(T)HERE’S (O)BVIOUSLY (S)POILERS!
“Risk! Risk is our business. That’s what this starship is all about. That’s why we’re aboard her!”
Captain James T. Kirk spoke those words for the first time on national television on February 9, 1968, during the airing of the Star Trek TOS episode “Return to Tomorrow.” And ever since then, fans have embraced this as a core component of what Star Trek is all about. Exploration and discovery can be wondrous but also perilous. However, if you don’t push further, hope, grow, and try to exceed yourself, you stagnate and wallow in mediocrity.
Welcome to new-era Star Trek, my friends…where risk is their business! And I don’t mean the crews of the Enterprise, Discovery, La Sirena, Titan, Cerritos, and Protostar. No, I’m talking about the CREATORS of the new streaming series and the studio executives who back them financially.
Oh, wait. You wanted a review of “Those Old Scientists” (TOS), the seventh episode of STRANGE NEW WORLDS‘ second season? I loved it. And I’ll get around to discussing it in more detail shortly. But first, let’s talk about what just happened this past weekend.
As you probably know, last week featured San Diego ComicCon…minus nearly all of the celebrities who would otherwise have hyped their latest and upcoming projects because both actors and writers are currently on strike and aren’t allowed to promote work for the studios they’re striking against. This created both a frustration and a somewhat unique opportunity for Paramount+. On the one hand, they wouldn’t be able to promote the upcoming Strange New Worlds episode(s) nor DISCOVERY‘s final season nor LOWER DECK‘s soon-to-drop fourth season in the hallowed Hall “H.” One the other hand, there would be a lot less hype all around. In fact, with the exception of “Barbenheimer,” not much else in the sci-fi world is being talked about at the moment.
But risk is our business, right?
In a bold move, Paramount decided to move up the streaming debut date of “Those Old Scientists” by five days to happen on the Saturday of ComicCon. Usually, that weekend is avoided, as no one is paying attention to any other genre goings-on other than the big reveals from San Diego (unless they’re watching a blockbuster movie for 2-3 hours). But Paramount+ knew what they had. This episode seventh episode crossover had become one of the most anticipated of the season…if for no other reason than fans wanted to see how the creators would tackle bringing animated characters into a live-action show.
But let’s take a step back to look at all of the risks CBS/Paramount took to get to this moment…
INNOVATION VS. RENOVATION
In business development, there are two different basic categories of “new” product introductions: innovational and renovational. Renovational products are just new versions of old products. Oreos with “double-stuf” or chocolate creme sandwiched between vanilla cookies (instead of vice-versa) are renovational.
Innovational product launches are something completely new. For example, Apple used to simply manufacture and sell computers. Then the iPod, an innovational product, and iTunes changed the world forever. A few years later, the iPhone (another innovational product) did it again. Apple had never produced or sold anything like it. Of course, innovational products aren’t always runaway successes or world-changers—just look at Harley-Davidson Perfume!
But this is a Star Trek blog, so let’s see if we can figure out which Trek series were renovational and which were the more rare (and risky) innovational. Obviously, TOS itself was innovational, as nothing like it had ever been seen on television before.
Star Trek: The Next Generation, however, has renovational: same concept just with a different starship (same name) and new cast. But even the opening “Space, the final frontier…” monologue was nearly identical.
Deep Space Nine, I would argue, was innovational. Although Babylon 5, which came out almost simultaneously, was very similar in concept, DS9 needs to be compared to its Star Trek predecessors. And in that way, DS9 changed things up quite a bit. Instead of boldly going, they boldly stayed…on a space station next to a wormhole. Not all characters were in Starfleet. There were political considerations, serialized plot elements, and eventually, even an ongoing war.
On the other hand, I would classify Voyager and Enterprise as both mostly renovational. Sure, Voyager explored strange new worlds that were 70,000 light-years from the alpha quadrant and Enterprise did the same thing 200 years earlier, but both followed the basic Star Trek formula.
Now let’s briefly look at the CBS Studios-produced new-era streaming series…
Discovery was a mix of innovation and renovation: a Starfleet crew on a starship, but it was during wartime, and the main character was not the captain. And by season three, Discovery was in a dystopian galaxy 900 years in the future.
But the next three series—Picard, Lower Decks, and Prodigy—were were ALL about innovation. Picard didn’t take place on a starshhip and almost no one was in Starfleet. Lower Decks was a cartoon and done primarily as an irreverent (but somehow, simultaneously, reverent) comedy. And Prodigy was animated Star Trek, as well, but aimed primarily at children with a crew that was not Starfleet but rather learning about them.
But you knew all of this already, of course.
However, after so many innovational series, Strange New Worlds returned to renovational Star Trek, situating itself firmly in the familiar…even to the point of taking place on the original U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701 with many characters that fans already knew (albeit played by younger actors). And while it became a more character-driven series, it was still comfort food for fans who, after so many innovations, were ready to get back to “normal” Star Trek.
Risk doesn’t always bring reward, and as I said, innovational isn’t necessarily better than renovational. And you could certainly say that CBS/Paramount hasn’t exactly been batting a thousand with all of its decisions for its new-era Star Trek series. But for all their stumbles and failures, I do have to credit them for taking those risks and not simply playing it safe all the time. That said, SNW is probably the least risky series that CBS/Paramount has launched so far.
So if you think about it, a show that ISN’T risky, like SNW, takes an even bigger risk when it decides to be risky at all…and that is exactly what happened with “Those Old Scientists.” In many, many ways, this episode COULD have been an unmitigated disaster! After all, you’re taking Star Trek‘s most risky and innovative series and crossing it over with Star Trek‘s most renovative and least risky series. So many things could have gone wrong.
And yet, I haven’t seen or heard anyone who has complained or had anything significantly bad to say about this episode. Even friends of mine who “don’t like” Lower Decks or “gave up on” Lower Decks because it didn’t impress them say that they really enjoyed this episode.
So what exactly did they do right?
THEY HIRED JONATHAN FRAKES TO DIRECT THE EPISODE
I don’t usually talk about directors (and maybe I should, but these blogs are long enough already!), but JONATHAN FRAKES was the perfect choice. Now, you might be thinking that my reason for saying this is that Frakes is one of the most experienced Star Trek directors on the planet, having directed nearly 30 episodes of now-six different Trek series plus two of the movies…although this was his first time directing SNW. Or you might be thinking that, after playing William Riker since 1987, that he’s way more versed in the long history of Star Trek—from an insider’s perspective—than any other person they could possibly find. And all of that is true.
But the real reason he was the perfect choice to direct? Frakes is the only director to actually APPEAR in multiple episodes of Strange New Worlds (three, to be exact)! Well, his voice appears, at least. But Frakes knows what makes Lower Decks work, and he brings that knowledge to this episode. One of the best examples I can give is the screen cap above. The U.S.S. Cerritos uniforms, which were meticulously (re)created for the two real actors this episode, include iconic boots with Starfleet deltas on the soles. I’m guessing it was no accident that the sickbay scene included a very unconventional camera angle showing Brad Boimler’s boots from the bottom…as there was not likely to be any other opportunity to see them so clearly during the episode. Thanks, Jonathan!
Another example of Frakes always thinking of the fans was the panning shot of the bridge looking forward toward the view screen just after Boimler steps off of the turbolift. Not only was it a full pan from port stations to starboard, but the camera tipped upward to show the ceiling of the set…something fans seldom get to see. Frakes also provided a close-up on the arm rest of Pike’s command chair, another rare treat. Thanks again, Jonathan!
Next, the physical movements of Boimler and Mariner were spot-on to how their animated counterparts move, which is not normal movement. Granted, I have to also credit actors JACK QUAID and TAWNY NEWSOME for putting such effort into making those real-life moves uncannily identical. But I also have to thank Jonathan Frakes once again for letting us SEE just how exaggerated those movements were in this awesome wide shot of Mariner walking the corridor while Boimler runs to catch up with her and again as Boimler walks away quickly…
Oh, and one last thank you (to Frakes and everyone else involved) for including not just one but THREE of the (in)famous Boimler screams (even better than the Chekov screams?) in the science lab with Spock…!
THE PEANUT BUTTER AND THE CHOCOLATE
The thing that really struck me about this episode was how comfortable it felt in its own skin. Having to seamlessly “merge” two such disparate television series seems like an almost impossible task…and yet they made it look easy.
Obviously, we were going to see real-life Boimler and Mariner. But had it only been that, the episode wouldn’t be nearly as much fun! So instead, “Those Old Scientists” starts off as a Lower Decks episode, in the animated style, and continues in that vein until the moment Boimler crosses through. But then the opening credit sequence is ALSO animated (and beautifully, too…that can’t have been cheap!). However, they don’t stop there. A few shots of the animated Enterprise in the sequence include the giant space bug that’s attached to the Cerritos in the opening credits of Lower Decks, and for the truly keen-eyed fan, the final shot of the credits included a Kosmic Koala. (If you don’t know the significance of the Lower Decks Koala, read this.)
The episode also includes two animated sequences at the end, one providing a bookend to the opening Lower Decks mini-episode back aboard the Cerritos and the other being a wonderful gift to the fans getting to see the Strange New Worlds cast transformed into cartoons themselves. And best of all, it didn’t really break canon. Fans looking for an explanation can blame it on the effects of a drink known as an Orion Hurricane.
Oh, and of course, the best crossover moment came during the final Lower Decks segment when the Cerritos‘ first officer, Commander Ransom (voiced by actor JERRY O’CONNELL) calls Commander “Numera” Una (played by REBECCA ROMIJN) “the hottest first officer in Starfleet history.” In real life, the actors who play these two XOs are married…a wonderful insider chuckle for those who caught it (which was probably all of you reading this, as well, right?).
IT WASN’T OVERKILL
The elements I listed above weren’t the only things carried over from Lower Decks. Obviously, Brad Boimler and Becket Mariner came on board as well. But only them. The thing about Lower Decks is that it is an ensemble cast with at least four main characters. But bringing along Tendi and Rutherford would not only have increased the price-tag of the episode (on-screen appearances by actors pay more than voice-overs, plus there would be make-up and prosthetic costs), but it could also have risked overwhelming and outshining the SNW cast. We got just enough Lower Decks (two characters) to establish a crossover without having to find a way to fully merge the two shows with equal parts of each.
Another place where Lower Decks didn’t overwhelm but still brought along its core identity was with the inclusion of references to Star Trek trivia from all series. But the hits didn’t come a-mile-a-minute as they tend to do in Lower Decks. They were delivered in smaller, less manic doses. That said, we still got a plethora of them:
- “Remember me”
- “Worf’s honor”
- Tricale grain
- Boimler yelling “Riker!” as he mounts Pike’s saddle in a Riker “over the chair” maneuver
- Exploding tricorders
- Spock’s pet sehlat
- Being stuck in a dystopian San Francisco in the middle of a riot
- Bajoran and Cardassian alphabets
- Starbase Earhart
- Dom-Jot and Nausicaans
- “Holy Q!” and Trelane
- Archer’s Enterprise and its grapplers
- The Starship History Museum
- Travis Mayweather and Hoshi Sato
- “Ad Astra per Aspera”
I’ll let you folks quiz each other on where all those references came from.
IT WAS A SURPRISINGLY CHARACTER-DRIVEN EPISODE
The episode struck a surprisingly comfortable balance between the styles of the two very different series. Sure, there were a lot of laughs, but then there were also some very serious and emotional encounters that were unexpectedly powerful. In fact, every one of the main cast members (except M’Benga) has at least one character-focused scene with Boimler, and three of them have one-on-ones (or one-on-twos) with Mariner.
And those scenes aren’t simply the “Superman teams up with Batman” adventures where it’s all about the action and getting things done. No, these were quiet moments designed to affect some of the major character arcs this season. For example…
- Chapel’s and Spock’s relationship will likely be affected after Boimler shares that Spock’s future self is known for being a more stoic Vulcan and less an emotional human (and she likely feels selfish for preferring the latter).
- Uhura gets “advice” to not push herself so hard and take a little time away from burying herself in her work.
- Una discovers that overcoming her own hardships (“aspera”) have turned into a recruitment slogan for Starfleet and an inspiration to others who also struggle. She’s on a poster, for goodness sake!
- Captain Pike gets an unexpectedly wise pep-talk from Ensign Boimler on the importance of connecting with his crew more.
And it doesn’t just go one way. Pelia’s advice to Boimler is equally powerful. “Most heroes I’ve seen are just pretending half the time. There’s this one guy I remember, he said to me, ‘I always pretended to be someone I wanted to be, until finally, I became that someone, or he became me.’” This is actually a quote from actor CARY GRANT, if anyone is curious. And fun fact: actress CAROL KANE (who plays Pelia) knew Cary Grant personally.
In the end, perhaps the most memorable thing about this very impressive episode is the effect that both crews had on each other. Over the course of “Those Old Scientists,” Boimler and Mariner became more like the Enterprise crew—more focused, more serious, and more heroic. Meanwhile, some of the Enterprise crew start to geek out about the NX-01 and her crew, showing just a little bit of their own inner fan. And they also start focusing a little less on their work and a little more on appreciating each other and the adventures they’re having. What a wonderful way to bring this all home.
RISK AND REWARD
And thus did Star Trek‘s new-era creators take yet another big risk. And thanks to a lot of hard work, attention to detail, and obvious love for the venerated franchise, their big risk gave us all a very wonderful reward.
So may I ask you if you are planning to watch “Subspace Rhapsody,” the musical ninth episode of SNW’s second season, with an open mind? Or are you already panning it and expecting the worst? After all, there’s never been a Star Trek musical episode before. It’s a HUGE risk.
But isn’t risk our business?