Two of Trek’s popular recurring actors get a chance to shine this week, in the highly entertaining Where Pleasant Fountains Lie.
Jeffrey Combs’ association with Trek goes back to Deep Space Nine’s third season, and he’s played numerous characters over the years. He was both Weyoun and Liquidator Brunt on that show, along with the Andorian, Shran on Enterprise, as well as assorted one-off characters across both those shows and Voyager. And yes, of course he played Herbert West in Re-Animator, which has nothing to do with Trek, but if you get a chance to mention Re-Animator, you mention Re-Animator.
Paul Scheer on the other hand is a relative Trek newcomer, playing the Cerritos’ chief engineer, Lieutenant Commander Billups. A talented comedic actor who’s appeared on the likes of The Good Place and Veep, he’s been under-utilised in Lower Decks so far. But no more, for this episode dives deep into Billups’ backstory, revealing much – indeed far more than we ever wanted – of him.
As with the best episodes of Lower Decks, the story takes tried, tested Trek tropes (try saying that quickly three times) and puts it own unique spin on them. Here, Mariner and Boimler are tasked with escorting an evil, megalomaniacal computer (voiced by Combs) to the Daystrom Institute. A staple of Original Series episodes like Return of the Archons and The Apple (not to mention The Changling, The Ultimate Computer and so on), rogue AI stories were emblematic of the ‘60s uncertainty about the new technology and its implications for society. As computers became a part of everyday life, their use as fictional adversaries lessened (Discovery's ill-advised second season Control plotline notwithstanding), but that’s not going to stop Lower Decks bringing them back for one last hurrah.
Also borrowing from Trek’s history is Billups’ plot – which sees his regal, overbearing mother pay a visit, and disapprove of his career choices. It’s a setup familiar to Next Generation fans, which saw Deanna Troi repeatedly subjected to unwelcome visits from her mother, Lwaxana (and while her exact status on Betazed was never clarified, all that “daughter of the Fifth House, holder of the Sacred Chalice of Rixx, heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed” stuff sounds pretty regal to us). The twist here is that the engineer’s mother, Paolana is queen of the planet Hysperia, and has been trying to trick Billups – who was next in line, but renounced his title to join Starfleet – into having sex which, under Hysperian law, would see him immediately take the throne.
A quick word of clarity – his mother’s not trying to trick him into having sex with her (despite her being played by June Diane Raphael – Paul Scheer’s real-life wife). That’d be gross, and besides, this isn’t Game Of Thrones or Star Wars, despite settlers on the planet (or “Ren faire types” as they’re referred to here) having modelled their culture on medieval fantasy times, and their planet having actual dragons. No, she wants him to have sex with literally anyone – good parenting there – and has been trying to trick him for years. Billups however is determined to remain a virgin for life, thereby making him the most relatable Trek character for fans ever.
The Hysperians visit the Cerritos under the pretence of needing assistance with their ship, which of course necessitates Billups’ help. After being persuaded by Tendi that he’s up to the challenge of an away mission ("You need to get outside your comfort zone." "But I love my zone. It's so comfortable,") a nervy Rutherford joins the chief engineer. Despite his warnings, Rutherford is amazed at the sight that greets him, with the Hysperians having fully decked out their ship in medieval array, complete with banquets, lute players and dancing maidens. (And if anyone finds this a tad implausible; the gangster planet, Roman planet, cowboy planet, Nazi planet, and Scottish sex candle planet were all totally realistic were they?) Not only that, but they rename all their ship components to sound magical, meaning Rutherford and Billups end up fixing the “dragons blood flame” (or fusion reactor to you and me).
Elsewhere, Mariner and Boimler are en route to the Daystrom Institute (oft mentioned, but never seen until Picard) on Earth, when they encounter trouble and crash land on a planet – again, another well-worn Trek trope. With no shuttle, no way of contacting the Cerritos, and a replicator that only dispenses black liquorice, things look dire.
Fortunately for them, they have the evil computer – AGIMUS – with them, who promises to fix all their problems if they’ll just let him interface with the shuttlecraft computers. Nothing dodgy going on there obviously.
Being a rather smart evil AI, AGIMUS attempts to sow seeds of discord between the two colleagues, attempting to win Boimler over to his side. It even shows Boimler evidence that Mariner had him assigned to this mission, persuading Ransom that the more important mission he’d originally been assigned to was too challenging for him.
Naturally this does lead to conflict between them, with Boimler insisting that after his adventures on the Titan, he’s ready for more challenging missions, and Mariner insisting that he’s not ready for the big leagues. He’s right of course. Boimler has grown over the series, going from the hapless ensign introduced at the start of season one to the more competent officer he is now. Mariner is more insecure than her bad-ass exterior lets on, and she’s always terrified that her colleagues are going to move on and leave her. Boimler’s growth however doesn’t stop him stunning Mariner and heading off with AGIMUS to find a computer for him to interface with.
Back on the Hysperian’s ship, things are going well with the repairs, when Billups is recalled to the Cerritos – with Captain Freeman thinking he may need a break from his mother. That’s when an explosion occurs on the ship, and news reaches the Cerritos that both Queen Paolana and Rutherford have been killed.
Besides a devasted Tendi – distraught at the loss of her best friend – this forces Billups to accept his destiny, quit Starfleet and accept the throne. It also means that he needs to perform the ceremonial “royal copulation,” which essentially amounts to getting it on with a couple of the former queen’s royal guards.
Tendi meanwhile, visits the Hyperion ship, where she discovers both the queen and an oblivious Rutherford digging into a banquet. The deception exposed, Rutherford races back to the Cerritos, determined to stop Billups’ royal cherry being popped, arriving just in the nick of time – it seems nerves have got the better of the engineer and he’s been delayed by a few performance issues. Bet that never happened to Kirk.
Boimler and AGIMUS reach a derelict spaceship, where he’s tricked into plugging the computer into the ship in an attempt to escape. AGIMUS finally reveals his evil plans – using the ship to construct a fleet of “murder drones” and control the local star system. At which point Boimler reveal his own plans – he’s been playing AGIMUS all along, and has tricked the AI into transmitting a distress signal. Furthermore, the only thing on board that AGIMUS controls is the dimmer switch – much to the delight of a relieved Mariner. A year ago, Boimler would probably have fallen for AGIMUS’s trick, but he’s genuinely grown as a person, and of the central foursome, seems the most likely to be promoted out of their quartet. He was – somewhat unfairly – demoted when returned from the Titan, and a promotion seems to be on the cards again. How this will shake up the show remains to be seen.
Where Pleasant Fountains Lie is Lower Decks at its best, with two strong stories (it’s hard to say which is the A and B story), great parts for three of the four central characters (if there’s a criticism, it’s that Tendi is underserved), and a great look at Billups (not his arse though, we didn’t need to see that. It wasn’t pretty). Next time can we actually visit the dragon planet though? That sounds cool.
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