‘Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ picks up where it left off

The following article contains spoilers for “The Broken Circle.”

Strange New Worlds’ first season may have stumbled out of the gate, but it outdid itself with every subsequent episode. On the strength of the back half of its episodes alone, you could easily call it the best live-action Trek of the streaming era. This achievement was staggering, especially since it was saddled with the nightmare brief of serving as a spin-off to Discovery, a prequel to Star Trek and a paean to fans less than enamored with its serialized stablemates. It quickly found a tone that would serve those many masters, offering episodic storytelling with soap opera characterization that quickly teased out Star Trek’s oft-denied goofy side. It quickly found the confidence to be silly, and dramatic, and even made time to show the crew hanging out with each other, and above all else, it was accessible to mainstream audiences.

That confidence is proudly on show here in “The Broken Circle,” the season two opener credited to co-showrunners Henry Alonso Myers and Akiva Goldsman. Watching this, you get the sense that every person in the production team is pulling in the same direction, with fantastic results. It helps that Myers and Goldsman again write their crew making smart choices pretty much all of the time, sparing us any sludgy plot blocking. In fact, the quickness of its narrative and the sheer brute-force of its charisma helps cover a multitude of sins, turning what is otherwise a fairly light romp into something that will, hopefully, set the tone for the rest of the season.

We open with the Enterprise in spacedock, undergoing a (weirdly testy) inspection while Pike tries to find someone who can help save Number One from her upcoming court martial. He leaves an unusually-flustered Spock in charge of the Enterprise, who isn’t feeling up to the task. That’s because he can’t get his emotions back under control after unleashing his inner rage monster back in “All Those Who Wander,” and seeks help from Dr. M’Benga. He hands him a Lute and tells him to work on his emotions like a human, and when Chapel walks in, the good Doctor can’t help but notice the tension. On the bridge, meanwhile, Uhura receives a coded message from La’an, who has uncovered a plot against the Federation on the edge of Klingon space.

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Sadly, April turns down Spock’s plea to investigate, and so enlists the bridge crew to steal the Enterprise. And yes, while this is comedically punctured soon after, I’ll admit to sighing myself inside out as I expected to sit through the second Search for Spock homage in three months. Mercifully, the heist is disrupted by Pelia, the immortal head of the inspection team – Carol Kane playing a stock Carol Kane-type character. Pelia, as a friend of Spock’s mom Amanda, decides to aid in the deception to get the crew underway. They find La’an on a dilithium rich planet which was contested during the Klingon war, and is now under the control of a gang of nefarious types. They’re annoyed that their profit margins have been eroded in peacetime, and would much prefer to restart the Federation – Klingon war to boost profits.

It’s Dr. M’Benga and Chapel who get the meat of the action here, as they are kidnapped and taken to a fake Federation starship being built underground. They correctly surmise that the ship will be used to – another sigh – stage a false flag attack on the Klingons to restart the war. In order to warn the Enterprise, they go heavy on the steroids and punch-fight their way to the ship’s transponder to send them a message. Unfortunately, the ship breaks ground to attack an arriving cruiser, forcing the Enterprise to give chase. But Spock’s reticent to open fire, since the (not so) secret object of his (not so) secret affections is still on board.

Thankfully, M’Benga and Chapel blast their way out into space without any EVA gear and get beamed aboard by the pursuing Enterprise (I know, I know!). Spock is then left to smooth things over with the Klingons, downing a mug or two of blood wine to demonstrate his fortitude to his new friends. April’s happy to give him a slap on the wrist for his heroics, mostly because his focus is on a looming war with the Gorn. And with that, we’re back at the races.

What sets “The Broken Circle” apart from many episodes like it from Star Trek’s history is the confidence in its execution and the faith it has in its audience. There are plenty of times that information is conveyed visually rather than with radio-style narration. The silent nod between La’an and M’Benga, when we’re trusted to know what a Starfleet ship looks like by sight alone, and the results of Chapel and M’Benga’s steroid hit. I know this is basic stuff, but it’s right to praise a show that’s able to avoid falling into its own worst habits, and Chris Fisher’s snappy direction deserves plenty of praise.

I could be wrong, but it feels as if the visuals have improved, too, both in scope and execution. The crew seems to have gotten to grips with how best to use its virtual production stage, putting it to effective use in several scenes. We’re still a long way from being able to light big walls of TV screens like the real outdoors, but the effect wasn’t jarring. It was also another episode where savvy use of pre-existing sets was disguised well-enough – at least until you wonder why a criminal crew building a fake starship would bother to equip it with a sickbay, at least.

The one downside to all of this, really, is my usual one, which is that I still can’t shake the feeling some of this stuff is better suited to the other Star franchise. Clandestine meetings with arms dealers where you prove your mettle with how well you hold your drink or a (fake) grenade. A face-punching interrogation scene seconds after being reminded the Federation prohibits torture. A corridor-based punch-fight in which the two people least-qualified to be ass-kickers turn into ass-kicking ninjas for five minutes at a time. Yes, Star Trek of old could be violent, but I don’t think it was ever this cynical or nihilistic, even in the Deep Space Nine days.

For now, let’s welcome Strange New Worlds back for another run, where it’s only got to maintain its reputation as the best live-action Trek. No pressure, then.

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