A visit to a planet run by an ancient computer brings out the best (and panickiest) in Boimler, while his friends worry they’re being hazed.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the works being covered here wouldn’t exist.
It’s nice to see the lower deckers dealing with a new set of challenges. Don’t get me wrong, telling the stories of the hardworking Starfleet officers at the bottom of the totem pole still makes Lower Decks stand out among its peers. The vast majority of Star Trek series still feature main characters who hail from the senior staff, and it’s still nice to have something different.
But after three seasons of the trials and travails of being an ensign, seeing our heroes face different hurdles as “Lieutenants, Junior Grade” not only avoids the sitcom trap of keeping everyone in stasis; it gives them a whole new set of hurdles to overcome. As the young officers reassured one another in the season premiere, they’re all still proud members of the lower decks. But as they say, mo’ pips, mo’ problems.
The most significant of these problems lands in the lap of none other than Bradward Boimler (Jack Quaid). A visit to one of those trademark utopian societies run by an ancient computer gives Boims the chance to lead his very first away mission. But when T’Lyn (Gabrielle Ruiz) explains that this is not some routine power cell replacement (which is what Boimler was hyping himself up for) but rather a dangerous mission with potentially grave consequences, he freaks out and starts trying to do everything himself.
As usual, Lower Decks uses that twist for both comedy and character development. On the one hand, there’s the usual humor that comes from Bradward’s frantic scrambling to complete an important task. His awkward, manic attempts to “demonstrate” to the ensigns how to remove the power cells by doing the whole thing on his own, no matter how many games of power station Twister it takes, is well worth a laugh. At the same time, though, Boimler is sympathetic, if a bit annoying, in his do-it-all approach, given his worries about the other crew members putting their lives in his hands.
The stakes for Mariner (Tawny Newsome), Tendi (Noël Wells), and Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) aren’t quite so high. While they’re thrilled about not having to do the worst jobs on the ship any longer, and practically salivating over their new lieutenant-level access to the anomaly room, their excitement is interrupted by orders to do what seems like crummy menial labor. A call from a senior officer to manually check thousands of isolinear chips for possible malfunctions leads Tendi to wonder if, contrary to the usual Starfleet sense of honor, their superiors might be hazing them.
It’s a fun quandary for the trio to mull over! The job gets more and more ridiculous, from increasingly hot chips to noxious gas necessitating facemasks to hidden rows and hidden buttons that make the job that much longer and more arduous. The trio are right to wonder if they are, in fact, being teased or tested. Why else would junior-grade lieutenants have to do such debasing work? The ensuing debate over whether the senior officers are too noble or too square to actually haze their newly promoted colleagues gives the situation an amusing air of mystery.
The ensuing debate over whether the senior officers are too noble or too square to actually haze their newly promoted colleagues gives the situation an amusing air of mystery.
The most fun, though, comes when the three of them decide to fight back. Their ploy involves an amusing Rube Goldberg machine involving infamous Star Trek curios like a Betazoid gift box, a Wadi game board, and the device from “The Inner Light” (which eventually prompts an amusing call back to Michael Sullivan’s “I miss my wife” comment from the season premiere). As usual, Lower Decks remixes the odder corners of the franchise to produce something rib-tickling and novel.
But when their prelude to the prank reveals that the chip inspection is genuinely important for the Cerritos, along with seemingly genuine gratitude for their work from their commanding officer, they start to feel some remorse. And when their boss shares the story of his childhood trauma involving the very implements of the prank war, what follows is an equally frantic (and funny) attempt by the three of them to take it all back.
Mariner keeping the senior officer distracted by getting him to drone on about the minutiae of “slop jazz” is a hoot. Rutherford speed-running the Wadi game so he can dismantle the trap before their boss arrives is a treat for longtime fans. And Tendi going the extra mile to get the chip inspection done in time shows that regardless of how many pips are on their collars, these lower deckers still know how to get it done. As a bonus, the closing twist that the commander really was messing with them the whole time is the icing on the cake.
But hey, commanding officers don’t always have all the answers. It’s played entirely for laughs, but when Captain Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) discovers that the titular Vexilon Computer, which keeps the planet’s topography placid and idyllic, happens to be malfunctioning, she tries to fix it all herself. The results are…unfortunate, but the laugh quotient is high. The hijinks that follow are an amusing send-up of how the simple act of trying to update an old computer can result in utter disaster, played out to planetary scale.
The biggest impact is on Boimler, though, whose attempts to complete his mission solo are aggravated by the climate going from picturesque to apocalyptic. The added danger of shifting temperatures, rock-solid clouds, and an impending volcano only make Bradward that much more insistent on completing the task on his own.
The episode’s high point comes when it turns out that what’s worrying Boiler is more than a simple desire to micromanage his subordinates or keep those under his command out of harm’s way. Instead, his panic hinges on the fact that Boimler himself was an ensign until a couple of weeks ago. He worked with these people as peers until this very mission. That leaves him understandably insecure about what in god’s name could possibly put him above them, to where he can rightfully order them to face this type of mortal danger.
You feel for Boims. It’s noble and relatable to think there’s nothing that distinguishes you from your peers enough for you to tell them what to do, especially when lethal peril is involved. But it’s also nice that the Vulcan exchange officer T’Lyn, of all people, gives him the moral support he needs. She tells him that his record proves that he’s an exemplary officer who deserved this promotion, and that his peers are ready, willing, and eager to do this job with and for him.
It’s a nice way to cut through Boiler’s imposter syndrome and let him save the day (with a suitable amount of help, of course). And his hilarious, Twin Peaks-esque visit to the realm between life and death, after he puts his life on the line to save his subordinates, is a great bonus that speaks to exactly why Boimler is worthy of being in command.
These aren’t the kind of problems Bradward would have faced last season. “Serious responsibility or senior officer hazing ritual?” is not the quandary Rutherford, Tendi, and Mariner would have contemplated last year either. But with a new rank comes new responsibilities and new challenges. Watching our heroes explore them, with quality humor and personal insights along the way, shows that the series itself has the mettle to rank up, as its characters prove they’re more than ready, too.