Sunday, July 10, 2022

Star Trek's latest voyage to 'strange new worlds' charts a 'final frontier' evocatively close to home

"In Defense of Episodic TV," read the headline on a story by Associated Press journalist Ted Anthony last week about Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Paramount's serialized prequel to Star Trek's 1960s Original Series.

Author of Chasing the Rising Sun (2007), the intriguing biography of a classic American song, Anthony lauded Strange New Worlds for what might seem like its mundanity (e.g., Miami Herald):

Members of the Enterprise crew on “Strange New Worlds” are living their lives. They’re doing their jobs, even when their jobs really suck—like when they lose one of their own or are under attack. Like us, they find themselves in different moods from episode to episode, from scene to scene. They’re silly one moment, crisp and efficient the next, emotional the next and then, maybe, silly all over again. It all feels more like the cadence of actual life than one of these deep dives into a single, relentless story arc.

I second Anthony's paean. Strange New Worlds is a peculiar joy. In its return to the episodic formula of the 20th century Original Series and Next Generation, and, indeed, a classic television formula that has given way to the predominance of the season arc in the streaming era, showrunners Akiva Goldsman and Henry Alonso Myers have reinvigorated the incomparable capacity of science fiction to comment critically on the real world through a veil of analogical fantasticism. Such was the original vision of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (on this blog).

Strange New Worlds episode 5, "Spock Amock" (released June 2, 2022), beautifully exemplifies the episodic approach. (Plot details, but no story-end spoilers, follow.)

Paramount invested lavishly in Strange New Worlds, and it shows in elaborate sets and stunning special effects with epic space battles. "Spock Amock" subtly exhibits this investment, but action and suspense are not at the heart of the episode. Rather, "Spock Amock" is a deceptively low-key human interest story unfolding as the Enterprise crew go on shore leave. Frankly, such stories usually turn me off because, in the streaming era, they are the product of lesser writers seeking to fill time in unnecessarily multi-episode productions. That's not what's happening here.

This story by Myers and Robin Wasserman comprises three discrete lines. In one, Spock (Ethan Peck) and his fiancée T'Pring (Gia Sandhu) wrestle with a sometimes mildly comical Freaky Friday flip of consciousness; Number One (Rebecca Romijn) and Lt. Noonien-Singh (yes, she's related) (Christina Chong) investigate a ship disciplinary matter; and Captain Pike (Anson Mount) and Spock/T'Pring negotiate a treaty with frustratingly obstinate alien leaders. Without giving too much away, the striking theme that unifies all three story lines, in the end, is, simply, empathy. By interacting with the unknowable ways of other beings, every character is compelled to look inside her or his own mind, own character, and thereby to grow in the capacity to see the world from a different perspective.

The Enterprise never leaves space dock in "Spock Amock." Yet perhaps better than any other, the episode exemplifies her mission, to explore the strange new worlds of the final frontier. For it always has been true of Star Trek since its opening sequence first aired in 1966:

The final frontier is us.

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