Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. It’s Captain Kirk, without the sexual harassment lawsuits

Patrick Freyne: A new Trek on Paramount Plus is a return to the optimism of yore

In the 1960s Gene Roddenberry created a show about a hunky space Kennedy (Captain Kirk) who brought space democracy to the galaxy and also space loving to the galaxy’s ladies (Kirk was pretty democratic about this too, in fairness). For reasons known only to himself, Roddenberry named it Star Trek, when it should really have been called something like Star Strut or Star Boogie, to better reflect its swaggering western exceptionalism.

Anyway, Space Kennedy/Kirk’s crew did their space proselytising wearing bright primary-coloured jumpers like a musical combo for toddlers, while standing in a “bridge” which was basically an open-plan office with a captain’s throne at the centre (similar to The Irish Times newsroom).

They would then teleport to a cheaply made planet on which there would be an alien civilisation representing a philosophical dilemma and, also, kissing and possibly a greased, topless hand-to-hand combat featuring Kirk wielding a trident (those colourful jumpers clearly chaffed his delicate skin).

Star Trek: The Original Series was, history accepts, ahead of its time in its depiction of a future in which all the peoples of the world would unite as equals with an American in charge. The subsequent iterations of Star Trek followed a similar template while also being a reflection of the eras in which they were made. In the late 80s, the brilliant Star Trek: The Next Generation came swathed in diplomatic, end-of-history optimism. It placed a technocratic Frenchman, played by an English Shakespearean (Patrick Stewart), in the captain’s chair, doing so in the confidence that in the far future, Frenchmen, English Shakespearians and, also, space, would be basically American.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine threw in a hint of pessimism with a space war and some space bigotry but generally stuck to its guns about the future being bright. Star Trek: Voyager gave us a lost ship in crisis and, because everything had gone badly, an opportunity for a female captain (Kate Mulgrew as the excellent Janeway) to take charge.

But then the golden age of television happened and TV producers wanted everything to be like The Wire, The Sopranos and Mad Men, only less well-written and cheaper. So for a decade, all anyone put on television were grouchy anti-heroes floundering in dystopian darkness. Characterisation in this era involved underlining an entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, then adding a job title and a drink problem.

Recent Trek outings leaned into this. Star Trek: Picard gave its eponymous character a secret sorrow that he never previously needed. As for Star Trek: Discovery, that show was just confusing, murky and depressing, much like the times (by which I mean the era in which it aired, not this newspaper).

Thankfully, that trend is reversing. There’s a new Trek on a brand-new streamer (Paramount Plus) and it’s a return to the optimism of yore, an optimism that you probably need if you’re launching a new streamer (In this economy? People will soon be choosing between having all the streamers or keeping their most annoying child).

It’s not that they’re sure things are going to be okay in the short term. ( “Are you familiar with the United States of America?” says a character in the first episode. “Yes, I am aware of both their civil wars and the devastating result,” says another). It’s just that they’re hopeful that things will be okay in the very, very long run. That counts as startling optimism these days.

The more upbeat tone is set by the new captain, who is actually a very old captain, Captain Pike. He is, quite literally, a throwback to the primary-coloured uniforms and idealism of the original series. He appeared in the original Star Trek pilot and is the canonical predecessor to Kirk. He was reintroduced in Discovery, played by Anson Mount, where he shone amid the gloom. Full disclosure: Pike too has a secret sorrow. He has foreseen his own tragic end. But this doesn’t turn him into a sulky anti-hero. No, instead he’s handsome, idealistic and intrepid. He’s Captain Kirk, but without the inevitable sexual harassment lawsuits.

Instead of being amorous, Pike is inclusive, paternalistic and reasonable. If he was my boss I’d frequently call him “dad” and pretend to be embarrassed, but really be happy that I’d said what I’d felt. Captain Pike is basically Reasonable Space Dad. If they’d called this Star Trek: Reasonable Space Dad, I’d have been okay with that.

In three of the four new episodes, the plots involve not nefarious aliens who hate our freedoms, but cultural misunderstandings that are cleared up due to how reasonable Pike is. He’s also an encouraging team player. In the most recent episode, when the ship comes under attack, he says things like “I believe in Enterprise” and “We survive this by working together” and I can picture his words printed on motivational posters, possibly beside a picture of an American eagle in a business suit or a stallion rearing up on it’s hooves atop a skyscraper or maybe just a sepia photo of a shirtless Anson Mount cradling a fat baby.

His crew includes a smattering of other familiar names — Spock, Uhuru, Nurse Chapel, Number One — who all appear in some form in the original series. Here they play younger iterations of those characters, a little like Star Trek: Muppet Babies.

In many ways it improves on these characters. For example, in almost all former iterations of Star Trek there’s a trope where an overly logical alien (Spock), android (Data) or cyborg (Seven of Nine) is used as a plot device to explain emotional beats to audience members who are only there to see Kirk kissing someone with antennae. “And that Seven of Nine, is the power of the human emotion, ‘love’,” a character might say, as though explaining it to a lowly baby.

But this never made sense to me. Instead, in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Spock’s heightened analytical powers make him more, not less, emotionally intelligent than his human shipmates and he frequently explains their own emotions back to them. He also largely goes by “Spock” and not “Mr Spock” as he is dubbed in the original series. “Mr Spock is my father,” I hoped he’d say at some point, possibly in the first episode love scene in which he goes shirtless (a nod of respect to Kirk).

Meanwhile, Uhuru gets to actively use her skills as a linguist in the field and doesn’t spend her time being a desk-bound phone operator, Nurse Chapel gets a fleshed-out personality to work with (an intriguingly terrifying one with a touch of Kathy Bates in Misery) and Number One has a backstory and sort-of superpowers and an actual name as well as a number. There’s also a grumpy blue guy with wiggly things on his head because this is Star Trek not The News. Although, now that I say it, he’s probably a presenter on GB News. I haven’t checked.

Ultimately, what I like most about Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is that, despite all the legacy elements, it’s not just about nostalgia. It tells neat science fiction stories set on worlds that are actually “strange” and “new” and aren’t just a series of callbacks to previous adventures. All in all, readers, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds fills me with that strange emotion humans call “hope”.