Love bites like a parasite in a charming episode that finally locks in Lower Decks’ more refreshing stakes in episode 5.
I think I’ve been looking at Star Trek: Lower Decks all wrong. That, or the first four episodes of the season (Note: apologies for not covering episode four last week, I was on a long-overdue vacation) took a lot of time to warm up its lighter strain of Star Trek. Whatever cobwebs the show needed to shake off, episode 5, “Cupid’s Errant Arrow”, managed to do it, finally locking in more coherently on the misfit band of Starfleet underlings we’re following through the stars.
Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s the show, but something clicked for me on this week’s Lower Decks, and I’m recognizing it for the space-age meditation on workplace anxiety and interpersonal turmoil that it is. It’s more Futurama than Rick and Morty or Trek itself, and when viewed through that lens, the show really opens up for you.
This week, the Cerritos rendezvouses with the USS Vancouver, a much more important ship in the fleet (as its smug captain can attest) to assist in the negotiations around a collapsing moon that’s set to destroy an inhabited planet. The Vancouver has the means to destroy the moon and save the planet, but what they don’t have is Captain Freeman’s (Dawnn Lewis) negotiating skills, as we quickly see when she diffuses a series of mounting tensions between feuding representatives between the system’s planets about whether to blow up the moon int the first place.
But that’s all gravy compared to the meat of the episode: turns out the Vancouver is also home to Boimler’s (Jack Quaid) long-distance girlfriend, Lt. Barbara Brinson (Gillian Jacobs) — a figure Mariner (Tawny Newsome) always figured was one of those “she lives in Canada” types of situations. When they meet, though, Barbara’s nice! She’s beautiful and competent, and (much to Mariner’s confusion) really into the dorky Boimler. Something’s off, she asserts — the product of her own experiences with lovers who turn out to be space slugs or parasites or vampires of various sorts — and she sets off to solve the mystery of why Boimler would actually… find someone.
It’s the kind of rom-com plotting that’s actually aided by the show’s deep understanding of Trek lore, which puts it above the previous episodes of the show that just used its world as fanservice-y window dressing. In the world of Trek, after all, we’ve seen our fair share of lost loves and alien sirens turn out to be not what they appear: what an interesting way to spice up the “person thinks her friend’s love interest is up to no good!” story we’ve seen a million times before.
In execution, it’s charming enough, though the show still needs to wrestle with the underlying cruelty of the Mariner/Boimler dynamic. Is Mariner really looking out for Boimler’s best interests, or is it that she has such a low opinion of him that someone so cool and confident couldn’t possibly be into him? Is it all a smokescreen for some lingering feelings on Mariner’s part? The obsessiveness by which she pursues her theories about Brinson (complete with Charlie Day-gif-level posterboard filled with yarn and scraps of paper) makes for some lovely gags, but at times it does feel a bit mean-spirited. Doubly so when Boimler internalizes Mariner’s disbelief and starts acting out in increasingly desperate ways to seem cool. Give the poor dork a break!
The show still needs to wrestle with the underlying cruelty of the Mariner/Boimler dynamic.
It all culminates in the expected resolution of these kinds of stories: of course Brinson is on the level, it’s Boimler that’s off — he unknowingly has a parasite attached to him that exudes love pheromones. Soon as it’s gone, Brinson breaks up with Boimler, but forges a close friendship with Mariner in the process. (Some people just have all the luck.) One of these days, Lower Decks is going to have to reckon with this tough-love treatment of Boimler; he’s gonna snap someday, and I don’t want to see what happens when he does.
Luckily, “Cupid’s Errant Arrow” sees fit to finally give our other main duo, Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) and Tendi (Noël Wells) some fun stuff to do that actually makes use of their infectious, symbiotic enthusiasm. See, these two tech-heads covet the state-of-the-art T-88 tricorder, and the Vancouver‘s chief engineer, Lt. Cmdr. Docent (Matt Walsh), gives them a chance to test it in the field by running diagnostics on the ship’s systems. One of them may even get to keep it. So they go about their day with glee, checking systems and fixing things with their usual enthusiasm and skill.
But surprise, surprise, their competence bites them in the ass: turns out they’re not battling over who gets the T-88, but who’s actually going to replace Docent on the Vancouver. That doesn’t sit well with them — they love fixing problems, and what’s the Cerritos if not a ship filled with close friends and as many problems as they want? — which leads to an action-filled chase to keep Docent from transferring them.
The climax is one of the cleverest uses of the show’s premise yet: eventually, Docent lets slip that he’s exhausted by all the high-pressure adventure on the Vancouver and simply needs a break. “It’s so stressful, so epic!” It’s a welcome contrast to the ambitious crews of Treks past; sometimes, you just want to be good at your job, and not have your life threatened every week.
So as flawed as the show still is (especially when it comes to the toxic extremes of its central dynamic), Lower Decks finally clicked for me this week. Maybe the jokes landed better, or maybe it’s because they found more productive use of Tendi and Rutherford, the clear heart of the show. But “Cupid’s Errant Arrow” highlighted the stark differences between the A-list do-gooders of the Enterprise and a humble support ship like the Cerritos; the latter are just workhorse folks just trying to get by, their interstellar backdrop a stage to play out more mundane concerns like finding love in the wrong places, or dealing with the incredible stress of your job. Here’s hoping the show continues that upward trajectory.
- I cannot overstate how gorgeous the Vancouver is; it slots nicely next to other TNG-era ships like the Akira and Nebula classes, while visibly looking more advanced than the Cerritos to cement our host ship’s tertiary role in the fleet.
- Boimler’s teddy bear with the VISOR is so cute.
- Boimler’s cool-guy outfit — an amalgam of the replicator’s understanding of ‘cool’, which mashes together a leather and letter jacket, chains, converse, gelled hair and pink wraparounds — had me chortling.
- As someone who’s also had his fair share of relationships where I felt way out of my league, I was with Boimler every step of the way here, right down to the awkward overuse of “lover” in everyday conversation.
- We didn’t get much of the senior officers this week, but I relished the aplomb with which Freeman negotiated things between the warring nations of this alien system, and the solution to their problem (just let the moon blow up the planet that only had two rich people living on it) is abrupt and ingenious. (Don’t worry, the rich folks are fine.)
- Boimler’s jealousy at Brinson’s work-friendship with a fellow Cerritos crewmember is a bit tone-deaf (especially since it plays into the “Black guy taking my (white) woman!” trope), and his description of him as “Captain Kirk sundae with Trip Tucker sprinkles!” is a bit too highly specific for me. I dig the more obscure, aesthetic Trek refs in Lower Decks, but when low-level Cerritos crewmembers start mouthing off about centuries-dead Starfleet crew members as if they know them personally, it makes the universe feel small.
- Speaking of which, I have words for the writer who decided to have folks in a DS9-era flashback (complete with TNG-movie uniforms, lovely touch) talk about the Lore/Borg alliance from TNG’s “Descent” two-parter like it happened yesterday when it would have been years before that. Study your chronology! *pushes up glasses*