Mariner’s mission to rescue her mom subverts the franchise’s usual tropes with characteristic comedy.
The rebellious Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome) doesn’t trust the system. That is, perhaps, not the most novel observation to make as Lower Decks embarks on its third season, but it’s a valid one nonetheless. So when a biased judge tries her mother for a crime she didn’t commit, Mariner thinks it’s up to her to fix the situation. Nothing could go right or wrong in this galaxy without the aid of the Federation’s most seasoned ensign, right?
Mariner’s defiant, self-centered attitude is a positive for viewers because it results in another zany scheme from our favorite quartet of ragtag-yet-resourceful young officers. The Cerritos is grounded during Captain Freeman’s (Dawnn Lewis) trial, and its crewmembers scattered to the winds during their temporary leave. The obstacle gives the show an excuse to deliver one of Star Trek’s trademark “getting the band back together” routines.
Like so much of this outstanding series, it is an exceedingly fun time. Mariner bristles at the mere existence of San Francisco and, in her comic frustrations, smashes every breakable object in her dad’s office. Boimler (Jack Quaid) pays homage to none other than Chateau Picard as he works on his family’s raisin vineyard and obliviously fends off comely suitors. Tendi (Noël Wells) and Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) tour Earth’s greatest sights, naturally leading them to the restaurant founded by Captain Sisko’s dad. (Watch out for the hot sauce that stops Boimler in his tracks.)
Yet, Lower Decks doesn’t spend too much time resetting. Instead, it rightfully dives right into the pure humor of the chase and sets the foursome on a mission to save their captain.
The group plans to secure Boimler’s scrupulous logs to prove that Captain Freeman couldn’t have blown up the Pakled Capital City she’s accused of plotting to destroy. But returning to their Cerritos to retrieve them means making nice with an old security chief who’s too kindly to knock out, finding a workaround to the glowing space critters disrupting Earth’s transporter beams, and making a pilgrimage to Bozeman, Montana to commandeer a theme park ride to the stars. These challenges thrive on the main characters’ chemistry while providing them with legitimate hurdles to overcome and a chance to bring back some fan-favorite bits of lore.
That’s right! The latest corner of Star Trek to earn an homage from the freewheeling fun-farers of Lower Decks is the 1996 TNG movie First Contact. It’s a hoot to see the events of that film turned into a theme park, replete with a recreation of the bar where Counselor Troi raised a glass, a playground modeled after the Vulcan ship that first arrived on Earth, and none other than James Cromwell himself, reprising the role of Zefram Cochrane, as an in-flight hologram. As usual, Lower Decks has a blast mixing the sacred pieces of Trek’s past with the silliness of this animated future, spoofing one of the best films in the franchise and historically-inspired theme park rides at the same time.
In some well-animated, rollicking sequences, the enterprising ensigns commandeer a replica of the Phoenix to reach their ship, with a plan to spring the Cerritos from dry dock and save their captain. Unfortunately, things go predictably awry, as Boimler’s logs are too riddled with his goofiness and eccentricities to pass muster. So, naturally, Mariner comes up with an even crazier plan to save the day, one that, unfortunately, involves jettisoning her friends and trying to go it alone.
Despite the cockamamie plan, this brand of lunacy remains delightful throughout. Watching the four leads banter, improvise, and even scuffle on the bridge of the Cerritos to stop Mariner from making a giant mistake is endearing and amusing. After two seasons, Lower Decks doesn’t have to pretend these four are anything but good friends. And in this new batch of episodes, the entertaining dynamic among them falls right back into place despite the time away and the rough edges of the current predicament.
The crux of it is simple, though, and goes beyond the unjust charges against Captain Freeman. This crusade isn’t about Mariner saving a fellow member of Starfleet or protecting her commanding officer; it’s about ensuring her mother isn’t taken from her and that her friends don’t have to suffer for her reckless rule-breaking. After the rocky relationship Carol and Beckett have struggled with to (star)date, seeing a vulnerable Mariner tear up at the prospect of an unfair system stealing her mom away from her is the right mix of melancholy and heartwarming.
Like so much of this outstanding series, it is an exceedingly fun time.
It speaks to Mariner’s love for her mother despite their differences, her distrust of the Starfleet system, and her need to take things on all by herself, even when it’d be ill-advised to do so. From Mariner’s perspective, the stakes are too high to consider any alternative or trust anyone else to take care of the problem. As always, Mariner depends on herself first and foremost. Regardless, when she gets in over her head, cleaning up the mess requires a little help from her friends.
To that end, “Grounded” nicely sets up the presence of some glowing space critters in a news broadcast, which accounts for why the transporters aren’t an option to reach the Cerritos. Plus, when Starfleet security shows up to ask why, exactly, these four ensigns hijacked a ship,the interstellar fauna provides them with an excuse.
Tendi tells the suspicious senior officers that they’re on a delicate scientific/biologic mission to study these tentacle-zapping love bugs who, it turns out, are attracted to the ship. Her fib makes for a fun canard, leads to some good slapstick, and buys them just enough leeway for….wait for it…none other than Captain Freeman herself to save their bioluminescent bacon!
What a twist! The explanation for how she beat the rap is catnip for longtime Trekkies. The daring exoneration involves Captain Bateson (the 23rd-century captain from TNG’s time loop episode, played by Kelsey Grammer), a non-speaking cameo from Voyager’s Tuvok, and one of those baroque covert schemes with a shocking reveal that 1990s Star Trek two-parters were built on.
But the upshot of such derring-do is far more important. The system worked! Just when Mariner thought she had to do it all herself, she learns that if she’d just sat back and trusted that things would work out the way they were supposed to, she could have avoided all this unnecessary trouble. (And hey, it might have prevented her mom from putting her under the full supervision of Commander Ransom, a tease for the season to come that promises plenty of entertaining conflicts.)
That is, perhaps, a bit of an odd takeaway for Star Trek. More than a handful of movies and episodes feature noble but rebellious captains and officers deciding that protocol, the admiral-of-the-week, or Starfleet Command itself should be ignored in the name of Doing Something Important™. But that’s part of what makes the subversion here so potent.
[T]hese four talented knuckleheads are still learning and growing just enough to help one another through their biggest challenges and save each other from their biggest mistakes.
If anyone fits that “Damn Starfleet regulations, we need to take action!” archetype, it’s Mariner. Having her confront a situation where the very system she’s constantly bucking against saves the day without her help, and it takes a herculean effort from her friends to prevent things from backfiring spectacularly, is a clever left turn that might even chasten Mariner’s authority-flouting spirit.
Probably not, though! That’s the fun of Lower Decks, which has a promising new season ahead. The characters have room to grow. There’s no shortage of madcap fun on tap. The nerdy writers have decades of Trek ephemera to play with. And through it all, there are hints that these four talented knuckleheads are still learning and growing just enough to help one another through their biggest challenges and save each other from their biggest mistakes. In year three of the show’s mission, the series itself has found a system that works.