Strange New Worlds season one had some big misses.
Fans of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds are everywhere. I recently went for my annual physical, wearing a shirt embroidered with the Starfleet delta. After admonishing me about my weight—a little like Dr. McCoy telling Captain Kirk in “The Corbomite Maneuver,” “Your weight was up a few pounds”—my doctor pointed to my shirt and said Star Trek was one of his “guilty pleasures.”
Before I could ask why he considered Star Trek a “guilty” pleasure, he started talking about how much he’d enjoyed Strange New Worlds season one. “It was amazing,” he said. Not wanting to incur any of his ill will while he had me at his mercy, I readily agreed. But the little voice inside my head was saying, “Sure, it was good—but it wasn’t all amazing, now, was it?”
Overall, Strange New Worlds season one made a terrifically strong showing. But much like Longfellow’s girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, when it was good, it was very good indeed—and when it was bad, it was horrid. Here are the three episodes I consider the worst of Strange New Worlds’ first season.
“A Quality of Mercy” (S1 E10)
Yes, I know, seemingly every Star Trek fan and their sibling loves, loves, loves Strange New Worlds’ season one finale. But this episode is the most overrated hour of Star Trek we’ve seen since the franchise’s return to the small screen.
As I’ve mentioned in this forum, it is a misguided exercise in putting Captain Pike (Anson Mount) back in the shadow of James T. “Great Man” Kirk (a bland and unconvincing Paul Wesley). It perpetuates the myth that Jim Kirk, as we knew him in The Original Series, was a hell-bent-for-leather, rule-breaking ladies’ man—a caricature the Strange New Worlds season two trailers suggest we’re all just going to have to live with, regardless of its demonstrable falsehood.
And it does all this while shamelessly ripping page after page verbatim from Paul Schneider’s teleplay for the classic episode “Balance of Terror,” with no screen credit to him in sight. Or to composer Fred Steiner, for that matter, for his iconic musical sting in the key scene below.
“A Quality of Mercy” was a devastatingly disappointing conclusion to the series’ first season, lazy in its thinking and its execution.
“The Serene Squall” (S1 E7)
Has Star Trek ever gotten space pirates right? Maybe only in its animated incarnations (“The Pirates of Orion” in The Animated Series, and Tendi’s coming to terms with her Orion heritage in Star Trek: Lower Decks). “The Serene Squall” is another example of how Star Trek pirate stories devolve into tired tropes—the laughing pirate captain, his mutinous crew, exhortations to do something (in this case, Pike cooking dinner—what?) “as though your life depends on it.”
Granted, this episode features some substantial character work for Spock (Ethan Peck), as Dr. Aspen (Jesse James Keitel) discusses Spock’s status as one who is both human and Vulcan, and “maybe . . . neither.” But even the revelation that “Dr. Aspen” is the real pirate captain fails to surprise. “Oh, no, you feel betrayed,” they say to Spock. “I hate it when that happens.” Well, I hate it when an episode gives away its “big twist” too early, as Anthony Pascale noted for Trekmovie.com that this episode does.
“Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach” (S1 E6)
As Keith R.A. DeCandido explains in his review for Tor.com, “Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach” is a rip-off (my word, not DeCandido’s) of Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1973 short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” What made and makes LeGuin’s story powerful is the way it dares its readers to wrestle with how they look away from the suffering that makes their own comfortable way of life possible. I suppose this Strange New Worlds episode wants to accomplish the same goal.
But it is a foundational element of the Star Trek premise that humanity and Earth have overcome systemic suffering. Yes, individuals still suffer, but social suffering in which there are winners and losers is a thing of the past.
As a result, the would-be morally damning questions Alora (Lindy Booth) asks of Pike—”Can you honestly say that no child suffers for the benefit of your Federation? That no child lives in poverty or squalor, while those who enjoy abundance look away?”—ought to be easily answered by Pike in the 23rd century, “Yes, I can honestly say that!” The episode attempts a moral interrogation of the Federation along the lines of those Star Trek: Deep Space Nine used to do, but Alora’s accusations simply don’t ring true of the Federation as we know it, however much they do, sadly, apply to our own society.
Hopefully, Strange New Worlds season two, which begins this Thursday, June 15 on Paramount Plus, will offer a strong slate of episodes, none of which reach the depths these three episodes of season one did.