about the workplace – both about being there and not being there – and about the desire for normal rhythms of existence. Many people crave daily, routine problems again, while navigating the blurring of barriers between work and home. “Strange New Worlds” is the Trek-verse iteration of it all.

The Enterprise is to “Strange New Worlds” what Grey-Sloan Memorial is to “Grey’s Anatomy” and Dunder Mifflin is to “The Office”. It’s a canvas. And behind all the fantastical allegories that the best of “Trek” has come up with, there are more down-to-earth allegories – the ones about our own workplaces and getting along with other departments and meeting nice new colleagues (talking to you , Erica Ortegas) and, at times, dealing with an audience that can sometimes seem downright foreign.

The Enterprise crew members on “Strange New Worlds” live their lives. They do their job, even when their job really sucks, like when they lose one of their own or are attacked. Like us, they find themselves in different moods from one episode to another, from one scene to another. They’re silly one moment, clean and efficient the next, emotional the next, and maybe silly again. It all feels more like the real-life cadence than one of those deep dives into a single relentless story arc.

And while nothing is reset at the end of each week – characters evolve, pain lingers, progress is made – starting each episode with a new story feels oddly like an act of optimism. With humanity navigating such huge issues – climate change, guns, racism, abortion, war – why wouldn’t the chance for a new narrative start every week be hugely attractive?

Saving life as we know it? Of course, when necessary. It’s part of what science fiction is. But FACE life as we know it? It is also the perfect and timely place here. On board this version of the USS Enterprise, everyone is equally at stake. And in these confusing times, at the intersection of the two, “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” is in full swing.

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Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation for The Associated Press, has been writing about American culture (and how “Star Trek” fits into it) since 1990. on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted(asterisk)

James C. Tibbs