What have you been watching? Including Star Trek: Strange New Worlds and The Essex Serpent

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

It’s “What have you been watching?”, your chance to recommend to fellow TMINE readers anything you’ve been watching this week

It’s been a bit quiet for TV viewing here at TMINE Towers of late. We’ve not really been watching much at all. I actually blame TV networks for this, since there’s not been much we’ve wanted to watch.

Superman & Lois (US: The CW; UK: BBC One) came back for all of an episode before disappearing again. That’s progressing nicely and has survived The CW’s recent Night of Long Knives, so it’s good to know that there’ll be a season three.

I did manage to finish Moon Knight (Disney+). That’s probably now my favourite of all the Disney+ Marvel TV shows, thanks mainly to its dedication to ignoring the comics to give us something a lot more interest and based in Egyptian mythology. The addition of Scarlet Scarab at the end was something of a punch the air moment, too, and the mid-credits sequence was if not a game-changer, something that genuinely twisted the whole show and what you’d seen.

However, its biggest flaw was that it felt like the middle of an MCU movie, one that needed some prologue and epilogue featuring our titular hero since he hardly ever showed up. Season two isn’t confirmed, either, making this feel like a weird random addition to the MCU, rather than something too important. For now, anyway.

Meanwhile, Bel-Air (Peacock) is still just there, waiting for us to watch the rest of it. We’ve only watched one more episode of Star Trek: Picard (US: Paramount+; UK: Amazon Prime). That’s mainly because Lovely Wife is sorely aggrieved with me for calling it ‘bobbins’ last time and has withdrawn my viewing privileges, as she is the official custodian of all things Star Trek. But it’s also because it’s bobbins.

But while Lovely Wife may be the custodian of all things Star Trek, I’m the custodian of all things “not yet available to view in the UK”, which includes brand new Star Trek show Strange New Worlds. So we’ve watched two of those episodes.

And while Netflix might be losing its lustre as the world’s premier streamer (thanks to all manner of internal ructions and hubris, about which much has been written in the trades, recently, as its subscriber figures start to slump and it contemplates an ad-supported model), Apple TV+ is picking up and is on the verge of becoming ‘must see TV’. And so even though The Essex Serpent is a British period drama, I decided to give that a try, too.

Both of those after the jump…

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (US/UK: Paramount+)

Captain Pike, Science Officer Spock and Number One explore new worlds around the galaxy on the U.S.S. Enterprise.

There is a strange new phenomenon I’ve observed appearing over the past couple of years. The phenomenon is “characters and ideas that appear in TV shows that are so much more compelling and interesting than the TV show you’re actually watching that you’d rather be watching a completely different TV show featuring them instead – and which then ends up getting made and being better than the original show”.

Witness Superman & Lois, which started with a guest appearance by Tyler Hoechlin in Supergirl as Clark Kent/Superman that was just so good, it made you think even Christopher Reeve wasn’t all that. It definitely made you wish you weren’t watching Supergirl. And we ended up with a show that was about 1,000 times better than the original.

Now we have Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, a spin-off from Star Trek: Discovery, a show so dull I was actually going to give up on it – until these characters arrived.

Essentially, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is everything you hoped Star Trek: Discovery and even Star Trek: Enterprise could have been but better. It gives us the chance to see the ‘original’ characters from Star Trek‘s pilot episode and imagine what that Star Trek would have been like, except with 1960s-style storytelling married with 2022-style visual effects.

Here, Captain Christopher Pike (Ansom Mount), Number One (Rebecca Romijin) and Mr Spock (Ethan Peck) are the people who matter and we’ve already met, but joining them are Ensign Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) and Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush), as well as some original characters – and some other characters I don’t want to spoil. Although you’d have to be a big TOS nerd to know who (spoiler alert) George Kirk and Robert April are, even if I mentioned them in the clear.

And each week, they explore strange new worlds in a reasonably thrilling and not especially serious way. It’s almost completely non-episodic, beyond Pike consistently worrying about the fact he now knows exactly how he’s going to die (more or less). Mount does a great job of making Pike a character in his own right, Peck does probably the best job since Nimoy with Spock – or with any Vulcan character. Everyone else is just having fun.

It’s like watching Star Trek but if they made Star Trek now.

And it makes you realise just how enjoyable that is.

So if you love episodic sci-fi that makes you think a bit, makes you laugh a bit, and reminds you a bit of that show you used to watch when you were kid, definitely watch Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. That’ll be on the new Paramount+ channel in the UK next month, BTW.

The Essex Serpent (AppleTV+)

The Essex Serpent follows London widow Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) who moves to Essex to investigate reports of a mythical serpent. She forms an unlikely bond with the village vicar (Tom Hiddleston), but when tragedy strikes, locals accuse her of attracting the creature.

Were this on BBC or even Netflix, rather than AppleTV+, I think I would have avoided it like the plague. It’s British. It’s a period drama. It has big name, international casting – Hiddleston, Danes and Clémence Poésy. It features peak wokeness, with Danes a feminist scientist who suffered domestic violence at the hands of her late husband; she has a socialist, probably gay maid; the cast are surprisingly colour-blind, lending the storytelling the option of discussing imperial oppression of India, cast oppression and more. It’s even directed by Clio Barnard (Ali & Ava, The Selfish Giant, Dark River).

(I shall point out to new and accidental readers that individually all of those are good things in both drama and IRL. I’m just not into seeing all of them at once and where they’re the plot and nothing else happens. I’d rather have a coherent story, please)

But I’m actually really enjoying it. Which goes to my point about how AppleTV+ might now be the new Netflix – even when it’s making something you’d normally not watch, you can now normally rely on it to make something that’s good. You might not necessarily love it, but you won’t come away thinking you’ve been duped or had your intelligence insulted, as is increasingly the case with Netflix and even BBC One these days, only that it’s just not your cup of tea.

Danes is both outstanding and surprising (you’d never guess she was American – accent-perfect she is), Hiddleston is… Hiddleston, so outstanding but not really that surprising, but Poésy (The Tunnel) is the biggest eye-opener (have fun: listen to the French dubbed version since she also does her own dialogue for that). Barnard’s direction is ornate and personal, cinematic but in the way a cinema director is, rather than the extreme close-ups and odd angles of many British TV directors aiming to be ‘cinematic’.

But while the story itself is fascinating, as it explores scientific discoveries, faith, ambition and personal journeys – Danes is trying to find out who she is now; Hiddleston is looking for purpose, rather than achievement – it’s the period feel where the drama excels. It’s not necessarily an authentic period feel: the dialogue, accents, attitudes and performances are all decidedly modern. But, for example, the show integrates animals and nature into everyday life in a way that is timely but doesn’t occur now. People frequently look like they’re from a different time. The Essex landscape is also astonishing, like something from prehistory.

I’m somewhat waiting for the shoe to drop on the main plots: is there a serpent? Is there going to be something woke about the eventual explanation for what’s going on (we already seem to have had some sort of group hysteria), but class or gender oppression is a possible option? Will Hiddleston and Danes end up together? Will the maid be jealous and try to sabotage them?

It might all end up predictable. I don’t think it will – after all, it’s unlikely in such a prestige drama that Danes’ belief that the serpent is a lost plesiosaur (“a living fossil”) is going to turn out to be true, so she can’t purely be an emblem of female rationality and Rightness in an age where such a thing isn’t allowed.

But despite all of that looming over the story like a sword of Damacles, I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of it and even if the end disappoints, I think for once the journey won’t have disappointed and will have made it all worthwhile.

Author

  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.