Star Trek’s next step forward is arguably one of its biggest leaps back yet. Although the new era of Star Trek shows kicked off with Discovery—at first a prequel set before the events of the original series, now its farthest flung future—its latest bet on the Trek universe, Strange New Worlds, is a throwback to that classic ‘60s heyday in more ways than being set aboard a pre-Kirk Enterprise.
“One of our showrunners called it the longest pilot-to-series pickup, ever, you know? Which is really funny,” Melissa Navia, who plays Enterprise conn officer Lt. Ortegas in Strange New Worlds, recently told io9 over video chat at a press junket for the new series. Navia’s Erica Ortegas—an eager flight jockey who pilots the Enterprise through the myriad dangers it faces week in, week out on the show—is a rarity among the main cast of the series, in that she doesn’t have an immediate, explicit link to Star Trek’s oldest past compared to characters like Captain Pike and Mr. Spock, or even Christina Chong’s La’an Noonien-Singh, an entirely new character with a very familiar name. But even then, there’s the tiniest little link back.
“It’s a brand-new character, but her last name was a last name Gene Roddenberry had in the pilot for a character who never made it to screen. It became a different character. And so for me, it kind of became… there’s just something very symbolic about [it], as an actor and as a Star Trek fan. We’re going to be making new fans from this show, but we’re just bridging the divide, of how Star Trek connects generations. It’s been really exciting, a lot of pressure, but I think we can handle it, thanks to our amazing writers and cast.”
The idea of that pressure, and the links to the original Star Trek series, plays on the mind of all of Strange New Worlds’ cast, whether it’s the trio we met in Discovery’s second season—Mount, Peck, and Romijn’s Captain Pike, Spock, and Number One, now given the full name Una Chin-Riley here—or new faces like Navia, Gooding (playing a young Uhura), and Chong, or Jess Bush and Babs Olusanmokun as minor Trek characters Nurse Chapel and Dr. M’Benga.
“It’s been incredible to have the wealth of knowledge of where the future of the franchise is, in comparison to where we’re coming from in our series and the first season,” Gooding added. “It’s a balancing act of knowing where we’re going and what we’re doing in the present moment, so it’s been fun to have the nostalgic throwback-y set pieces with this incredibly current and dynamic dialogue and conversations about the future, like, in these moments the characters don’t know [about yet]. Uhura doesn’t know she’s going to have a future on many different starships and this is just the beginning for her. But as an actor, it’s really cool to know the future, and play the present.”
For some, that meant diving into a franchise they’d never experienced before. “I did a lot of homework and research—because I’m a new Trek fan—I did a lot of watching the original series in quarantine, and then also wherever Khan was, The Wrath of Khan, all of that stuff, and asking friends what certain words [mean],” Chong said, touching on La’an—who is the Enterprise’s no-nonsense Chief of Security on the show—and her mysterious familial link to the iconic Trek villain. “There was a list of words and I was marking ‘I have no idea’ under each word. ‘What the hell does that mean?’ ‘What is that?’ Because, obviously, I couldn’t understand the script unless I could understand what those words were. So, there was a lot of that going on!”
At least for some of Strange New Worlds’ newcomers, there were actual performances to turn to. “I watched all of Majel’s performance and researched into Star Trek more broadly, and how she fits into that picture culturally,” Jess Bush—who plays Barrett’s second original Trek character, Nurse Christine Chapel, after Number One was axed in the wake of the series’ first pilot—said of her own research. “Distilled her essence, so to speak, and took note of her wit and humor and used that as a seedling to generate, and yield from. There was a certain level of that in performing the character which I think Akiva [Goldsman] and Henry [Alonso Meyers], the showrunners, handled really beautifully with the writing, and how we got to brainstorm together. They had their two cents, but I also had a license to explore, myself. Which I felt honored to do—it’s been a wonderful process.”
For Olusanmokun that was an even harder option, given Dr. M’Benga’s onscreen Trek tenure was even shorter. “We only see him in two episodes! It was trepidation, and then it was ‘Okay, I can just give him something new, something that is unknown,’ you know? That’s what I’ve endeavored to do,” the actor added. “I hope the journey we take him on and what we show of his life, and inner life is something that the fans can connect to.”
But that pressure to embrace Star Trek’s history wasn’t just felt on Strange New Worlds’ new stars. It was arguably even more demanding for its three returning heroes: Mount, Peck, and Romijn, who all first created these new continuations of their characters for Star Trek: Discovery’s second season, and several Short Treks anthology minisodes. For Mount, returning as Captain Pike wasn’t just a chance to grow the character he had developed on Discovery, but help lead a show that would grow into something different to all the other Star Trek series out there right now. “I think the opportunity to make our own Trek show, our own way, was really the driving force of the excitement behind this,” the actor explained. “We knew going in we wanted to make something episodic—not just in terms of the new idea, or the big planet of the week—but, ‘What is the character of this episode? How can we encourage our directors to come in and really put a strong footprint on their episode? How can we find a different way to play every episode?’ We wanted to re-inject a sense of fun in Star Trek, and I hope we succeeded.”
But with at least some of the pressure relieved in coming back, meant there were chances to push a now-familiar face like Pike even further. “On Discovery, [Pike’s] leading a different crew than he’s used to on the Enterprise—there, you get to see him leading his crew. The sense of responsibility there, the sense of warmth… if I wanted to bring one thing to Pike, it’s that every time that door to his office opened and a crew member walked in, the most important thing in the room was not Pike, not the question—the most important thing was that crew member. That’s one of the few things, for certain, I knew I wanted to do.”
Finding that balance between respecting what came before and carving a new identity for these characters was keenly felt by Mount’s returning colleagues too. “It’s a lot. I feel like a caretaker, like a custodian of this very beloved character that really only got 14 minutes of screentime in the original, rejected pilot. And he only saw her perform a task at hand,” Romjin added. “We didn’t learn her name, we didn’t learn anything about her character. She’s got a name now—Una Chin-Riley—and it’s really fun to develop and flesh out this blank slate.”
“We don’t take it lightly,” the actress continued. “I think all of us who were playing familiar characters know how much the Star Trek fans protect these characters and so we were all very protective of them, and… trying our hardest to take good care of these characters.”
“It never gets normal. It never feels like something ordinary. I think the onus is more comfortable at this point—it doesn’t feel so back-breaking,” Peck, who returns as Spock after depicting a rather tumultuous version of the character on Discovery, concluded. “Right at the beginning, I was really afraid to squander this… this is such an important character to so many people, and my work is really important to me. Those two things combined just made for something super-burdensome. I think time has alleviated the discomfort of that and continues to, but I hope it’s never something that becomes normal, or comfortable, because I think that discomfort—and that legacy to live up to—is really a great catalyst for creativity and imagination and exploring the unknown. It’s very inspiring.”
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds hits Paramount+ starting May 5.
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