While you’d be hard pressed to name a time during the past few decades when Star Wars or Star Trek weren’t swirling somewhere near the center of the pop culture zeitgeist, it seems safe to say that they’re both experiencing something of a renaissance now, or at least, as close to a renaissance as a thing that never truly went out of style can have. From movies and TV shows to books and comics, these long-running franchises are still churning out a steady stream of new stories to keep their fans happy, with both a new Star Trek series and a new Star Wars film debuting later this year.
With all this bona fide Star-content swirling around the media landscape, it’s not only important, but imperative that new stories drawing inspiration from either of these behemoths work hard to establish their own raison d’être right out of the gate. Unlike, say, the glut of YA dystopian books and films in the wake of The Hunger Games — a franchise that, at the time, seemed finite, meaning fans had to venture outside the high-stakes world of Panem if they wanted to keep scratching that itch — new properties hoping to capitalize on the popularity of the two dominant space-based juggernauts have to look beyond the superficial elements of their inspiration in order to stand out. After all, why watch a knock-off version of Star Trek or Star Wars when seemingly limitless versions of the real things are available right at our fingertips?
This is the fatal flaw of The CW’s new futuristic summer series Pandora, a show which feels like it desperately wants to be Star Trek: Starfleet Academy, or perhaps Star Wars: The College Years, but woefully misses the mark on both.
The opening sequence of Pandora’s pilot episode, “Shelter From the Storm” (the first of two episodes that The CW released for review ahead of the premiere), follows protagonist Jax (Priscilla Quintana) in the year 2199 as she goes for a jog away from the small, sand-colored colony of New Portland where she lives with her parents, pausing to gaze up at the planet’s twin suns, right before blasts from an unseen source rain down from the sky to obliterate her home, leaving Jax as the sole survivor. After a brief scene in which she wanders Luke-Skywalker-like through the ashes and rubble, Pandora jumps ahead in time to find Jax on a shuttle back to Earth, where she will be attending the Fleet Training Academy under the supervision of her uncle, Professor Osborn (Noah Huntley).
In short order, Jax is introduced to Osborn’s teaching assistant, Xander Duvall (Oliver Dench), classmates Atria (Raechelle Banno), Thomas (Martin Bobb-Semple), Greg (John Harlan Kim), and Ralen (Ben Radcliffe), and roommate Delaney (Banita Sandhu). Even casual Star Trek fans will recognize a few familiar archetypes among Jax’s group of friends. Greg is the charming rogue; Tom looks human, but has partial telepathic abilities, inherited from his father; Ralen is the lone Zatarian at the Academy, a species which Delaney describes as “violent,” “warlike,” and “treacherous”; and Delaney has cybernetic implants she received as a child, effectively checking the “robot/cyborg” box in the show’s roster. Atria is the only one of the bunch who doesn’t feel like a Star Trek character with the serial numbers filed off — she’s an Adari clone, a refugee from a planet on which she was considered property — and is a refreshingly effervescent presence on the show, determined to soak up all the life her origins would’ve had her miss out on.
However, while Pandora has a decent grasp of what the cast of a college-aged Star Trek might look like, writer Mark A. Altman does little in the show’s first two episodes to demonstrate that he has any idea what to do with this diverse ensemble of characters. While Jax — the titular Pandora, whose true nature is ostensibly the central mystery of the show, despite the first two episodes doing very little to prompt us to wonder at her identity — runs bizarrely hot and cold for no apparent reason throughout the entire first episode (thankfully, she evens out a bit by the second), Xander isn’t given any personality at all besides “protective.”
Meanwhile, most of Osborn’s lines feel as though they were written for one of the thousand-year-old vampires on The Originals, Tom drifts from scene to scene as if even he isn’t quite sure why he’s there, Greg’s sole purpose seems to be to halfheartedly flirt with Jax, and every scene Delaney is in feels like an afterthought, as though Altman forgot she existed until the scripts were nearly complete. Ralen benefits from more screen time than most of the others, but his characterization rests either on him being a fish out of water — “I do not understand,” he muses intensely during the opening scene of the second episode, pondering a plate of chili cheese fries — or on his bucking of Zatarian stereotypes, which feels a little awkward since the show doesn’t give us any opportunity to buy into those stereotypes in the first place. The only one of the students who feels more or less like a real person is, ironically, Atria, the one who wouldn’t be considered a person at all on her home planet, which is possibly why Pandora puts her at the center of the show’s second episode, “Chimes of Freedom.”
Unfortunately, even a second episode focused on the show’s strongest character isn’t enough to save Pandora from stilted dialogue, hamfisted plotting, and severely undercooked worldbuilding. Much of what happens in the first two episodes doesn’t make a ton of sense, and it’s not helped by clunky pacing that drags one minute, bogged down in pointless scenes that have nothing to do with anything, then speeds up so abruptly that it threatens narrative whiplash. At one point, Jax takes a shower (seemingly for no reason other than for viewers to ogle the silhouette of her naked body through the frosted glass door) that lasts for exactly ten seconds, and I honestly have no idea if that’s because the showers of the future are ridiculously efficient, or if it was merely another example of Pandora’s frustratingly sloppy grasp of time.