I want to vent some frustration about a TV series. Make no mistake: This is a meaningless fanboy rant.
However, it’s a rant that comes from love. Star Trek has been a part of my life for decades. I’m old enough to have seen episodes of the original series (TOS) when they first aired. The ideas and themes of Star Trek have been a major influence on my life.
I’m not going to write a blog post on that influence like the one I did for Lost in Space. The main reason is that I share my experience with ST with so many other fans. For you to even get three paragraphs into this long-ish blog post means that, at some level, you share that love. You don’t need it explained to you.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds overtly pays homage to the original series. But I feel that the path they’ve chosen demeans those same TOS episodes.
Before I get negative, I’ll start with what I’ve liked, or at least what I won’t rant about.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (SNW) is set a handful of years before the events of TOS. The Enterprise shown in SNW is not the same as the grand ‘ol Enterprise from TOS. That’s to be expected; 60 years of advances in design technology (some of it influenced by TOS) separates the two series. The “new” Enterprise is shinier and more ornate than how the “old” Enterprise will look five years later. So be it: If the tech had been available in the 60s, I’m sure they would have used it.
I also appreciate the new social conscience added to SNW. TOS paid lip-service to the idea of women’s rights, but the approach in the 1960s would not pass muster in the 2020s. In TOS, the female crew wore miniskirts. I’ll leave it to women who were around in the 60s to share whether they felt that miniskirts were liberating or represented equality back then, but that wouldn’t fly today.
The SNW female crew now get pants. They still don’t get pockets. To be fair, the men don’t have pockets either, but they didn’t in TOS. At least they’re being consistent.
I particularly like how SNW has recontextualized the connection between Christine Chapel and Spock. In TOS, the character of Nurse Chapel basically existed to do one thing: love Spock. Since the show wasn’t serialized, there could be no evolution of either character. Christine loved Spock, Spock could not respond, Christine’s affection was hopeless. Rinse and repeat.
In SNW, Chapel is a character unto herself. She’s a war veteran. Her relationship with Spock is more complex and not unrequited. We know that, in the long run, the connection is “doomed” because of TOS. But now, that TOS relationship is remade by SNW to a sense of “once it was good, now it’s not” and dealing with the regrets of what could have been.
When I was seven and watching TOS, I could not possibly comprehend that. Now, in my 60s, my own regrets enable me to understand the transition.
Of course, the geek in me appreciates references to TOS that I feel make sense. In Star Trek: Discovery (STD), I laughed and squealed when they revealed the Guardian of Forever near the end of one episode. Little things like seeing Memory Alpha and Zetar on a star map bring out the nerd in me.
Enough with the fanboy adoration. Time for the fanboy ranting.
The focus on my rant is how SNW takes the meaningful moments in TOS and diminishes them. It feels to me like uninspired fanfic.
I’ll get into specific examples in a moment, but I’ll start with a generalization: TOS has a “glow” for me that the newer series, from Star Trek: The Next Generation onwards, do not. The difference is that the original series was not constructed and limited by corporate design that the later series clearly are.
I acknowledge that TOS had its own marketing issues. Gene Roddenberry introduced the Vulcan concept of IDIC (“infinite diversity in infinite combinations”) solely to sell a pin. But TOS gave the actors a kind of freedom that simply is not available today.
Leonard Nimoy was able to effectively direct his own character in The Naked Time to establish the character of Spock. He defined how hands are so important to Vulcan expression, from the “Live Long and Prosper” greeting to the Vulcan neck pinch to the mind meld.
Which leads to fanboy whine number one: Vulcans don’t kiss. In The Enterprise Incident, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and other scenes Leonard Nimoy made it clear: Vulcans express affection by touching fingers.
I don’t blame Ethan Peck, who plays Spock in SNW, for showing Spock kissing T’Pring. He’s a good actor, but he’s limited in a way that Leonard Nimoy was not: If your show-runners tell you to kiss, you kiss. Leonard Nimoy fought against a kissing scene in The Enterprise Incident and won. I’m sure Ethan Peck cannot do this in the current era of creating a TV show.
I can understand that a new audience would not understand the significance of finger-touching. This is only an issue for fanboy geeky nerds like me. But maybe, just maybe, you can create meaningful moments on screen by not underestimating the intelligence of that audience and their ability to learn, and relying on the skill of your actors.
Another example of how moments of TOS get diminished:
In Star Trek: Discovery, as they’re introducing the characters who would go on to appear in Strange New Worlds, they visit the planet Talos IV. This was the world that was featured in the initial Star Trek pilot episode, the first time the character of Captain Christoper Pike appeared on screen. That pilot was split into two parts and shown in TOS as The Menagerie.
That pilot included an inspired bit of alien design: The Talosians were supposed to be an ancient, declining race with enormous telepathic powers. They were all portrayed by women. Their breasts were bound, they were fitted with large prosthetic heads, and their lines were dubbed with a baritone voice (James Doohan in the episodes that aired). The effect was eerie and effective.
When the Talosians were shown in Discovery, they were played by a man and a woman. The female actor was window dressing; she didn’t have any lines. For what amounted to a few minutes of screen time, why not portray the Talosians the way they were in TOS? Was it just to show off that you can do more with latex than was possible back then?
At the end of The Menagerie, the human character of Veena reveals her big secret (which I won’t spoil, to encourage you to watch the episodes if you haven’t seen them). It was a heart-felt moment by the character, as she reveals something personal to Captain Pike.
In Discovery, the character of Veena reveals her secret after about 30 seconds on screen, in front of a group other characters. That deep personal moment was turned into a throw-away. It wasn’t necessary, since the secret had nothing to do with the overall plot of the Discovery episode.
Having vented my ire at a few seconds of screen time (don’t get me started on showing Federation starships landing!) let’s take a look at the overall arc of Strange New Worlds.
The first season’s first seven episodes duplicated plots from TOS. It seemed that they rolled a 78-sided die twice, took the corresponding TOS episodes, and jammed the plot points together. The eighth episode combined the plots of two episodes from The Next Generation.
The ninth episode was a mix of Alien and Predator. It also made the Gorns into a physically super-powered race. It contradicted the TOS episode Arena; if a Gorn were that powerful, it would simply have torn Captain Kirk to pieces.
The tenth was a remake of Balance of Terror, and explained why Captain Pike should accept that he’ll one day wind up as a lump in a wheelchair as shown in The Menagerie.
This is fanfic, pure and simple. It’s about as original as the old Kirk/Spock slash fiction. In the pursuit of the continual homage to the original series, SNW‘s writing seemed amateurish.
I’ll give it the worst insult I can think of: I don’t demand that every episode of a TV series be a superlative moment of television. I do expect it should be better than something that I could write.
As proof of my lackluster writing, I submit this very blog post.
The second season of SNW started out well. We had strong character arcs for Number One and Uhura.
The third episode fell back into the trope of “let’s go back to the 20th/21st century.” The “instant chemistry” between La’An and James Kirk seemed a bit forced to me. But I did appreciate the brief line that reset the story of Khan Noonien Singh: In Space Seed and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, they stated that he conquered parts of the world in 1996. Since that did not happen (Or did it? See The Eugenics Wars) the show provides a reasonable alternative.
Then, in the fifth episode, Spock becomes human.
Again, I want to stress that I don’t hold Ethan Peck responsible for what he’s being told to do. I blame the show-runners’ lazy treatment of the character.
Making Spock human is amateurish wish-fulfillment as much as any Mary Sue story. There are moments in the original series that were portrayed as powerful character challenges for Spock: laughing in This Side of Paradise, eating meat in All Our Yesterdays.
Those moments are diminished, because we now know that they were not the first time that Spock experienced them. And they were experienced as throw-away moments for laughs or poor writing.
The seventh episode was the one that was a crossover from the animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks. As crass and commercial as the idea is, I was willing to give it a pass. I accept Lower Decks as a cartoon because depicting those same events in live action would be too expensive, and the series overall is intended to be a comedy. The comedic moments in the live-action sections of the episode seemed all of a piece.
The eighth episode was heavy drama. I thought the show was back on track.
This was what I wrote on Facebook as I was watching the ninth episode:
Today’s Star Trek: Strange New Worlds…
No. This is the wrong show for this.
It’s also copycating again, this time from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.
C’mon, SNW. You can do better.
But those episodes made sense within the larger context of what Star Trek is about: new environments, cultures, and ideas; a view of the future that was bright and full of hope and possibility; to understand the challenges we might yet face in such a future.
The essence of science fiction is to make the implausible seem possible (the essence of fantasy is to make the impossible seem plausible). The original series didn’t always achieve those goals, but it tried. While its reach towards respect and equality seem weak today, back then they were ground-breaking.
The new series are putting queer and POC characters on the screen. That’s great, admirable, and I hope they continue. But to keep those characters from being token representation, for Goddess’ sake give those characters something worthwhile to do!
A musical episode isn’t it.
I’m not opposed to musicals on TV. I watched Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies (which also aired on Paramount+ and, like all the Star Treks after the first one, has a colon in its title). I referred to Once More With Feeling in my Facebook post; that episode made sense in the context of a magical series.
It does not make sense in Star Trek, even at its most whimsical.
The performances and staging of the episode were good. It was hard for me to see that. My ire at the foolishness of the idea and the disrespect of the essence of Star Trek got in the way.
The episode might have seemed fun to someone who was not familiar with the ideas, ideals, and story-telling associated with Star Trek. These were the concepts that gave us The City on the Edge of Forever, Charlie X, The Corbomite Maneuver, and even the TNG episode The Measure of a Man.
Now we get dancing Klingons. I guess they might seem cute to someone is not geeky nerdish fanboy, whose love of Star Trek goes back longer than most of the show-runners have been alive.
Who are these shows for?
I know that, at my age, I’m outside the intended demographic. Or am I? Who’s watching these Star Trek series if not the fans?
The continual homages (and abuse) of the original series seemed to be aimed at folks like me. What’s the point if your audience doesn’t know what a tribble is? But the level of amateurish writing associated with the references has gone long past the point of mutual respect for the old shows.
Why have the references at all? Why not tell original stories?
I also know that I’m over-reacting. It’s just TV, after all.
It’s reasonable to ask: Why didn’t I just turn off the episode?
In the end, it’s because I love Star Trek as a whole. I study Klingon. I’ve got a phaser and a tricorder on my bookshelf, not six feet away as I type these words. I’ve got maps of the Federation hanging on my walls.
Sometimes you stick with a lover even after the affair has turned sour.
The final episode of the second season of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds airs in a couple of days as I write this. I hope it will rekindle my hope for this series. I’ll also probably watch the final season of Discovery. I’ll also continue to watch Lower Decks and would have watched Prodigy if it hadn’t been cancelled.
I still hope my love will realize some measure of self-respect and fulfill her potential.
Or maybe I’ll continue to rant.