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The best joke in Star Trek: Lower Decks Episode 3 is a TNG Easter egg you probably missed

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Aug 20, 2020, 5:24 PM EDT (Updated)

One of the cleverest things about Star Trek: Lower Decks is that the Lower Deckers are in-universe Star Trek fans. Mariner, Boimler, Tendi, and Rutherford are all, on some level, fans of legendary Starfleet officers who have boldly gone before. In Episode 3, “Temporal Edict,” Mariner, while surrounded in a way that should be familiar to TOS viewers, doubles down on her Kirk knowledge by saying, “Circled by spears, this is a classic! What am I? Kirk? What is this? The 2260s? All right!” 

Now, obviously, Star Trek doesn’t exist as a TV show in the 24th century of Star Trek — Mariner gets her knowledge of Kirk, Spock, and Gary Mitchell from the in-universe history books.

But wait a second. One super-brief joke in Episode 3 of Lower Decks totally suggests some form of Star Trek as a piece of in-universe entertainment might exist within the Star Trek universe. Confused? Frankly, so I am. But here’s the hilarious Easter egg you might have missed, and what it might mean for the Trek canon as a whole.

Spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Lower Decks, Season 1, Episode 3, “Temporal Edict.”

Toward the beginning of the episode, and before Mariner namechecks Kirk, Boimler shares a turbolift ride with Captain Freeman. And just as the doors open, it sounds like Boimler is humming a few bars of the famous Jerry Goldsmith theme to Star Trek: The Motion Picture! Composed in 1979, this theme was part of Goldsmith’s Oscar-nominated score for the first Trek feature film, but, for most fans, it’s more famously thought of as the theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation, since that’s the series where it was used the most prominently from 1987 to 1994. The theme was also briefly retitled “Life is a Dream” in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and is heard in the closing credits in Star Trek: First Contact. But if Boimler is humming it, does that mean Jerry Goldsmith exists in Trek canon?

This all comes down to how we feel about diegetic music within Star Trek. Quick distinction: diegetic music is music that characters actually hear or that plays within a fictional world, while everything else is music that only us viewers can hear. Sometimes music can be both. In the Ghostbusters films, people seem to know the Ray Parker Jr. song “Ghostbusters,” and in the movie Live and Let Die, B. J. Arnau sings Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” to Roger Moore. Han Solo also overheard John Williams’ “The Imperial March” in the movie Solo, implying that in the Star Wars universe, that music is like the galactic anthem of the Empire. Similarly, in the first episode of the 2003 reboot Battlestar Galactica miniseries, the original Stu Phillips BSG theme is used as “The Colonial March.”

Boimler, seconds after humming the 'TNG Theme.' (Credit: CBS)

So, what does this mean for Boimler humming the Jerry Goldsmith TNG theme? Weirdly, although it has plenty of diegetic music, the Star Trek franchise has yet to have diegetic music that references or is the same as the incidental music or score. The closest example to date would be “The Inner Light,” since the Jay Chattaway track (“Lullaby No. 2”) is something Picard composed while he was living his life as “Kamin,” but the music also exists in the score. Ditto for Scotty playing “Amazing Grace” at Spock’s funeral in The Wrath of Khan; his bagpipes version blends into the James Horner score. But the reverse has never happened. Kirk listens to “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys in Trek 2009 and Beyond. Had he listened to the Beasties’ “Intergalactic” — which references “Mr. Spock” — it would have been the closest thing to Trek diegetic music referencing the existence of Trek as a fictional artform. 

On some level, Boimler humming the Jerry Goldsmith TNG theme implies Jerry Goldsmith exists in Boimler’s history — and by extension, Star Trek’s fictional history, too. Weirdly, this is not the first precedent for some kind of version of Star Trek existing within Star Trek canon. In the opening of every single episode of the prequel series Enterprise, we see NASA’s space shuttle Enterprise. In real life, in 1976, that space shuttle got its name because Trekkies campaigned for it to happen.

The real Enterprise in the opening credits of 'Enterprise.' (Credit: CBS)

So, if the history of Enterprise in the 22nd century comes from our own history (which it appears to because of that space shuttle) that basically implies some version of Trek existed in the 20th century of Earth in the Trek timeline. Either that or suspend your disbelief and just chalk it up to being a weird, alternate universe full of convenient coincidences. 

But if Boimler is humming a few bars of the TNG theme, that heavily implies a proxy version of Star Trek gave rise to the actual Star Trek future. What would that bizarro Star Trek inside of Star Trek even look like? Would the characters be the same? Is Spock named after himself? Did Gene Roddenberry actually create Star Trek because of a predestination paradox? How does Benny Russell writing about Deep Space Nine in the 1950s fit into all of this?

Because if Star Trek the artform is real inside Star Trek canon, then that means, if we’re lucky, the reverse will be true in our own future. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that this hilarious inside joke ends up informing the future history of humanity.

Star Trek: Lower Deck debuts new episodes on Thursdays on CBS All Access.

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