When In Doubt, Beam Them Up: Star Trek‘s Desperate Crossover History

TV Features Star Trek Picard
When In Doubt, Beam Them Up: Star Trek‘s Desperate Crossover History

He’s back! The punching bag of the Alpha Quadrant, the most shut-down Klingon in history, and the man who has been on Star Trek screens more than any other character since this whole interstellar odyssey began, baby. That’s right, it’s officially WORFMANIA over at Star Trek: Picard, as the Klingon champion Worf returns from a live-action absence of 21 years. Michael Dorn was likely thrilled to spend hours getting prosthetics applied to him once more—it’s impossible to say, with nearly 300 logged episodes of Trek across The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, how much time he’s spent in a make-up chair. Probably years.

But Worf is not the only draw to Picard’s third and final season, the entire main cast of the Enterprise-D have joined our beloved French captain’s final adventure. Paramount+ has been gradually doling out prized Star Trek cast members over Picard’s three shaky seasons: in the show’s sophomore outing, the mischievous deity Q, mystical bartender Guinan, and dastardly Borg Queen made appearances. Before that, we had seen Picard’s loyal friends William Riker, Deanna Troi, and Data—not to mention the part-Borg Seven of Nine and Hugh—join for his first solo outing. It’s clear Picard wanted in on that sweet, sweet legacy sequel money, but an increasing insistence on continuing the adventures of only the most iconic characters is something that predates the franchise’s recent rejuvenation.

What’s great about Worfmania 2k23 is that this is not the first time Worf has been beamed into a show unsure of its identity a few seasons post-premiere. Deep Space Nine found a home for him in Season 4 when the Klingon presence on the space station became more pronounced, and for the rest of the series, Worf enjoyed a richer, more dynamic characterization than could be offered on the episodic TNG. But he wasn’t DS9’s only holdover from the Enterprise; Miles O’Brien enjoyed a nice upgrade from transporter chief to Chief Operations Officer, meaning actor Colm Meaney enjoyed an equally nice promotion from infrequent guest appearances to a main cast member.

Of course, this doesn’t cover the featured guest appearances TNG characters made on DS9, or its companion series Voyager or Enterprise. It’s a Trek tradition for established characters to appear in the pilots of a new show, and as such Picard himself shows up in DS9’s premiere to assign Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) his new post. This is probably the most creative use of a fan-favorite character making a crossover, as Sisko hates Picard’s guts—still blaming him for the death of his wife when Picard had been made part of the Borg collective. It’s definitely not the dewey-eyed nostalgia bait that would characterize later Picard’s crossovers.

In fact, when assessing the variety of Trek crossovers, TNG seems to dominate. On top of the three aforementioned appearances, William Riker turns up in DS9 to inspect their new advanced warship…. but surprise! It’s actually William Riker’s evil clone brother, Thomas Riker! (This is a serious show.) Q also turns up earlier in the first season, in an episode that proved pretty definitively that the adventures of TNG were not going to be transferable to DS9. Riker, Troi, and TNG engineer Geordi La Forge all make appearances in some form in the next spinoff Voyager, and the lovable, clueless fan favorite Reginald Barclay (Dwight Schultz) ends up being pivotal to saving the USS Voyager from being permanently lost in deep space (good for him!) And in the most galaxy-brained move of all time, Riker and Troi hijack the series finale of the prequel Enterprise, sidelining that show’s ensemble in a framing device that was maligned by pretty much everybody involved. Seemingly, we just can’t get enough of that darn Next Gen.

The reason why is pretty blatant: The Next Generation, which kicked off the golden era of Trek with three consecutive and overlapping spinoff series, was incredibly popular and well-loved. People wanted to see those characters long after their series concluded, and the producers knew that ratings would go up by marketing their appearances. It was a flagship, mega-hit show that defined its era of sci-fi television, and it’s easy to move isolated actors around the different shows because they’re all filmed on neighboring Paramount sound stages.

It may be uncomfortable thinking that the well-written, emotionally compelling Trek stories that we deem as the gold standard were produced cynically but, of course, they were made by a competitive network who wanted to drive as much engagement and viewership as possible. In a sense, this constructed valorization of everything TNG hasn’t changed from the ‘90s; we’re still willing to tune in (now for the affordable monthly price of $9.99!) to see the actors in the hope they’ll recapture the magic of those game-changing adventures.

You don’t see Julian Bashir or Harry Kim turn up in any of the new live-action Trek shows because producers have done cost-benefit analysis and haven’t deemed their reappearance worth their money or effort. In a way, it’s much better to be a DS9 or Voyager or Enterprise diehard; while characters made the odd guest appearance in each other’s shows while they were on the air, it’s not like the integrity of their stories are going to be gutted by today’s wave of nostalgia-fracking television. Deep Space Nine’s showrunner had to crowdfund for a documentary about his own series! Seeing the TNG gang back together is fun (and Worfmania 2k23 is real), but it is at the end of the day a ploy to engineer legitimacy for a show in dire need of it.

You know how we know this is the case? It’s something TNG did themselves! Pretty much every main cast member from the original series has appeared across its successor’s seven seasons and four films, whether it’s old man Bones in the pilot, Scotty’s guest appearance as an outdated relic, or Spock’s event television two-parter that drew over 25 million viewers. William Shatner, unhappy with not being in the spotlight, secured his own crossover film with Star Trek: Generations. All crossovers, remember, are stunts, from the hallowed TNG cast reunion to a three-part Law & Order event.

Maybe Star Trek crossovers are not as cynical or desperate as they might seem. Well, no, they definitely are, but that doesn’t make them inherently a bad thing. The joy of fantastical media is not just the expansive and imaginative worlds they take us too, but a conscious reminder of how regular, talented people in our world made all its glories possible. It’s why people pore over scratchy ‘70s recordings of Industrial Lights and Magic filming their Star Wars miniatures; it’s why Peter Jackson gets thanked for the Lord of the Rings behind-the-scenes docs as much as for Lord of the Rings.

For Star Trek, these shows are the product of cast goodwill and incredibly tight writers rooms, where people challenged each other to excel, and where they had to deal with the machinations of pushy executives. There is a clear link between interplanetary storytelling and a grounded production, and seeing traces of the latter within the former only adds to the charm that Trek has worn proudly for decades. Even though Picard’s final frontier feels awfully like a last resort, there’s something warmly familiar about its cyclical cast revival.

Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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