In the most recent episode of Star Trek: Prodigy, “All the World’s a Stage,” the crew of the Protostar meet a society based on the crew of Captain Kirk’s Enterprise. On one narrative level, the Enterprizians served as a foil for our young protagonists. But on another level, it’s clear that the Starfleet-mimicking aliens reflected real-world Trekkies, too. This gave the episode a chance to reflect on the Franchise as a whole.
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However, while the episode had its revolutionary elements, Star Trek using metafiction to examine itself is not unprecedented. Here are seven self-reflexively meta Star Trek episodes.
The Menagerie – The Original Series
Star Trek: The Original Series season 1’s “The Menagerie” was partially borne of necessity. In order to stretch the show’s budget as far as possible, footage from the unaired original pilot episode, “The Cage,” was repurposed. Featuring Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) instead of Captain Kirk (William Shatner), the pilot had been rejected and retooled into the more familiar TOS.
However, in “The Menagerie,” the crew of Kirk’s Enterprise recieves a vision from the Talosians. This vision is comprised of a majority of the footage of “The Cage.” Over the course of the episode’s ersatz court martial, Kirk’s crew essentially watches an entire episode of Star Trek along with the audience. Ultimately, the vision keeps Kirk occupied, allowing Pike to undertake a necessary journey in the meantime.
Far Beyond the Stars – Deep Space Nine
In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season 6’s “Far Beyond the Stars,” Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) recieves a vision from the Prophets. He experiences life as Benny Russell, a 1950s science fiction writer whose latest work stars the Black commander of a futuristic space station, Captain Benjamin Sisko.
The Deep Space Nine episode foregrounds how racism can sabotage science fiction, and examines how Star Trek‘s brave new world pushes back against these issues. Perhaps best of all, this episode was directed by Brooks himself, adding another layer to the metafictional proceedings.
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Muse – Voyager
In the Star Trek: Voyager season 6 episode “Muse,” B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) is stranded on a pre-industrial planet after a shuttlecraft crash. In order to survive, she partners with a local playwright. However, the playwright begins drawing inspiration from Torres and the crew of her ship. Soon, performances about “shining Voyager, far from home” have captured the imagination of the locals.
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As the playwright explains to Torres, these stories have a material effect. One example is the way they distract their patron from war efforts, convincing him to reallocate resources to the arts, instead. This is a demonstration of the power the stories of Star Trek can possess.
These Are the Voyages – Enterprise
One of the most meta episodes yet to emerge from the Franchise remains the Star Trek: Enterprise series finale, “These are the Voyages.” After teasing the identity of the NX-01 Enterprise‘s chef for all four seasons of the show, Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) steps into the role (on the holodeck, anyway).
The story follows Riker as he turns to the holodeck to get some inspiration from the crew of the original Enterprise. Set during the events of the Star Trek The Next Generation season 7 episode “The Pegasus,” the series finale contextualizes the prequel series within the broader Trek tapestry. It also shows how the heroes of later shows look to the protagonists of earlier stories for inspiration, just as we look to them.
Crisis Point Parts 1 & 2 – Lower Decks
Every episode of Star Trek: Lower Decks is, by definition of its premise, metafictional. However, two episodes from Lower Decks’ three seasons released so far stand out as especially meta: season 1’s “Crisis Point: Rise of Vindicta,” and season 3’s “Crisis Point 2: Paradoxus.” In the “Crisis Point” episodes, the beta shifters make their own “movies,” heading to the holodeck for stories that take aim at the differences in storytelling styles between the Trek movies and Trek shows.
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In Lower Decks’ “Paradoxus,” another meta layer was added by allowing creative differences between Ensigns Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome) and Bradward Boimler (Jack Quaid) to parallel real-world creative friction between Star Trek(s) III & IV director and star Leonard Nimoy and Star Trek V director and star Shatner. Meanwhile, both the Lower Decks’ episodes examine essential Franchise-wise concerns like representation, the search for meaning through fiction, and extended vanity shots of starships.
Ephraim and DOT – Star Trek: Short Treks
In the Star Trek: Short Treks episode “Ephraim and DOT,” directed by Michael Giacchino, animated versions of character types introduced in Star Trek: Discovery are introduced to Kirk’s crew through archive footage. As Ephraim the tardigrade attempts to rescue her offspring, she spars with DOT, one of the ship’s maintenance droids.
Over the course of the short, we hear recordings from famous TOS episodes like “Space Seed” and “Naked Time.” This culminates in clips from the three TOS crew movies in which Kirk’s Enterprise appeared. The episode highlights the narrative arcs of one of the most important but most often overlooked Star Trek characters: the ship itself.
A Quality of Mercy – Strange New Worlds
In the season 1 finale of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, “A Quality of Mercy,” Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) must take Kirk’s place during the events originally depicted in TOS season 1’s “Balance of Terror.” In addition to highlighting the difference between the authoritative styles of the two captains, this episode speaks to the hard but necessary sacrifices that must be made.
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This episode works closely with the source material, echoing cinematography, lighting, music and dialogue to expand on a seminal Star Trek episode. Best of all, “A Quality of Mercy” adds new dimension to the already classic climactic line from “Balance of Terror.” Cleary, it sometimes pays to look back at the boldly going that has gone before.
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