Any second now, a member of the bridge crew will announce "accretion disk in sight"…

Spoilers ahead

I was a huge fan of Star Trek from the first time I saw it. In early 1970s Australia, the only SF we got regularly was Dr. Who (which I also loved) and sporadic episodes of Star Trek were a revelation. Compared to Dr. Who the special effects, sets, and even the acting were just on another level. Also, Star Trek had Spock, who at least was supposed to be logical and—since actual logic is way too hard for script writers—got in lots of great one-liners.

It’s a common trope that SF fans fall into two camps: the Trekkies and the Star Wars folk. In practice most of us—especially from SF-starved gen-X—tend to like both. Star Wars is—along with Alien and Bladerunner— responsible for making the future look worn out and lived in, while really being a fantasy/cowboy epic rather than SF. Star Trek—and 2001 even more so—is responsible for making the future seem fully realized. In 2001, we see not just the space mission, but the orbital hotel, the digital slate (“iPad prior art”), and day-to-day life on a long-haul space flight with both zero-g and spin-gravity. In Alien, everything is worn out, cynical, and there’s a class divide.

Star Trek was, however, by far the most important work of SF of its time, and perhaps ever, because it tricked us into accepting its tenets by just assuming them. Aside from an occasional piece of clumsy dialog, Star Trek doesn’t tell you that racism and nuclear rivalries are bad, or how they were overcome, it just shows a world where it’s been accepted they were bad, abolished them, and moved on. By doing this—and being successful—it created a subconscious expectation and assumption of progress.

The problem is that this significance was was lost on the stewards of the show (but, hey, they’re rich so what do I know?), so that later reboots and sequels don’t even try to update the tenets, and instead just make a show about people in silly outfits flying around in “starships”, but—you know—with better special effects. Star Trek certainly remained as progressive as most Hollywood shows, and an on-again off-again vehicle for activist agendas (I remember when every TV show suddenly had a Tourette’s Syndrome subplot—I still have yet to meet anyone with the syndrome as far as I know, but weirdly they showed up in so many different shows in a single year) but no more so than any other show, and far less so that willfully progressive shows like Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, Will & Grace, or The Wire.

So, it continues to irk me that the custodians of Star Trek are so completely blind to what the original Star Trek, as a project, represented.

But, as usual, I digress.

The Hair

How anyone can take a show whose main character has Anson Mount’s coiffure in Strange New Words seriously at any level escapes me. I mean, if the show featured scenes of his being interrupted during his daily two hour ritual, or if his cabin included some mysterious high tech device that turns out to be a hair styling machine, or perhaps he uses the transporter to vaporize himself every morning and produce a properly styled copy—ok, maybe. But perhaps that’s the point. Maybe they’re just telling us “hey this is a fun, silly show about good looking people styled to look like comic book characters on space ships having pirate adventures”.

The thing is, good stories need to take themselves just a little bit seriously to be good stories. Even off-the-wall screwball comedies benefit from having a vaguely coherent through line. The Monty Python folks cared about story when they were making Holy Grail and Life of Brian. We all know when a story is just carelessly made up as the teller goes along. It’s what four year olds do.

No, really, we’ll explain the malevolent black cloud and the bear and the gate to Siberia and the gravity and the lottery numbers and it will be science! No, fuck off, it’s not purgatory. There’s no magic! Who took my cocaine? Get me David Lynch on the phone—he’ll tell us how to make it all make sense in the end… What’s that? Owls? Creamed corn?

My first reaction to Strange New Worlds was that this might actually be a solid attempt to at least just do a better “The Original Series” (except, you know, without updating the basic tenets to identify and wash away today’s pressing issues, which would make it a true remake and worthy).

This is because, deep down, I want Star Trek to be good and am a crazy optimist.

As is usual with every Star Trek series since The Next Generation, Strange New Worlds is a beautifully put together show with a great cast, incredible production values. We can’t train people to write or edit halfway decent scripts, but we can churn out great camera operators, actors, and production designers.

Perhaps the only obvious (non-story) blemish is a godawful theme tune that sounds like one of those low-budget “make it sound as much like this famous theme as you can without getting sued or hiring a competent orchestra” except they could hire a competent orchestra. Just pay the estate of the original composer and update the arrangement or do something new. Or pay James Horner’s estate for the Wrath of Khan music. Good grief.

Also, as usual with most Star Trek stuff, they had to put Spock in it. Now, given it’s set on the pre-Kirk Enterprise (in, um, The Original Timeline? It’s not consistent with The Original Timeline but neither is The Original Timeline. Trying to reason about Star Trek is like trying to make origami cranes out of pasta) they have plenty of lazy fan-service. It seems to me that most Star Trek at this point could be called Star Trek: Spock, or sometimes Star Trek: Spock will Show Up, and that the primary goal of every story will be to demonstrate that Uhura was crazy over-qualified. Strange New Worlds actually hints that the job of communications officer might involve, I dunno, facilitating communications and stuff. If she could stop boasting about how many languages she speaks like a blacker, sexier, slightly-less-effeminite C3PO that would be even better.

As an aside: I’d add that anyone who speaks as many languages as Uhura purports to would (a) not have a ready answer for the question “how many languages do you speak” and (b) would tend to underestimate. But hey, that’s like the one-hundredth stupidest thing. I don’t even have time to go into the deluge of gobbledygook that continues to be how Star Trek establishes “so and so is smart and knows stuff”.

Don’t think about this too hard, by which we mean at all.

Perhaps the most novel idea in Strange New Worlds—setting aside the premise that people seeing Anson Mount in person or on comms could keep a straight face—is the ship’s doctor keeping his terminally-ill daughter in, I dunno, transporter suspension, while he searches for a cure for what ails her. (Clearly, he has completely convinced himself that transporters do not vaporize you and then assemble a copy despite all the evidence to the contrary.) If you just accept the premise of this storyline (which defies all logic) then it works at an emotional level—you know, like The Walking Dead—but, like Ross’s monkey, conveniently disappears when they encounter a Godlike Omniscient Being™.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Because there’s episode 4, Memento Mori, to remind us that special effects are cheap compared to continuity, respect for the audience, and proof-reading.

Even the V’ger episode of The Original Series cannot compare with Memento Mori for gibberish dialog that is so bad it seems like the writers are actively mocking the fans. “We’re going to shove this bullshit down your throats and you’re going to like it, because you are contemptible simpletons who thought Picard is a work of genius.”

Aside: this is from memory as I sure as hell don’t want to watch it again and can’t find the script online, but in the V’ger episode the Enterprise fires a photon torpedo at V’ger. It has no apparent effect. Kirk says something like “nothing can withstand that kind of force”. V’ger fires back. Spock says it had the force of ninety photon torpedoes, and Scotty says that they can only survive another few hits like that. Anyway, Memento Mori makes V’ger look like The Martian.

My lambasting of The Walking Dead at least required you to consider what we know about The Real World (e.g. how a tank works, how to look out for things that want to murder you, how many guns there are in the US, how much ammo police carry around) to understand how stupid the story was…

Memento Mori is much more elegantly self-contained. You don’t need to remember anything for more than a few seconds or remember anything you learned in middle school to be reduced to incredulity. It literally has a character lament the fact that they cannot raise the shields followed immediately by another character lamenting the fact that the shields are losing strength.

It literally has the captain—who has just evacuated a landing team out of caution—raise shields because a ship won’t identify itself and then upon hearing that they’ve opened comms—immediately lower them. What if they’re just going to say “Eat this human scum?!” It’s just crazy stupid.

The ship turns out to be full of survivors of a mysterious alien surprise attack and needs immediate evacuation, but it’s so heavily shielded as to prevent the use of transporters (the people, you see, are put inside the area with the radioactive cargo for safety, I guess?). Weird because the Enterprise is made of stuff that lets it submerge in a Brown Dwarf and skirt a Black Hole’s Event Horizon (you know, later in the same episode) and its transporters seem to work fine. Well, forget that. No-one who watches Star Trek cares about pesky details. So we’ll use this standard tube we keep for just such occasions that we’ve never seen before. Great thinking captain!

Now despite the fact that we’ve established the captain is cautious (this is how you show he’s not just Kirk all over again, after all)—kind of—and the security officer is completely paranoid, no-one mentions that this will stop the shields from being raised despite the fact that they’re rescuing survivors of an unprovoked surprise attack and that the security officer is acutely aware of the issue (you know, she raises it a few minutes later in the same episode). Nor does anyone suggest an obvious alternative that has been used many times before and doesn’t preclude the use of shields: the shuttle.

Nope. Our captain is decisive and brilliant and his officers—who are by no means unwilling to express differences of opinion—recognize this.

Instead, they use the tube and then they’re immediately attacked. Because he’s both brilliant and decisive, the captain instantly gives the order to raise shields (shouldn’t he just have a button for that?) but the security officer points out that this won’t work because of the tube. Gosh darn it. How could we have known? Anyone, no matter how brilliant and cautious and decisive and well-informed could have made such a mistake, no matter how brilliant and well-trained and outspoken their team of outstanding subordinates were.

Because this is Star Trek we have no way to know whether they could get everyone out of the tube in 15s and then drop it and raise shields. We don’t have any discussion of options or alternatives before or after. We have no background to draw upon because Star Trek is nothing if not inconsistent. All we know is that in this instance, the Enterprise survives a huge amount of pounding in a period of time sufficient to complete the colony ship’s evacuation but takes very few casualties (and, oddly, as it turns out, more among the crew than among the evacuees, exposed in the tube) while giving the very strong impression that doing this stood a very good chance of getting everyone killed. Because: tension.

What we do get is super urgent desperation to finish the evacuation, so they can raise shields and maneuver, combined with breathless blow-by-blow reports of how the shields are getting hammered. Again, we can’t expect Star Trek to be consistent with previous episodes, or canon, or… waves hands helplessly in the direction of Common Sense. But this reminds us that we can’t even expect two successive lines of dialog to jibe.

It stands to reason that they could have told people to get out of the tube, dropped it, and raised their shields far more quickly. And again, no discussion. It kind of worked, all is forgiven. We definitely won’t discuss or revisit any of these decisions.

Now it’s time to do a submarine bit! So they flee into a Brown Dwarf where the captain is willing to gamble everyone’s lives on his ship being able to take more pressure than (a) the designers of the ship say it can and (b) mystery alien ship they don’t know anything about. Because life is the most valuable thing… don’t bother me with your so-called logic! It’s this kind of human emotional reasoning that proves Vulcans might be smart but they’re always wrong.

We can’t expect a Star Trek fan to care about, say, simple Newtonian physics. So, deep in the Brown Dwarf where their sensors by good fortune are slightly better than the enemy’s, they have the Enterprise drop a torpedo on a the enemy ship with the reasoning that because the torpedo is so dense it will just fall out of the tube. You know, the way things in free fall don’t. Oh and this is because the torpedo’s sensors won’t work in the Brown Dwarf because reasons.

So because of made up reason we will brilliantly do stupid thing that makes no sense and would never work and it works! Star Trek at its best. Once again, we have shown our hero, Mr Hairstyle, is a decisive and brilliant out-of-the-box thinker.

Sadly, this reveals the Enterprise’s position to the mother-ship. Now they know it’s exactly somewhere near that giant explosion plus however far it’s moved since then. Got ’em! See, I knew we weren’t close to the 43 minute mark!

Well, the brown dwarf is being sucked into a black hole. OH. MY. GOD. MORE. PERIL! But it’s hard to see what’s going on. Spock will go check it out. If nothing else, it will be handy practice in case they someday encounter a Giant Space Amoeba! But wait, he’ll take the Security Officer because he can do mind melds and we haven’t done that yet and this episode needs a flashback to build back story. Turns out, Gorn bad. Security officer traumatized. Wow. Deep. PTSD is a another thing we can’t cure. Got it, mission accomplished.

The Pike Maneuver

Look, they’re in a brown dwarf being sucked into a black hole pursued by mysterious aliens of unknown capability (but, you know, Gorn—the lizard-folks that future Star Fleet has never encountered until Kirk’s duel, but everyone in today’s Star Fleet knows about), and it turns out Spock isn’t going to be left to die because mind-meld, instead we’re going to do the whole “pretend our sub got sunk” maneuver but make it all science-fictiony.

So, let’s slingshot around a black hole and pull enormous g-forces because—and this is just science—we’re in free fall and things in a ship experience gravity in free fall while the ship doesn’t. Then, at the exact right point, we fire a torpedo—no wait, we’ve established that we’re all out of torpedoes, so something else—full of crap (a show runner perhaps?) out the back and they’ll think it’s us blowing up because of red-shift. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

If you watch it, they will make more of it

It’s not like Strange New Worlds is dumber than most other tentpole CBS series. The contempt for the audience I see in shows ranging from Criminal Minds, FBI, NCIS, Picard, et al makes the fact that a series like Evil, The Good Fight (both from the same production company and creators), or even Seal Team, could come out of the same orifice even more of a miracle. I guess Star Trek fans have no-one but themselves to blame. If you throng to abject garbage like Strange New Worlds, that’s what they’ll give you.