Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 3 Reveals The Bizarre Future Of A Key Trek Location

This article contains spoilers for the season 3 premiere of "Star Trek: Lower Decks."

What a time to be alive as a "Star Trek" fan. Just when it seemed as if nothing could fill the gap left by the extraordinary first season of "Strange New Worlds" — one of the most universally adored installments of the franchise in recent memory — "Star Trek: Lower Decks" returns to make it all better. The animated series brings a much more lighthearted and irreverent tone to the exploration-heavy material, all while remaining quintessentially "Trek" — a balancing act that's much tougher to pull off than it might seem on the surface.

With season 3 now upon us, all the deep-cut references, bawdy humor, and some of the most lovable characters in all of "Trek" canon (looking at you, Tendi and Rutherford!) are back and better than ever. All of this is present and accounted for in the season 3 premiere alone, titled "Grounded." The season-opening storyline picks up where the season 2 cliffhanger left off, with Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) arrested and under investigation for the attempted destruction of the Pakled home world (named, fittingly, Pakled Planet). With the USS Cerritos impounded in Earth-orbiting drydock, Ensigns Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid), Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), Samanthan Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), and D' Vana Tendi (Noël Wells) take the most reckless course of action to exonerate their captain of all charges, taking them to one notably unexpected place.

Longtime fans will need no refresher on the significance of Bozeman, Montana as the site of Earth's official first contact with Vulcans. What is surprising, however, is just how much this location has changed since the events of 1996's "Star Trek: First Contact."

Even in a utopia, nothing is sacred

After "Star Trek: First Contact" depicted the dramatic, stirring, and rather epic events of humanity's first contact with extraterrestrials — ushering our species into a new age of interstellar travel and mutual prosperity with other beings in the vast universe — leave it to "Lower Decks" to lovingly lampoon such self-serious storylines and bring such grandiosity down to its level. With our overlooked heroes on an abrupt shore leave and at odds over how exactly to proceed to save their captain, the answer to all their problems comes from Tendi, whose intentions were to do some sightseeing during their rare visit to Earth.

At the top of her list? The otherwise mundane locale of historic Bozeman, which has since been turned into the place to be for space nerds across the globe. In a dramatic departure from prior depictions, "Lower Decks" reinterprets the site of first contact hundreds of years later as a hilariously tacky and wildly exploited tourist destination complete with "reenactors," a magnificent statue built in pioneer Zefram Cochrane's (James Cromwall) honor (paying off what a time-traveling Geordi La Forge once told him about his future), and even a musical arrangement echoing the sweeping score of "First Contact."

While it's been established in canon that the site of Cochrane's launch of humanity's first warp-capable engine (an important prerequisite before any member of the Federation reveals itself to a new species) has been preserved as an historical monument to one of the human race's greatest collective achievements, it's safe to say that viewers didn't quite expect the full extent of what this "Lower Decks" premiere unleashed.

All the old familiar places

Of the many, many Easter eggs and references that fans will no doubt notice during this portion of the "Lower Decks" season 3 premiere, chief among them has to be the return (in a voice role, at least) of James Cromwell as Cochrane — although, this time, as a hologram spouting out theme park clichés like "Make a first contact ... with fun!" or piloting the "Ride the Phoenix" attraction. Meanwhile, his rundown bar (and jukebox!) that hosted the "Next Generation" characters during "Star Trek: First Contact" has been restored to all its former, ah, "glory," the Vulcan's distinctive spacecraft used to initiate first contact has been turned into a glorified playground, and, most importantly, Cochrane's legendary ship, the Phoenix, now functions as a theme park ride that brings adventurers into orbit ... which is exactly where our "Lower Decks" crew needs to go in order to reconvene with the Cerritos and hopefully find the evidence needed to save Captain Freeman.

As a frequent stand-in for audiences, it makes perfect sense that Tendi sets herself apart as the most wide-eyed and passionate fan of the world-famous locale, though even her crewmembers (okay, maybe not Mariner) seem awed by the opportunity to stand on such meaningful ground. Luckily, the notion of these new additions to "Trek" lore crossing paths with some of the most famous moments in the entire franchise remains just as much of a treat for them as it is for us.

"Star Trek: Lower Decks" is finally back, boldly going where no one has gone before ... and, sometimes, where others have gone.