Star Trek's Latest Season-Long Arc Breaks A Big Tradition
Has Trek’s biggest experiment reinvented itself?
Should a Star Trek TV series be comprised of stand-alone episodes, or, should the whole thing be a huge serialized story arc? While The Original Series pioneered the classic planet-of-the-week storyline in the '60s, the '90s and early aughts saw both Deep Space Nine and Enterprise play with season-long arcs that predated prestige TV as we know it. Ever since Lower Decks and Strange New Worlds debuted in 2020 and 2022, respectively, the Trek franchise has split the difference. Some shows still have a lot of serialization — Picard and Discovery for example — while LDS and SNW stick close-ish to self-contained episodes.
But what if you could have both? In Season 4 of Star Trek: Lower Decks, that’s exactly what’s happening; big stakes serialization combined with isolated episodes. Inverse caught up with Lower Decks supervising director Barry Kelly, and co-producer Brad Winters to get the inside scoop on how this season of LDS breaks with tradition, while also keeping things hilariously familiar. Spoilers ahead for Lower Decks Season 4, Episodes 1 and 2.
“So this is the first time I think we're really doing a serial,” Barry Kelly tells Inverse. Kelly has been a supervising director on Lower Decks since the beginning and describes his role as “literally checking in on all departments ... to get a bird's eye view of the episodes.” But, he notes that because Lower Decks introduces a new season-long mystery — something the comedy series hasn’t done quite like this before — that required even more rigor than usual.
“We really try to homage TNG in being more episodic,” Kelly explains. “Meaning, that the through-line of our episodes is really just the characters’ progression and development. But yeah, this time there’s a new mystery through-line, and we’re getting to see two things happening in each episode. There’s this new overhanging threat. This ship showed up and destroyed a Klingon ship. Who is this? It’s not Starfleet. It’s some weird organic-shaped pearl-looking ship and we don’t what that is, or what alien made that.”
In the final moments of the debut episode of Season 4, “Twovix,” we see what Kelly is referencing, an unknown alien ship obliterates the same Klingon Bird-of-Prey first glimpsed in the Season 2 episode “Wej Duj.” This continues to expand the theme of the show, in which, Kelly says, “We’re getting to explore lower decks vignettes on multiple ships.” In “Wej Duj,” the show gave us a glimpse of the junior officers of both a Klingon ship and a Vulcan ship, a storyline which resulted in the USS Cerritos getting their newest crewmember, fan favorite “rogue” Vulcan T’lyn.
But, Kelly suggests that fans may not want to get too attached to the lower deckers on other ships we see this season. “You'll quickly learn, after the first episode, maybe after the second, you’ll be like, uh-oh, our new victims.” In the second episode, “I Have No Bones and I Must Flee,” we see a cold open on a Romulan ship, in which the Romlan lower deckers squabble over who is better at backstabbing who. But, quickly, Kelly’s warning is proven correct: This Romulan ship isn’t long for this world either.
That episode’s title is also a roundabout Easter egg from the famous Harlan Ellison SF short story, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” Because, even though there’s a season-long arc, the name of the game in Lower Decks Season 4 is still hilarious Easter eggs. In “Twovix,” at one point, Boimler yells out, “It’s all the deep cuts from VOY!” By now, three years since its debut in 2020, this is the kind of thing fans have learned to love from Lower Decks — romps that often reference existing Star Trek episodes (or other sci-fi), which often verge on deep cuts so obscure, that even just making the reference itself is funny. In “Twovix,” the entire episode tackles one of the internet’s favorite episodes to debate about, the infamous Star Trek: Voyager [VOY] episode ‘Tuvix.” Without fully spoiling the episode, it’s safe to say that at least some fans will have even more to debate about than ever before.
But, with an episode like “Twovix” — which is utterly stacked with Easter eggs and deep cuts — Kelly points out it's a careful process: “As far as Easter eggs go, there'll be stuff they read in the script that's like, we're in a sci-fi room, it's a museum. There's bones and there's a giant or a giant skeleton, and Spock Two from The Animated Series,” Kelly explains. In the Voyager episode, for instance, we have the nano-virus, all that stuff, the lizard salamanders, the holograms, all that stuff was written in the script. But for something like the movie episode, “Crisis Point 2: Paradoxus,” at the last minute we added this Easter egg of actual live-action overlay of the computer they’re looking at in The Wrath of Khan.”
With all the gags and Easter eggs references to the entire canon of Trek, does Lower Decks ever worry about messing up the canon of the other shows? Short answer: Nope. As Lower Decks co-producer Brad Winters tells Inverse: “All the shows are talking. We don't want to do the same stuff thematically, but we don't have to worry about continuity because we’re very separate in the timeline. Discovery is after us. Picard is after us. Strange New Worlds is soooo in front of us.”
And yet, considering SNW just had an epic crossover with Lower Decks, does that mean clues to the mysterious enemy in LDS Season 4 could have been teased in another show? Again, Winters and Kelly stress that despite going big with serialization, Lower Decks is still its own thing. As Winters puts it succinctly: “We would never do the Gorn.”