Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is the fifth spinoff to hit the airwaves since Paramount+ (then known as CBS All Access) decided to really commit to building out a Star Trek television universe in 2017, but it is probably the series that feels most familiar to viewers. Star Trek Discovery was initially conceptualized as an original series prequel before reinventing itself by blasting its crew a thousand years into the future. Star Trek: Picard aimed to continue the story of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s famously beloved captain. Star Trek: Lower Decks is an animated series about the largely faceless second-string crew members who keep the ships of Starfleet running, and Star Trek: Prodigy is a kids cartoon about a gang of space misfits finding a family in one another. Strange New Worlds, on the other hand, is Star Trek as most casual viewers understand and remember it: a rollicking, entertaining adventure through space, boldly going where no man has gone before
Grounded in the hopeful, big-hearted principles of franchise creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a better tomorrow, Strange New Worlds’ full-throated embrace of optimism and possibility feels like a revelation in our current television landscape, where so much of what we find on our screens—and in our daily news reports—is grim, bleak, and depressing. Our citizenry seems more divided than ever before. Our leaders frequently take advantage of people’s worst fears and prejudices rather than speaking to their hearts or encouraging their better angels. And our television programs run the gamut from dark and edgy to shallow and vapid, with deeply flawed heroes competing for airtime with wannabe Instagram influencers desperate for fame, offering few solutions to the problems our world faces.
Of course something like Strange New Worlds, with its throwback episodic feel, charming ensemble cast, and unabashedly heart-on-its-sleeve style of storytelling, lands like a thunderclap on our screens in a moment like this. More than ever right now, we all want to believe in the possibility that is the continuing mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise and the better world that Rodenberry’s vision promises us. And maybe most importantly, we want to believe in Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), one of the most honest and heartfelt examples of a genuinely good man on television today.
Look, we should always stan a Southern gentleman who knows his way around a kitchen (and looks really good in an apron to boot), but what makes Pike so groundbreaking as a character are the ways he pushes back against stereotypical ideas about what masculinity and authentic leadership are supposed to look like.
A man who joined Starfleet not as part of a quest for personal glory but for the chance to serve something greater than himself, Pike is a quiet, everyday sort of leader, who succeeds by lifting up those around him far more often than he does centering his own desires. He believes in the central tenets of Starfleet: Service, sacrifice, compassion, and love, and he repeatedly chooses to live those values in both good times and bad. (And whether others can see him do so or not.)
Where previous Star Trek captains like James Kirk (William Shatner) or Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) are known for their brash machismo or erudite intelligence, Pike’s defining characteristic is his heart. He possesses a seemingly boundless well of empathy that allows him to both respect and try to relate to everyone he meets, whether that means talking an anxious cadet down from the proverbial ledge on a new shift rotation or reaching out a hand in friendship to a seemingly hostile alien race.
He genuinely seems interested in everyone, no matter who they are, and when he asks people to share some personal aspect of themselves with him, you get the sense that he actually really wants to hear what they have to say. Patient, kind, and a great listener, he’s much more interested in collaboration than command, forever asking for others’ input and frequently treating his officers as if they’re all part of some sort of shipwide management council rather than a strict military hierarchy that technically answers to him.
Pike is basically the definition of a servant-hearted leader, a man who does his best to captain his team in such a way that not only encourages them to do their best work but to become their best selves at the same time. And it’s honestly a joy to watch him shepherd and mentor those in his charge with such obvious and unselfconscious love. I mean, he invites his bridge crew to regular family-style suppers and cooks for them while giving them life and career advice. Captain Kirk could never!
Sometimes I think we forget how difficult it is to make being good look interesting, to make simple decency feel compelling, and to give the hard work of choosing to be both those things the narrative weight that it is due—because that, at its heart, is what goodness is: a choice to be better today than you were yesterday. And that choice is one you have to make not just in one single moment of extremis, but over and over again for all the days that come afterward. Even when faced with the revelation that he’s destined for a future of agonizing pain and disfigurement, Pike doesn’t allow this knowledge to make him hard or cruel. And, perhaps more importantly, Strange New Worlds doesn’t turn his story into a dark tragedy where every episode is about the pain of the things he’s lost.
Instead, his journey seems to be about ultimately making peace with the future that’s waiting for him and deciding what to do with the time that’s been given to him in the interim. And while that’s certainly a simpler, less flashy kind of heroism than displayed by many of the leading men we see on our screens today, Strange New Worlds has proven over and over again that it’s still just as valuable. (And honestly, right now? Maybe even more so.)
Because at the end of the day, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. And maybe that’s exactly the kind of leader, the kind of hero our current pop culture moment requires. Maybe everything in the world around us really is total garbage and we can’t change any of it, but we can still choose our path for ourselves: to be a force for good in the world, to uplift others, to aim for something better even when we have a pretty good idea we’re going to fail. Maybe we can’t change our fate. But we can choose who we’ll be when we meet it. And that’s no small thing.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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