The following contains spoilers for season two, episode five of 'Star Trek: Lower Decks.'
For a franchise that’s ostensibly about exploring, Star Trek has always been limited in how much of the galaxy it could actually show. Most of the alien species that Starfleet encountered were “humanoid” (i.e., actors with makeup and prosthetics stuck on their face). Away missions spent a lot of time in small villages that all looked alike because they were the same basic set redressed again and again. But with the franchise’s recent push into animation, the creators of Lower Decks and the upcoming Prodigy needn’t be limited by technology or budget; they showcase life in a universe we’ve heard about but only seen the barest glimpses of.
This week’s Lower Decks is a great example of the power of animation to illustrate the writers’ dreams as most of the episode takes place on Starbase 25, where Starfleet is holding a party for some of its top crews. Captain Freeman hopes to attend with her senior staff, but first they have to finish delivering a Doopler delegate with an annoying tendency to duplicate when he’s upset. Because this is the USS Cerritos, things get out of control and he ends up overrunning the ship with clones. It’s the kind of cartoonish scenario that’s easier done in animated form, instead of having to build a phalanx of CG models to interact with live actors.
But the real advantage to Lower Decks being an animated show comes in the A-plot of Beckett Mariner and Brad Boimler heading down to the station to sneak in the party themselves (thanks to an unclaimed invite sent to Brad’s clone William). Most starbases we’ve seen were rather dark and cramped on the inside, with Deep Space Nine an exception due to the station being the entire setting of its show. Places like Starbase Earheart would get one or two rooms at best, with a handful of actors in makeup and costume milling about in the background.
In “An Embarrassment of Dooplers,” our first view of Starbase 25’s interior is a spacious promenade with large overhead windows and neon signage everywhere. There are plenty of aliens to be seen, including Andorians, Bajorans and Klingons. Boimler’s first comment is how it’s “like a whole city,” and that he’s never been on a station “this old,” perhaps a bit of lamp shading for the fact that most of the bases we’ve seen carried much higher numerical designations. As long as it’s been around, Starbase 25 has had time to develop into something more than just a lonely outpost manned by a two person crew.
It’s even developed its own black market, which is how Boimler and Mariner end up on a buggy chase throughout the station, charging through a casino, barber shop and men’s clothing store. They pass by rows of shops and dozens of people (including a cameo by executive producer Alex Kurtzman). It feels like an actual lived-in place, down to the angry avian couple sitting at home on their couch. If that wasn’t enough, Mariner even adds a bit of local color to a few of the locations, mentioning going on a date in the aviary once, and describing the location of a Quark’s Bar as a former empty lot where teens used to make bad choices. While a throwaway gag, that line feels like it could be a reference to the upcoming Nickelodeon show Star Trek: Prodigy, which features a bunch of teens piloting an abandoned Starfleet vessel.
Science fiction has always been a bit of a sterile place; the original Star Wars films had no human children in them, with places like Cloud City always feeling a bit underpopulated. It took the special editions and the prequels to add a bit of cultural texture to that galaxy far, far away. The Next Generation added children to the ship for a little bit of family drama, but there was still a sense that there wasn’t much beyond Starfleet. Even as newer shows like Discovery and Picard can show more thanks to bigger budgets and better CG, everything still feels rather isolated: Picard retired to his vineyard, Riker’s family lives in a cabin in the woods and Michael Burnham ends up at an Orion work camp. Contrast that to our view of the Orion home planet in “We’ll Always Have Tom Paris,” where we get a little tour of the city and learn some things about Tendi in the process.
Starbase 25 ends up providing some crucial character development for Mariner and Boimler as well, who end up reconciling in a bar once frequented by Kirk and Spock. It’s a nice way to connect the adventures of the Cerritos to the more famous Enterprise, but also a reminder that ultimately all of our heroes are people. Individuals who explore the galaxy and serve on ships and attend diplomatic conferences, but also who, like us, drink and fight and get thrown out of parties.