POP Archives Deep Thoughts: Star Trek Lower Decks is an Archivist's Dream
Updated: 3 days ago
Before we begin, this article was written after the two episode premiere of Season 4 but not before the season concluded. Therefore, I may update this article once all 10 episodes have aired if there are any significant story beats that relate to my ramblings below.
ALSO, SPOILERS FOR LOTS OF STAR TREK PROPERTIES!!! You've been warned!
Update, 9/23/2023: Added more discussion of Tendi, Orion culture, and ethical documentation after the airing of the latest episode, "Something Borrowed, Something Green".
Star Trek as a franchise may proclaim that its continuing mission is to boldly go where no one has gone before, but boy does Starfleet like to NOPE out of a situation once they've made first contact or irrevocably changed the political, social, and economic structures of an established civilization. It's almost like there should be a protocol for followup on behalf of Starfleet to make sure that their efforts haven't, ya know, destabilized society and condemned innocent people because the captain of a Galaxy class ship was having an off day with their loose interpretation of the Prime Directive.
And - hear me out - wouldn't it be great if the people performing said followup routinely had to reference recurring incidents and themes in Star Trek via the records provided to Starfleet? Specifically the records likely saved in the Starfleet archives that are regularly accessible to pretty much everyone in the Federation? Wouldn't that be a really cool way of upholding the aspirational values of Trek while also critiquing its messy, if well-intentioned, history in an animated and comedic half-hour format?
Thankfully, we now have Star Trek: Lower Decks in place to go where Starfleet has been before and rectify some of those aforementioned oversights. Created by Mike McMahan, Lower Decks is a glimpse into the lives of the people we typically don't see in Star Trek unless its as cannon fodder, that of the low-ranking officers perpetually out of the loop with the bridge crew and their whole deal. Stationed aboard the USS Cerritos, our group of beleaguered beta shifters are Ensigns Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), Bradward Boimler (Jack Quaid), D'Vana Tendi (Noël Wells), and Samanthan "Sam" Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) with the bridge crew of Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis), Commander Jack Ransom (Jerry O'Connel), Tactical Officer Shaxs (Fred Tatasciore), Dr. T'Ana (Gillian Vigman), and Lt. Commander Billups (Paul Scheer) acting as supporting characters.
Two things of note: Firstly, the California class of starships, including the Cerritos, were created for Lower Decks with every ship in the line named after a city in California. Secondly, as of the Season 4 premiere episodes "Twovix" and "I Have No Bones Yet I Must Flee" the Ensigns have all been promoted to Lieutenants Junior Grade.
The Cerritos and her crew are essentially picking up where well-known vessels like the Enterprise and Voyager left off, doing the administrative followup. Or, as Boimler puts it in the pilot episode, "Second Contact":
First contact is a delicate, high-stakes operation of diplomacy. One must be ready for anything humanity is interacting with an alien race for the first time. But we don't do that. Our specialty is SECOND contact. Still pretty important. We get all the paperwork signed, make sure we're spelling the name of the planet right, get to know all the good places to eat...
Right off the bat, within the first few minutes of the show, we understand that the Cerritos is doing the bureaucratic duties that formally recognize planets within the Federation. They're collecting records, as well as actively creating them through the officers' logs, which will then be submitted to Starfleet and transferred to Memory Alpha. That last bit is an assumption on my part. Look, I like Star Trek but I don't know the intimate workings of its bureaucracy. Based on my own knowledge as an archivist and records manager, the transfer of records as I laid it out makes sense to me. Maybe one day the Lower Decks writers will dedicate an episode to Memory Alpha so I'll know for certain. But until then, this is what I have to go with.
It's through this ostensibly simple premise that Lower Decks is given carte blanche to reference ALL of Star Trek's 50-years worth of canon because it's all relevant to the central conceit of the show. That it takes place post-Dominion War is intentional, positioning Lower Decks as the inheritor of Trek's legacy while also advancing, and in some cases revising, its canon. How Lower Decks accomplishes this endeavor while staying true to its comedic premise boils down to the show's use of records in conjunction with its commitment to acknowledging Trek's history, warts and all.
As I said in a previous article written for the Society of American Archivists, the Star Trek universe, and Starfleet specifically, is one where the active creation of records is commonplace. The Captain's Log as framing device has been in practice from the beginning and while we the audience get to enjoy the wondrous shenanigans experienced by the characters of a television show, the in-universe reality of Star Trek is made that much more ridiculous when you understand that those logs are submitted and made accessible to all of Starfleet. I don't know how long it takes for the logs to be declassified, I'd have to see the collecting policy or the records retention schedule, but it doesn't appear to be that long of a turnaround for even junior officers to know what happened on the Voyager three years after it returned from the Delta Quadrant.
When you take that into account, the Final Frontier is weird as shit!
But that's the brilliance of a show like Lower Decks. It gets to be Star Trek while also poking fun at Star Trek and the records of past captains serve as a fruitful jumping off point. A short and sweet example of this is the Season 2 premiere "Strange Energies" in which Commander Ransom is hit by said energies and becomes a god-like being complete with reality-altering powers. Dr. T'Ana mentions that Captain Kirk dealt with a similar situation with Gary Mitchell, referencing the original series episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before". We even get a glimpse of Mitchell's record up on the display screen, which means the event as seen in the episode was reported and submitted to Starfleet. When Captain Freeman asks how the situation was handled, T'Ana bluntly replies, "Kirk smooshed him with a boulder."
It's a less-than-ideal solution that's also commenting on early Trek's budget-limited sci-fi that resolved conflict by either talking it out or having Kirk fight something on multiple desert planets with plenty of rocks for dropping. It's also a very crude solution to what one would think requires more nuance since both Ransom and Mitchell were imbued with omnipotent powers, but no you'd be wrong. Kirk was still right and Mariner, in keeping with her Kirk-like personality, kicks Ransom in the crotch, repeatedly, until he can only focus on the pain and calms down enough for T'Ana to fix him. Without Kirk's records we wouldn't know that blunt force trauma is the only way to cure phenomenal god-like powers!
The next two examples come from the morally grey area of decisions made by Starfleet captains, but they're teaching tools nonetheless. In the penultimate episode of Season 3, "Trusted Sources," Capt. Freeman is determined to show the efficacy of her Project Swingby program that promotes returning to previously visited planets as a necessary step in Starfleet protocol. It's also a preventative measure considering, had their been any interest by Starfleet to frequently check in on even supposedly barren worlds that the whole Wrath of Khan thing might not have happened.
Anyway, Freeman and the Cerritos are sent to Ornara, a planet previously visited by Captain Picard in the Next Generation episode "Symbiosis". The Ornarans were addicted to a substance produced by the planet Brekka, but there was no formal way the Enterprise could step in and help because of the Prime Directive. Picard's solution? Cut off the two planets' ability to trade by not providing assistance or replacement parts for their broken down freighters. With one decision, Picard potentially destroyed one planet's economy and forced another into withdrawal on the hopes that they'd figure it out. That's literally the end of the episode. Now I'm no big city doctor, but I do know that people can die from withdrawal of certain substances if not medically assisted. Did that even occur to you, Jean-Luc? Because it occurred to me!
However, when the Cerritos arrives on Ornara, instead of finding a crumbling society in need of assistance it seems the Ornarans have made a full recovery in the 17 years since the Enterprise made a morally dubious choice and warped out of Dodge. But at least they got really into fitness! The mural we see on Ornara also emphasizes why Project Swingby would need to be implemented within a timely fashion after a planet has been visited. It's not clear when Ornara came out the other side of withdrawal but there was definitely enough time in between where Starfleet could have made an effort to help.
On a personal note: the art movement during the withdrawal period must've produced some banger pieces and I would like to see a gallery of works, please and thank you.
The second example is the Season 4 premiere "Twovix," which has the Cerritos escorting the decommissioned Voyager to Earth where it will be on display as a museum. While transporting T'Ana and Billups back to the Cerritos, the petal of an orchid wafts in and causes the two to merge into a new being, T'Illups. By the end of the first act, Lower Decks commits to tackling the ethical dilemma of one of Voyager's most infamous episodes, "Tuvix". Sort of. Once again, Freeman requests the records of another captain to figure out how they dealt with the exact same situation. In this case, Captain Janeway, who straight up murdered Tuvix, the hybrid of Tuvok and Neelix. There's really no sugar-coating it and Lower Decks doesn't try to make excuses or hand wave Janeway's decision. The show acknowledges that Janeway did a murder on a sentient being with the evidence clear and present in the ship's logs.
I will point out that Captain Archer did a similar, and arguably worse, murder in the Enterprise episode, "Similitude". He purposefully had Phlox create a clone of Trip Tucker, with a 15-day lifespan, to get a donation of brain matter when Trip was comatose. To top it off, the procedure to retrieve the neural tissues was essentially a death sentence and Archer basically talked Trip's clone, Sim, into voluntarily submitting to the surgery. Yikes, Jonathan!
While the majority of references made in Lower Decks are setups for visual gags and one-liners, the fact that the writers don't shy away from the uncomfortable decisions made by some of Starfleet's greatest heroes speaks volumes about the show's integrity. History is messy. People are messy and we have this nasty habit of lionizing a person's heroics in one instance while sweeping their mistakes under the rug for the sake of a clean narrative. I should know. I studied the Founding Fathers. In and out of universe, Star Trek is no different. It's an historically significant franchise with a Pantheon of characters devoted fans, but those characters are flawed and the universe they live in is far from perfect.
In that vein, one of my favorite use of records comes from the Season 3 premier "Grounded" where the Lower Deckers attempt to exonerate Captain Freeman after she was falsely accused of blowing up the Pakled Planet in the Season 2 finale. How do they plan to do it? Steal a replica of Zefram Cochrane's Phoenix rocket from Historic Bozeman, Montana, fly it to the Cerritos in dry dock, and use Boimler's verbatim re-recordings of the captain's logs to prove Freeman's innocence. Simple, right? Well...mostly. Once the ensigns make it to the Cerritos and grab Boimler's personal logs - blogs, if you will - we're treated to the uncut stream of consciousness that is Brad Boimler as he excitedly squeals about his name almost being recognized, strategizes about where to hide his purple hair dye, and complains about gas. Mariner sees it as unprofessional and easily dismissed by the court, but I see it as pure gold from an archival point-of-view!
Boimler's additions call into question the "completeness" of the captain's log. While we the audience always hear the verbose, well-constructed chain of events, there's no way that Picard or Sisko or Janeway sat down and got it in one, right? Given everything that happens in any episode of Star Trek, they'd have to know everything that happened, all personnel involved, confer with said personnel about their involvement, and confirm the conclusion or resolution of the event after the fact. Some episodes occur over several days, so they'd also have to be regularly updating the log, which means there might be contradictory information that later needs to be corrected. All of this makes me believe that either Starfleet officers write out their logs before recording them or the version we hear in each episode is heavily edited by a very tired archivist on Memory Alpha.
The last thing I want to talk about is the way that Lower Decks revises Trek's own canon with the existence of one of it's four main characters, D'Vana Tendi. Any Trek aficionado knows that Tendi is an Orion, a green-skinned humanoid species first introduced in the original series episode "The Cage". As depicted throughout the history of Star Trek, Orions of the male variety are pirates and criminals while female Orions are scantily clad and produce a pheromone that causes males to become more aggressive but also submissive to their whims. Prior to Tendi's first appearance, the only Orion female seen outside of the original series and that one episode of Enterprise was Rachel Nichols' Gaila in the Kelvin timeline movies. And even then, her major scene involves making out with Kirk (Chris Pine) and having a casual conversation with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) in their underwear. The scene is just an excuse to include a scantily clad Orion woman because...call back? Reference?
From the moment we meet her in the pilot, Tendi is the exact opposite of every known depiction of Orions to date. She's fully clothed, displays no overt sexuality, and she LOVES science! Unfortunately, because Tendi is an Orion there are already preconceived notions about who she is that other characters in Lower Decks mistakenly apply to her. The first major upset is when Mariner, while acting out a violent, yet therapeutic movie fantasy on the holodeck, encourages Tendi to "act like an Orion" by pillaging and plundering and murdering, which Tendi is clearly uncomfortable with. When Mariner finally pushes her too far, Tendi leaves the holodeck and shouts, "Many Orions haven't been pirates for over five years!"
It's a great joke that still gets the point across about how Orion stereotypes affect Tendi. We get a glimpse of what Tendi left behind in the episode "We'll Always Have Tom Paris" where Tendi and Mariner infiltrate an Orion outpost to get Tendi's cousin to repair an item of personal importance to Dr. T'Ana. Prior to that, Tendi already had to squash any ideas from Mariner about using her pheromones to nudge a game of dom-jot in their favor, explicitly telling her she's not that type of Orion. At the pirate outpost, we not only learn that Tendi has a title/name amongst her people, Mistress of the Winter Constellations, but she also knows how to navigate the aggressive pirate culture through her interactions with her cousin. There is a part of Tendi rooted in the Orion stereotypes that she hates because the stigmas surrounding her people made her true desires to enter Starfleet and study science even harder.
Tendi is then confronted by the embodiment of everything she dislikes about Orion stereotypes when she meets Mesk, an Orion male, on Deep Space Nine in "Hear All, Trust Nothing". All Mesk talks about is pirating and criminal activity, making reference to every shallow stereotype we know as the audience Tendi despises. When she lashes out and Mesk sarcastically comments about her aggressive female pheromones, she says, "We don't all have those!" It's later revealed, in a moment of crisis when pirating skills would really be helpful, that Mesk was adopted by a human family and grew up in Cincinnati. Everything he knows about Orions he learned from cheap holo-novels, which means Tendi has to tap into her Orion syndicate skills and save the day.
Each episode that addresses Tendi's Orion heritage is doing the work that Star Trek is often praised for but doesn't always follow through with: dismantling the concept of monolithic cultures. Science fiction likes to create different species of aliens that are one-note in terms of personality, mannerisms, physical appearance, etc. Science fiction also has a habit of using aliens as stand-ins for marginalized groups and pushing colonialist ideas of savagery vs civilization. Star Trek isn't exempt from this. The bridge crew might be diverse as fuck, but this planet full of fish people have one personality trait and it's pseudo-Mongolian.
Part of the problem is we only ever see the Star Trek universe from one point-of-view, Starfleet's. Every show has a ship and crew we follow the voyages of, getting the outsider looking in aspect of discovery that inherently assigns alien cultures as "Other" with our heroes being paragons of 23rd/24th century, aka present day, morality and ethics. The captain's logs we hear and the events as depicted in each episode are being conveyed to us by one specific institution. They control the narrative and they do it through the records kept and how they're utilized by members of Starfleet. And between you and me, calling anything a frontier is a big red flag, historically speaking, when it comes to interactions between explorers and indigenous peoples.
The main and even secondary characters have the luxury of growth within each television series because they're presumably going to last longer than Tasha Yar on Vagra II. Alien cultures within Star Trek don't always get to display the nuances of their cultural practices, nor do the people of those cultures get to be fully fleshed out. The Klingons are war-like and obsessed with honor, but they also have a translation of Shakespeare's Hamlet because of one line in The Undiscovered Country, but sure Orions are only pirates or slave girls.
The episode "Those Old Scientists," a crossover between Lower Decks and Strange New Worlds, brings a lot of these themes of historical narratives and cultural stereotypes to the forefront. In the opening animated portion, Boimler and Tendi have a disagreement about who discovered the portal on Krulmuth-B. Tendi claims it was Orion scientists and Boimler says it was the Enterprise under Captain Pike's command while insinuating that Orions "doing science stuff" wouldn't be historically accurate despite Tendi claiming her great-grandmother was on the vessel that made the discovery. It's important that Boimler is the one making these unfounded claims. Not only is he the history buff know-it-all amongst the group, he's also the most devoted to Starfleet and what it represents as an institution. If Starfleet says Pike and the crew of the Enterprise discovered the portal, then that's what happened because why would the records lie? He also, in a way, represents the Star Trek audience with his fanboy worship of the ship and crew that are mostly associated with the original series.
When he's portaled 120 years into the past, a live-action Boimler (still played by Jack Quaid) finds that the Enterprise and her crew are not as he expected. When he makes Spock (Ethan Peck) laugh and sees him smile at Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) it doesn't conform with the stoic and very Vulcan version of Spock Boimler's read about. In trying to make the Enterprise crew live up to the expectations created by the historical narrative, Boimler neglects to take into account that the real person and the mythology surrounding them are never the same. Is Spock exploring his human side important? To him, yes. It's an aspect of his heritage, something that the character routinely struggles with in every iteration due to the opposing emotional values of humans and Vulcans. Does Starfleet care about that struggle? Maybe. Would historians include his internal explorations in their texts? Clearly not the ones read by Boimler.
When the Enterprise encounters an Orion vessel orbiting the planet, Boimler is confronted with his own insensitivity when the bridge crew assume the ship is run by pirates and prepare their weapons. Realizing this is the science vessel with Tendi's great-grandmother on board, Boimler ends up challenging the assumptions of the crew, emphasizing that the Orions as a people are not beholden to a limited understanding of their culture based solely on the negative interactions they've had with Starfleet. It's because Boimler loves and respects Tendi that he and Mariner (she showed up earlier to rescue him and is also played by her voice actor Tawny Newsome) are able to appeal to the Orion captain and his desire for scientific credibility as a means to broker a deal. It's a long story about grain and politics, don't worry about it. Just know that when Boimler and Mariner return to their time it's confirmed that Orion scientists discovered the portal. And we've come full circle on Boimler and Tendi's earlier conversation.
Tendi isn't the only character used by Lower Decks to challenge the idea of monolithic culture, but she's certainly the one with the most fruitful storyline thus far. Thankfully, Mike McMahan and company have even more plans to chip away at the outdated viewpoints of the Orions. In an interview on Jessie Gender's channel, McMahan stated that at some point in Season 4 we'll actually get to see the Orion homeworld and explore even more facets of their society. I literally can't wait!
Well, looks like I didn't have to wait very long! The next episode that aired after this article was published, "Something Borrowed, Something Green," brings us to the Orion homeworld as Tendi, with Mariner and T'Lyn (Gabrielle Ruiz) in tow, returns to attend her younger sister D'Erika's wedding. From the get-go, Tendi is hesitant to go back to her home planet. Over the last three years, we've seen how uncomfortable Tendi is regarding her place in Starfleet and how that clashes with her Orion heritage. When she initially declines Capt. Freeman's leave of absence, the audience understands, for the most part. Unfortunately, Tendi sees that her homecoming is also a means of brokering goodwill between Orion and Starfleet and she reluctantly agrees.
Mariner invites herself along because, like the audience, we only know bits and pieces about Tendi, the meta-joke being that it's taken four seasons to get any significant backstory on her despite multiple episodes chipping away at Orion stereotypes. T'Lyn, however, invites herself along in order to document Orion culture for the Vulcan high council. Again, Lower Decks utilizes the historical gaps in Starfleet's records, and Trek's history, to justify T'Lyn's motives while commenting on the lack of exploration of Orion culture. The Orion homeworld and its people are a mystery to the Star Trek universe and while Tendi understands the desire for data and documentation, because Science, we see the struggle in her expression as she agrees to let the girls tag along.
In 22 short minutes we're treated to a vast range of cultural practices, from scheduled bridal kidnappings, to murder bug drinking games, and 'Mone dens where male Orions consent to the influence of female hormones and domination. We get more insight into the matriarchal society and how syndicate families display their wealth and influence. And we get to see how Tendi is received by her family after leaving to pursue her career in Starfleet. "Something Borrowed, Something Green" is doing the work to not only entertain the audience but to remedy the mistakes made by that one episode of Enterprise. It also does something I didn't expect but was thrilled to see!
By the end of the episode, T'Lyn has gathered a significant amount of data documenting Orion culture, but as the girls are careening towards D'Erika's wedding in a hotwired Starfleet ship from a graveyard of stolen vessels - don't ask - Tendi asks that T'Lyn not include everything in her report. T'Lyn does one better. She tosses the PADD and sardonically laments that she lost the documentation. When Tendi asks why she'd do that, T'Lyn says, "A report without the subject's consent would be unethical." It's a lovely moment of friendship between the two that doubles as criticism of the core tenets of exploration within Starfleet.
No one is entitled to knowledge of Orion outside of its people. Not Starfleet, not the Vulcan high council, no one. What Tendi shows of herself and allows others to see is her choice. Before the episode's resolution, Tendi is aware that she's being documented for Vulcan study while also acting as a tool for Starfleet to garner favor with Orion. She's being used on all sides, even by her own family as she fulfills the duties of the Prime daughter. It's an uncomfortable position to put anyone in and T'Lyn eventually recognizes this. As I've discussed on this website multiple times, people have the right to be remembered and forgotten. Past archival practices haven't always adhered to matters of consent, so it's refreshing to see T'Lyn deliberately state that Tendi's wishes are more important than fulfilling an arbitrary and ethically dubious obligation to document an unknown culture.
There's so much more I could talk about regarding Lower Decks' relationship with Trek history. I've barely scratched the surface with the Voyager museum and historic Bozeman as a theme park, but it's so refreshing to see a Star Trek show engage with its past while setting the bar higher as it moves forward. I've seen some criticisms that Lower Decks is too referential or too aware that it's a Star Trek show, but the way I see it if your reality is one where omnipotent beings regularly harass the ship's captain, the transporter can make a clone of you if you sneeze on it wrong, and computers are 99% likely to become sentient murderers, then wouldn't you talk about it all the time? How many references do you make with your friends, family, or coworkers? Those are based in a shared reality in which you're all aware of the same events, people, and pop culture media. The same is true for the characters of Lower Decks. Mariner, Boimler, Tendi, and Rutherford reference so much of Trek's past because it's the history of their universe as well as the history of their professional institution.
So, please, Lower Decks, make all the references you want. They make my little archivist soul happier than a Ferengi committing tax fraud.
Also, Mike McMahan, I'd be eternally grateful if you actually gave us a Starfleet archivist. Just one. Pretty please?