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When you’re telling a story, ordinarily you’re working toward the all-powerful “what happens next.” Generally speaking, time moves forward in a linear fashion, bringing with it developments, revelations, surprises, answers, complications, and eventually conclusions. We want to see what happens next, because the future is unwritten. Characters spend their time wading out into a sea of possibilities, where anything can happen – until the thing that happens happens. When we finish a story, and it’s a good one, we want to see a sequel – we want to see what happens next for those characters, where they go next with what they’ve gained or learned.
With prequels, it’s a little bit more complicated. The fundamental problem with prequels is that in some respect, we already typically know what’s going to happen next. We know where the characters will end up in the thing we’ve already watched or read. We know that Anakin Skywalker will become Darth Vader. We know the Alien will menace Ripley, and we know the Thing will menace MacReady. We know Laura Palmer will wind up dead in a river, and we definitely fucking know that Batman’s parents die. Naturally, knowing where things are ultimately going takes away some suspense.
There are a great many ways to deal with this issue. Most prequels don’t worry about it too much because in the moment, peril still feels present to the audience regardless of what they intellectually know. Some prequels, like Star Wars: Rebels or the Alien prequels, change up their focus, following new characters whose specific fates we don’t know (even if, in the case of the Alien films, we can guess). Others, like Better Call Saul and arguably the main Star Wars prequels, present a different central question, playing with audience knowledge and directly addressing the question of how a character gets from Point A to Point B.
Star Trek has had a complicated history with its prequels. The first, Enterprise, was fairly straightforward, coming as it did after multiple series that consistently moved forward through time (temporal anomalies notwithstanding). Though Enterprise’s in-universe historical period was already known in broad strokes, the characters were all new, and the episodic Star Trek formula meant audiences could enjoy new adventures week on week. But that show ended up falling prey to shoehorned-in “future” cameos and stories that painstakingly (if entertainingly) told us things we more or less already knew. Star Trek: Discovery had such a huge issue getting ahead of itself in continuity that it had to seal its entire first two seasons behind an ironclad in-universe NDA, then transport the entire cast a thousand years into the future so it could actually chart new territory. And of course, JJ Abrams’ film universe got around pretty much every prequel issue by literally creating a splinter universe where none of the continuity has to line up.
And now, there’s Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.
Unlike other Star Trek prequels, Strange New Worlds features a whole bunch of characters who go on to directly appear in the original series’ pilot, the original series proper, and more. It takes place on the same ship as the original series (with an updated production design that still manages to honour that show’s core design principles). In terms of continuity, it sets up a number of ways in which it could end up brushing up against the original show in ways that make the storytelling predictable. But there’s one key aspect in which Strange New Worlds is incredibly smart. Somehow, it manages to sidestep that core prequel issue by embracing it, and the prospects for the show are richer as a result.
Christopher Pike would have been an intriguing character already, purely for how he’s been deployed over the years. Originally set to be the series lead in the 1965 pilot “The Cage,” he would later appear as a guest character to replacement lead James T. Kirk, before appearing in a recurring supporting role in the Abramsverse movies, and again in support to a different captain in season two of Discovery. Past his initial appearance, he’s always been present, but always in a supporting role. He’s always been “the Enterprise captain who wasn’t Kirk”. (See also: Robert April and Will Decker. Or don’t. They’re even foonotier footnotes.)
So up until now, nobody really knows that much about Pike. The one thing every Star Trek fan does know is that by the time of “The Menagerie” (TOS), Pike has become poisoned by delta rays and lives life paralysed and unable to move or communicate except through Hector Salamanca-like beeps. It’s a strangely ghoulish fate to appear in a franchise otherwise filled with medical miracles, and philosophically a very un-Trek-like view of injury and disability, but it’s canon, and we all know he’s gonna end up in that sarcophagus of a wheelchair. The Pike of the Abrams films is spared this fate, but the Pike of Discovery and Strange New Worlds is the same Pike we’ve always known, and so we watch with the knowledge that the clock is ticking for him. Like Arthur Dent knowing he can’t die until he visits Stavromula Beta (let’s not even talk about the temporal ins and outs of the Hitchhiker’s Guide series), we know a fixed point where Pike has to end up. It’s not just that he’s got lead-actor plot armour: we know how long (roughly) that plot armour will be active.
What a twist, though: so does he.
During his supporting tenure on Discovery, Pike wound up having a vision of his future, thanks to some “time crystals” in a Klingon monastery – witnessing not just the accident that causes his injuries, but the horrifying visage he’s set to present thereafter. He knows where he ends up. He knows how it happens. He even knows, to a certain degree, how long he’s got before it goes down.
How does this affect the show? For one thing, it puts its main character on the same page as the audience regarding foreknowledge of future events – and the fact that he will survive anything not involving those events. In a meta sense, that’s cute, but the showrunners don’t treat it merely as a cute nod to franchise continuity. Rather, it adds a fairly serious and wildly interesting wrinkle to Pike as a character.
The knowledge of one’s own fate, one’s own demise, is a unique philosophical opponent to wrestle with. And boy, does Pike wrestle with it. The show’s first two episodes are full of conversations, internal and with other characters, wherein Pike contemplates his own mortality. What meaning does it lend to the years he has left? How does it affect his leadership – will he take more risks, or fewer? How does it affect his outlook on life?
Anson Mount gives a fascinating performance as Pike: it bears much of the charm of William Shatner’s James T. Kirk, but with a dash of undercut confidence. Here’s a man whose entire self-image has been shaken to its core: not merely reminded of his mortality but of the specifics of it, he’s in danger of becoming a man obsessed. He can’t keep the future memories from his mind. He sees his future melted face in reflections. Worryingly, the second episode depicts him falling down the Starfleet equivalent of a Wikipedia rabbit hole on the people – currently children – he believes he’s fated to rescue in the process of putting himself in that chair. And his relationships with the people he’s closest to – Spock and Number One – are now dominated by discussions of that which looms heavy in his future.
Fundamentally, it’s a discussion about fate versus free will, with a faintly supernatural science fiction twist to it. Can Pike escape his fate? The nature of the time crystals, and established canon, suggest no. This isn’t just a prophecy: we, the audience, know it’s set in stone. The question is how we get there, and what new wrinkles the show can bring to the situation. And best of all, it appears as though the show won’t be treating this as a serialised plot arc, but as a gently developing character arc akin to those found on The Next Generation, informing but not dictating the action taking place onscreen.
Christopher Pike in Strange New Worlds is the most interesting lead character of a Star Trek show since Benjamin Sisko stepped into a wormhole a man and stepped out of it a religious icon. There’s a philosophical conundrum at the centre of his psyche in a way that there isn’t for Michael Burnham, Jonathan Archer, and honestly any of the captains save for Sisko. Janeway was put in a difficult situation, and Burnham has had her own struggles, but not even being transported to the other side of the galaxy affects the sense of self like Sisko’s wormhole encounter did, and like Pike’s foreknowledge does now.
Strange New Worlds, thus far, has been everything that I and many other fans have wanted from Star Trek ever since Discovery launched back in 2017. It’s got an episodic structure, constructive and hopeful themes, and a cast of promising characters. And I feel like we’re lucky in that the captain – typically the rock around which more unusual characters orbit – is every bit as worth psychologically delving into as the rest of the crew. Here’s hoping the show explores these ideas in full.