For all my love of Star Trek, I hadn’t thought of myself as a Trekkie per se. There were always other fans more passionate about the setting, the stories, the characters… all the minutiae that are so often obsessed over by a particular class of nerd. Yes, I am a nerd, but I wasn’t hooked on those details in the same way.
It didn’t help that I grew up implicitly believing you could be either a Star Wars super-fan or a Star Trek super-fan, but not both. Ridiculous I know, and confusing for a kid who (re)watched both regularly. I still don’t believe that I’m tied to one fandom over the other. But there’s something special about Star Trek’s focus on seeking to do the right thing that I find uplifting. Watching the first season of Strange New Worlds has reminded me of that, and of how big a part that plays in my love for Star Trek.
There’s a lot of science fiction that does an excellent job of making dramatic and exciting stories. People struggle against some kind of oppression, or fight villains, or try to make a place for themselves in an uncaring world. Right and wrong are often painted across the story in all-caps, and there’s little question of who or what is good or bad. It’s simplistic. In some ways, that simplicity is soothing; we don’t have to think anything through, we know who needs punching (it’s the nazis).
Yet other science fiction drags us all down into the muck. Everyone is bad, and at best you can be the least bad. And as much as I enjoy those stories at times, they are depressing. They don’t offer any route forward, just a series of grim dead ends. No wins for humanity or people in general, just losses and maybe a draw.
Star Trek, for all that it falls victim to the foibles of its various writers, doesn’t do that. Instead, it has a clear set of ideals and a broad faith that people will rise to the occasion for the sake of others when things are at their worst. Star Trek’s heroes are people who struggle to make moral and ethical decisions in difficult situations, and act to help others. They have ideals, and a model for good and ethical behavior, and they aren’t afraid to question that model and acknowledge when and where it falls short.
Something I hadn’t known while growing up on The Next Generation, but which makes a lot of sense in retrospect: Eugene Roddenberry, the man who first conceived of Star Trek, had first-hand experience with average people acting heroically in terrible circumstances. He survived multiple airplane crashes, during and after World War 2, and served as a crash investigator for a time. In his third crash, while deadheading a Pan-Am flight from Karachi to Istanbul, he repeatedly re-entered the burning wreckage to rescue survivors despite having just broken two ribs during the crash. Regardless of any of his personal failings, that sort of heroism fits with the spirit of the show he created.
And that sort of heroism feels better to me than the heroism of blowing up the Death Star. It feels broader and deeper, even if it may not be as big or flashy. That heroism is within the reach of the average person, not limited to the force-sensitives or the fighter pilots. That’s what comes through for me in so many of Star Trek’s stories.
But for all this talk of heroism and ethics, I’m neglecting the delightfully weird and wacky places that Star Trek goes at the same time. Strange New Worlds has shenanigans. It wanders off in odd directions, and plays with the setting in ways that feel both irreverent and extremely true to the absurd lineage that preceded it. For better or worse, the pressure to create episodes for syndicated TV shows has pushed Star Trek into some bizarre and hilarious places over the years. Rather than looking at the weirdness as something imperfect, something to be surgically removed in this era of TV, Strange New Worlds is willing to purposefully embrace it.
This show is willing to be serious, yes. But it’s also able to laugh at itself. Without being comedy-focused in the same way as The Lower Decks (another excellent show), Strange New Worlds repurposes the weirdness to let off steam while investigating characters’ personal storylines. The combination of deeply personal and emotional story with moments of absurdity feels just right, a moment of lightness that offers poignant relief from the gravitas of Star Fleet.
So yes. Having now finished the first season of Strange New Worlds, I have to say that it lived up to my expectations and then some. Even with a few frustrating spots, it reminded me of what I love about Star Trek. It proved that the good and hopeful feelings that I remembered from watching Star Trek as a child, along with the occasional bizarre comedy, can still be found in Star Trek today. I wrote weeks ago that I was excited for more, and I’m glad to say that—after having watched the whole first season—I still am.