The Bad-Ass Bridge Crew of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Talk Legacy and Free Will
Paramount+’s newest Star Trek series, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, has a galaxy of new talent representing legacy and canon while also launching wholly original characters.
Speaking with TV Fanatic and other outlets during a recent press day, three of the stars — Christina Chong (Chief of Security La’an Noonien-Singh), Celia Rose Gooding (Cadet and Communications Specialist Nyota Uhura), and Melissa Navia (Pilot and Helm Officer Erica Ortegas) — share their excitement for their show’s premiere.
From learning which buttons to press on their bridge consoles to debating free will versus predetermination, these actresses are indicative of the vibrant and energetic cast this highly-anticipated episodic series brings to bear.
As the bridge crew of the USS Enterprise, everyone recognizes the expectation that there would need to be a consistency in the procedures they carry out at their stations. Each actress has her own approach to learning her “job” and what that looks like.
Chong works from a method of internalized import. “From what I know – I asked, and I was told – basically make it up yourself. So I had a lot of fun deciding which one I’m going to use when, and I would switch it, and it would change all the time.
“What I would do is I would make sure that whenever I did press a button — normally, I’m pressing a button either to deploy weapons, so it’s obviously a huge decision to press the red button (or whatever colored button) — I endow it with something super important that I’ve personalized in my own life to make it feel real for me and therefore the audience in the moment.”
Navia takes a more realism-based approach. “For me [at] the helm console, I was doing these Zoom sessions with the graphics department and with people who have been with Star Trek for the last thirty, forty years and asking about the engines, the way everything works.
“Apparently, word got out that Melissa’s a little looney. Like she really thinks she’s flying a starship.
“For me, it was important to know how am I going to impulse, how am I going to warp. There are times when I’m doing evasive maneuvers where Pike will give me an order, and I’ll be, “On it,” but it won’t come up on my screen, so I’d be straight-up texting Graphics, [asking,] ‘Can you guys give me something?’ And they’d be, ‘Well, it probably won’t play in the episode.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but it’s playing in my face.’
“So they would create all these things for me, and I’d [ask,] ‘Can we change this screen? And that screen?’ They also think it’s really important for the fans, and I know that there are going to be fans that know more about the Enterprise than even I do, even though I’ve been doing my research.
“So for me, when I’m there, I’m flying. There’d be times when Anson would be speaking to somebody on the viewscreen, and I’d have a little quip, and I’d miss it. Anson’s like, “Melissa,” and I’m like, ‘I’m so sorry. I’m flying.’ I’m so focused. So I’m the dorky one on the bridge for sure.”
Gooding has the most straightforward way of dealing with her controls of the three. “I press as many buttons as possible.
“I remember the first day, I established the red alert button is the farthest button away from me which probably wasn’t the smartest thing in the world, but I am very much a person who [believes], ‘It’s always going to be the right thing.’
“It may be in a different place, but I’m sure the continuity fans are going to be like, ‘She didn’t press that button last time!’ And I’m like, “Okay, team, suspending disbelief.’ Absolutely.”
As Uhura, Gooding steps into a role made iconic by Nichelle Nichols and, more recently, brought to the big screen by Zoe Saldaña. Playing her as the youngest member of the bridge, still a cadet, in fact, how much of the character does Gooding borrow from her predecessors?
“We are definitely seeing Uhura getting her space legs, as opposed to her sea legs, and it’s incredible.
“I, of course, did a lot of studying of Nichelle’s Uhura, but my first introduction to Uhura as a character [was Saldaña’s].
“My mom’s a huge Trekkie. She used to take my sister and me to watch the movies at movie theaters when they were still a thing, and I remember running to the front row and watching it by myself and craning my neck up to look at Zoe. I just remember being so captivated by [how] she knew how brilliant she was.
“It wasn’t something that she had to make a spectacle of. It was just something that when she needed to be that capable brilliant person, then there she was to be just that.
“With Nichelle, she had this grace, this glamor. Of course, she had that intelligence and her brilliance, and I think that’s the thing that I’m trying to carry in this very young version of her.
“This understanding that she knows even more than she probably thinks she knows, and she’s much smarter than I think she assumes of herself. But the newness and the unsurety is something that I am weaving through this character as we get to know her season to season.
“We know where she ends up, and we know who she ends up being, but we don’t really know how she got there. It’s my job to take that and use it to influence her growth and to monitor, ‘Oh, this is how she developed this personality trait, or, as she’s gotten comfortable, she been a lot more this or more that.”
“That is something that I’m excited for the audience to mark through the first season and, of course, in the seasons to come.
Navia is in the unique situation of bringing her Lt. Erica Ortegas to Star Trek as a character unencumbered by any expectations since she isn’t a legacy character like Uhura and doesn’t carry the baggage of the Noonien-Singh surname like La’an.
How did she go about shaping Ortegas and making a place for her on this crew?
“There’s a thing that you say as an actor: When the right role comes along, it’ll be right. It’ll be the one.
“The writing was so wonderful, and I felt this connection to Ortegas. I had the breakdown, right? I knew it was Star Trek. The breakdown was that she was a combat veteran and skilled pilot, can handle a gun, can handle a phaser, and can also crack a joke when a joke needs to be cracked.
“I felt that the audition sides I got were so much me and also in the future. I like to say that Ortegas is like a cooler version of me in the future. Like, in the future, I’d love to fly a starship.
“So, when I booked the role, I also got the added element of this is a brand new character that gets to interact with all these legacy characters, which is going to be a lot of fun for fans.
“The idea [is] that she’s so confident but cocky in a lovable way, not an obnoxious way because she is really skilled. Pike trusts her intrinsically, and she has such great trust in the rest of her crew.
“When somebody is so good at their job and trusts everybody equally in their workspace, then you’re allowed to joke and play, and that really comes off.
“She loves the adventure of what she does, and she also takes it seriously. We get this episodic adventure where you get to see the toll that it takes when lives are on the line.
“I’ve just been having a blast creating this character and also looking back to all the pilots that have come before, the characters that fans are already comparing her to even though they haven’t seen anything.
“I’m trying to make my own mark on it by just bringing myself to it and also letting what the writers have created just come to the screen. I’m also taking a lot of what the fans love about Star Trek and putting that into Ortegas. Like she loves Starfleet in the way that fans love Star Trek.”
Booking a role on a Star Trek show revealed a lot about people in her life as well as the anticipation in the fandom for Strange New Worlds, which might’ve been overwhelming if not for the leadership of Anson Mount, Rebecca Romijn, and Ethan Peck.
“Well, the first thing is you find out that there’s a lot of Trekkies in your life that you didn’t realize were Trekkies before.
“One of my brother-in-laws, he’s a Trekkie, and he texted me because I think it’s the only thing my sister allowed him to do. He just had one question, ‘All I want to know, is it Strange New Worlds?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes.’ And he’s like, ‘This is the one we’ve been waiting for.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, okay.’
“So I already knew it was a really big deal, and I was incredibly happy to have Anson and Rebecca and Ethan kind of as our One, Two, and Three on the show because they had been on Discovery. Knowing that the fans loved them so much, and it was the reason that our show exists, that I have a job right now, that meant a lot to me.
“We all felt very … like nervousness but in a good way? But we had leaders at the helm that had already done this. I kept saying at the start, ‘Yeah, if I had to pick a captain, it’d be Captain Pike.’ I just had absolute loyalty to the three of them.
“And then being able to create this character next to these legacy characters – Spock, Uhura, we have Dr. M’Benga. We have Nurse Chapel. Number One, who we never got her story. So, all these decades later, we get to see her story.
“And Captain Pike, who people who I spoke to who weren’t even huge Star Trek fans, they were like, ‘Oh yeah, Pike. Who was there before Kirk.’
“It’s been, on so many levels, a wild ride. I’ve been doing my best. I joke that when I’m flying the ship, guys, I’m flying the ship. I take it super seriously. I know how that starship runs. A few make fun of me, but I’m like it has to be.
“As soon as I think it’s just a prop in front of me, we might as well all go home. So I’ve been taking it like the responsibility is not lost on any of us.
“Every single day, I’m boosted by my incredible cast and, again, Anson, Ethan, and Rebecca, I think we all agree we couldn’t have asked for a better crew to step on board with.”
With Captain Pike trying to cope with the memory of the vision of his future from Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 Episode 12, much of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1 addresses the question of how much free will there is when the future seems predetermined.
On which side of the debate do Gooding, Chong, and Navie feel their characters would come down?
Gooding hints at some of Uhura’s backstory with her answer, “I would say because of the past that she’s had… I think she will grow into the understanding that there’s a lot more free will and that she determines her own future, but I think, at the moment, where we see her in this first episode, she’s very much someone who [feels], ‘The universe happens to me. I am not something that happens with it.'”
Chong also uses her character’s history to inform her beliefs. “La’an is more on the – for sure – free will [side] because so many bad things have happened to her. She’s been through so much. It’s that need to control. When you need to control something, your will is as strong as it can be. And controlling the uncontrollable is kind of one of her struggles.”
While Navia feels Ortegas also values free will, she sees that there may be an interplay between the two phenomena.
“In terms of free will, it’s this idea that you create your future. But I’ll say for myself, personally, [based on] things that have happened — and again, that’s myself being infused into the character — there’s a certain level [of understanding] that things happen for a reason.
“We see some beautiful elements of that in Season 1 where we don’t know why things happen as they happen, but the right people are put in the right place at the right time, and there’s certain things that we just can’t understand. So, in that way, there’s a mix of that.
“We, of course, see Captain Pike going through the struggle as to what and how that changes how you live in life. There’s things that are personally happening with me, personally happening with the cast, that we are using that to inform our characters.
“We all are trying to figure that out in Season 1, and that’ll continue on to Season 2 that we’re currently filming.”
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds premieres on Paramount + on May 5, with new episodes streaming every Thursday.
Be sure to check back here, Fanatics, for more cast interviews this week and our reviews once each new episode drops!
Diana Keng is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.