Ah, the infamous Star Trek cave. Where, all too often, some unfortunate crew members get stuck deep within an alien mountain that definitely is not the same alien mountain we saw a few episodes ago…
Lower Decks has a special way of mocking classic Star Trek tropes in the most loving way — in the manner of teasing a beloved family member who you know can take a joke — and in episode 408, caves are in the spotlight. In a departure from the lengthier, reference-y titles of late, this episode is simply called “Caves.”
This week, the show puts aside the season-long plot arcs and instead treats us to a standalone episode that feels like a combination of a bottle episode and a clip show, except the clips aren’t recycled material from earlier in the season. Our four favorite lower deckers are excited to all be assigned to the same away mission (“Beta Shift reunion!), but Mariner’s mood quickly sours when she realizes it’s a “stupid cave mission.” Because she, like the audience, knows how those tend to go in the Star Trek universe.
Naturally, they get trapped. Without communications. And with a threat — in this case, glowing green carnivorous moss that’s slowly encroaching on their space. So they have to figure out how to survive and escape. That’s the bottle episode aspect of “Caves.”
The clip show aspect comes in as, one by one, the lower deckers tell stories of other times each was stuck in a cave (and in all the flashbacks, the caves look the same…). Tendi is super excited to talk about the time the four of them were stuck in a turbo lift together, but Mariner shuts her down — a turbo lift ain’t a cave, after all!
Boimler, though, has a legit cave story: He and conspiracy-minded Lt. Levy got stuck in one together. It was fun seeing the recurring crackpot character return once more. And even more fun when it turns out all his crackpot theories are right for once — the whole thing is a morality test by obscure tentacle aliens. Which Boimler fails at first by yelling at Levy for his absurd theories, but then they’re released after Boimler opts to be nicer.
Then Rutherford talks about the time he and Dr. T’Ana were stuck in a cave with a local guide whose species reproduces by transferring their essence into another by touch and being reborn. So when she’s killed by a monster, she touches Rutherford, who then becomes pregnant and quickly gives birth to a baby alien (hey, we’re in an alien world, who says men can’t have babies?). Turns out the monster was protecting a baby of its own, and she lets the others go free.
Finally, Mariner tells of the time she led a mission and the thing they needed to escape was behind a temporal field that causes rapid aging. Notably, she’s there with a member of Delta Shift, which has a long-standing rivalry with Beta Shift. And, while going through the ordeal, she and the Delta Shifter work out their differences.
By this point, everyone’s stories have softened Mariner, and Tendi is finally allowed to tell her turbo lift story. Which is just about the time the four of them were stuck in a turbo lift for hours and ended up having lots of fun hanging out.
If everything is sounding a bit kumbaya, well, that was the point. Mike McMahan, at New York Comic Con (where the episode screened early for the in-person audience), talked about how he wanted Lower Decks to be the kind of comfort watch you would put on after a long day. “Caves” succeeds with its warm-and-fuzzy flashbacks, which are each comforting on their own and add to the comfort-watch feel by giving the crew a chance to hang out together and bond — something their promotions hasn’t let them do in a while. The deliberate cheesiness of these stories is balanced by absurdist humor that keeps things from becoming too saccharine. Lower Decks has always been a warmer type of comedy, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have an edge. Come to think of it, deliberate cheesiness plus absurdist humor is what gives the show its distinct style.
The episode concludes with the moss, which turns out to be sentient, being moved by their stories and friendship and asking to be their friend… did I mention deliberate cheesiness and absurdist humor? And to add even more of that, the view pans out to reveal that this was another morality test by the obscure tentacle aliens, who opt to let them stay and hang out a little longer before releasing their communications.
The low-stakes feel of this episode (somehow, being trapped in a cave with carnivorous moss didn’t seem all that dangerous in context) is the brief lull before the season arc continues, and possibly the last time the lower deckers will get to simply hang out together. Like with any family, they’ll probably get pulled in separate directions as the threat with the random mysterious murder ship (which we now know is kidnapping, not murdering) manifests in the last few episode. Knowing that, it’s easy to agree with the tentacle aliens — let them hang out a little longer.