GLEN WELDON, HOST:
In "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds," a charismatic captain commands the Starship Enterprise alongside a Vulcan science officer as they and their diverse crew boldly go exploring the galaxy. But this isn't the Trek you know. The series takes place a few years before James T. Kirk captained the Enterprise on the original recipe "Star Trek" series back in the '60s. And the new show's tone and narratives certainly feel like a return to old-school Trek, which is entirely intentional. I'm Glen Weldon. And today we're talking about "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
Joining me today is writer and film critic Laura Sirikul. Welcome back, Laura.
LAURA SIRIKUL: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
WELDON: And also joining us is writer Chris Klimek, who, when I introduce him, will do a bit. Hey, Chris.
CHRIS KLIMEK: No need to stand on ceremony here, Glen. You can just call me captain.
WELDON: There we go. You love to see it. On "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds," the Enterprise is under the command of the wry, charming and smoking hot captain Christopher Pike, played by Anson Mount. Also along for the ride, a first officer, aka Number One, played by Rebecca Romijn and science officer Spock, played here by Ethan Peck. All three actors debuted in these roles on "Star Trek: Discovery," and all three are packing some emotional space baggage. Pike knows exactly when and how he will suffer a grim and firmly in canon fate. Spock's wrestling with his half-human, half-Vulcan nature must be Tuesday, and Number One is hiding a secret.
But it takes a village to fly a starship, so the "Strange New Worlds'" crew also includes a no-nonsense security officer played by Christina Chong, a ship's doctor who's - wait for it - hiding a secret. He's played by Babs Olusanmokun. There's a too-cool-for-school Nurse Chapel played by Jess Bush and, in the series' biggest swing, a young fresh-out-of-the-academy cadet, Uhura, played by Celia Rose Gooding. There are overarching storylines, but the storytelling on "Strange New Worlds" is decidedly episodic in nature. "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds" is streaming on Paramount Plus. We've seen the first seven episodes, and we will be talking about them. Laura, let me start with you. What do you think?
SIRIKUL: I really, really enjoy the series. As a long-time "Star Trek" fan, Trekkie, I really appreciate the characters, and it reminds me of a mixture of the original series and "The Next Generation," which I grew up with. And they really give us more depth to these characters that we fell in love with, you know, from the series, from canon. And then we're introduced to a really fresh, new, diverse and inclusive, like, group of cadets and officers who, you know, we really get to enjoy as well. I'm in love with Anson Mount. He's beautiful. And Captain Pike is a wonderful captain. But then, you know, initially, I was just kind of concerned about the white savior aspect. But when we get throughout the episodes, I really, really love how fleshed out each character is, and everyone gets their moment.
WELDON: That's certainly true. Now, Chris, I know you are an OG original series "Star Trek" guy. I don't know how much you are up on the other variations of Trek, but what'd you think of this?
KLIMEK: You know, I am variably briefed on various iterations of Trek, but you have been telling me ever since you got your screeners, hey, you're going to like this new one, "Strange New Worlds," and you are correct. I like it very, very much. Overall, I'm very high on the series. This is, as you said, Glen, both a spinoff of "Star Trek: Discovery," which I fell off of very quickly, and a prequel to the original series that I so love. But for all of that, I feel like this is an accessible on-ramp for people who want to have a little "Star Trek" in their life but not live in it.
You know, there is more concurrent "Star Trek" in production now than there has ever been. It's, like, too much, even for me. One of them has to be calibrated to a level where you don't have to read "Memory Alpha" for four hours before you can watch an episode of it. That is this one. Even though I have loved "Star Trek" to varying degrees in all of its varying iterations for the entirety of my human lifespan, this open-to-all "Star Trek" is the one I like. I think I would sum it up by saying I don't always "Star Trek," but when I do, I prefer "Strange New Worlds."
WELDON: OK. Interesting. Now, I think the first thing that struck me about this series is how good it looks just in terms of production design compared to the original series because of course it does - because time and production budgets and everything like that. But the only way I can make that work in my head is to imagine that Starfleet experienced a major series of budget cuts between this series and the original series. Just look at Captain Pike's quarters. That is a Ritz-Carlton double suite. And just a few years later, Kirk is going to be sleeping on a twin at a Super 8. The whole Enterprise gets a real make-under in the original series. I love the simplicity of this premise. I love the cast. I think Anson Mount, as we have discussed, is just firing on all nacelles. He is wry. He's sardonic. He's hot. His hair is its own special effect. It keeps getting higher every episode.
KLIMEK: Yeah. I think the artificial gravity on the Enterprise keeps fluctuating because, based on his hair, something's going on there.
WELDON: Needs some internal dampeners. He's different than Kirk, which I like. He is a consensus builder. This was established back on "Discovery." He's more reflective, as opposed to Kirk's kind of rash, impulsive, jerk qualities. I don't mean to slag other Trek shows that are out there right now, which you've mentioned, and I like many of them, but a show like "Discovery" and "Picard" - they are devoting themselves more heavily to serialized storytelling. They're doing something different than this show is. That makes those shows perfect for bingeing, for killing a weekend afternoon. But the downside is that - is once you've done that binge, you kind of feel like you've done it for good. You don't necessarily feel this itch to go back and watch.
This series and, I would say, "Lower Decks" - they are outfitting themselves for an old-school feeling of, you catch a rerun on TBS. You get sucked in - that kind of repeat viewing. So this is the one where they switch bodies. This is the one where there's the space virus - you know, the "Law & Order" approach. You can fold laundry to this show. And that is not a dig because that is how I came to love both the original series and "Next Generation." I don't love all these episodes, but I don't have to because I love the iconography so much - the look, the feel. And on a show like this and on "Lower Decks," every new episode gets to feel like a fresh start. It's not this jigsaw puzzle that you watch getting gradually assembled over the course of a season. Every episode is like a game of poker. You got the same basic equipment. You got the same rules. But what happens in any given game, in any given episode, can be different. Now, folks are calling this a retread, fan service. I think it avoids that trap. What do you guys think?
SIRIKUL: I feel like, for me, 'cause I loved "Star Trek: Discovery," and I do see a vast difference between the two. And I understand when people say, like, I'm not really a big fan of "Star Trek: Discovery," and I understand that, you know? I feel like, with "Strange New Worlds," it's familiar. We know the canon, we know the story, we know where things are going to go, and I think that's the safety part of it. I do see the fan service moments of, like, the mentions of certain characters or lots of Easter eggs, but I feel like this one is just giving us some familiarity of the old feeling that we felt from "The Original Series," the familiarity of "Next Generation," the familiarity of "Voyager." Everything's episodical, and I think it just makes it simpler. And I think people just want that, too. We want something that we could just watch out of order, and we won't feel disconnected from the series or disconnected from the characters or disconnected from this universe. We could just enjoy it as a "Star Trek" fan, too.
KLIMEK: Yeah, we are living in a fan service world. I mean, if you just look at the box office chart for this year - "Doctor Strange," "Top Gun: Maverick," "The Batman," I'd say, compared to any of those things, the level of fan service on "Star Trek: Discovery" is low. I was a little concerned when they introduced a character aboard the Enterprise crew whose name is Noonien Singh, I was like, oh, God, can we just leave Khan alone now, please? But, so far, that's going OK. I don't think the fan service level is distracting or distancing. If y'all are ready, I would now like to present my objections.
WELDON: I am waiting with bated breath.
KLIMEK: OK. As you said, this version of the Enterprise - it looks like a Marriott conference hotel. That was always my problem with "Next Generation," too, along with the fact that, suddenly, because it's the 24th century, everyone likes one another and gets along all the time. I know that was the Roddenberry of it all. That was why I liked the movies more once Roddenberry got kicked out of them (laughter). And, you know, I always return to this as my "Star Trek" point of entry - right? - but in "Wrath Of Khan," the first thing Nick Meyer does when he comes in is he's like, no, we need to make the Enterprise look like a submarine again. We need to make it look a little less inviting. It needs to be a little bit more of a hardship to be out here in space. That's just more dramatic. I still think that's true. I am not yet fully sold on your boy, Anson Mount.
WELDON: You're wrong.
KLIMEK: Yeah, no, I know. And it's not the fact that he clearly goes to the replicator at the start of every shift or - hell, he's the captain. He probably has his own private replicator in his quarters and makes that hair.
WELDON: No, no.
KLIMEK: I recognize that his character is a largely successful attempt to marry the dignity of Picard and Sisko and Janeway to the swagger of Kirk. But you know what, guys? One thing that the captain of a starship can't be worried about when he, she or they are responsible for hundreds of officers and enlisted personnel and aliens under their command is whether they are liked. I know everyone seems to love the episode where Pike invites a bunch of - a selection of Enterprise crew, including, notably, Cadet Uhura to his quarters for Romulan ale, ribs or whatever the hell to just like, oh, come, tell us how you got to Starfleet. Wait, you're not sure you want to work here? Really? You know, I was half expecting him to say, like, what would you say is your biggest weakness, Cadet Uhura?
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS")
ANSON MOUNT: (As Captain Christopher Pike) I'm sure you've chosen a specialty you'd like. Where do you see yourself in 10 - 10 years, where do you see yourself?
CELIA ROSE GOODING: (As Nyota Uhura) Are you asking me what I want to be when I grow up, Captain?
KLIMEK: We can talk more about our new Uhura, who I think is fantastic - love it - great, great, great. But no matter how enlightened a workplace Starfleet is like, this is still an organization with a military command structure. They have responsibilities. And frankly, the fact that Captain Pike lets his No. 1 walk around the ship wearing that bad cop badge - that makes me like him a little less. It makes me a little less certain about following him into battle.
WELDON: OK, you're incredibly wrong - A, because he doesn't use a replicator. He's famously a very good chef. So there's no replicator in his suite, I'm willing to bet. The other is he is inviting cadets and people into his suite, but there is protocol all over that scene. He is judging them. They are judging him. It is not just, hey, let's all just chill and rap. It's still a military, hierarchal environment. He's just trying to disguise it as if it's not. And I take your point, but I disagree with it strongly. How about you, Laura?
SIRIKUL: I agree with Glen. I am 100% on board for Christopher Pike because we got a taste of the original Christopher Pike in "The Original Series" and in the new movies. You know, I just feel like I like that he's just human and wholesome, and he's very underestimated. And I feel like that happy appearance that we are introduced to - it's just kind of like a facade of, like, hey, welcome. I'm this Montana country boy. But it's also to kind of hide the fact that - you know, I'm smarter than what I'm perceived to be. Like, I feel like he just has a lot of hidden aspects to him that I feel like he's just able to analyze things, and he's smarter than he looks. And I feel like that slickness is what makes him so, like, interesting and attractive.
WELDON: Both the writers and the actor are really playing up him as a humanist - as someone who can read a room, who is emotionally intelligent, unlike Kirk, whose whole thing was how much he loved the Enterprise.
WELDON: I get the sense that Pike loves his crew.
KLIMEK: To return to something that that Laura brought up, I did really love the Bruce Greenwood version of Captain Pike that we saw in two of those movies. And I did go back last night to the origins of it all. I went and watched The Menagerie, Part I and II, of "The Original Series" to see, you know, was there Pike that I didn't remember, that I - no. Like, that is a totally bland character.
WELDON: Yeah, of course.
KLIMEK: There was really - you know, there was nowhere to go but up in terms of characterization, so...
KLIMEK: ...Mount certainly has lots of room to interpret. That objection that I stated was mostly just, like, in how he is trying to relate to his crew. I'm not suggesting he's a bad actor.
SIRIKUL: The only fear I have about Captain Pike is that there's moments where I felt like there was a white savior moment. Like, in the beginning pilot, he was kind of saying, like, hey, listen to me. My Federation is great. You warring factions should join the Federation because, you know, we're great, and we will save you guys.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS")
MOUNT: (As Captain Christopher Pike) Go to war with each other, or join our Federation of Planets and reach for the stars.
SIRIKUL: And I kind of felt, like, kind of nervous. I was like, oh, no, is this a white savior thing? But then, you know, it kind of expanded the story. I'm glad about, a few episodes ago, like, where the planet that was not part of the Federation - they were like, these are our laws. You cannot put your own laws onto us. And I kind of like that they kind of pushed back. Even though I'm against - morally against what the planet did, it was kind of like, you don't own us. You can't tell us what to do because you're not - we're not part of the Federation. I'm kind of glad he wasn't able to overstep because that kind of felt like a white savior moment if he did. I'm glad the series is kind of protecting that and then expanding that, too, and making sure that it's not that white savior aspect of it.
WELDON: Absolutely. Yeah. Now, one thing I wanted to flag - something you already mentioned, Chris - is I really like Cadet Uhura, and I really like Gooding's performance. She is the audience surrogate. She's the one who comes aboard the Enterprise along with us. I do worry that we're seeing the beginning of Wesley Crusher syndrome with her, wherein a young neophyte is presented as some kind of uber-wunderkind who is capable of doing everybody's job on the ship and then some.
KLIMEK: That is something that kind of came in with the J.J. Abrams three movies, right? And I loved the casting of those movies, too. I mean, I think both those and "Strange New Worlds" have done a great job of reinterpreting these familiar characters that - you know, where they know we love prior iterations of them, prior performances of them. But it was the J.J. Abrams one where it was like, no - suddenly, everyone aboard the Enterprise is a super genius, you know? They're all the best in Starfleet. And I wasn't sure that I loved that aspect.
SIRIKUL: Yeah. You know, with Uhura, there's moments where I felt like, OK, she makes mistakes, and it's really nice to see that. And I'm really hoping that they're not going to overcompensate her - like, this wonderful actress - like, she's going to be able to break through everything. I would love to see her make mistakes and kind of show that, you know, she's not perfect. And I think we've seen her anxieties, too. So I do appreciate that we do have a backstory to her and why she's the way she is. So I'm looking forward to when, like, we focus on her family aspect and maybe we could see - you know, we know where she's - the trajectory of where she's supposed to be and everything. So I'm hoping we see multifaceted layers of her to become the her that we all know and love in the original series.
WELDON: And I did mention at the top that I thought Uhura was the biggest swing in terms of taking over Nichelle Nichols. Like, that's a big swing. But she's not stepping into Nichols' shoes. She's not doing an imitation. She's really trying to make a very different character. But just in terms of the daylight between their OG portrayal and this one, I got to say, Jess Bush's Nurse Chapel is a completely different character.
WELDON: And I love everything about that. She's a rebel baby. She's a partier.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS")
JESS BUSH: (As Christine Chapel) This is what I appreciate about Dever. He and I are on the same page - casual, no attachments. It's just for fun, zero commitments page.
MELISSA NAVIA: (As Erica Ortegas) It's more like a book than a page, and you said the same thing about that gal on Argelius II.
BUSH: (As Christine Chapel) That was a misunderstanding.
KLIMEK: What I love about that is they have taken the horndog impulse of Captain Kirk and put it into Nurse Chapel, which is great. No notes. It's perfect. And I think she's - the performance is great. I think her interplay with the doctor is great. Love her so far.
SIRIKUL: Yeah, she's fantastic. I watched the "Star Trek" movies, then the new ones, the "Kelvin Timeline," and, like, I just felt like, oh, you know, I wish for more for Chapel.
SIRIKUL: Even in the original series, I'm like, you know, I want more for this character. And they gave her such a fun backstory, a fun light personality. I love that about her, and the character is just so lively. And it breaks canon, but I'm obsessed with this character. And I love it.
KLIMEK: Yeah. We have to talk about Ethan Peck a little bit, right?
KLIMEK: I mean, Spock is the most iconic character in all of "Star Trek," for sure.
WELDON: Talk to me about Ethan Peck as Spock.
KLIMEK: Yeah. I like him so far. You would not think that this was an enviable brief having to give us yet another iteration of Spock again. But Zachary Quinto pulled it off, I think. And this younger Spock, whose love life is a little more happened and at this stage of his career, has been fun to see so far. I think a lot of the attempts in prior iterations to build out Spock, to show us more of his world, more of the conflict within him between human and Vulcan - not always successful. And I think this version is, particularly the plotline about him and T'Pring, his betrothed. I may be using incorrect terminology in re Vulcan in this regard, but she is fully Vulcan, right? She doesn't have that human half dragging her down the way Spock does. Obviously, this is an obstacle in their relationship, and I'm digging it.
You know, then in the Abrams movies, they played up the little hint in the original series of Spock and Uhura having kind of a romantic spark between them. There was also a spark between him and Nurse Chapel in the series, or at least that Nurse Chapel sort of carries the torch for him, and he just doesn't take any notice. I mean, he's Spock. You know, not noticing emotional cues is kind of his thing. I like the way they're developing that with Jess Bush as well. I think Ethan Peck is great, and they have found ways to dramatize the way in which he is an other among the crew and among Vulcans in a way that somehow we have not seen in all these preceding 60 years of "Star Trek." So that is a very strong aspect of the series.
SIRIKUL: Yeah, I agree. Ethan Peck is doing a fantastic job. I don't feel like he's imitating Leonard Nimoy's Spock. He's created this own base of Spock. And it's not like you're like, oh, no, he's breaking the canon. He's really doing a great job portraying this character and really gets into, like, the soul of Spock without feeling like it's, like, copying him. I really do love they're expanding on him and his relationship with T'Pring. I love T'Pring. The actress playing her is amazing, and it's great to see a South Asian actress portray her. I really love that they're not just making her a love interest that we're going to see briefly. They give her her own storyline, too. And I love that we get to see the people in his life get more depth into that and more, like, soul and humanity, even though she's Vulcan. But she gets - we get to see more of, like, what makes her interesting and what makes her appealing for Spock. And she's not just a set dressing, and I really like that.
WELDON: Yeah. One reason is because the actor playing her, Gia Sandhu playing T'Pring, is so good at being Vulcan, which looks impassive, right? But the role doesn't work. Vulcans don't work. They're not interesting characters unless you can see the emotions playing underneath the scene. And she's really good at being fully Vulcan and yet fully available - not necessarily fully human but just fully emotionally detectable, I guess. That's really good. That's a really good performance.
This is an optimistic series. It is also a very approachable series. You can hop on pretty much any time, and I think all three of us would recommend that you do. We want to know what you think about "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Chris Klimek, Laura Sirikul, thanks to both of you for being here.
SIRIKUL: Thank you.
KLIMEK: Thank you.
WELDON: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. And Hello Come In provides the music you may or may not be bobbing your head to right now - "Life's Rich Pageant." And special thanks to Neil Tevault for help on this episode. I'm Glen Weldon, and we'll see you all tomorrow.
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