The first half of Lower Decks Season 4’s two-part finale, which Mike McMahan described as “the ultimate Star Trek, the ultimate Lower Decks” at NYCC and held back from the press to avoid spoilers, is here at last, and it’s easy to see why he described it that way.
Sometimes, studios put big, important franchises in the hands of people they deem will be good for business, regardless of whether the individual(s) actually care(s) about said franchise as anything other than a product. That has never been the case with Lower Decks; it’s been clear from the start that McMahan is a huge Star Trek fan himself, who really understands what Trekkies love about the franchise. And a big part of that is respecting the ideals Gene Roddenberry originally put forth in the 1960s.
Half a century later, those ideals — of peace, cooperation, respect for different cultures, exploration for the sake of knowledge and not conquest, etc. — still resonate. It’s something other iterations of Star Trek (which I won’t name specifically because I’m not here to bash other parts of the franchise) have found convenient to ignore, seeing Star Trek as just another special effects-laden sci-fi show where big ships go boom amid eye-popping space battles.
To be fair, it’s easy to see why some folks wouldn’t understand that Trek isn’t meant to be about action and war. There have been lots and lots of explosive space battles and bloody combat scenes throughout the franchise’s run. The show’s about peace and exploration, you say? Starfleet isn’t the military, you say? Well, it sure feels like we’re watching Star Battle rather than Star Trek sometimes… between the Klingon War, the Dominion War, the ongoing fights with the Borg and the Hirogen and whatever other threats the writers come up with…
Episode 409, aptly titled “The Inner Fight,” calls out this tendency to jam violence into a show that claims to be about peace. After an entire season of self-destructive behavior, Mariner finally reveals what’s going on in her head. Following an episode opener where she yet again throws herself into unnecessary danger, Captain Freeman, concerned about her daughter’s safety, calls the other lower deckers together and, at Tendi’s suggestion, assigns them a super-safe mission to fix a buoy. The mission, of course, goes awry… a Klingon Bird-of-Prey appears and destroys the shuttle; Mariner, Tendi, Boimler, and T’Lyn barely beam down the planet in time. There, they discover the aliens that have been attacked by the random mysterious murder ship, recently revealed to be a random mysterious kidnapping ship, all season. Mariner, of course, breaks off from the group. She encounters a stranded Klingon warrior, and it’s to him that she reveals what’s troubling her: A friend from Starfleet Academy, who was stellar at everything and should have been a captain someday, died while serving as an ensign on the Enterprise.
Instead of exploration, that friend got violence. And Mariner is troubled by how Starfleet feels like a military… she’s quite right to point out that often, its leaders act as generals. And that’s why she tried so hard to avoid being promoted — she doesn’t want to be a general and send people into danger. That’s not what Starfleet is about.
To her surprise, the Klingon provides great insight: Peace comes at a cost. That friend died to ensure that people like Mariner would be safe to explore. In a short but impactful conversation, the show reconciles the two seemingly at-odds sides of Trek: a show about peaceful exploration, but riddled with violent encounters.
The no-longer-destructive Mariner then convinces all the other stranded aliens, who’ve been at each others’ throats fighting for survival, to work together in order to escape. The resolution is a bit too quick — a bit too “one big speech from the main character solves the whole problem” — but I get it, we only have 20 minutes. And then she suddenly vanishes…
Meanwhile, Captain Freeman, Rutherford, and Shaxs have been advised that the random mysterious kidnapping ship has moved on from non-Federation aliens and is now targeting ex-Starfleet individuals (including Seven of Nine, Beverly Crusher, and Thomas Riker… nice reference to where they all ended up later in the franchise’s timeline). The Cerritos is to track down and protect one of these: Nick Locarno, the disgraced Starfleet Academy pilot who once caused Wesley Crusher a moral dilemma.
Well, there’s a villain we haven’t heard from in a few decades. Personally, I always wished that Voyager hadn’t chickened out of letting Robert Duncan McNeil play the same character, instead of softening him into Tom Paris to make a redemption arc more palatable. Well, McNeil is back to voice Locarno, who has been making a living as a pilot-for-hire on the fringes of society.
After a fun jaunt to a lawless town, where Freeman continuously makes a fool of herself before revealing it was all part of her big plan to track down Locarno, the crew finally makes it to the guy’s lair. And… *dun dun dun*… they discover schematics for the random mysterious kidnapping ship! Turns out it was Locarno all along! And Mariner is now on board his ship!
It seems there’s an interesting Star Trek experiment going on here. In the Next Generation episode in which he appeared, Locarno was depicted as brilliant yet arrogant, and almost psychopathic. That he’s the one kidnapping non-Federation aliens and throwing them together on an otherwise deserted planet seems like some kind of social experiment, perhaps related to his truncated Starfleet career. But is he truly the mastermind, or is he just the pilot-for-hire executing someone else’s plan? I guess we’ll have to tune in next week to find out…
I hope they do something interesting with the character, besides just having him be a big bad that must be stopped then thrown in jail. Who knows, maybe he’ll even turn out to be not as bad as we thought, which might be more difficult to work in (especially given that Star Trek chickened out of that once) but, if done right, would be more compelling to watch. Lower Decks has thus far proved good at clever conclusions… here’s hoping we get another next week.