Star Trek: Strange New Worlds and the New Old-Fashioned Way

Article ID: JAR0822CB | By: Cole Burgett

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Created by Akiva Goldsman, Alex Kurtzman, and Jenny Lumet

Executive Producers: Eugene Roddenberry, Trevor Roth, Jenny Lumet, Frank Siracusa, John Weber, Aaron Baiers,

Heather Kadin, Henry Alonso Myers, Akiva Goldsman, Alex Kurtzman

Streaming on Paramount Plus

(Rated TV-14, 2022—)

**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for the first season of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.**


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Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is the best thing to happen to Star Trek in a long time, standing as a testament to what a little inspired casting and the power of social media can do. When Anson Mount, Ethan Peck, and Rebecca Romijn stepped into the respective roles of Christopher Pike, Spock, and the enigmatic Number One during the second season of Star Trek: Discovery back in 2019, the notion of another series set aboard the Enterprise of yore seemed like a fever dream. But when fans took to social media to voice their support for the casting choices and characters, CBS quickly greenlit a spin-off.1 With Star Trek undergoing a bit of a renaissance via streaming services, did the world really need yet another iteration of the prestigious science fiction series? The answer, it would seem, from audiences and critics alike, is a resounding, “Yes!”

Having already secured the Hollywood Critics Association’s honorary Legacy award and an Emmy nomination, the series’ freshman season boasts some of the highest critical marks of any Star Trek series or film. Strange New Worlds has also proven remarkably popular with general audiences, setting records as the most-watched Star Trek debut since the series was resurrected for streaming services.2 But how well does Strange New Worlds shoulder the weight of a legacy that stretches all the way back to 1966? And, more importantly, like the Star Trek shows of old, does this series offer much in the way of intelligent philosophizing with which the thinking Christian can interact?

A New Frontier. Thankfully, Strange New Worlds is far more accessible than its premise would suggest, being a sequel to the second season of Discovery, which was itself a sequel to a scrapped Pilot episode (“The Cage”) of The Original Series (1966–1969) that was reverse engineered into a later episode (“The Menagerie”). Before William Shatner stepped into the shoes of Captain James T. Kirk in “The Man Trap,” the starship Enterprise was under the command of Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffery Hunter), a burnt-out case whose experiences with a reality-warping alien species and a woman named Vina (Susan Oliver) left him profoundly changed.

In “The Menagerie,” set years after the events of the “The Cage,” it is revealed that Pike later suffered a horrendous injury that left him horribly disfigured. Discovery, being set after “The Cage” but before Kirk takes command of the Enterprise in “The Man Trap,” slotted Anson Mount in the role of Pike and proceeded to mold him into a brave and gracious captain while giving him one of the best redemption arcs of recent memory. The events of the second season of Discovery, wherein Pike learns of the fate that awaits him but sacrificially chooses to face his dark future to prevent a devastating war, loom large over Strange New Worlds.

When the series begins, viewers find Pike disturbed and haunted by the knowledge of what is to become of him years in the future. Recalled from shore leave by Admiral Robert April (Adrian Holmes) — another character from deep Star Trek lore and the first captain Gene Roddenberry pitched to CBS, back when the Enterprise was called the Yorktown — Pike finds himself back at the helm of the iconic starship undertaking a five-year mission exploring the frontier of space. The episodic nature of the series works as an overt throwback to the planet-of-the-week stories of The Original Series and The Next Generation (1987–1994), standing in stark contrast to the more popular serialized dramas of the twenty-first century.

As to why this version of Star Trek, which looks more like a series that could have aired sixty years ago (albeit with upgraded visual effects), has become so popular, Ted Anthony of The Associated Press speculates it’s because the show is “also about normalcy.…[and] is a meditation on the workplace.”3 Anthony’s theory gets some mileage out of the fact that the show is incredibly reluctant to make every deep space encounter some cosmic-scale threat, being more interested in developing its characters’ personal lives in the quieter moments. Speaking on the decision to return to the more episodic style of storytelling, showrunner Akiva Goldsman said, “And that allows us to do something that The Original Series is quite good at, to give you slightly different tones. And to give you — for lack of a better word — hidden morals of the story.”4

True to Goldsman’s words, each episode plays out a bit like a science fiction parable, with textured plots and complex characters that tackle hot-button topics, such as unwarranted prejudices, the intersection of politics and religion, and just war theories. The show’s less serialized nature also affords creators the ability to play with unique tones, from gut-busting comedy in the body-swapping episode “Spock Amok,” to the Alien-influenced scream-fest that is “All Those Who Wander.” There is something for everyone in Strange New Worlds.

Strange New Allegories. Allegorical storytelling has long been a controversial topic in modern literary circles, and part of the confusion seems to lie in the struggle to articulate just what constitutes an allegory. C. S. Lewis asserted that “Allegory, in some sense, belongs not to medieval man but to man, or even to mind, in general. It is of the very nature of thought and language to represent what is immaterial in picturable terms.”5 His contemporary, J. R. R. Tolkien, famously disliked allegory.6 Broadly speaking, an allegory might be defined simply as a story or work of art that uses symbolism to convey a meaning of moral significance — what Goldsman calls the “hidden morals of the story.”

Anyone familiar with Star Trek — especially The Original Series — knows that the series has never shied away from allegorical storytelling driven by Gene Roddenberry’s humanist philosophy. The man had a complicated relationship with religion and faith, being raised a Southern Baptist but coming to reject organized religion altogether, calling it a malfunctioning “substitute brain.”7 His mandates regarding the portrayals of religion in The Original Series are the stuff of legend, and the 1967 episode “The Return of the Archons” featured Kirk convincing a supercomputer believed to be a god to self-destruct in order to give its followers free will (ironically, this was the first episode to feature the “Prime Directive,” which is a major plot point in the first episode of Strange New Worlds).

Allegorical storytelling in Star Trek has not always been subtle, especially in the more episodically-oriented The Original Series and The Next Generation; thankfully, Strange New Worlds has a better handle on nuance. The first episode of the series, “Strange New Worlds,” spirits the Enterprise off to Kiley 279, a planet that bears a remarkable resemblance to modern day globalized Earth. On the brink of civil war, the Eldredth faction is set to unleash a “warp bomb” on their Palion rivals (think a nuclear bomb, but bigger) — prompting Pike to skirt the Federation’s rigid “General Order 1” (the prototype for the Prime Directive) and broker a peace between the factions by explaining the emptiness and wanton destruction of the nuclear cataclysm and genocide that occurred on Earth during World War III, beginning in 2026. The video footage shown during Pike’s speech includes footage taken from January 6, 2021.

Even more searing is the sixth episode, “Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach,” basically a morality play hailed as “exactly the kind of story that Gene Roddenberry, Gene Coon, and D. C. Fontana would have written for the Original Series.”8 The Enterprise encounters the Majalans, an alien society that bows at the feet of the First Servant (Ian Ho), a child who, in a gruesome twist, willingly sacrifices himself to the computer that maintains the society’s utopia. In a moment of indignation, Pike rages against a society that condones the purposeful sufferings of children — only to have his own words thrown back in his face by Alora (Lindy Booth), a Majalan minister, who questions why he judges them when the Federation’s own history is littered with the bodies of dead youth sacrificed in the name of principles. Unlike the humans of the Federation, she points out, who turn a blind eye to the plights of so many, the Majalans did not look away from these sufferings and willingly and openly rested the burden of suffering upon the shoulders of one to preserve their society. That this episode hit streaming less than three weeks after the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas makes the moralizing that much more pronounced.

Optimism in the Face of Uncertainty. In probability theory, the principle of “optimism in the face of uncertainty” is a heuristic for the problem of the “multi-armed bandit.” In Strange New Worlds, it is the defining characteristic of Captain Pike — who is, bar none, the most virtuous and truly good character in recent memory. He maintains his sense of unsentimental optimism in the face of the dark fate that he knows awaits him — and the agony that is his struggle to maintain that optimism makes for one of the most compelling character studies put to screen in the modern era. He not only lives his day-to-day existence trying to reconcile this knowledge with his obligations as a captain but also dedicates himself to learning the faces, names, and histories of the cadets whose lives he will save at the expense of his own, while remaining a stalwart friend to those under his command.

For Christians, part of what makes Pike’s struggle so compelling is how closely it resembles the struggle of the Messiah. From a purely storytelling perspective, the Christ narrative is so absorbing due in part to the image of the “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah 53, the image of the man “pierced for our offenses” and “crushed for our wrongdoings” (v. 5), “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2 NASB). The drama of a man who willingly marches into the grimmest of fates without faltering because of his (literally) divine value system, which assured Him the pain was worth enduring, makes for fascinating, mature storytelling.

Pike has no such guarantees yet presses on anyway. To be clear, I am not saying that Pike is a “better” character than the character of Jesus portrayed in Scripture; on the contrary, it is Pike’s emulation of Jesus’s own struggle that lends his character its rich texture of depth, nuance, and contradiction — a connection that the writers of Discovery hinted at ever so slightly in the episode in which Pike learns of his future, titled “Through the Valley of Shadows,” lifted straight from Psalm 23. The connection is only strengthened by the revelation that Pike’s father is both a science teacher and a student of religion — lending Pike a far more sympathetic perspective toward faith than perhaps Roddenberry himself would have ever allowed.9

The height of irony is this: one of the most traditionally anti-religious television series out there has found as its most compelling lead a man who embodies one of the most nuanced portrayals of Christlikeness in modern storytelling. There are few heroes today who navigate the modern world with a strong sense of morality and right and wrong, but Pike certainly does his best despite an ugly future. And Christians (especially young ones) who find themselves caught between the siren and the sage in their day-to-day existence, hunted by the sheepskin-wearing wolf with “identity” stamped on one ear and “politics” stamped on the other, could do far worse than looking at how Pike navigates the parables and allegories of Strange New Worlds as a starting point for navigating the conflicts of today — with a clear sense of morality, unsentimental compassion, selfless sacrifice, and no small dose of grace. —Cole Burgett

Cole Burgett is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and the Moody Bible Institute. He teaches classes in theology and Bible exposition and writes extensively about theology and popular culture.

Notes:

  1. Meaghan Darwish, “‘Star Trek’ Spinoff with Ethan Peck, Rebecca Romijn, and Anson Mount Heads to CBS All Access,” TV Insider, May 15, 2020, https://www.tvinsider.com/934708/star-trek-strange-new-worlds-ethan-peck-anson-mount-rebecca-romijn/.
  2. “‘Strange New Worlds’ Is Most-Watched Paramount Plus Star Trek Original Debut; CEO Says Franchise ‘Just Getting Started,’” TrekMovie.com, August 10, 2022, https://trekmovie.com/2022/08/10/strange-new-worlds-is-most-watched-paramount-star-trek-original-ceo-says-franchise-just-getting-started/.
  3. Ted Anthony, “Star Trek’s ‘Strange New Worlds’: In Defense of Episodic TV,” The Associated Press, July 6, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/covid-science-entertainment-health-tv-9c35d8be87f743ee236a00bc7293db64.
  4. Akiva Goldsman, quoted in Anthony Pascale, “Interview: Akiva Goldsman on How Episodic ‘Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ Allows for Classic Twists,” TrekMovie.com, August 12, 2022, https://trekmovie.com/2021/09/20/interview-akiva-goldsman-on-how-episodic-star-trek-strange-new-worlds-allows-for-classic-twists/.
  5.  C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (1936; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 55.
  6.  J. R. R. Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, eds. Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (1981; New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000), 145.
  7. Gene Roddenberry, quoted in Yvonne Fern, Gene Roddenberry: The Last Conversation (Berkley: University of California Press, 1994), 111.
  8. John Concagh, “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Review — ‘Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach,’” TrekCore.com, June 9, 2022, https://blog.trekcore.com/2022/06/star-trek-strange-new-worlds-review-lift-us-where-suffering-cannot-reach/.
  9.  Mike Bloom, “‘Star Trek’: How ‘Discovery’ Brought Faith into the Franchise,” The Hollywood Reporter, January 25, 2019, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/tv/tv-news/star-trek-how-discovery-brought-faith-franchise-1178661/.
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