The following contains minor spoilers for season two, episode eight of 'Star Trek: Lower Decks.'
The subject of “canon” has come up a lot recently. Marvel’s What If…? is a show that plays around but still mostly adheres to it, while Star Wars Visions disregards it almost completely. Meanwhile, Star Trek: Lower Decks is a humorous show that wasn’t expected to follow canon and yet, the writers seem to have made it their mission to fill out the gaps in Star Trek continuity. And this might be the cartoon’s greatest strength.
The show’s willingness to reference past adventures is on full display this week, as the USS Cerritos is tasked with running drills to test crew efficiency. Seeing a Starfleet crew put through its paces is something we’ve seen many times before, though this time around it’s for a particularly non-Starfleet-like reason: Captain Freeman accidentally leaves our core four cast members behind when jetting off on a rescue mission. To be fair, the quartet of ensigns did forget to sign their magnet boots out, which would have let their senior officers know they weren’t on the ship. But still, it’s a screw-up we don’t often see on Star Trek.
In response, the entire crew is gathered in a cargo bay to be tested by a Pandronian instructor — a species never seen in any live-action Star Trek productions, but familiar to anyone who’s watched the 1973 animated series. Pandronians are colony creatures that can split into three pieces, something that was harder to create when special effects were far less sophisticated. Animation has fewer limitations, and Lower Decks has taken advantage of that plenty in its two seasons to showcase species like the Caitians, Ariolo and Kzinti.
Though it utilized many of the cast and crew of the original series, the canonized status of the animated Star Trek was always a nebulous thing, with some writers saying that episodes like “Yesteryear” were in continuity, but no real on-screen confirmation of the show’s place in the timeline. One of show creator Mike McMahan’s stipulations for Lower Decks was that it take place in-canon, and he’s used that status to cement the 1973 cartoon in as well.
However, Lower Decks also has plenty to offer live-action fans, and this week’s episode is heavy on the references, with the Cerritos crew taking on simulations with names like “Natural Selection,” “Chain of Command'' and “Naked Time.” These aren’t just generic descriptions but also the names of episodes, and long-time fans will delight in seeing Mariner take on the Mirror Universe or Boimler face off against the Borg. We might be familiar with the scenarios, but seeing how these particular characters handle them adds a new twist.
While the whole drill plot might seem like a cheap way to pander to old-school fans, it’s also similar to how the military works in real life, with students often asked to study historical tactics and run tests based on real events. We’ve seen the holosuites used to recreate battles at the Alamo, Thermopylae and the Battle of Britain on Deep Space Nine, while Riker even used the holodeck to observe the Enterprise NX-01’s final mission. (And let’s not forget the time Troi had to kill Geordi to earn a promotion to commander.) From the beginning, Lower Decks has been a show that embraces Starfleet’s naval trappings more fully than we’ve ever seen, and putting the crew to the test here seems to be the logical endpoint of that.
But where Lower Decks shines brightest of all is when it chooses to glue the disparate parts of the Star Trek franchise together. The Star Trek universe is extremely weird and complex but, instead of rebooting the entire franchise (DC Comics) or throwing out huge swathes of past story (Star Wars), Star Trek has embraced the mess. The universe is weird, so it’s okay if everything doesn’t neatly fit together. It’s just funnier this way.