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'Star Trek: Strange New Worlds' Season 2 is a classic sci-fi adventure

Ethan Peck as Spock and Rebecca Romijn as Una.
Michael Gibson
/
Paramount
Ethan Peck as Spock and Rebecca Romijn as Una.

As the second season of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds debuts today on Paramount+, one question stands above all others:

Can they do it again?

Because in the show's first season last year, Strange New Worlds helped prove to producers of Paramount+'s new-school Trek series something they should have known from the start — when you're telling stories from a nearly 60-year-old franchise, it makes more sense to embrace that legacy than to shy away from it.

Fortunately, once the second season gets rolling – the first two episodes aren't quite as impressive as the next four – it's obvious the minds behind Strange New Worlds have gotten the memo. Fans get a wide range of compelling new stories, often in an adventure-of-the-week format, with lots of eye-popping special effects and cool nods to the history of these beloved characters.

New stories with classic characters

For those who aren't Trekkers, Strange New Worlds is set at a time years before James T. Kirk will take over as the Enterprise's captain – allowing the show to retell the origin stories of key figures like Spock, Nyota Uhura and Christine Chapel.

Leonard Nimoy as Commander Spock and Majel Barrett as Number One in the original <em data-stringify-type="italic">Star Trek</em> pilot. Later, Barrett played Nurse Christine Chapel.
/ CBS via Getty Images
/
CBS via Getty Images
Leonard Nimoy as Commander Spock and Majel Barrett as Number One in the original Star Trek pilot. Later, Barrett played Nurse Christine Chapel.

A few of these characters were actually created for Star Trek's original pilot in the mid-1960s, which NBC forced creator Gene Roddenberry to significantly rewrite, recast and reshoot. (instead, Roddenberry used the pilot footage to fuel a two-episode Trek story from the first season called "The Menagerie," featuring people who would later be reimagined in Strange New Worlds, like Capt. Christopher Pike and his Number One, now called Una Chin-Riley.)

One moment in Strange New Worlds' new season, for example, explains that Spock learned to play the Vulcan harp — seen occasionally in the original series — after the ship's doctor recommended playing music to help the half-human, half-Vulcan character better control his emotions.

And there's a cheeky scene where Spock, in temporary command of the Enterprise, needs to come up with a cool catchphrase/command for signaling the crew to accelerate into warp speed. But the words he lands on – "I would like the ship to go. Now." – don't exactly measure up to canonical phrases like "engage" and "make it so."

Second season has a slow start

As fun as much of this storytelling can be, there is the matter of the season's first two episodes, hamstrung by a didactic storyline that wraps up the matter of Una Chin-Riley's arrest by Starfleet.

Rebecca Romijn as Una Chin-Riley
Michael Gibson / Paramount
/
Paramount
Rebecca Romijn as Una Chin-Riley

Chin-Riley, played with steely precision by Rebecca Romijn, was nabbed at the end of last season because Starfleet learned she had been hiding her heritage as an Illyrian – a species which often genetically augments itself, which is an illegal act in the United Federation of Planets.

As her trial progresses, the series offers up a way too on-the-nose allegory to real-life issues like the U.S. military's former "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" anti-LGBTQ policy. Chin-Riley turns down a deal to plead guilty in exchange for a reduced punishment, saying, "I shouldn't have to hide anymore. None of us should. I know I should have done better. I didn't stand up when I should have. I'm standing up now."

Strange New Worlds, like many Trek series, often wears its causes on its sleeve. But even for a TV show whose cast regularly looks like a Benetton ad, this felt a little ham-handed and obvious (though the actress who plays Chin-Riley's Illyrian attorney, Yetide Badaki, drops a powerful performance that is easily the best reason to watch the episode.)

There are a few other irritating tropes on Strange New Worlds which are common for most Trek projects, like the crewmembers who ignore orders they disagree with, and the leadership's illogical habit of sending the most senior officers on the most dangerous missions. Also, as much as I love Taxi alum Carol Kane, her addition as a screechy-voiced engineering expert with a surprising past veers dangerously — and quickly — from amusing to ridiculous.

But by the time we get to the episodes where Spock is turned into a human (yes, really), live-action versions of characters from the animated series Lower Decks appear and two characters travel back in time, it's obvious: Strange New Worlds is packed with the kind of grand, episodic science fiction adventure that was once the bedrock of great TV.

And its glorious return is most welcome.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 15, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a previous version of this story, an incorrectly punctuated sentence implied Nyota and Uhura are two different characters. Nyota Uhura is one character.
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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.