Strange New Worlds S2E7: Those Old Scientists

One caveat to start out: while your reviewer has faithfully followed all three current live-action Star Trek series, we haven’t watched the animated shows. So we can only judge “Those Old Scientists” based on how well this episode’s Lower Decks crossover works for viewers who only have a passing familiarity with that series.


We do know this much: a time-travel mishap brings Lower Decks Ensigns Boimler and Mariner onto the Enterprise (that series is set roughly in the Next Generation era, so well over a century later than Strange New Worlds), and that those two characters are played in live-action by their voice actors, Jack Quaid and Tawny Newsome. Our modern trend of animating all non-Jon-Benjamin-voiced characters to look like their voice actors ended up working in Star Trek’s favor.


The animated intro catches us up pretty quickly. Boimler is an overeager nerd who’s excited about visiting a portal in space that hasn’t opened in 120 years, (and was discovered by one Captain Christopher Pike — or maybe by the Orions, as his Orion crewmate D’Vana insists); Mariner is cynical and delights in raining on his parade. Boimler knows Pike, Spock, and Uhura as historical figures, and while it’s weird that every single Enterprise crew member is still a household name over a century later, it’s less weird than everyone in the 23rd and 24th century being aware of culture from late 20th century America, Shakespeare and absolutely nothing else from human history, so we’ll let it slide.


The portal in question looks suspiciously like the Guardian of Forever from the original series, and while goofing around and posing inside of it, Boimler accidentally sets it off and finds himself in the past, in live action, and face-to-face with Spock, Number One, and La’an. (Cut to the Strange New Worlds opening credits sequence, animated in the style of Lower Decks, which is a cute touch).


To their credit, the Enterprise realizes Boimler’s from the future even before he regains consciousness in sickbay. They understand how dangerous future knowledge can be, so he’s instructed to lay low until they can figure out how to send him back. (Laying low mostly involves being an overeager fanboy towards the crew and dropping frequent Star Trek references, which we understand to be Lower Decks’ raison d’etre.) Except sending him back isn’t that simple. Spock only gets a few minutes to examine the portal before he’s called back to the ship — Enterprise is being threatened by Orions, an alien race of notorious pirates. (D’Vana chafes against the stereotype in the opening sequence)


Why Pike would allow Boimler to join Spock on the bridge is anyone’s guess, as he’s immediately underfoot. (The fact that the Enterprise crew is playing things more seriously than usual makes Boimler feel like a cartoon character by comparison, even in live action.) And he very quickly gets the crew into trouble. He suggests (mindful of stereotypes) that the Orion ship might not be pirates, and he appears to be right… until they beam up the portal and fly away with it.


While Pike wrestles with having screwed up in trusting this weirdo from the future, Ortegas and Chapel razz Boimler about changing the future every time he touches anything, but they quickly let him off the hook and invite him to movie night. It’s Pike’s birthday, which Pike’s own crew don’t know, but Boimler does because it’s a holiday in the future. (Frankly, this is laying things on a little thick. A holiday for Kirk? Sure. He saves the galaxy several times over. But while Pike’s a great guy, nothing we know about him suggests he’d be more than a historical footnote in Kirk’s story 120 years hence.) 


It also doesn’t entirely hold together that, while the crew is very serious about Boimler not giving them any future knowledge, they all shrug and say “why not” when he offers to track the Orions, so long as he doesn’t tell them how he does it. Surely that changes the course of history to some extent. But Boimler’s also more concerned than the crew is about changing history when it comes to the Orions — D’Vana mentioned having a great-grandmother on an Orion science vessel; he’s worried that a firefight with the Orion ship could affect his own future drastically.


Fortunately, Pike’s able to negotiate, the portal gets returned, and it’s got enough energy left for one more use. Time to send Boimler back home… except the episode’s only half over. So they fire up the portal, and before Boimler can step through, Mariner falls into his lap. She’s come from the future to save him, and in doing so blew his chance to go back. Much to Pike’s annoyance, now they’re stuck with two time travelers.


And Mariner’s only slightly less annoying to the crew than Boimler. Despite the contrast that plays out in the intro, she’s just as excitable (the Enterprise crew must marvel at how much discipline breaks down over the next 120 years), and no less of a fangirl (although only for Uhura specifically).


The shenanigans compound, but as we keep saying week after week, Strange New Worlds has a knack for taking a silly premise and finding surprising emotional depth. Pike takes a break from chewing out Mariner and Boimler to ask them not to encourage the crew to throw him a surprise birthday party. This year, Pike will be older than his father was when he died, and while he didn’t have a great relationship with his father, he still regrets losing him so young. Both Boimler and Pike himself know what his own future holds, and Boimler suggests that a time is going to come when Pike’s own friends are going to regret not having more time with him.


And then just like last week, the episode’s biggest emotional beat sparks an idea that saves the day. Appropriately enough, the fix involves the Enterprise NX-01 (from the prequel series Enterprise), which gives the current crew a moment to gush over their own history as much as the Lower Decks characters have gushed over them. And the episode comes full circle, as a dispute from the opening scene over whether it was Starfleet or the Orions who discovered the portal gets a clever callback.


So, does the episode work not just as a crossover, but as an episode of Strange New Worlds? Sort of. Lower Decks is a heavily self-referential comedy with goofy, hyperactive characters, and that tone doesn’t mesh well with SNW. Pike and crew treat this week’s adventure like a serious mission to stop history from being altered, but the episode’s focus is awkward interactions, in-jokes, and lampshading those in-jokes. (“Do they know their references are all weirdly specific?” “Indeed.”)


We flirt with the idea that the SNW crew learn a bit about themselves from what Boimler knows with their future reputation, but we can’t take that very far, as they can’t know too much about the future. It does lead to a nice running gag of Boimler being unnerved every time Spock smiles or cracks a joke, and that leads directly to a heartbreaking scene where Chapel realizes that, if he knows a future Spock who’s outwardly emotionless, then she probably isn’t part of that future. We’ve known all along that her romance with Spock was doomed, but she didn’t, and Jess Bush sells the hell out of that realization and its impact on her.


As always, the cast can elevate any material the writers throw at them. But with a scant 10-episodes a year, doing multiple stunt episodes (we have a musical episode coming up) feels like too much. “Those Old Scientists” was fun, but it was slight. We don’t really get much in the way of a thrilling adventure, we get a tiny bit of character development, but it’s yet another episode that sidelines the show’s stellar ensemble so that a fan-service-driven guest star can take the spotlight. It’s hard to find too much fault with a show as consistently good as this one, but it wouldn’t kill Strange New Worlds to simply rely on its winning cast and killer formula for a while instead of finding reasons to shake up that formula every few episodes. 


Three of ‘em left. Hopefully we won’t spend too much time off-course before the season’s over.


Stray tachyons:

• This episode was directed by Next Generation’s Jonathan Frakes, just to throw in one more crossover.


• As always Ortegas is a goddamn delight in limited screentime. “What’s the future like, do you have jetpacks?” “We have jetpacks now.” “I know, but like, smaller jetpacks.”


• Season 4 of Lower Decks premieres September 7. The endless Star Trek references were our least favorite part of the episode, but we’re also well aware a lot of fans love the show for exactly that. We may end up catching up on the early seasons and review the new one for Subject when the time comes. Especially since, between the WGA/SAG strike (which, for the record, we support 100%) and Paramount’s ongoing corporate turmoil, who knows when another season of Star Trek is going to arrive.