Star Trek is enjoying a moment in the sun right now – most likely a bizarre alien sun of significant scientific interest.
While both Star Wars and Marvel have had their ups and downs over the last year, Trek's own version of a shared universe has gone from strength to strength, whether it's exploring the funny side of the final frontier in Lower Decks or reuniting the veteran crew of The Next Generation for one last spin around the galaxy in Picard season 3, arguably the best season of Trek TV ever made. The first season of Strange New Worlds was also something of a revelation, so maybe our expectations were a little too high heading into a second run that – based on the six episodes Paramount Plus have shown us – is still trying to find its space legs.
The brief of this original series prequel remains intact: Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), James Tiberius Kirk's predecessor on the bridge of the USS Enterprise, leads his crew on their ongoing mission to boldly go where no one has gone before, seeking out those eponymous strange new worlds. The show also continues to prioritise stories-of-the-week over major arc plots, while delivering bona fide blockbuster spectacle, starship aerobatics, and some quintessentially Trek storylines.
The biggest issues with season 2 are personnel based. First time out of Spacedock, Strange New Worlds' main strength proved to be its crew, as the show's canny mix of legacy characters (Pike, Spock, Uhura etc) and newbies (Lt Ortegas, La'an Noonien-Singh) established themselves as the best Trek ensemble since Picard, Riker, and Data explored the cosmos in The Next Generation. Second time out, however, the writers conspire to keep them apart – Pike barely features in season opener 'The Broken Circle', for example, while no-nonsense security chief La'an winds up on away mission with a special guest star in third episode 'Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow'. As a result, the easy chemistry and one-liners that made the first season such a blast are frequently AWOL, making the Enterprise a significantly less fun place to be.
The first six episodes of the season pick up most of the key plot threads left dangling by the season 1 finale. Subsequently, Strange New Worlds wastes little time dealing with the aftermath of first officer Una 'Number One' Chin-Riley's arrest for keeping her genetically engineered, Illyrian heritage hidden from Starfleet, while La'an starts the series on extended leave as she tries to reconcile her own tragic history with the Gorn.
But the most significant continuing storyline concerns Spock's (Ethan Peck) struggles to deal with both his heightened human emotions, and his position on one corner of a love triangle. Whether he ultimately chooses to be with his Vulcan fiancée T'Pring (Gia Sandhu) or human colleague Christine Chapel (Jess Bush) – canon tells us both relationships are ultimately doomed – the decision to focus on the emotional side of Spock's human/Vulcan heritage adds new facets to a character traditionally defined by logic. Indeed, Peck is undoubtedly the season's MVP, delivering a performance loaded with humour, sensitivity, and nuance without ever resorting to a caricature of OG Spock Leonard Nimoy. It's certainly difficult to picture Nimoy's take on the character downing pints of blood wine with a bunch of Klingons.
Unfortunately, not everyone in the ensemble fares so well. Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia), the ship's wisecracking ace pilot, feels particularly short changed, especially as her most memorable moment (in which she belatedly gets selected for a mission away from the Enterprise) was revealed in a Star Trek Day clip back in September. There's also a significant void where the Enterprise's late Andorian engineer, Hemmer (Bruce Horak), used to be. His replacement in the ship’s engine room, Pelia (Carol Kane), may have an unexpectedly long Starfleet service record, but her kooky schtick is a disappointing substitute for Hemmer’s wonderfully sarcastic, deadpan presence. At times it feels like Kane's character from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has been teleported onto the Enterprise, developing a very strange accent in the process.
The show's episodic nature continues to set it apart from more serialised Trek stablemates Discovery and Picard, and it's a welcome throwback to the days when Kirk and Picard could be relied upon to fix issues of galactic importance in 45 minutes or less. That said, with most of season 2's episodes running at close to the hour mark, these stories often feel a tad overstretched.
For newcomers, Strange New Worlds continues to function as the ideal introduction to the Trek universe. The first six episodes of the season revisit franchise staples such as courtroom drama, first contact missions, alternative timelines and a healthy dose of Vulcan lore, effortlessly negotiating tonal shifts between light-hearted comedy, political allegory and harder emotional beats.
Many of the themes are so familiar that anyone with a working knowledge of Voyager or Enterprise is likely to find themselves with an uncanny sense of déjà vu, and those ties to the past are both a strength and a weakness. As with Discovery, Picard and even Lower Decks, Strange New Worlds' frequent in-jokes and nods to existing canon prove how much the writers love (and understand) the franchise. But they’re also the hallmark of a show constrained by history when the priority should be exploring uncharted space – as likeable as they are, this crew aren't established enough to play the nostalgia card as Picard season 3 did so skilfully earlier this year.
A case in point is Paul Wesley's James T Kirk, who returns to the show after a memorable appearance in season 1's 'A Quality of Mercy'. That episode was an intriguing thought experiment that explored classic original series episode 'Balance of Terror' from a new perspective, but here the only justification for the return of Enterprise's most famous commanding officer is his iconic name. In stark contrast with Spock, there's little sense we're discovering new layers to the character, and Wesley's portrayal feels like a riff on the brash, womanising pop culture perception of Kirk, rather than an actual human being. His performance is even weirdly reminiscent of Jesse Plemons' intentionally one-note captain in Black Mirror's brilliant Trek spoof 'USS Callister'.
Six episodes in, Strange New Worlds season 2 feels like someone's grabbed all the ingredients you could possibly want from a Star Trek season, but something's got lost in translation – much like the minor transporter malfunctions that are an occupational hazard when you work on a starship. The good news, however, is that Trek's latest voyage won't need much of a course correction to get back on track.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 2 debuts on Paramount Plus in the US and the UK on Thursday, June 15.