Everything’s bigger in this showdown between the Lower Decks California class ships and the flashy new automated Texas class vessels.
When Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome) began this season, she harbored nothing but mistrust for Starfleet and resolved to rescue her mother all by herself, even as it turned out Mom didn’t need saving. Now, at season’s end, Mariner returns, ready to fight for both the people and the idea of Starfleet, and she enlists the help of her comrades and colleagues to rescue Captain Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) in a moment where she could really use the save.
It’s hard to think of a better metonym for Lower Decks’ third season. This hasn’t been the easiest year of the tour for Ensign Mariner. She suffered Commander Ransom’s (Jerry O’Connell) mentorship. She sailed the stormy waters of a grown-up but disappointing romantic relationship. And she witnessed almost all of her coworkers, even her mom, believe the worst about her before Beckett seemingly gave up on Starfleet forever.
And yet, in the end, she doesn’t just return to the fold. She doesn’t just bring with her a coastline’s worth of fellow California class vessels to save the day. More than that, she forgives her friends and fellow crew members for what happened. Mariner even accepts that the mistrust they showed in her was a result of the choices she’d made up until this slow-spun maturation process.
Mariner’s rebellious streak remains charming, and her freewheeling style is still all kinds of fun. Nevertheless, seeing this newfound maturity from her — a willingness to trust in others and in a larger cause — and how that personal growth pays off for her in all sorts of ways, makes this finale a stirring and wholesome landing spot for the show’s lead character.
Frankly, “The Stars at Night” is a great outing for all the main players. The fallout from the prior episode sees Captain Freeman and the Cerritos in the doghouse due to a negative news story. Meanwhile Admiral Buenamigo (Carlos Alazraqui) and his unmanned Texas class vessel, the Aledo, are riding high. When Buenamigo proposes mothballing the entire California class in favor of his automated wonders, Carol challenges him to a “mission race” to prove whose ship is truly ready for primetime. The race and the chase, and the pressure both put on the Cerritos crew, provide plenty of fodder for the show’s key characters.
For Tendi (Noël Wells), it means putting the theory behind her senior science officer training into practice and becoming “the voice of science” in an intense moment. When she discovers the potential for microscopic life on a supposedly barren planet, she’s duty-bound to report it to her superiors, even though the investigation slows them down just enough to lose the race. Tendi blames herself for the loss. Thankfully, her report not only earns her the respect of the senior staff, but gives Captain Freeman the fuel she needs to prove Admiral Buenamigo’s A.I. vessels aren’t up to snuff, since the Aledo overlooked the search for new life, one of the key tenets of Starfleet.
She gets an assist from Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), who’s been puzzling his way through the Aledo’s programming. In addition to the character work for the other ensigns, season 3 also provided satisfying answers for Rutherford’s origins. In a bombshell reveal, Rutherford comes to recognize the Aledo’s code because it’s also his code. It turns out Buenamigo is the one who commissioned an angry young Rutherford to design these new vessels, only to wipe the poor ensign’s memory when things went horribly wrong. The reveal has a clockwork quality given how it fits into the larger concepts of the season. And seeing Rutherford join with his captain to expose the man who once used him and toyed with his head is almost as gratifying.
Frankly, “The Stars at Night” is a great outing for all the main players.
Still, exposing Buenamigo as one of Starfleet’s (sadly) trademark bad faith admirals doesn’t get the Cerritos out of the woods. The admiral wanted to stand out in Starfleet, and his desperate need to rise to the top led him to such extreme measures, a choice that makes him a direct contrast to the increasingly communal Lower Deckers.
When Captain Freeman and Ensign Rutherford call him out, Buenamigo resorts to even more desperate tactics, turning the Aledo fully independent and attempting to sic it on the Cerritos. Of course, the automated vessel immediately joins the ranks of Star Trek’s venerable malevolent A.I.s and turns on its creator, before attacking anything Starfleet it can find. Suddenly, Rutherford’s warning that this top-flight ship is infused with the same secret sauce as the psychotically malicious Badgey is extra terrifying.
Enter Boimler (Jack Quaid)! The sycophantic subordinate managed to offend a sad sack Lt. Shax with his funny but stinging impressions of the bridge officers. His flailing attempt to get back in the senior officer’s good graces, which only make the problem worse, are classic Bradward. The solution, though, is even better. When the Aledo and its two sister ships are hunting the Cerritos down, our heroes quickly find themselves running out of options. When the rest of the bridge crew ignores Shax’s standard issue “eject the warp core” answer for everything, it’s Boimler who speaks up and insists that this time, they should listen to the Bajoran brute. And what do you know, Shax’s suggestion turns out to be the play that saves their collective butts.
The absurd but earnest joy of the security chief finally getting to eject the warp core is only matched in glory by his post-battle hug with Boimler that confirms the aspiring young ensign has finally found his “bridge buddy.” The fact that ejecting the core is finally warranted and vital to shaking off the evil ships’ pursuit, is one of the most triumphant things Lower Decks has ever put forward.
It’s not enough though. Despite the warp-wound explosion, the Aledo is battered but still functional and circles round the Cerritos for the kill. The fact that Mariner returns at just the right moment to help fend it off is, perhaps, no great surprise. It’s heartening, if a touch predictable, to see Beckett realize there’s no villainous conspiracy at the heart of the Archeologists Guild (rather a generous, on-brand grant from Admiral Picard), but that she is nonetheless still driven to explore, engage, and most importantly protect the ideals and the crewmembers who are the lifeblood of Starfleet.
What is a surprise, though, is how she does it — with a little help from her friends. The automated Texas class ships are intended to be the flashy new alternative to the sort of ships the Lower Deckers call home. This automated innovation is meant to render them unnecessary, turning them into an entire fleet of “Captain Dunsels”. Yet, when things go wrong, what defeats the robo-menaces is not the usual crop of a few brave heroes standing against their mechanical foes, but rather an entire community of officers and crewman and Cali class vessels, banding together to show what they can achieve as a greater whole.
It’s hard to imagine a better representation of Lower Decks’ ethos. On the one hand, you have a line of vessels designed to remove the human element from exploration, the deranged fever dream of a lone senior leader who wanted to rank up at any cost and didn’t mind stepping over Starfleet’s deepest principles to do so. On the other, you have ship after ship, manned by overlooked yet devoted crewmembers, who’ve formed bonds throughout Starfleet and proven what these heartfelt backbenchers can accomplish if they’re only given the chance.
The strength of community they represent, the devotion to the people behind Star Trek’s lofty principles, and the way they’re able to vindicate its ideals, makes this finale a sterling illustration of Lower Decks’ vision for the franchise, and of the world beyond the television screen.
In its third season, Lower Decks continued to get better and better. With greater ambitions, season-length character arcs, and multi-year mysteries brought to bear. With Captain Freeman proving the value of her crew and her class. With Boimler showing the conviction on the bridge he’s long aspired to. With Rutherford discovering the secrets behind his provenance and becoming a more complete and fulfilled person because of it. With Tendi learning to speak up, even in challenging situations, and taking the next step toward greatness in the process. And with Mariner embracing, rather than resisting, the growth and maturity that a career in Starfleet represents, in addition to the love for her mother that’s only grown stronger amid their evolving relationship. The future of Starfleet, and Lower Decks, is big and bright.