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Strange New Sci Fi

If truth is the first casualty of war, then perhaps good fiction is the first casualty of culture war.

· 16 min read
Strange New Sci Fi
Anson Mount in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (2022), directed by Akiva Goldsman, Leslie Hope and Chris Fisher. Alamy

Classic Star Trek is not Shakespeare. It has always been the sort of show in which aliens could steal Spock’s brain, or Dr Crusher could fall in love with a Scottish space ghost. It sometimes screwed up—sometimes the plot dragged, the ending didn’t make sense, or the wacky science went too far and broke its own rules—but still, it was always primarily about trying to tell a good story.

Strange New Worlds is different. There’s less emphasis on story, more on being the right kind of show. Most of the screen time is devoted to fan service and contrived personal issues; what little remains for plot is rushed and simplistic, almost an afterthought, with shallow concepts and tacked-on progressive themes. The crew are less like individuals than demographic avatars (non-toxic male leader, trauma survivor), whose most profound quality is being really really excited to be on Star Trek.

Everyone who sits in the captain’s chair has to have their catchphrase to make the ship go. This is openly discussed. “You gonna say it? Your thing?” asks Lieutenant Ortegas, the first time Spock takes command. “I’m workshopping vamoose, but it’s supposed to be about you.”

“It’s supposed to be about you” could be the show’s tagline. The actors seem to think their job is to model our reactions for us. In the series premiere, which is supposed to be about first contact, there’s a four-minute-long marriage proposal—relevant to nothing before or after—in which Spock and his bride-to-be talk as if they just discovered they were Vulcan five minutes ago:

SPOCK: Query.
T’PRING: Response.
SPOCK: Vulcans are so formal.
T’PRING: Aren’t we, though?

Helpfully, being Vulcan now means saying the subtext out loud:

SPOCK: Matrimony and duty. The two will complement each other.
T'PRING: I remain skeptical.

They’re supposed to be part of a 2,000-year-old alien culture, but they sound more like ComicCon kids playing house. The episode is so stuffed with this sort of communal navel-gazing that we never get around to learning anything about the actual first contact—what the aliens believe, what they’re fighting about, even what they’re calledexcept, of course, that their political divisions are an allegory for ours.

When there’s actual science in this fiction, things get even worse. The biggest offender in this regard is the episode “The Elysian Kingdom,” in which a sentient nebula traps the crew inside a fairy tale.

The premise is that Doctor M’Benga has a terminally ill daughter, whom he’s secretly keeping alive in a transporter buffer while he researches a cure. One day, he uncasks her for a bedtime story, which attracts the attention of the nebula, which senses her loneliness. To cheer her up, it transforms the Enterprise into a magical kingdom and the crew into bombastic Ren fair enthusiasts. Only M’Benga and the chief engineer are unaffected, and they eventually learn to communicate with the nebula (they try the obvious thing once, and it just works). It turns out to be a benevolent superbeing (called “Deborah”), and the girl goes off to live with it, so that she can avoid death and spend eternity having made-up adventures.

If this plot seems a bit thin, that’s because it is. Instead of building the show around traditional “beats” (gradually revealed information), the writers seem to think we’re dying to find out what kind of fantasy character each cast member has become, which they slow-reveal one-by-one like grand prizes on a game show. There’s a witchy princess, a cowardly courtesan, a swashbuckling knight, etc. The writers spend far more time developing these made-up personae than they do on the situation itself.

This is a shame because there’s a lot there they could have explored. The nebula’s existence is handwaved away as “probably a Boltzmann brain,” which the characters sum up, inaccurately, as the idea that a mind can form spontaneously in space. But Boltzmann’s idea was far weirder than that. A Boltzmann brain is a human brain that forms spontaneously, complete with memories and a sense of self, but only after the end of the universe, and only because infinite emptiness provides an infinite amount of time in which to roll the dice. Unlike the sentient nebula, it doesn’t perform any tricks; it just freezes alone in the vacuum after a moment or two of simulated life.

The Libertarian History of Science Fiction
Sydney. London. Toronto.

Obviously, the writers aren’t required to get the science perfect. It’s Star Trek, after all. But questioning the premise would have opened up new possibilities. If, for example, the ship’s engineer had pointed out that the nebula couldn’t be a Boltzmann brain, the logical conclusion would be that it must have evolved. And, if it evolved, it has needs and goals, any of which could provide a basis for communication. Trying to fathom the mind of something that alien, at least well enough to talk it out of turning the ship into a live-action Disney movie, might have made for a richer plot with more interesting themes. (Look how much mileage Stanislaw Lem got out of this idea in Solaris.)

But the world of the show is designed for instant gratification. It can’t encompass the possibility that the nebula might be too hostile or weird to be trusted, or that living in it might be a subjective hell, any more than it can acknowledge the actual danger the crew is in, even though, within the fantasy, they’re divided into factions of mortal enemies and are armed with swords. The self-referential silliness of the episode precludes taking this seriously.

The starting premise doesn’t bear scrutiny, either. If you could simply keep mortally ill people alive in the transporter buffer, then everyone would be doing it. In that case, surely M’Benga’s daughter wouldn’t be on the ship, she’d be warehoused in a federation hospital, and smuggling her onboard would have been selfish and irresponsible. If, on the other hand, it is illegal to keep people alive in buffers, then there should be a good reason for that. In such a world, the act of extending life in this way would be cruel. Her pattern would be deteriorating, and her father would have to ignore the mounting evidence of cognitive damage. This would have confronted M’Benga with a grim but poignant choice—especially if in the end the doctor were forced to realize that “Deborah” could only offer illusions, and that it was finally time to let go.

Of course, fiction has always required that we suspend our disbelief. All shows have their little inconsistencies—what they used to call “fridge logic” because it doesn’t hit you until you get up for a snack. Star Trek has always required faith in impossible things like faster-than-light travel, humanoid aliens, force fields, a future without scarcity, a democratic society without elections, etc. They’re conventions of the genre. But these writers go further than that. They ask that we suspend not just our disbelief, but our desire for a believable narrative. At the start of the episode, after the doctor finishes reading to his daughter, she complains about the ending, and he tells her that’s just how the story goes. But when she protests, he gives in and says that one day she’ll be able to write her own endings—which, of course, she does when she leaves to join the nebula. She even comes back briefly, all grown up, having experienced years in a single moment, to let us know that she did exactly that.

The message is clear: since anything can happen in a story, we should feel free to choose the outcomes we prefer.

Past Star Trek writers would never have considered this. Sometimes they explored the idea that thought and reality might be interchangeable, but this was treated as a threat, not as a license to phone in the script. When daydreams come to life in The Next Generation episode "Where No One Has Gone Before," it nearly destroys the Enterprise. In "Remember Me," a similar force traps Dr Crusher in a bottle universe in which everyone she loves keeps disappearing. The writers took it for granted that the limits of a story should reflect those of reality, and that those limits were trespassed at one’s peril.

What could have changed in the intervening decades? What cultural or political revolution might have rendered audiences more receptive to the idea that we should not feel bound by traditional rules? That those rules might even be oppressive?

It's not difficult to see the ideology at work: art influences society, so it should reflect the world we want to see; to reach that world, we must raise the status of women and minorities and lower that of white men; traditional norms and rules were socially constructed to prevent this, and should change.

This would explain why Strange New Worlds plays fast and loose with cause and effect even when it’s trying to be gritty. In "Memento Mori," La'an Noonien-Singh (the trauma survivor), uses her childhood experience as a Gorn captive to decode their battlefield messages. Her brother learned their light-based language, which the Gorn also happen to use for ship-to-ship communication, despite the fact that this would be the equivalent of humans running a string from bridge to bridge with a tin can on each end. (Encryption predates warp drive by about two thousand years.) But it's critical that her experience give her unrealistic insight and toughness, even if that means that others must be portrayed as unrealistically obtuse. In the series premiere, she's presented as the only one capable of comprehending the fact that unresponsive aliens might pose a threat. In "The Broken Circle," she drinks a Klingon twice her size under the table without showing even a hint of intoxication. (This is a species with two livers.)

“Children of the Comet” is similarly hobbled by the need to aggrandize its main character. It opens with teenaged Uhura discovering that she’s been pranked into wearing formal dress to a casual team dinner, where she awkwardly blurts out to the captain that she’s not even sure she wants to be in Starfleet. This is supposed to set up the need for her to redeem herself on the subsequent mission. However, the writers can’t let the prank just stand, let her squirm a little, spend the party mortified, watching her gaffe play out in the facial expressions of the adults. Instead, everyone smiles and gushes and praises and reassures. The prankster explains away the prank. The dinner is padded with a long, detailed, emotional rendition of her life story, to which everyone pays rapt and generous attention. As a result, the plot of the episode doesn’t even get started until minute ten.

Science Fiction Purges its Problematic Past
Sydney. London. Toronto.

This focus on celebrating Uhura distorts the entire episode and robs it of dramatic tension. The crew encounters a comet that is actually (another) ancient space god, and finds on its surface a giant glowing acorn covered in “symbols” (bumps) that turn out to be a musical language, which Uhura immediately decodes, with zero build-up, interaction, or explanation beyond a breezy grade-school summary of the basics of music theory. All the screen time goes into encouraging and reassuring her, bantering about Spock’s inability to give a pep talk, and praising her “genius” when she succeeds.

It’s possible that this is progress. There’s no objectively correct way to tell a story, and the episode was favorably reviewed. Perhaps the writers see a trade-off between setting up tension, which would require a little cruelty towards the character, and modeling the right behavior for the audience? Or maybe because Uhura is black, treating her more harshly would risk inflicting discomfort on vulnerable viewers just to entertain the majority? Maybe it’s better for young people to see themselves reflected as always complete, already brilliant, interesting in and of themselves? But if shows really do shape our values, might not they also shape our reasoning skills? What lesson would a young person learn from “don’t sweat the details, just go with the flow”?

And Uhura isn’t the only person being tested on that comet. Sam Kirk, the only white male human character other than the captain, is presented very differently. He is lazy and disengaged during the briefing. He jokes around on the mission, ignoring obvious danger. (His quips are the only quips treated with disdain.) He injures himself by touching the glowing acorn—a decision as implausibly dumb as Uhura’s solutions are implausibly brilliant—and spends the rest of the episode probably dying, a fact treated as so insignificant that we don’t even follow up on whether he survives. (He does return briefly in “All Those Who Wander” to demonstrate that he’s also an implausible coward.)

In fact, all the women in the show are suspiciously perfect, either stoic like La'an or unflappable wisecrackers like Ortegas. They talk down to the men, dish gossip behind their backs, peek at them while they're changing, beat them in fights, even hit on them openly in front of their coworkers. The black men are more subdued but still paragons of competence. By contrast, the white men—when not literally dying of stupidity—are remedial cases at best. Co-creator Akiva Goldsman intended to correct the "problematic" behavior of past captains, and it shows. His Pike doesn't lead so much as cheerlead, playing the nurturing dad, cooking meals for his higher-ranking girlfriend, telling her how little he deserves her. Ethan Peck's Spock is far from the self-possessed wag of the original series, comfortable without emotions and bemused by the crew. Instead, he’s a bumbling autistic fixer-upper who just needs the right woman to help unlock his feelings. When he's accidentally turned human in "Charades," it's not his male peers who coach him through it, but his human mother—while his love interest, Nurse Chapel, cures him by diving into a wormhole to confess her crush to (female) transdimensional superbeings (which also gives her the confidence to tell off an implausibly condescending male colleague).

Perhaps this is just a healthy bit of table-turning. (Female fans are owed a few mea culpas for "Mudd's Women," at least.) But this is supposed to be a utopian future, humanity at its best. Presumably we'll grow past the need for corrective reverse discrimination in the next two hundred years? It's telling that Anson Mount, who plays the captain, has called this "a universe where ethics—maybe not the obseisance to ethics—but a sense of ethics is kind of universal." An obeisance would require consistency and fairness. A "sense of ethics" is whatever you want it to be.

This flexible approach to values becomes even more problematic when the show takes on serious themes.

In "Ad Astra per Aspera," in season 2, first officer Una Chin-Riley is on trial for hiding the fact that she's a member of a genetically modified human offshoot called Illyrians. What follows is a classic tribunal episode, comparable to the Next Generation's famous "Measure of a Man," in which Picard defends Data’s right to refuse to submit to a dangerous experiment. However, where that episode was classically liberal—treating the rule of law as legitimate, universal, and perfectable—this could be a primer in Critical Race Theory. The law is simply wrong, a byproduct of a cartoonish old-fashioned prejudice, expressed in playground taunts and slurs scrawled on neighbors' houses. Starfleet is no longer an exemplar, whose only controversies are big questions with no easy answers. It's a flawed institution with systemic prejudice against "moddies," and it's past time for a reckoning.

This, too, is meant to be about us. In “Ghosts of Illyria,” when Una’s background is first introduced, she laments to her private log that the captain only chose to harbor her because she saved the crew from an alien light disease. “When will it be enough just to be Illyrian?” she asks, a line that is jarring in context (it’s not a race) but evokes a familiar progressive catechism about the official minority lived experience. In case the message wasn’t clear enough, the show even introduces a black female “Illyrian civil rights lawyer” called Neera, who talks in breathless contemporary progressive clichés. “Congratulations, you’ve discovered empathy,” she snaps at the captain, when he dares to suggest that he understands where she’s coming from. (Shortly after unapologetically calling him “stupid.”) She even seems to reference the trans debate by mentioning people who in the past “weren’t allowed to look like what they really are.”

In “Measure of a Man,” the resolution depends on making the best argument. If Data was designed by a man, why isn't he property? Answering that requires Picard to make a threefold leap: 1) the relevant question is not whether Data is a machine but whether he’s sentient, because 2) if he’s sentient and yet property then he and all future androids are slaves, and finally 3) no human has any quality that Data lacks, which they could use to demonstrate their own sentience. The last one has no effective rejoinder. In the absence of a consciousness test, there’s no rule that could classify Data as property that would not apply to all life. Note that this requires that Picard convince not just the tribunal but the audience. If his argument had not been sound, the episode would not have worked.

In "Ad Astra per Aspera," however, the resolution depends on delegitimizing the legal process. Neera opens with a speech about all the laws that have been wrong in the past. Tellingly, no one reins her in, despite the the fact that she is grandstanding here, rather than focusing on the case at hand. Worse still, the prosecutor barely bothers to defend the specific law in question. She says that it’s not worth getting into the reasons why genetic engineering is wrong, but it’s basically “playing god” and has led to bad stuff in the past, and that it’s important to follow even bad laws. When the admiral takes the stand, Neera grills him about all the times he’s failed to follow the Prime Directive (even though we established back in “Children of the Comet” that, under certain circumstances, this is perfectly legal). Then they question Una about the prejudice she’s witnessed, and she relates a story about her family having been too afraid to take her to the doctor, as a result of which she almost died. There’s a brief cliffhanger when it comes out that the captain was illegally harboring her, despite knowing about her Illyrian identity, but then Neera points out that since Una was afraid for her life once twenty years ago, she was technically asking for asylum, which Starfleet has to grant—even when it’s to protect people from its own laws, apparently. Besides, she insinuates, this is now the only way to protect Pike from being prosecuted as an accessory, so obviously we should bend the law to enable that. So, they decide that Una is not guilty and can retain her position and everyone seems happy about this (apart from one old, white Vulcan guy, who dissents).

Leaving aside the ethics of abusing the refugee process, this outcome is forced. "Measure of a Man" recognized its responsibility to convince us, but "Ad Astra per Aspera" succeeds only by avoiding obvious arguments in defense of the law. To give just one: performance-enhancing modifications put pressure on others to adapt, risking a “genetic arms race” that can lead to unpredictable alterations of human character—such as the destruction of empathy and restraint—which arguably is precisely what led to the Eugenics Wars.

This would have opened lines of attack to which it’s hard to imagine a response:

Commander Chin-Riley, how many applicants did you beat out for your spot at the academy? Would you still have made it if they’d also had illegal modifications? How “exemplary” would your record have been without them? Is it fair to force others to take on risk to compete?
My Learned Friend Neera, do Illyrians allow all forms of genetic modification? Aren’t some still outlawed? So, you recognize a society’s right to regulate? How do you know your regulations are the objectively correct ones? What’s the punishment for violating them? Doesn’t this imply that you are prejudiced against slightly more modified people?

The absence of any explanation other than systemic racism makes the episode feel incomplete and emotionally manipulative. It is the thematic equivalent of a fixed fight. If you already know the right answer to a question, counterarguments aren’t threads to be followed, but threats to be avoided. All logic becomes fridge logic.

It's a short leap from "tell your own story" to "make your own rules." In fact, the closer you look, the more "make your own rules" seems like the theme of the series. In the season two opener, they steal the ship to rescue a crewmate who’s been doing unsanctioned freelance espionage behind enemy lines—all with zero consequences. The Admiral treats it like a harmless lark and lets them off with a warning. In “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” an immortal alien’s hoard of stolen antiquities is presented as an adorable quirk.

In the series premiere, "First Contact," making your own rules is the core theme. It even contains the line "Screw General Order One"—their term for the Prime Directive: Starfleet's principle of non-interference and its most sacred law. "What good is a rule if you're not going to break it?" asks the captain, before using the Enterprise to threaten a less developed species into putting aside their differences. What differences? We never learn, because the writers never bother to explore them. They could have truly unresolvable conflicts. One faction could be uncompromising space Nazis. Or they could merely be so unintelligible as to render allegory impossible.

But the allegory is the point, so details must be avoided. Every plot hole and forced revelation must be in service of inspiring the captain to give a speech likening their problems to ours—a speech that seems less designed to convince the aliens than to lecture the viewers. The United States is treated as a distant, regrettable memory, whose civil war over “competing ideas of liberty” dragged the world into chaos. There's even an "AUDIT THE VOTE" sign in the historic montage, in case it's not clear that the problem is the intransigence of the American right.

The solution is provided indirectly, again via the special wisdom imparted by La'an Noonien-Singh’s trauma. She tells the captain, "It's not thinking you're going to die that gets people killed," which causes him to realize that survival depends on cooperation. This is not a terrible message, if a bit sophomoric. However, coupled with the shotgun diplomacy and the willful ignorance of the details of the quarrel, it takes on an authoritarian veneer. "The stakes are too high to wait on process," it seems to say. "We need to force the others to comply.”

The writers anticipate possible objections to this high-handed approach by sampling a couple of lines from Klatuu's speech in The Day the Earth Stood Still:

Now this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly … We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression.

This is a noble aspiration—as long as those pursuing it aren't making up the rules as they go along.

If truth is the first casualty of war, then perhaps good fiction is the first tragedy of culture war. With Strange New Worlds, Paramount promised a return to classic Star Trek, but has delivered something else entirely: postmodern, post-liberal, post-Prime-Directive, a progressive wolf in retro captain's gold. Perhaps it’s a sign of the changing times. The reviews are good, even if the audience scores are middling, but if the ratings start to resemble those of Discovery—tellingly, these are kept secret—then the creators might benefit from questioning the occasional creative choice, or even allowing a little more intellectual and political diversity back into the writers’ room. That is, if they’re interested in telling a sci-fi story that does anything other than explore the already known.

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