This discussion and review contains spoilers for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 2, episode 7, “Those Old Scientists” (the Lower Decks crossover episode), on Paramount+.
“Those Old Scientists” is a charming piece of fan service from Strange New Worlds and Lower Decks, albeit one that feels somewhat redundant. Decidedly light on plot, it makes sense that Paramount+ decided to release the crossover early, effectively sandwiching it as an engaging bonus feature between “Lost in Translation” and “Under the Cloak of War.”
The most impressive aspects of “Those Old Scientists” are formal in nature, blending live action and animated Star Trek to great effect. The episode shifts between the two mediums at various points, embracing the sort of narrative and technical experimentation that is a lot easier in the streaming age than it would have been on broadcast television. It recalls the sort of adventurous approach to storytelling that Lower Decks employed in episodes like “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption.”
On a level of pure craft, “Those Old Scientists” is a reminder of how formally diverse the Star Trek universe has become. A half-hour animated sitcom like Lower Decks is just as much a piece of Star Trek as the old-fashioned live-action hour-long nostalgia of Strange New Worlds, and they can share the same narrative and physical space. Star Trek has come a long way since the attempts by figures like Gene Roddenberry or Richard Arnold to declare that animated Star Trek is “not canon.”
Indeed, there is a charming warmth to “Those Old Scientists,” a sense in which two formally distinct visions of what Star Trek can be are shaking hands and acknowledging each other. Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid) and Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome) get to appear in live action, while the episode’s coda depicts Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) and his crew in animation. The opening credits are beautifully rendered in animation, with cameos from the nacelle-sucking monster and the space koala.
It’s hard not to smile at the obvious affection on display here. The best parts of “Those Old Scientists” come from translating characters and imagery across mediums. Quaid’s makeup and costuming is delightful, unafraid to appear potentially goofy in live action. Quaid’s performance is good, giving, and game, particularly his efforts to recreate Boimler’s animated choreography in live action. It’s wonderful to see Boimler’s distinctive power walk recreated by Quaid in live action, just as it’s delightful to see Pike’s broad shoulders in animation.
In many ways, the best point of comparison for “Those Old Scientists” is something like “Trials and Tribble-ations,” the fifth season episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine produced for the franchise’s 30th anniversary, using time travel to insert Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) and his crew into the classic Star Trek adventure “The Trouble with Tribbles.” Meshing two very different styles of Star Trek together, the episode is rightfully beloved by fans as a celebration of the larger franchise.
This perhaps gets at the issues with “Those Old Scientists,”which are less to do with the episode itself and more related to the wider context. While Strange New Worlds and Lower Decks are vastly different shows in terms of aesthetics – one is an hour-long live-action drama, the other a half-hour animated sitcom – they are not so different in terms of theme and actual content. They don’t feel as different from one another in terms of general mood as Star Trek and Deep Space Nine.
Both Strange New Worlds and Lower Decks are overtly nostalgic. They are shows that consciously hearken back to the Berman era of Star Trek, in particular The Next Generation and Voyager. They both feel like affectionate tributes to that sort of storytelling, often building whole episodes around references to existing continuity or familiar episode templates. At their core, they are both throwbacks to an old-fashioned sort of Star Trek.
Of course, they express this nostalgia in different ways. Lower Decks couches its references in knowing jokes and affectionate gags, breezing through familiar plot templates in a compressed half-hour runtime. Strange New Worlds plays this nostalgia more earnestly, just recreating familiar plots and playing them out self-seriously over an hour-long runtime. One of the better jokes in “Those Old Scientists” finds Boimler complaining, “Have you noticed how slow everybody talks?”
As such, “Those Old Scientists” occasionally feels like it is approaching a fan-service singularity, a show about how Boimler and Mariner worship the stars of a show that is itself slavishly devoted to recreating The Next Generation and Voyager. The episode itself draws attention to it, as Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia) and Nyota Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) gush over the cast of Enterprise. Ortegas asks, “Are we sounding like…?” Uhura references Boimler and Mariner, “Them?”
It doesn’t help matters that “Those Old Scientists” doesn’t really have a plot or stakes driving it. It is essentially a hangout episode. Sure, there is a slight complication with Harr Caras (Greg Bryk) and the crew of his Orion ship, but it’s the sort of story that would play out in the background as the subplot of a Lower Decks episode, rather than the narrative engine of an hour-long drama. The crossover is much more about hanging out than “Trials and Tribble-ations” was.
This is obvious even looking at the structure of the story. Boimler is thrown into the past in the episode’s teaser, but “Those Old Scientists” waits another 20 minutes or so before bringing Mariner into the action. It’s a choice that underscores how little is actually happening narratively, that the episode essentially replays its starting premise at the midpoint in an effort to extend the plot to fill an hour of airtime. It’s not a fatal flaw, but it makes the episode feel a little sluggish.
There are hints of interesting character work, particularly given the central tension within Strange New Worlds as a prequel. Boimler freaks out when he sees Spock (Ethan Peck) laugh, because it violates established canon. “So this is what?” he asks Christine Chapel (Jess Bush). “This is just like a phase? And he’ll get over it and back to his real self soon?” Uhura is haunted by the knowledge she must become “this universally known, super-translating, unflappable hardworking badass.”
Even Boimler and Mariner threaten to have an epiphany about the limits of their fannish nostalgia, confronted with the knowledge that these icons are not just archetypes but fully formed people. “You know, we’re here like right now,” Mariner tells Boimler. “Maybe live in the moment.” Later, she demands, “Can you not be such a fanboy for one second?” Boimler’s arc ends with his rejecting the idea of canon, confessing, “I’m… done worrying about the future. I want to help people now.”
This is all potentially interesting stuff, but neither Lower Decks nor Strange New Worlds is bold enough or daring enough to follow these ideas to their logical conclusion, to understand that this sort of fannish devotion and continuity worship can be an occasional indulgence rather than a steady diet. Strange New Worlds is never going to break with the larger Star Trek canon, and Lower Decks is very consciously limited in how much it can play with the larger Star Trek universe.
This is perhaps the biggest difference between “Those Old Scientists” and something like “Trials and Tribble-ations”, and it explains why the episode feels somewhat less exciting and engaging. “Trials and Tribble-ations” arrived in the middle of the most ambitious season of Star Trek to that point. The fifth season of Deep Space Nine was bold and radical. It was consciously and consistently trying new things, pushing the boundaries of what Star Trek could be.
This was a season that included war stories like “The Ship” and “Nor the Battle to the Strong,” the sex farce “Looking for par’Mach in All the Wrong Places,” a story of fascist complicity in “Things Past,” the mystical religious epic “Rapture,” the ambiguous obsession of “For the Uniform,” the Dominion invasion of the Alpha Quadrant in “In Purgatory’s Shadow” and “By Inferno’s Light,” and the franchise’s first episode told exclusively from a Klingon perspective in “Soldiers of the Empire.”
The fifth season of Deep Space Nine constantly tried new things, pushing its characters in interesting directions. Quark (Armin Shimerman) became an arms dealer in “Business as Usual,” Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig) revealed shocking secrets about his past in “Doctor Bashir, I Presume.” Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor) relived the death of her father in “Ties of Blood and Water.” It ended with the Dominion War, a shockingly bold creative choice unlike anything the franchise had done before.
As such, the fan service in “Trials and Tribble-ations” felt like something of a departure from the season around it. In its own way, that sort of nostalgia was something new, because it was very different from the other stories that Deep Space Nine was telling around it. The biggest issue with “Those Old Scientists” is that – narratively and thematically – it doesn’t feel especially novel. It’s an episode about nostalgia crossing over two shows that are obsessed with nostalgia.
“Those Old Scientists” is an undeniably charming diversion, but it’s frustrating that the franchise’s most formally ambitious crossover feels like business as usual for the two shows at its center.