The problem with a show being very, very good is that you wind up expecting more and more from it. An episode that you once might have appreciated as, “Oh, yeah, that was decent,” feels more like, “Eh, they could have done better.”
Star Trek: Lower Decks has set the bar extremely high for itself. For four seasons now, it has proven to be more than a cartoon comedy that parodies its own franchise. It’s also a solid sci-fi show in and of itself, presenting great character development and unexpected stories as well as references and humor. And with its season-long plot arc, showing various alien vessels being attacked by a random mysterious ship nearly every episode, it also set the bar high for how it would all conclude.
Episode 410, “Old Friends, New Planets,” does manage to tie up the mysterious ship plot with a neat little bow in just 20 minutes, while also allowing for its signature humor and references. That’s a pretty impressive feat. The execution, though, felt a bit… easy.
The episode opens with a flashback to Starfleet Academy, back when Mariner was a bright-eyed bushy-tailed little froshling. Nova Squadron, from the famous/infamous Next Generation episode “The Last Duty,” is discussing the ill-fated maneuver that will get Nick Locarno — revealed at the end of last week’s episode to be this season’s Big Bad — expelled. Of course, all the original voice actors are back… would it even be Lower Decks without such fan service?
Thirteen years later, Locarno still hasn’t gotten over being kicked out. All those ships that looked destroyed were actually being stolen… by their own lower deckers, who then marooned the officers. And the point of all this? Why, to form an independent fleet! Nova Fleet! And what exactly will Nova Fleet do? It seems nobody knows… all these lower deckers were just sick of being pushed around and looked down upon.
And you know what? The show could actually have taken that somewhere. The Cerritos itself is hampered from saving Mariner after Locarno nabs her because Starfleet’s bureaucracy doesn’t want to risk ruffling non-Federation feathers. How many redshirts have died senselessly across five-plus decades of Star Trek, sometimes because of profoundly unwise decisions made by the command crew around which the shows revolved? This show is called Lower Decks, and it might have been interesting to explore the perspectives of low-ranking officers and crewmen who, unlike our Cerritos team of Mariner, Boimler, Tendi, and Rutherford (and now T’Lyn), are thoroughly disillusioned and disgruntled, possibly for good reason.
But, no. Nova Fleet, and Locarno himself, serve only to function as wild-eyed, one-dimensional villains for our heroes to defeat. Locarno kidnapped Mariner thinking she, the forever ensign (alongside Harry Kim! But that’s a topic for another post), would appreciate his mission. Which of course she does not. I guess they already had Mariner quitting Starfleet in a huff last season, so they couldn’t exactly do something like that again. Instead, she barely pretends to side with Locarno, then immediately snaps into Hero Mode when given the chance, interrupting his Big Villain Speech and taking off with his bargaining chip, a black-market Genesis device. The ensuing chase is… not very interesting, to be honest. Some clever maneuvers, some tossed-off quips. Visually pretty, but somehow not much fun… maybe because it was so predictable.
The plot with the Cerritos fared better. After being denied Starfleet’s assistance, Captain Freeman goes rogue. And of course her entire crew sides with her. Thanks to Tendi, they have a plan for penetrating the super-high-tech shield Locarno has keeping enemies away from Nova Fleet… and Nova Fleet (including the ship Mariner steals) inside the star system. It’s to obtain an Orion war ship from Tendi’s sister, introduced earlier this season during Trek‘s first-ever jaunt to the Orion home world.
Tendi’s solution — to pit a Cerritos fighter against an Orion one, and to choose Dr. Migleemo because the big Orion fighter has allergies — was quite fun to watch. I mean, Migleemo puffing up and causing the enormous warrior lady to knock herself out wheezing was pretty hilarious. Unfortunately, she faints on top of the hapless counselor, making her technically the winner. So Tendi offers up herself in exchange for the ship instead, and her sister accepts. The continuation of the Orion story line was pretty satisfying, and Tendi’s bargain means we’ll get to see more in Season 5.
There were a few other delightful moments as well — Boimler and Rutherford arguing over Locarno’s resemblance to Tom Paris, a throwback to one of the more absurd moments this season (the Twains, also from the fourth episode), Boimler thoroughly enjoying himself as acting captain, T’Lyn just being T’Lyn. And getting to see Freeman stick her neck out for her troublemaker daughter was fantastic; I daresay Freeman was the best part of the episode.
All in all, “Old Friends, New Planets,” was an enjoyable, if somewhat disappointing watch. Perhaps Lower Decks tried to squeeze too much plot into a few 20-minute episodes. Perhaps it just set the bar so high after the first three seasons, that it was bound to stumble eventually. Perhaps it got so formulaic with its set up — depicting a different alien vessel vanishing each week, plus having Mariner very obviously self-sabotage in each episode — that any conclusion would have felt too easy (Mariner’s big revelation last week seems to have resolved all her issues once and for all, the speed and expediency of which weakened an otherwise great episode; oh, and I rolled my eyes so hard when Locarno got offed… mostly because he turned out to be such a flat villain, and his demise was pretty flat too despite a last-ditch joke).
Or perhaps Lower Decks starting to outgrow its premise. Remember how the show was supposed to be about the lowest-ranking officers on the least important ship in the Federation? About overlooked underdogs and the workplace-type humor of being just an average shmoe in Starfleet? Perhaps the lower deckers are still only lieutenants junior grade, with plenty of menial duties, and perhaps the Cerritos is still technically a support ship, but the plots keep escalating, as TV plots tend to a few seasons in. Often, it feels like shows can’t accept that it was the lower stakes their earlier episodes that allowed the characters and fun to thrive, and instead have to keep pushing and pushing for bigger external threats, at the expense of what made it special.
I hope Lower Decks doesn’t go in that direction. One thing that was sorely lacking from this season finale was that heart-of-gold warmth that earlier seasons managed, and perhaps that was because Mariner was isolated from the rest for the majority of the episode. I get that Mariner has to develop eventually, but this season seems to have sanded off her edges… her defiance and self-sabotage was so blatant as to be unbelievable (you, like Ransom early on, knew she was doing it on purpose).
After a generally solid season, I was hoping for a conclusion as epic as that of Season 3, but I get it, it’s a tall order. So credit where credit’s due — Season 4 tied up its plot threads very neatly (a little too neatly) and served up its usual amusing fare and fan-pleasing references.
Episode 410, “Old Friends, New Planets”: 3 / 5 stars
Lower Decks Season 4: 4/5 stars