‘Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ Is the Best of What Television Used to Be

Despite how much television has changed, there’s still no pleasure quite like the episodic television of days past.
A screenshot of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
Image Source: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

As I watch Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, the only modern Star Trek show to embrace its procedural heritage, I find myself wishing that more television would reset at the end of the hour. Despite how much television has changed, there is still no pleasure quite like the non-prestige, episodic television of days past.

Before The Sopranos and a variety of shows inspired by it fundamentally changed the form, TV was much sillier. Television was built according to a pretty clear formula, by necessity, as shows had to integrate the ad breaks into their drama. Often, the goal was to get the show running long enough that it went into syndication, which took about 100 episodes. It was much easier to get a series to 100 episodes when the tension resets at the end of the hour—and much easier to package the shows for syndicators if they could be run in any order—so most shows were constructed so that each episode could stand on its own. 

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Character relationships changed over time, and sometimes there were mysteries that could only be revealed after seasons of foreshadowing, but for the most part television was about putting characters in different situations and giving them different kinds of problems to solve, rather than building and then paying off storylines that ran for multiple seasons. This is how you got shows about talking cars, or itinerant gunslingers, or many of the various legal and crime dramas that ran for a billion episodes: On a mechanical level, their formats allowed for the construction of as many bottle episodes as the public could stand.

When The Sopranos first aired in 1999, it was a revelation for critics and audiences alike. While it isn’t quite true that a serious, gritty, show with long-running story arcs that couldn’t resolve in an hour hadn’t been done before, this was the first time many viewers had seen it done so well, or done at all. (Its interesting predecessors, like Homicide and Crime Story, tended not to be especially popular.) Since then, many different kinds of television shows have attempted to copy the formula that made The Sopranos such an anomaly—we now call this “prestige television,” and sometimes it feels like it’s the only television there is.

Prestige television, of course, doesn’t always make good on the promise of the format; it takes a lot more than long-running storylines and thematic material more complicated than what would have aired on CBS in prime time in 1983 to make something as good as Better Call Saul. Too often, shows the fit within the genre are identified by aesthetic markers, rather than markers of quality. The new Gossip Girl on HBO Max has the vibe of a prestige TV show, for example, with high production values and long-term plotting; in these ways it’s a lot closer to The Sopranos than it is to the more episodic and irreverent Gossip Girl that aired on the CW in the late 2000s, even if a dense and pseudo-novelistic Gossip Girl isn’t necessarily what anyone was clamoring for. Although episodic and procedural TV still exists in the various police and legal dramas, if you’re looking for a dramatic television show like that in any other genre, it feels like prestige TV is the only thing on offer.

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Just as television used to be episodic because the format demanded it, streaming television, with its prestige conventions, has also taken on a particular form because of the technology used to deploy it. Bingeable television, of the kind that Stranger Things popularized, does not have to depend on the same kind of narrative conventions that made weekly, episodic TV really work. You’re not going to be waiting a week between episodes, and you don’t need to write around ad breaks. No wonder the episode length of Stranger Things has ballooned to 90 minutes; each episode of the series can be a miniature movie when it's not beholden to the limitations of broadcast television.

Strange New Worlds was made to be specifically different from the hyper-serialized new Star Trek that precedes it. When Trek came back with Discovery, I was initially excited, but something felt really weird about a prestige, serialized approach to Star Trek, which has never operated in that way as a show. Strange New Worlds hews closer to the original Trek in that each adventure decisively ends by the time the credits roll. As an audience member, you just have the pleasure of watching charming people solve workplace issues together, granted that their workplace issues often involve aliens and photon torpedos. Still, this approach makes each new episode feel like eating a single chocolate truffle instead of being forced to slog through an entire black forest cake.

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Television is not cinema. Watching a series of, essentially, cheaply produced films in sequence does not have the same material result as watching one very good movie. Without those limits, you’re producing television that, at its very worst, does not have a structure to rely on when the plotting gets out of control. A show like Stranger Things approaches storytelling from a standpoint where more is more—more effects, more drama, more characters, and more lore are all supposedly better for the show. But despite how much more this season of Stranger Things is, I have basically a negative desire to watch it. There is so much going on and so much to keep track of you lose the ability to follow the core stakes. The events of the show could be happening to any characters, anywhere, but just so happen to concern a bunch of teenagers in Indiana.

The issue isn’t even that new Stranger Things or new Gossip Girl isn’t as good as the very best of the procedural format, like a Star Trek: Next Generation or Columbo. It’s that compared to currently airing shows with the same level of production value, I often find myself gravitating towards television that has dramatic stakes that are resolved within the hour rather than something serialized. Strange New Worlds isn’t deeper or better-acted than the prestige television that surrounds it; I just have a greater desire to spend time with these characters, in this world. It’s lighter because it doesn’t have to compound the characters’ trauma from episode to episode, and to me, television still has to be a fun way to spend an hour over everything else.

When you know that the issues of the show will be resolved by the time the credits roll, you don’t have to worry that you’ll just be watching what amounts to a very long “next episode” preview. And it allows for one of the greatest pleasures of television—when the writers get to just kinda fuck around.

One of the recent Strange New Worlds episodes takes on that classic Star Trek episode type; in “Spock Amok,” the crew is on shore leave, and the Starfleet officers we’re used to watching resolve intense diplomacy issues instead get ready to go fly fishing and meet up with their lovers. This isn’t a kind of story that calls for high stakes or story shaking revelations. It is about goofs and jokery, about manipulating the characters so that the ever-logical Spock ends up saying things like “Hijinks are the logical course of action.” The characters are put into unlikely, even silly situations, not to continuously propel the story towards more lore, but to tell you a little more about the characters.

The stern Number One, played by Rebecca Romijn, learns that she has the nickname “where fun goes to die” and teams up with the equally serious La’an Noonien Singh to learn a little bit about what fun is all about. Nurse Chapel has to let one of her lovers down gently because she’s worried he wants something serious. Spock is in a goddamn body-swap episode—about as far from prestige as you can get.

But it was also the most fun I’d had with new television for a long time. Watching these characters in the moments where they’re not supposed to be at their best, but just be, made me feel closer to them than watching the payoff to an intricate mystery that had been building in the background for four years and that I’d had to bone up on via Wikipedia just to parse ever would have. They didn’t have to change and grow by suffering through traumatic events. They change and grow by just experiencing life, as we all do.