Anyone who insists that Hollywood should never mess with the classics clearly hasn’t seen Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. The series, now entering its second season, is both a fitting prequel to Gene Roddenberry’s seminal 1960s series and the best offering of the Paramount+ era of Star Trek shows – by several lightyears. With a charismatic crew, a playful, mostly-episodic approach, and a potent mix of humor, brains, and deep empathy, it’s just damn good TV built to entertain Trekkies and laypeople alike. The first six episodes of season two are slightly more mixed in quality than the show’s perfect season one run, but they also reach even higher highs.
The show’s sophomore season picks up pretty soon after season one ended with a cliffhanger, as Captain Pike’s (Anson Mount) loyal second-in-command Una (Rebecca Romijn) was hauled off for breaking Starfleet rules about enlisting despite being an “augmented” being. One episode in the new season uses this plot as a jumping-off point for an examination of the institutionalized persecution of people who change their bodies for deeply personal reasons. It’s a clear allegory for modern-day transphobia, among other things, and yet another sign that Star Trek: Strange New Worlds knows better than most that the original succeeded not just thanks to its campy antics and sexy cast but also its ever-bleeding heart.
The augment plotline is a bit heavy-handed compared to most Strange New World episodes, which typically craft unique and resonant plotlines around cerebral and nimble scripts. The show is among the most philosophical of any on TV these days – in some ways, it’s a better match with its vividly creative, endlessly contemplative streaming neighbor Evil than with the mostly lifeless Trek shows surrounding it. Still, it typically balances its thought experiments with cool sci-fi plots and charming character moments. It also features an aesthetic to match its boundless energy, with brightly-hued costumes and warm set design. Post-J.J. Abrams, Star Trek seemed trapped in a look that can only be described as “sleek,” but Strange New Worlds breaks the mold here to harken back to the franchises’ colorful heyday.
If this season has an apparent weakness, it’s that the first few episodes keep the crew divided, and even the most compelling storylines feel slightly less dynamic without the undeniable spark the full cast brings when sharing scenes. By the time they reunite, though, the series is firing on all cylinders, dropping what is bound to be recognized as some of the most indelible moments in Trek history and making it look easy. Along with the returning crew members Pike, Una, Spock (Ethan Peck), La’an (Christina Chong), Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding), Erica (Melissa Navia), Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush), and Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun), the new season introduces us to Pelia, an idiosyncratic elder crew member played by screen legend Carol Kane. Pelia is a kooky, welcome addition to an all-star crew that quite literally has no weak links.
Also on board – at some points – is James T. Kirk himself, with The Vampire Diaries alum Paul Wesley stepping into the role. I wasn’t hugely impressed by Wesley’s performance as a more no-nonsense alternate timeline Kirk last season, and the new episodes give us yet another variation on the character before finally introducing the real Kirk. Still, his appearance turns out to be worth the wait. Wesley’s Kirk is a lot like the Kirk we already know and love – clever, charming, cocky, and a born leader. Still, the prequel series finds fresh ways to play with his character, making his relationship with the Enterprise crew more friendly than flirty and letting him act out some entertaining brotherly antagonism opposite Dan Jeannotte’s Sam (a character who died in the original series but is still very much alive here).
The season’s MVP, though, is undoubtedly Ethan Peck. Spock has always been the unorthodox heart of the Star Trek franchise, a genius outsider turned devoted first mate who’s beloved despite and because of his differences from his human crewmates. This season gives Spock an unusual obstacle that allows Peck to expertly embody the character in some unexpectedly emotional situations. It all comes to a head in episode five, a tremendously delightful hour of television that left me gasping with laughter and surprise. Peck imbues Spock not only with the logical, arch attitude that both Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto nailed before him but also with a childlike sweetness and orneriness that splinters off in a dozen different directions during his superb spotlight episode.
As the series grows in confidence, it’s clear that the cast and crew of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds aren’t just building a show worthy of the legacy of Roddenberry’s groundbreaking series but one that’s a standalone joy and a triumph in its own right. The final frontier has rarely ever felt this fun.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 2 is currently airing via Paramount+. Watch the season 2 trailer here.