I admit to a shit-ton (official Texas unit of measure) of skepticism about Star Trek: Strange New Worlds*. After what they’ve done to the different franchises I’ve pretty much given up on this IP. However, I’ve loved Captain Pike in every incarnation and that’s why I decided to give the pilot a watch when Paramount+ put it up on YouTube for free.
My reservations going into it are that it will turn into a shit-show just like Picard and Discovery, that Hollywood will turn this into something to suborn, appropriate (Hollywood should just love, love, love that word) and make it an SFC (“strong female character”) and PC (politically correct) extravaganza. I’m expecting kind and cuddly Klingons and Vulcans who cry at the drop of a hat. I’m expecting an exploration of today’s “most important social issues” (insert vomit sounds) disguised as story.
Know that I am typing this as I watch (well, almost). I’m stopping the video obviously.
First impression: Oh goodie, aliens that are just like us. Sigh. Well, for those that object to this, I will remind you that while a lot of people giggle when I mention writing about the Broccoli People of Brassica IV and their fetish for hot-butter baths, that witticism is not a story and un-relatable aliens are poor choices for characters. The thing that makes you giggle about the Broccoli People is the fact that you understand the butter reference. I filtered it for you via an ostensibly human narrator, one that you can identify with. That would not happen in a story about actual aliens told from their actual viewpoint.
Star Trek has relatable aliens for a reason: they’d like you to keep watching and even they know that you can’t build a winning franchise around a witticism. Even the Thermians in Galaxy Quest* had to be mostly human and that was a spoof.
The opening with the bird fricasseers (oh sorry, the “sustainable” wind power turbines) really raised my hackles and then I remembered, “Oh yes, Star Trek is as much a science fantasy as Star Wars.” Oh put away your objections. I’m a physicist, not someone who learned they science from watching Star Trek or reading SF or that abomination called I Fucking Love Science. That is, I used to be an actual fucking scientist and my “Star Trek is somehow science” bubble was burst my first semester of you know, actual fucking science class. Which is good for the show because it turns out the bird fricasseers fit right in with the milieu of “Star Trek science” which isn’t, i.e. it’s just a fantasy.
I was happy to see Ethan Peck playing Spock. I liked him in that abomination known as ST:D (how fitting that acronym turned out to be). And I loved, loved, loved that it opened with the whole mating thing, because I’m a romance writer first and foremost and maybe that will change, but I doubt it. Yes, deep down, I’m a romantic, at least when it comes to my science fantasy.
And at least these writers didn’t make the mistake of confusing “start in the middle of the action” with “start with action” so I have a buy-in because there is some hope of this not turning into a mindless Hulk!Smash! story which isn’t really sci-fi so much as a thriller or action-movie or super-hero jerk-off set in space.
I admit that as soon as Pike started talking about seeing his own death, I was hooked. That’s about nineteen minutes in. I love tortured souls. They make great characters. So now we have the deeply personal stakes that really sell a character and promise a character arc. Yes, the whole save Una (the first officer) is also personal, but not like a man struggling with the curse of knowing his own time of death. One of the reasons I’ve liked Pike is that he’s a survivor (a recurring theme on this blog and in my own works). A survivor does not mean anyone who is the strongest, fastest, and smartest person of any room “she” walks into, BTW. Just so we’re all on the same page. And even though we “know” how Pike will end up, it’s the knowing that give us tension and meaning. Take note all of you writers who think that withholding information for a reveal or a gotcha is somehow better.
So now we’re at the part where they argue the prime directive and get changed into aliens. And I know the whole thing on the bridge makes the military types cringe because of the constant on-screen debate, but this is not mil-SF, it’s militaristic SF where “militariness” has been appropriated for a cloak of legitimacy. So you need to set that aside. And you need to also accept that a story has to have characters do things that are TSTL (too stupid to live) in order for there to be dramatic tension. The degree of TSTL is what matters. If there is no TSTL there is no story, just a bunch of reasonable people doing reasonable things for all the right reasons.
The whole epigenetic transformation is well, more ST “science” so it’s not really science but let’s look at it in terms of drama. It gives us the opportunity to info dump and develop the characters. So I’m willing to forgive the whole improbability of it here for those reasons. It makes the La’an Noonien-Singh character rather interesting, which is the point of this segment.
Whoa. It’s a good thing the Vulcan neck pinch works the same way and that the aliens have retinal scans, blah, blah, blah. If they hadn’t already established La’an as both aggressive and having a good reason (past trauma) for it, I’d have thought this sequence a Mary-Sue, I’m-woman-hear-me-roar moment. And Chapel’s “You boss around a ship” comment (meow, catfight) is particularly good now that I’m looking back at it.
The whole quirky scene in the elevator with the alien dude and Uhura was a perfect example of bad TSTL. Sure, sure, every time I’m running for my life aboard an alien ship, I try to trap myself in an enclosed space like an elevator (okay, maybe he can be forgiven for not knowing that) I discuss sportsball with the alien inside. I’m sure you do too. Eyeroll.
Favorite line: Screw general order one.
I could not agree more. Them constantly screwing general order one is what gives us the best stories.
Ooh, Pike has a big stick and he’s not afraid to use it. Have I mentioned that I like this character?
Didn’t care much for the overused speeches-solve-problems solution. Like a lot of the ST “science” it’s just something that works because it’s in the script. I’m sure Hitler and Stalin and Lenin could’ve just been talked out of genocide if the right words were spoken to them. Uh-huh. Totally.
Didn’t care much for the references to ST:Discovery because I have no interest in watching more of that than I already have. I’m only willing to do so much for the sake of craft.
The resolution was fairly well done, tying up loose ends and setting up the rest of it, all of which gives me hope for the writers knowing what they are doing at least in terms of storytelling and craft.
I know why they put this up for free on YouTube. It’s the start of an apology. Hollywood needs to understand that. As a start, it’s not bad. But it’s just a start. And I’m glad they have realized that there isn’t as much of an audience for the crap that the cloistered Hollywood elites thinks that there is. Shocker, I know.
Do I recommend this? Let me put it this way. When you’ve done something wrong, especially publicly, it does no good to offer a private apology. You must make the apology as big and as strong as the original wrong. So give us several seasons of several shows to make up for all the politically correct crap in Picard, in Discovery, et al, and then maybe I will be willing to say give it a chance. Hollywood has a reputation for putting out a great start here and there and then turning it to shit. Fool me once and all that.
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