Ever since Strange New Worlds’ second season was announced, the big draw has been the crossover episode with animated sitcom Lower Decks. It would see Tawny Newsome (Mariner) and Jack Quaid (Boimler) taking their until-now animated characters into live action. Following an early screening at Comic-Con, the episode is now available to watch on Paramount Plus.
The following article contains spoilers for “Those Old Scientists.”
There’s an SNL sketch where William Shatner, as himself, exhorts a room full of Star Trek fans to “” It’s clearly intended in jest, given Shatner’s barely-suppressed smile and a twist where Phil Hartman’s manager forces him to instantly recant his rant. Depending on who you ask, the sketch was either taken in the it was intended, or with amongst fans who felt mischaracterized, and misunderstood. But it’s this dichotomy, between the legend and the truth that’s mined for laughs in “Those Old Scientists,” the crossover episode between Strange New Worlds and Lower Decks. Well, that and an affectionate elbow in the ribs suggesting that we could all do with being a bit less obsessive.
The (animated) beta shift is making a routine survey of a long-dormant time-travel portal, while Boimler and Tendi argue about who discovered it. Boimler brags it was found by Starfleet, but Tendi says it was Orion scientists, once again trying to dispel myths that all Orions are pirates. While messing around Boimler is standing on the portal when Rutherford accidentally sets it running, throwing him back in time. When he arrives on the other side, he’s now in the live action world of Strange New Worlds, and is greeted by Spock, Una and La’an. And with that, we’re into an animated version of the title sequence, complete with nacelle-sucking alien.
On the Enterprise, Boimler can’t help but express his shock, surprise and generally fanboy out in front of his heroes. He gets lectured by La’an about not polluting the timeline and, thanks to her adventure in “Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” not getting attached. But, since this is the Boimler we know and love, he can’t help but throw spoilers out left, right and center. Not to mention his insistence on pointing out the difference between the history as he knows it, and the storylines as they’re presently unfolding on Strange New Worlds. For instance, he’s mightily disturbed by the fact that Spock – happy in a relationship with Chapel – is laughing, smiling and generally acting like he’s in love. After all, the Spock he knows – his Spock – isn’t this outwardly emotional, because that’s what the legend tells us. It’s almost as if he’s a stand-in for the sort of obsessive fan who tries to police the borders of what Star Trek is, instead of enjoying the journey.
At the same time, the Enterprise has to deal with an Orion vessel with undetermined intentions which then steals the time portal. Boimler urges Pike to be diplomatic, but winds up forcing him to trade a supply of much-needed triticale grain to get it back. Pike sees this – and the forced relocation of a planet-full of starving colonists – as preferable to having this guy on his ship any longer. When the portal is active and back in position, the Enterprise crew ready to get rid of this purple-haired irritation, Mariner leaps through, bravely declaring that she’s coming to the rescue. Except, the hardware had power enough for just one trip, and there’s not a fuel source available anywhere else in the quadrant. Leaving an eye-rolling Pike with the unwelcome possibility that they’re stuck with the Cerritos’ pair for good.
Boimler and Mariner wind up spending some time with their heroes, until they eventually realize that the Enterprise itself has a supply of fuel. Thanks to the naval tradition of using a component from the previous vessel in the construction of the next one, they can refine a chunk of NX-01 into fuel which can be used to send the pair home. (But not before the Strange New Worlds crew can reveal that they, too, are secretly as nerdy as a bunch of fans of their predecessors from Enterprise as Boimler is for this era.) They meet with the Orions again, and Pike pledges to claim that the Orions discovered the portal, giving their burgeoning science ship a small chunk of credit. And when Boimler and Mariner leap back to the future, the Enterprise crew drink an Orion cocktail that, in the closer, renders them all as animated characters.
“Those Old Scientists” is as pure a dose of fan service as Star Trek has ever produced, and I mean that as both a compliment and a criticism. Plenty of the elements, including the animated title sequence, reached straight into the lizard part of my brain and left me grinning like a loon. The screenplay, credited to Lower Decks’ executive story editor Kathryn Lyn and Bill Wolkloff, is crammed full of great gags. It helps, too, that Strange New Worlds has enough comic talent in its ranks to play an episode like this, and Carol Kane steals the show with the best gag in the episode.
But, and there is a but, the episode is a bit like cotton candy in that once the initial hit of sugar leaves your tongue, there’s little else here. We get a lot of scenes of Boimler and then Mariner telling the Enterprise crew how great they are, or are seen as such, by their successors. Most of these scenes take place sitting around desks, bars or lounges – telling rather than showing. I know that this is Strange New Worlds, and so the narrative will always belong with this crew rather than its guest stars. But the lower deckers are rendered passive observers in a narrative that could, or should, really have enabled them to demonstrate the dynamism they have in their own show. In the moment where Boimler and Mariner try to solve things on their own, they’re instantly shut down by La’an and Uhura and told to sit back on the bench. The worst served by this is Tawny Newsome, who is absent a major chunk of the episode and has little to do when Mariner does finally arrive in the past.
That cotton candy metaphor is probably the best way to sum up “Those Old Scientists,” a goofy snack , or episodes, either side. The fact it exists at all is a joy, even if it’s not as wonderful as it could have been, and I’d love nothing more than to see more forays into the real world by the Lower Decks crew. At the very least, with Strange New Worlds and in production at the same time, it’s a great time to be a Star Trek fan.