Star Trek fans tend to fit into one of two categories. There are those that take it incredibly seriously, and sneer at anyone who dares to joke about their idealised future. Then there’s those who, while loving the show, also enjoy lovingly poking fun at its sillier aspects. They’re the kind of people who love the show but find it funny that the cast all wear pyjamas, and that the Gorn look shit. For those in the former category, may we suggest watching The Motion Picture on repeat. For those in the latter, rejoice, for Lower Decks is back.
The first season of Mike McMahan’s wildly entertaining animated take on Trek walked the fine line between being a love letter to the franchise, while simultaneously having a good giggle at its expense, with more in-jokes and references than you can shake a Tribble at. It ended with some major changes for our four leads, with Mariner (Tawny Newsome) being exposed as the captain’s daughter; Boimler (Jack Quaid) getting his supposed dream promotion to the U.S.S. Titan under Captain Riker; and Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) losing his memory and having to rebuild his friendship/budding romance (?) with Tendi (Noël Wells).
Season opener, Strange Energies picks up all these threads, throwing in a none-too-subtle homage to Trek’s second pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before in the process. Mariner is working out her frustrations on the holodeck, escaping Cardassian prisons, and leaving a holographic Boimler to have four, or possibly five lights shone on him (Chain Of Command reference!). It’s fair to say she’s got some anger issues. Not just with Boimler abandoning her, but with her new relationship with her mother and the crew, where she’s gone from being a rebel, to the supposedly privileged position of being able what she wants to do not only with impunity, but with the captain’s blessing. As for Boimler, well, we’ll get to him later.
Rutherford, meanwhile is having a great time, with a new-found love for pears and dating an old flame. Which doesn’t go too well with the concerned and slightly jealous Tandi, who decides his condition is causing him serious danger and resolves to cure him through, well, violence. The two’s developing relationship was one of the sweeter highlights of the first season, and it looks set to continue here, only with the welcome addition of Rutherford getting hit in the face more. The ensign also manages to get the episode’s two best lines, with “F**k pears,” and the immortal “I just want to go swimming with girls!” (And a nice reference to the rarely mentioned Cetacean Ops.)
Meanwhile, Mariner’s newfound autonomy is causing problems on the latest mission. Not only is she blatantly ignoring Ransom’s (Jack O’Connell) orders, but her recklessness results in the Commander being also blasted with “strange energies,” giving him god-like powers. Trek has generally taken the view that absolute power corrupts absolutley. Besides Gary Mitchell the likes of Q and Trelane have used their powers in largely dangerous ways, Ransom however largely uses his to turn the planet’s inhabitants into replicas of himself and manufacture gym equipment. But he also has issues with Mariner and Captain Freeman (Dawnn Lewis,) and possessed with Gary Mitchell-esque powers he’s in a position to do something about it, using his giant head to threaten the ship. (Hey, this is a franchise in which the Enterprise was once held prisoner by a floaty green hand. If that’s ok, so’s Ransom’s head.)
Fortunately, the situation is resolved by the combined effort of the Cerritos’ weapons giving Ransom more power than he can deal with, Doctor T’Ana (Gillian Vigman) replicating Kirk’s solution to Gary Mitchell’s situation of dropping a boulder on him, and primarily Mariner adopting the uniquely Lower Decks solution of kicking him in the balls. Repeatedly. If only Kirk had thought to that to Mitchell, his best friend might have been spared!
The plus side of this encounter (besides giving Ransom fanboy Stevens the chance to fawn over him and read him the ever-popular love sonnet Nightingale Woman in sickbay (yes, another Gary Mitchell reference) is that it exposes the flaw in the new Mariner/Freeman relationship. Captain Freeman hates giving her daughter special treatment, just as much as Mariner hates not being a rebel, and the two resolve to return to their normal, fractious relationship.
And finally, to Boimler. Largely absent for the majority of the episode, we catch up with him in the last scene, with the Titan being forced by the Pakleds into a spatial anomaly. Whereas Riker takes in all in his stride, a massive grin on his face throughout (let’s face it, this is pretty much his typical day), Boimler is screaming like – it has to be said – a small girl. He’s obviously hopelessly out of his depth and miserable on the Titan, and despite his ambitions, looks like he truly belongs with his fellow misfits on the Cerritos. We suspect it won’t be long before he’s transferred back where he came from.
Strange Energies is a fun season opener for the increasingly confident Lower Decks. It picks up and resolves some of the plot threads from last season, while leaving others dangling (the question of a new security chief isn’t even mentioned following Shaxs’ death the previous episode - although Fred Tatasciore is still listed in the opening credits. Hmm…) Mining Trek for comedy without crossing the line into parody or being disrespectful to the franchise is no mean feat, but one which Lower Decks does increasingly well. Here it remixes a highly regarded episode of the Original Series, putting its own twist on it, without mocking or diminishing the original, something it might not have had the courage to do a year ago. It’s quite a feat, and one which bodes well for the show’s future. Oh yeah, it’s also bloody funny.
New episodes of STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS premiere Fridays in the UK on Amazon Prime Video