For all I’ve said about how soothingly low-stakes Star Trek: Lower Decks feels compared to the galaxy-changing plots of the live-action series, the show does build up and carry story arcs from episode to episode and across seasons. And this week, the stakes could not be higher… emotionally speaking.
A lot of intro writer courses will introduce you to three types of stakes in stories: the external (What alien crisis will the Cerritos deal with this time?), the internal (Can Mariner overcome her worst tendencies for the sake of her friends?), and the moral/philosophical (Will Mariner do the right thing? Will concern for others triumph over selfishness?). The ninth episode of Lower Decks’ third season leans on the hours we, the audience, have spent falling in love with the Cerritos crew to ramp up the emotional and moral/philosophical stakes, while the physical stakes serve largely as a backdrop to this week’s character drama.
But Captain Freeman only cares about the physical stakes, because her reputation is on the line. Lower Decks introduced us to the Cerritos with the episode “Second Contact,” emphasizing the ship’s unimportance by making it a second-stringer to the classic Star Trek first contact missions. In “Trusted Sources,” Freeman has managed to convince Starfleet that California-class ships’ second contact missions are, in fact, important. Which makes sense… after all, why go through all the trouble of introducing yourself to a whole civilization if you’re just going to warp out and never talk to them again?
Dubbed Project Swing By, the mission is to check in on these neglected planets. The Cerritos’ task is to find out how things are going on the planet Onara – a throwback to an episode from a long, long, long, long, long time ago. As in, Season 1 of Star Trek: The Next Generation long. Tasha Yar long (this was the episode where Denise Crosby can be seen waving goodbye in the extreme background since it was her last episode filmed).
So confident is Starfleet in the importance and success of the Cerritos’ mission that they’ve sent a reporter to cover it. Which immediately puts Freeman on edge. After all, the Cerritos isn’t exactly known for leaving a good impression.
The episode gives us a helpful recap of what happened with the Onarans, for those of us who don’t regularly rewatch TNG Season 1 episodes. Essentially, the Onarans were dependent on their sister planet, Brekka, to supply a drug that ostensibly cured a plague but was actually a narcotic that turned all of Onara into a planet of addicts. Picard solved the problem by cutting off contact between the two planets – severing the addicts from their supplier. And then warped out without looking back.
But Freeman is more concerned about reining in the typical Cerritos chaos for the cameras. Mariner, especially, must be hidden from view, a point emphasized by the blueberry juice covering her uniform in her first appearance in the episode. So Beta Shift is reassigned. Mariner, of course, doesn’t seem to take any of this seriously. As Freeman walks by with the reporter, she (still covered in blueberry juice) offers the reporter a tour. Freeman responds by telling our lower deckers that it’s bedtime and orders lights out.
Meanwhile, the reason Mariner was covered in juice in the first place is that she was prepping for the ship’s pie-eating contest, something that she and the rest of Beta Shift have been eagerly anticipating. But, of course, it’s canceled. Can’t have the cameras catching a bunch of officers cramming pie into their faces!
The reporter interviews several approved crew members who put their best foot forward, describing life aboard their ship in glowing terms. Naturally, Mariner isn’t on that list. That frustrates her because she feels the reporter isn’t capturing the truth about the Cerritos. While her mood about the whole thing was initially chipper and dismissive, her annoyance begins to bubble over.
Freeman takes the reporter and an away team to Onara, where they find a happy, wellness-obsessed planet that’s completely recovered from its drug crisis. No need for any Starfleet assistance here – they’re good! Freeman suspects – hopes, actually – that there’s something sinister going on beneath the surface. Because there always is, right? Not this time! The reporter, naturally, is not impressed, and Freeman is irritated that her mission appears to be superfluous.
But wait, there was another planet involved in the whole drug thing! What about Brekka, the supplier? Eager to find a problem she can solve, Freeman orders the Cerritos to go there instead.
Mariner runs into the reporter in the hallway and states, with eyebrows raised, that she has some things to say… This is it, isn’t it? The part where Mariner ruins the illusion of a put-together Cerritos that Freeman and the rest of the crew have been doing their best to project for the cameras?
Freeman certainly thinks so. The reporter arrives in Freeman’s office for her interview, but when Freeman claims she runs a tight ship, the reporter starts rattling off all the “chaotic,” “irresponsible,” and “silly” things she’s heard… details from several of Lower Decks‘ wackadoodle episodes (Remember that time Freeman took engineering on a spa trip and lost it? Or Lt. Kayshon turned into a puppet?). Turns out, while we, the audience, have been watching a cartoon, Freeman actually takes her job seriously and isn’t happy that she and her crew have been made to look foolish. And she’s furious when she learns that Mariner spoke to the reporter.
Mariner is called to Freeman’s office, where Ransom is waiting as well. She greets this with her usual nonchalance. What’s another talking-to, right? But Freeman is serious this time. She’s through with Mariner’s nonsense and has had her transferred to Starbase 80, which the season has been building up as the least desirable place for a Starfleet officer (Ransom once threatened to have Mariner transferred there, and Mariner, in horror, said not to even joke about that). At first, Mariner assumes Freeman must be making another empty threat, but Freeman is completely serious this time – a fact that shocks even Ransom. Mariner protests that she didn’t say anything bad to the reporter, but Freeman doesn’t believe her. The transfer shuttle is already on the way.
The tone of the whole episode changes with Mariner’s mood as it hits her – and the audience – that she’s being kicked out for real this time. Mariner has been a troublemaker from the start, with Freeman her exasperated, bridge-of-nose-pinching captain and mom, and the audience fully confident that no matter what, things will work out and Mariner will stay on the Cerritos. “Trusted Sources” takes that formula and rips it to shreds.
As Mariner leaves, she gets dirty looks from the entire crew, who are all upset that she apparently torpedoed their reputation after all their hard work. She runs into her girlfriend, Jennifer, hoping at least she’ll understand. But Jennifer might be the most upset of them all since Mariner hurt the entire crew by making them sound like losers. Mariner has always been a little bit horrible as a person – arrogant, self-centered, impulsive – and that was part of her charm, but it seems she’s gone too far this time. Realizing that everyone has turned against her, Mariner walks away in tears.
Boimler, Tendi, and Rutherford watch as Mariner packs, with Boimler protesting that she can’t leave, that it’ll all blow over if she just apologizes. But Mariner, still insisting she didn’t do anything wrong, dismisses him. This isn’t the first ship she’s been kicked off of, and she’s done with this place.
This whole sequence was truly gut-wrenching to watch. I’ve often said that Lower Decks is special because of its red giant-sized heart, and how the friendship and camaraderie between the crew is the soul of the show behind all the hijinks and referential humor. And now, it seems, that heart is breaking.
Mariner unceremoniously boards the shuttle to Starbase 80, with no one to see her off.
With the troublemaking ensign gone, Freeman proceeds with the mission to Brekka. The away team arrives to find that the place has been invaded by the powerful, warlike Breen. They hurriedly beam back onto the ship, where Breen ships attack the Cerritos. For a moment, it seems all is lost, but then a shining Starfleet ship swoops in to save the day. Who’s on that ship? No one, it turns out. The new Texas-class ship is fully automated.
The whole sequence with Brekka is over and done with pretty quickly, solved with a deus ex machina. Literally – a god (or ship with godlike powers to fix the plot) in a machine. And that’s a good thing… at this point, the whole Onara/Brekka thing doesn’t feel important. I mean, the main character just got kicked off the ship! The external stakes are solved, but they never really mattered anyway. The internal and moral/philosophical ones though? Still sky-high.
The report comes out, with the sensational title “Starfleet’s Shame.” It’s framed as an expose, with dramatic, reality show-like snippets of the crew interviews as they offhandedly talk about the Cerritos’ shenanigans. Turns out, it was those oh-so-polished, approved crew members who inadvertently exposed the ship’s chaotic nature. As for Mariner? She gave a sincere interview about how the Cerritos was her family. “If you’re measuring by heart, this is the strongest ship in the fleet,” she says – a statement that’s also true for Lower Decks itself.
Which of course is absolutely gutting since she was just exiled from this ship she loved so much.
Freeman desperately calls Starbase 80 to admit and fix her mistake. But Mariner is nowhere to be found… because she resigned from Starfleet.
Dang, they actually did it! After three seasons of Mariner walking the edge, she actually went over and quit, blowing up the show’s sitcom-like approach. This time, not everything got resolved in 20 minutes. Okay, the whole Onara/Brekka thing did, but we didn’t really care about that anyway.
Where did Mariner go? Back in Season 3 Episode 5, “Reflections,” she met a roguish archaeologist who mocked Starfleet and offered her a life of adventuring instead. At the time, Mariner blew her off. Now, she’s that archaeologist’s first mate.
And cut to credits, leaving us to go, “Wait, what?! What???”
It’s a startling yet fitting place for the show to go – and a way of reminding us that while it’s a sitcom-y cartoon, it’s still Star Trek, and these characters are actual characters, not just vessels for jokes. With one episode left in this season, I’m doubtful they’ll wrap everything up nicely and send Mariner back to the Cerritos next week.
I do love that it seems Lower Decks’ main season arc isn’t around a looming alien threat like Discovery or Picard, but rather on Mariner’s character development, from breaking all the rules for the right reasons in the first episode, to trying to clean up her act, to now being kicked off the ship for something she didn’t do.
It’s possible this will all get resolved at the start of the next season. After all, Boimler was promoted to the USS Titan at the end of Season 1 and brought back to the Cerritos, via transporter clone shenanigans, two episodes later. And the Season 2 cliffhanger was Freeman getting arrested, but she was cleared at the very beginning of Season 3. I can’t see Lower Decks leaving the band broken up for too long (that doesn’t seem to be the tone of the show), but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.