Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 2

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds – Season Two

The second season edges us further towards Star Trek: The Original Series

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds – Season Two review by Daniel Tessier

WARNING: SPOILERS

The first season of Strange New Worlds, at present the newest iteration of the Star Trek franchise (albeit not for long) was a major success, the most immediately popular and inarguably effective version of Trek for years. While it's not without its controversies, largely due to its nature as a prequel series that plays fast and loose with established characters and continuity, there's little argument that this is simply a fun and impactful adventure series set in one of science fiction's most beloved universes.

The second season edges us further towards Star Trek: The Original Series, bringing in more recognisable characters and hinting at future events. The writers have a healthy attitude to the franchise's decades-old canon, leaning into the elements they want and happily contradicting things when the story demands it. There are certainly some areas that are hard to square with what we saw in the Original Series, but this is a very different time, and Strange New Worlds works as an updated take on the concept.

Again the season gives us ten episodes, and while this still feels short compared to the classic days of syndicated Trek, the quality is more consistently high. There's also a remarkable variety in style and genre, which makes the season feel bigger and busier than it is. While such an approach means that not everyone will enjoy every episode, particularly the more experimental ones, and there's a certain feeling of emotional whiplash when watching them together, you won't get bored.

Strange New Worlds - Pike

The series picks up some months after the first run's cliffhanger ending, with Number One (Rebecca Romijn) arrested for having lied about her origins in order to enter Starfleet, and Captain Pike (Anson Mount) off recruiting her defence council. Under the command of Lt. Spock (Ethan Peck), the Enterprise is in dock undergoing repairs and upgrades, supervised by new Chief Engineer, the mysterious and eccentric Pelia. Played by the wonderful Carol Kane (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Scrooged), Pelia is a member of an incredibly long-lived alien race, who had lived on Earth hiding her true nature for centuries. It's unclear just how old Pelia is, but her longevity has led to a desperate desire to avoid boredom, and a truly unique personality (not to mention an equally unique accent). A character with secrets going back many hundreds of years, who keeps a stash of valuable antiques as insurance in case the Federation's “socio-economic paradise turns out to be a fad,” Pelia is an absolute joy to watch.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

She's all too happy to help Spock disobey the orders of Admiral April (Adrian Holmes) and steal the ship when they receive a distress call in 2.1, “The Broken Circle.” The signal has been sent by La'an Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong), the Chief of Security who has been off on her own mission between seasons. Having ended up on a frontier planet, La'an has discovered that a cabal of Starfleet officers and Klingon warriors are working together to reignite the war between the two powers. It's surprising that the devastating Klingon War, that took up the bulk of Star Trek: Discovery's first season, is only now getting exploration on Strange New Worlds. It's a taut, effective episode, allowing the rest of the bridge crew to flourish out from under Pike's shadow, and boasts some effective action sequences.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Most impressive are Babs Olusanmokun as Dr. M'Benga and Jess Bush as Nurse Christine Chapel, who are revealed to have been knee-deep in the war while the Enterprise and most of its current crew were exploring deep space. It turns out that the Federation experimented with a super-soldier serum, and while this is maybe an unnecessary Marvel-like addition to the franchise, it hints at some frightening truths about M'Benga and Chapel's actions in the war which will only later be fully explored.

We catch up with Pike and Number One in 2.2, “Ad Astra per Aspera.” One of Star Trek's many Latin titles, this one translates as “To the stars through hardship,” an appropriate motto for the franchise. Una is about to go on trial for lying to Starfleet and hiding her nature as a genetically engineered Illyrian, for such meddling with nature is utterly forbidden by the Federation thanks to the Eugenics Wars on Earth centuries earlier.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Pike recruits the Illyrian lawyer Neera Ketoul, an estranged friend of Una's, to come to Starfleet to defend her. Yetide Badaki (American Gods, This is Us, Sequestered) gives a powerful performance as the strong-minded and unflappable attorney, who fights the prejudices of the Federation as she fights Una's case. It's a great episode, doing what Star Trek does best: using a fictitious social injustice as an allegory for a real one. The Federation's open distrust of the Illyrians is based on outdated prejudice and stands in for any number of real-life prejudices. Una could just as easily be someone who had to hide her sexuality in today's world, or her ethnicity in a time not so long ago.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Romijn gives her best performance in the series as her character is put on the stand, defending not only her subterfuge but also the strength of her character and right to be herself. The addition of Captain Batel (Melanie Scrofano – Wynonna Earp) as the prosecuting officer is a little too much, but it does add another level by having Pike on the opposite side to his lover. Part of what makes the episode work so well is that Batel and most of the court clearly don't agree with the law, but have to uphold it, and while Una and Ketoul eventually claim a victory, by its nature it has to be a small one. Aside from the fact that the genetic enhancement ban is still in place over a century later in Trek (being a thread that runs through much of the franchise, up to the recent animated series Star Trek: Prodigy) it serves to remind us that unjust laws are rarely changed easily or quickly.

La'an, being the descendant of the instigator of the Eugenics Wars, has a particular affinity for Number One's situation and her troubled relationship with her past. This becomes the focus of 2.3, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” a time-travel adventure in classic Trek style, which sees La'an recruited by temporal agents when history is altered, preventing the Federation from forming. La'an finds herself on the United Earth Fleet Ship Enterprise, commanded by Captain James T. Kirk – once again played by Paul Wesley, as in the final episode of season one. While the Enterprise fights a war against the Romulans to protect a devastated Earth, the Romulans themselves are messing around in Earth's past. La'an and Kirk are pulled back to 2022 to find and correct the change.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Rather like fan favourites “Future's End” (of Star Trek: Voyager) and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, this episode sees our 23rd century heroes trying to fit in on contemporary Earth while the fate of the future hangs in the balance. Like those episodes, this does have its comedic moments, but it's a far more poignant affair. La'an and Kirk fall for each other, while knowing that if they are successful their meeting will never take place. La'an is also forced to confront her ancestry when she learns that the Federation owes its existence to the wars that made her name so hated. It's also a change to see Toronto as the setting for an episode; any number of genre series are filmed in Canada, but most of them pretend that they're actually in the United States.

Adelaide Kane (Reign, Once Upon a Time) makes for a strong guest star as Sera, a 21st century woman who knows more than she should. Wesley gives a better performance as Kirk this time round, bringing both vulnerability and charm to the role. I like him a lot more, but he's still not Kirk. The episode belongs to Christina Chong, though, who gives a heartbreaking performance as La'an and elevates the episode to being more than just another time travel romp.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

2.4, “Among the Lotus Eaters,” goes back to Trek's very beginnings with a visit to Rigel 7, the planet the Enterprise was fleeing from in the original pilot episode, “The Cage.” That mission had been so catastrophic that it almost led Pike to quit Starfleet. Five years later in the fiction and almost sixty years later in reality, we revisit the planet to find that Pike left someone behind. It's an intriguing episode, with the planet bathed in a strange radiation that blocks people's memories, leaving Pike, La'an and M'Benga stuck on the planet with only their most ingrained skills to keep them safe. When the radiation starts to affect the crew on the ship, Spock and Ortega (Melissa Navia) are left to try to fly the ship to safety as their identities drift away. It's an intriguing episode that gives Mount a chance to shine, as we see a harsher, angrier side of Pike than we're used to. It's a reminder of the character who we first introduced to in “The Cage” (and the hatchet-job version “The Menagerie”) and shows that underneath the incredibly likeable and balanced Pike of Strange New Worlds there are still echoes of the more aggressive character he started as.

The series lurches into comedy with 2.5, “Charades,” which sees Chapel and Spock forced to confront their feelings for each other at long last. When their shuttle crashes on a strange moon, they are rescued by an other-dimensional race who repair the shuttle and them along with it. Unfortunately, the aliens are confused by Spock's hybrid DNA and restore him as fully human. To make matters worse, it's just in time for his very important dinner with his fiancée T'Pring (Gia Sandhu) and her dreadful mother.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

What results is a very silly story where Spock is forced to undergo a gruelling Vulcan ritual with only his human side to fall back on, all the while trying to keep his emotions under control. Ethan Peck gives a great performance as the humanised Spock, although it's getting harder to recognise this revised version of the character as the same one we watched on the Original Series, even before he's had his Vulcan half removed. Ellora Patnaik (Orphan Black, The Expanse) is great as T'Pril, the cold Vulcan matriarch with little time or respect for humans, while Mia Kirshner (The L Word, 24) returns as Spock's mother Amanda following her debut on Star Trek: Discovery. As silly as the episode is, the part that works best is Chapel's plea to the aliens to restore Spock fully, with an impassioned speech about how she loves all of him – Vulcan half and all. It's a beautiful performance from Jess Bush, who's one of the absolute stars of this season.

2.6, “Lost in Translation,” is a solid sci-fi story that gives Uhura some focus. Celia Rose Gooding gives one of her best performances in the role as the communications specialist, now an ensign, is struggling due to the loss of her mentor and having massively overworked herself. The Enterprise is joined by the USS Farragut on a mission to help complete work on a strategically vital communications station at the edge of a nebula, where Uhura's expertise will be vital. Definitely not the best time for her to start experiencing terrifying hallucinations.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Fortunately, on the Farragut is one Lt. James T. Kirk, with Wesley making his third appearance in the role, but his first not to be part of some alternative timeline. This Kirk gets points for not trying to chat up Uhura at the first opportunity (unlike his movie timeline counterpart) and there's the definite feeling that the writers are trying to repair the future captain's reputation. Jim's brother Sam, played by Dan Jeanotte (Good Witch, Reign) is of vital importance in helping Uhura understand what's going on, but he has his own long-simmering rivalry with his hyper-successful brother to deal with as well. While there's some questionable science in the episode, it works, using the classic sci-fi idea of an intelligence so alien it struggles to communicate with humans. With certain characters failing to see eye-to-eye, and Uhura reasserting her remarkable skills in alien language, communication is the episode's key theme.

The highlight of the season for me is episode 2.7, the much-anticipated crossover with animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks. “Those Old Scientists,” taking its name from Lower Decks' spirited attempt to rationalise its own characters referring to the voyages of the Enterprise as the “TOS Era” (that's “The Original Series” in real world terms) is tremendous fun. Starting in the 24th century with the animated crew of the USS Cerritos investigating a mysterious portal, it's to no one's surprise when ensigns Boimler and Mariner are pulled 120 years back in time to meet the Enterprise's own landing party, who are busy discovering said portal. Jack Quaid (The Boys) and Tawny Newsome (Space Force) get to play their characters in live action for the first time, both starstruck by the legendary crew of the Enterprise. The race is on to get them back through the portal to their own times before they mess something up, be it vital Starfleet history or Spock and Chapel's faltering romance. Unfortunately, a bunch of Orions want the portal for themselves.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

First and foremost a comedy, it's also a wonderful love letter to Star Trek in all its forms, with Boimler and Mariner standing in for the fans as they meet their heroes and discover they're not exactly how the history books taught. This in turn gets the Enterprise crew talking about their own heroes – the crew of the oft-overlooked Star Trek: Enterprise. There's a particularly nice moment when it's revealed that Number One – a controversial figure at the “present” time of Strange New Worlds who was nearly dismissed from Starfleet – is the literal poster child for Starfleet who inspired Boimler to join. The only thing missing is a scene where someone from even further in the future turns up, and is starstruck upon meeting the Lower Decks crew.

Next we get that emotional whiplash I was talking about, as this feelgood romp is followed by the devastating 2.8, “Under the Cloak of War.” A companion piece to “The Broken Circle,” this delves even deeper into the emotional fallout of the Klingon War. While M'Benga, Chapel and Ortegas were fighting on the frontlines, the rest of the bridge crew were already on the Enterprise on a deep space exploration mission. This leads to a major divide between those who fought in the war, and those who missed it and can't fully appreciate the trauma that their comrades have gone through.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

This leads some considerable tension when a Klingon ambassador is brought aboard the Enterprise to be ferried to an important peace conference. Rah might be ambassador now, but he was previously one of the most notorious and feared generals in the Klingon army, before defecting to the Federation in the middle of the war. Rumoured to have murdered his own crew, he is known as the Butcher of J'Gal – the moon where M'Benga and Chapel were stationed during one of the longest and most brutal battles of the war.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

The episode flashes between the present day, and the horrifying conditions on J'Gal some years earlier, where Chapel is newly assigned to help M'Benga in the near-impossible task of treating the endless influx of wounded Starfleet officers. The episode examines the divide between the idealistic explorers that Starfleet officers strive to be, and the soldiers that they often have to be. Robert Wisdom (The Wire, Prison Break) gives a strong performance as Rah, ageing and past his prime, likeable and noble on the surface, but clearly hiding something. There's a notable guest appearance by Clint Howard, Trek's longest-serving actor, who first appeared in “The Corbomite Maneuver” in 1966. It's Bush and Olusanmokun who steal the episode, though, particularly the latter, bearing the weight of what really happened at J'Gal all those years ago. It's a brutal, surprising and intense episode.

Episode 2.9 lurches us back in the opposite direction again, with what will be the highlight of the season for some, and the absolute nadir of Star Trek for others. “Subspace Rhapsody” is the much-anticipated musical episode, a first for Star Trek. It's not actually such a huge departure for the franchise – we've had plenty of musical interludes in the past, and far, far sillier events than a dimensional anomaly turning the universe into a musical reality. Of course, musical instalments of long-running series are nothing new, and the script makes a couple of references to Buffy the Vampire Slayer's “Once More With Feeling,” still the high bar for the format. It's nowhere near that calibre, but it is a lot of fun and uses the same approach of forcing the characters into song so that they address their emotional troubles.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

The strongest singers are easily Gooding, known for musicals on Broadway and cast as Uhura at least in part because of her singing ability, and Chong, who released her debut single, “Twin Flames,” during the course of the season. Wesley once again appears on the show, and by now you have to wonder if Pike's getting concerned that Kirk is making excuses to be on his ship. He's got a fine voice,  and the tension between Kirk and La'an is resolved to an extent (La'an decides to tell him about his other self before a song makes her do it anyway), and while he was wasn't flirting with Uhura, he definitely was with La'an , in spite of already being spoken for (in a call forward all the way to Star Trek II). It's not a happy conversation, but for now he avoids the wrath of La'an.

Mount and Scrofano hold their own, in a fun number which finally forces Pike and Batel to sort out their own relationship. Jess Bush is the centre of a showstopping dance number where Chapel and Spock explosively, and publicly, address their future together (Chapel being obliged to take a career change for a time to tie in with the Original Series). We already knew that Peck and Romijn could hold a tune (their Short Treks debut involved some ad hoc Gilbert and Sullivan), but it's really Gooding's show, as Uhura's ability to connect with people through music again becomes a vital skill. It gets a bit silly when the dimensional anomaly threatens to destroy the entire Federation, but it's worth it for the involvement of the K-Pop Klingons. (No Klingon opera?)

In amongst the songs, the episode finds time to finally give Captain Batel a first name – it's Marie – and it seems that she and Pike have settled on their places in each other’s lives. So you just know she's in trouble. 2.10, “Hegemony,” starts with the USS Cayuga visiting a colony planet just on the edge of Federation space (cost-effectively designed after a midwestern US town). Batel is on the surface when a vast spaceship attacks. The Gorn have finally launched an all-out assault, claiming the planet and sending Starfleet a map with a great big line drawn through it. Given that the planet is technically just outside Federation space, April orders Pike not to cross the new border. With the Gorn jamming communicators and transporters, it would be virtually impossible to reach the planet and help survivors. Naturally, they do it anyway.

It's a thrilling episode, a nail-biting end to the season that puts the crew through the wringer. There's still the issue that we know most of the regulars are going to be safe, as they have to survive to appear in the Original Series, but it's nonetheless a taut and frightening story. The Gorn attacks remain derivative – a cross between Alien and the raptor sequences of Jurassic Park – but are no less effective for it. Steal from the best, after all. We finally get to see an adult Gorn, realised not as a CGI animation but a performer in a very sophisticated animatronic costume, in a remarkable scene in which Spock and the Gorn, both in spacesuits, fight in the wreckage of the Cayuga. Peck gives his best performance as Spock, having shown both dramatic and comedic skills already this season, as he stops at nothing to save Chapel. Also making an impression is young Scottish actor Martin Quinn (The Lovers) as a legacy character whose identity you can probably guess.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Executive Producer Akiva Goldsman has stated in interviews that the Gorn are outright monsters, something that Pike echoes in his own report to April. This is not a very Star Trek thing to say at all, but already there are hints that there's something more to the Gorn than meets the eye. The episode ends on a gripping cliffhanger, leaving us waiting for season three (greenlit before the second season even started airing). More boldly experimental than the first season, this latest series won't please everyone all the time, but with such variety packed into its brief run, there's something for every taste, be it comedy, romance, adventure, high concept science fiction or outright horror.

Published on August 24th, 2023. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.

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