So, I was on another pair of long flights recently, which means that I finally saw all of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1… and one random episode of Lower Decks.
SNW is an interesting show, in that most of the things that don’t work in it are things that have never worked consistently well in Trek series. I’ve only seen the first three episodes of Discovery [see here; What'cha Watching? (TV or Film) - #679 by aoanla for my thoughts at the time, and about the first three episodes of SNW], and I still think the things it gets wrong are the opposite - trying to not really be very “Star Trek”.
So, for example, there’s a “the crew gets embedded in a historical/fantasy/game setting and need to understand the underlying message to resolve it” episode (see, eg, half of TOS episodes on planets of Space Romans, or being captured by Greek Gods, but especially the “once-a-season” weird episode of TNG [Qpid with Q translating everyone into Robin Hood, or Masks, with the ship and Data getting taken over by an alien mythology] and later [we all remember, despite ourselves, DS9’s Move Along Home or the far superior Our Man Bashir, and all those Holodeck episodes in Voyager]), which Trek tends to either have fun with or just manage to be amusing with. In SNW, the episode serves as the ending of Chief Medical Officer M’Benga’s personal ark plot - but whilst the comical aspects work fine, mostly drawing on all the actors playing wildly out of type as various characters from a book, the personal elements for M’Benga didn’t hit home for me - partly because they really don’t spend enough time on the ending (either polishing it or in screentime) the actor playing the “adult” version of M’Benga’s daughter is merely okay, but her lines also don’t really help her.
It’s also the start of a weird trend in the final third of the series where it precipitously resolves interesting plot lines in unsatisfying ways (the arc of M’Benga’s curing his daughter thing doesn’t deserve as little time as it has, especially with the seeds in previous episodes - but it’s even worse that Hemmer is written out as dead the very next episode, without ever having a focus plot - despite being the only “obviously alien” principal character, for example).
Also, I’m very confused by what this series wants to do with the Gorn - but I’m reminded a little of what 21st C Doctor Who tried to do with the Ice Warriors, except this is even more revisionist. Prior to SNW, the canon was always that the Gorn were unknown to the Federation, except via third party descriptions, until the TOS episode “Arena” [which is the one where Kirk fights the Gorn in that famous bit of California and gets a polystyrene rock thrown at him] - which is literally about having mercy and empathy for your enemy.
SNW, for some reason, has the Federation having experienced Gorn attacks - much more gruesome than anything TOS ever implied - and at this point (I don’t know what they do in S2), also makes Gorn seem utterly without any empathy - and, in fact, as if they shouldn’t even be capable of forming a sophisticated civilisation. We’re told Gorn are fundamentally hyperaggressive - their young hatch, Xenomorph-like, from living (often sentient) hosts, and then fight amongst themselves until only one survives.
This means that they can run an “Aliens meets Predator” episode with Gorn juveniles in it (to the extent of - like with the Ice Warrior refresh - using all the tropes from both film series, like infrared “monster-vision” cams, unsettling clicking noises, goo dripping from the overhead grille where the monster is hiding etc) - but it seems to reduce the Gorn themselves to something completely uninteresting and Other.
(That episode also was in general less interesting that I hoped - I picked up on apparently unintended hints that the refugee girl seemed to want companions who protected her, and thought this was going to be one of those actually, the girl is the real monster, and she’s creating these threats herself to get herself protectors and friends.)
The earlier Gorn episode is much more interesting - especially since it leans more into “submarines in space” stuff that works so well in Nick Meyer’s TOS movies - but also because there’s a touch of that “understanding your enemy” theme that is nowhere in the later episode.
Meanwhile, I thought (despite it being a variation on The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas), Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach was probably the best episode of the middle third; although it doesn’t really do anything new with the material it starts from. (Compare to N.K. Jemisin’s response to the original story, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight”, which does something much more pointed with the prompt).
And, after a run of less good episodes, the series does redeem itself somewhat with the final episode - albeit that you really need to remember the plot beats from the TOS episode Balance of Terror to really appreciate it. Despite continuing the theme of rather too rapidly wrapping up personal subplots (Pike’s angst about his fate presumably being fully resolved by his pioneering the fine tradition of Starfleet captains seeing alternate histories), it is entertaining, and the new Jim Kirk manages the right level of cockiness - although the mistake that’s made is identical to the one in Discovery: S1 E1 - The Vulcan Hello, which is even named for the whole principle.
Anyway, SNW S1 - strong beginning, pretty strong middle… weirdly disappointing end.