Say It in Song
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds: Season 2
Is Star TrekOriginally conceived as "Wagon Train in Space", Star Trek was released during the height of the Hollywood Western film and TV boom. While the concept CBS originally asked for had a western vibe, it was the smart, intellectual stories set in a future utopia of science and exploration that proved vital to the series' long impact on popular culture. at its best when it's serialized or episodic. For much of the life of the franchise Trek was episodic, from The Original Series through The Animated Series, and then all the movies, plus The Next Generation. It was only with Deep Space Nine, and the Dominion War storyline that elements of serialized storytelling were introduced, and even then most episodes were case-of-the-week affairs. Much of Trek's life has been focused on episodic adventures.
That did dramatically change, though, with the one-two punch of Discovery and Picard. Both of those shows have focused almost entirely on season-long story arcs with very few episodic adventures. Arguably the best episodes of my shows runs were the episodic adventures (like a Harry Mudd adventure in season one of Discovery), but the creators have wanted to play in the serialized sandbox with the shorter seasons airing on Paramount+, and this is how they've done it. In a word: poorly. Those shows have their moments, but by and large they feel like overly long movies without a lot of narrative thrust instead of great single adventures. Thankfully, along came Strange New Worlds and it's done episodic storytelling properly.
Let's be clear, the proposition of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds was an odd one. "Let's take a show that's a spin-off of Discovery season two, and have it be on the original Enterprise and have it be before the events of The Original Series. That such a narrow window for stories and it feels like it would lead to nothing but call backs to other episodes and storylines. Just one long series of fan service. But that season of Discovery was great, and the first season of Strange New Worlds defied all expectations and proved to be a worth successor to the Star Trek name. Hell, many consider it to be one of the best seasons of TV in the entire franchise.
How do you follow up one of the best seasons of Trek? Well, that's a hard question, and it does feel like the creators of Strange New Worlds struggled with that very question. They wanted to top what they'd already done, and they worked to find all the ways that could. It led to a season of television that is still very watchable, for sure, but also one that struggles to find that same great vibe from the first season. A little more gimmicky, a little less focused, and somewhat less impressive than the first, while still, let's be clear, existing as solid viewing.
In basic construction season two of Strange New Worlds follows the same "formula" as season one. As in, this is episodic, case-of-the-week storytelling. After a couple of episodes resolving the cliffhanger from the previous season (namely, what will happen to Una Chin-Riley, aka "Number One"), the show settles into its groove once more. We get a time travel episode, an episode where the crew has to rediscover who they are, and a Spock-focused episode about him coming to grips with his human and Vulcan sides. Along with that we get a couple of "gimmick" episodes, like a crossover with Lower Decks, and a musical episode. All of this before we lead into another cliffhanger, this time in an episode dealing with the growing war against the Gorn.
As episodic television Strange New Worlds continues to be great. Any single episode this season could be held up as one of Star Trek's best. "Ad Astra per Aspera" is a courtroom episode focused on Number One and it lets us learn more about her struggles as a genetically engineered being in a society that looks down on them. It also has further pay off in "Those Old Scientists", the crossover episode, really selling its meaning and material. "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" is a great episode for La'an that really grows her as a character, while also giving us a roaring (and heart breaking) time travel story (that, again, has character pay offs later in the season). While I had an episode or two I really didn't like in the first season of the show I can't say the same this season as they're all at least very good.
With that said, the overall construction of the season is a little weird and it all comes down to the "gimmick" episodes and their arrangement in the season. "Lost in Translation" is a horror episode focused on Uhura, with some help from (future captain) James T. Kirk. Kirk features in a few of these episodes and he already feels like a gimmick on his own. But him here, with Uhura on a weird episode then gets followed by the crossover "Those Old Scientists", and then two episodes later we have "Subspace Rhapsody", the musical episode. It's a lot of attention grabbing moments back-to-back-to-back. I feel like spacing them out better would have been good, or saving one of more for a third season (when it happens) so that the pacing of the season was better.
I did like all of these episodes, mind you. "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" is one of the better time travel episodes of the series (so much better than the time travel season of Picard). It's a great character study for La'an, but it also focuses on a key moment in Trek history and even answers some questions fans have had about the timeline (and how it lines up with real time). It's a well crafted story that works all on its own even void of context around the larger season.
"Those Old Scientists" is, frankly, one of my favorite episodes of Trek. I've gone back and watched it a few times just because it's so much fun. I know there are fans Online that hate Lower Decks, dismissing it as "fan service", but I think the cartoon is great, and getting to have a solid adventure crossover (even if the stakes are low here) with Strange New Worlds pays off so well. This is the kind of goofy crossover Trek has always excelled at.
All the while, the series is able to crank out solid, old school-style episodes. "Among the Lotus Eaters" feels like an episode that could have come from The Original Series, an unabashed throwback episode that works. "Under the Cloak of War" is a Klingon-focused episode that feels like it could have come from TNG or DS9. These are stories that feel at home in classic Trek, even with the newer characters and better production values. Strange New Worlds knows exactly what it is.
The only other flaw I have with this season (and this, again, feels minor, all things considered) is that the big threat set up by the last episode, the Gorn, is barely mentioned at all this season. The first season did a good job of keeping the threat of the Gorn present. We had a Gorn episode part way in, and La'an had fear of the Gorn as a major part of her character setup (due to a past run in with the race). But then this season season barely mentions the Gorn at all until the last episode. They're a great threat, and its good to see this series build them up when the previous shows barely touched them at all. Still, more development for the Big Bad of the series is called for, I'd say.
Taken as a whole this season season feels uneven. The pacing from episode to episode feels weird and then big threat just happens to get raised at the end of the season without much build up. That does hold this season back. With that said, individually these episodes are great and I enjoyed each adventure week after week. If this show aired all year round I'd tune in all the time because, frankly, it's awesome. It's still the best Trek series currently going, and is a high water mark for the franchise. These are just second season jitters as the creators find the balance, but the show is still just about everything I want it to be. It's Star Trek the way we want it, and that keeps me on Paramount+ for the foreseeable future.