Can’t keep a god man down: Star Trek: Lower Decks “Strange Energies”

For all you who may be new around here: I did not care for the first season of Star Trek: Lower Decks. And what with all the free time we’ve had this past year, I did a lot of thinking on a grand unified theory of what exactly went wrong with this show. I have to conclude that the biggest problem was its satirical lens is entirely off-kilter. It presented itself as a show by fans, for fans; every episode bursting at the seams with trivia and obscure references galore. The Traveler! Salt vampires! Edosians! Remans! Roga Danar! Xon! The end credits from Star Trek VI! The acronym TOS, spelled out loud by a character! Lt. Uhura’s fan dance!

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The trouble is, for all the constant virtue signals of Trekkie ethos, I never got the impression that the writers actually understood Star Trek that much. This is 2021, man—dropping all these references doesn’t prove you’re a Trek fan: it proves you have an internet connection and enough patience to sift through the ads on Memory Alpha.

Moreover, all this hyperfocus on specific references takes away from the ability of the show to talk about Star Trek in broad strokes—character archetypes, plot devices, worldbuilding, internal continuity, art direction, costumes and makeup—general trends that you internalize from watching a lot of the show, patterns so far ingrained into the structure of the text you may not even realize they’re there until a skilled satirist uses a joke to point them out.  There’s plenty that’s absurd about how Star Trek operates, and Lower Decks barely touched any of it except in the baldest, most spelling-it-out-for-you way.

I’m not suggesting that the writers aren’t “real” Trek fans. What I’m suggesting is that the show seems afraid that if it mocks Trek too hard, it’ll alienate the fans it wants to please. But it works just the opposite way: it’s one’s deep engagement with, and affection for, the source material that gives one the ability, and dare I say the license, to ridicule it effectively. In one of the defining texts on the subject of parody, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”, Frederic Jameson writes “…a good or great parodist has to have some secret sympathy for the original, just as a skilled mimic has to have the capacity to put him/herself in the place of the person imitated.”

There’s plenty more I didn’t like about the show—its sloppy plotlines, its lazy voice acting, its “so that just happened” one-liners, its treacly Michael Schur pop-psychobabble, the characters who were either one-note or all over the place—but all of that can be written off as a new show trying to find its footing. The one thing they really have to do if they want to salvage Star Trek: Lower Decks is to peel off the layers of superficial factoids and really show us what makes Trek tick.

The season’s cold open takes place in a Cardassian prison where our cheeky heroine Ensign Beckett Mariner is being held captive. When entreated to talk, she characteristically does so: “It’s only been a couple of months working with my mom instead of behind her back… the line between mom stuff and captain stuff has gotten real fuzzy.” Remember, the season ended with Mariner making a truce with her captain/mother, where they collaborate on Mariner’s secret Prime Directive-violating stunts instead of her doing them behind Captain Mom’s back.

Mariner breaks free and keeps complaining about her newfound freedom to screw around while beating up her Cardassian interrogatrix. Wow, Mariner just complains endlessly even when she gets what she wants, huh?  She grabs the guard’s disruptor and fights her way out of the room, passing a chained-up Boimler. Boimler pleads to be let free (“they keep showing me lights!”) but Mariner refuses, vowing to abandon him like he abandoned her for a promotion to the USS Titan. “You know who’s my best friend now? My mom! It sucks, it’s like work!”

“If there’s one thing I hate more than my family it’s my career! I hate everything and I don’t know what I want! Someone make a show about me!”

With that, Mariner drags her captive down to a transporter pad, beams aboard a Starfleet ship, and keeps bellyaching about her screwed-up work/life balance. “You’ll never escape!” says the Cardassian. “I know right?” says Mariner. “Oh, did you mean from the detention center? Please, I’m like, nearly escaped already! Read the room!” She plunges into a debris field, with Cardassian ships tailing her.

Suddenly, the arch beeps and Mariner pauses the holo-program so that an Andorian with the improbable name of Jennifer can tell her that the Captain wants her in the ready room. Mariner passes the program off as “strength training”, and after Jennifer leaves, she says, “I know we’re not supposed to have interpersonal conflict, but I really hate that Andorian.”

Captain Freeman’s log entry goes as follows: she’s finishing up second contact duties on Apergos (I think it’s the first time since the pilot that we actually saw the ship do what it supposedly specializes in), and privately regretting her agreement to let Mariner do all sorts of illegal missions, which is fine because logs are just for exposition and no one in-universe ever actually listens to them.

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Mariner proposes one of the lighter Prime Directive violations: cleaning the smog off the buildings in the Apergosian city. Freeman agrees to be a “cool mom”, and  she instructs Commander Ransom to let Mariner have anything she needs, and it quickly becomes clear that of the three of them, he’s the least enthused about the new arrangement.

Down in the lower decks (hey! that’s the name of the show!) Mariner asks her friends where her PADD is, so she can personal-log about zinging Ransom so hard. (She called him by his first name! What a zinger!)  Tendi suggests it’s in the mountain of trash that used to be Boimler’s bunk.

“Let’s see… 3D chess, 3D checkers, 3D Uno, 3D Battleship, 3D Settlers of Catan, 3D Warhammer… Ah, there we go! 3D Hungry Hungry Hippos.”

Rutherford, meanwhile, is looking forward to a date with a Trill with the unlikely name of Ensign Barnes. Tendi reminds Rutherford that he went on a date with her last season, and things didn’t go so well; however, since Rutherford’s cyborg implant and part of his brain got ripped out at the end of “No Small Parts”, a lot of his opinions have changed.  For instance, he loves pears now. Can’t get enough pears. Isn’t that totally wacky and random? Well, Tendi doesn’t think so, because there’s a syndrome among cyborgs called “Synthetic Memory Degradation” that starts with the afflicted person’s tastes and opinions changing, and ends with their brains leaking out of their nose. That sounds like I’m exaggerating, but that’s literally what she says might happen. There’s a diagram and everything.

“This condition was first discovered in the mid-21st century, after XXXXXXXXXtra Flamin’ Hot Cheetos hit the market.”

Down on the Apergosian surface, Ransom is helping some orange-skinned, numerically superstitious aliens pick out a phone number with an appropriate amount of gravitas. Mariner is using a backpack-mounted device to clean the soot off buildings. She uncovers a mural with a giant space whale. She scrubs a sphere clean which turns out to be a golden astrolabe-like device, which when exposed to the sun’s rays powers up a giant building-sized machine. Ransom’s syncophantic underling, Lt. Cmdr. Stevens, asserts that his tricorder is detecting a buildup of “strange energies” coming from the newly lit-up tower.  Ransom ushers Mariner away before getting hit with a beam of rainbow energy. None of this is ever given even a cursory Treknobabble explanation, by the way.

“Oh no! This planet developed 5G wireless networks! Those poor fools!” 

Dr. T’Ana beams down and confirms Ransom is full of strange energies. She name-checks Gary Mitchell, who got turned into a god by strange energies way back in the TOS pilot (the real pilot, not that Captain Pike malarkey). Ransom obligingly starts hovering, making his eyes glow, reading thoughts, and shooting rainbow beams out of his hands. And because one of Ransom’s only consistent character traits is that he’s an obsessive liftbro, he telekinetically rips two trees out of the ground and begins obsessively lifting.

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Captain Freeman shouts at Mariner for her recklessness, as if Mariner should’ve considered the possibility there might be a building-sized machine that would turn someone into a god if she cleaned it.

Meanwhile, Tendi has Rutherford down in an engineering bay, covered in little electrodes. To Rutherford’s horror, she begins administering random electric shocks, telling Rutherford that reacting to pain can reset his badly wired neurons.  She shocks him again and again, then whacks him in the face with a medical instrument and then a metal folding chair.

“We’ll make a wrestler out of you yet!”

Back on the planet, Ransom’s rearranging parts of Apergos that displease him: a moon, a museum, etc., and creating a race of horrifying Ransom homunculi by placing his own head on the Apergosian’s bodies.  (Stevens begs to have Ransom’s head put on him too, but no dice.)

I haven’t seen this much identical stubble since the ’90s and every guy wanted the George Clooney look.

Freeman is big mad at her daughter, since she’s just gotten a message from her admiral husband that she’s up for a promotion to a capital ship if she keeps her nose clean. She wants Mariner to clean up this whole god thing right away and wrap up the mission, but Ransom’s not cooperating. Mariner wants to blast him with her scrub ray, but Freeman’s leery, because when you shoot gods on Star Trek, it always seems to end up making them more powerful. They bicker passive-aggressively, enraging Ransom and causing his head to detach from his body and float up into orbit.

First Contact with the Bobbleheads was a complete success!

Back on the CerritosRutherford’s date with Barnes is going swimmingly, in more ways than one, when who should show up in the bar but Tendi? She has a medical-grade gun that shoots “medical venom”. She’s hoping to induce a big enough surprise pain reaction to shock Rutherford’s system back to normal, but he protests that won’t work.  Tendi accepts this, and then proposes freezing Rutherford’s brain, so she can rewire all the neurons by hand. “I just want to go swimming with girls!” Rutherford cries. “Then give me your brain!” Tendi seethes.

“And then we’ll listen to power ballads all night long!”

“Captain, there’s a giant head approaching the ship,” dryly states Freeman’s helm officer. On the planet’s surface, Ransom’s headless body is turning streetlamps and statues into gym equipment for his Ransomites to work out on. Freeman asks Ransom why he’s attacking the ship, and Ransom replies that he hates all the special treatment Mariner’s getting. Meanwhile, Rutherford has erected a force field to protect himself, and tells Tendi he’s going to stop being friends with her if she keeps trying to dig his brain out. They have a heartfelt chat while an enraged Ransom bites the ship’s nacelles outside the window.

“Mmm, blueberry!”

Tendi admits that Rutherford doesn’t have that syndrome, and she’s just worried that his changing personality is going to make him grow out of being friends with her.  Rutherford says that’s ridiculous; the fact that Tendi tried to solve an emotional crisis with a bunch of highly invasive medical technology shows that they still have all the important things in common. I know that sounds like I’m exaggerating the subtext of their conversation, but that’s pretty much exactly what he says.

Mariner frustratedly tells her mom to hit Ransom with photon torpedoes, adding, “I thought we were partners.”

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“Lies!” screams the Ransom head. “You hate working together!” Both women admit that this is true. Realizing that he’s just reacting to feelings of inferiority, Freeman belays the photon torpedoes (and tells Dr. T’Ana to stand down after she declares she’s going to find a boulder to smush him with, like Kirk did to Gary Mitchell), and instead disarms Ransom with praise. She tells him he’s a fine officer, in phenomenal shape, and on and on.

But Freeman’s flattery backfires when Ransom says that if he’s such a good officer, perhaps he should be captain. Freeman reacts poorly to this, and a newly swelled-with-power Ransom tries to bite the ship in half once and for all. Not knowing what else to do, Mariner kicks Ransom’s body square in the nuts. Or as she puts it, his “Neutral Zone”. Ugh. Terrible. I mean, “Orbs of the Prophets” was right there.

“They had a tasting bar… every alien liqueur… I had kanar… tranya… Romulan ale… tulaberry wine…”

Mariner kicks him in the balls several more times, and then T’Ana finally crushes him with the boulder, after which everything turns back to normal. Boulders: 2 for 2 against gods.

Ransom gets fixed up with 24th-century medicine, with Stevens dutifully by his side. Mariner gets hauled off to the brig for insubordination, Rutherford’s brain is rewired to hate pears again, and everything is back to normal. Except, of course, Ensign Boimler’s absence. The trio rationalize that he’s probably much happier on the USS Titan.

Cut to the Titan, under heavy fire from the Pakled enemies from last season’s finale, and about to head into a spatial anomaly. “Red alert!” says Captain Riker. “Looks like this jam session’s got too many licks, and not enough comp!”

“What does that even mean?” screams Boimler. Everyone’s face is distorted as the ship is pulled into the end credits.

They set up a camera at the mouth of the wormhole, and when you get back you can buy pictures of yourself going in. It’s a hoot!

Next episode: Boimler finally quits the Titan after Riker invites him into his and Troi’s quarters for a “jazz trio”.

TV Show: Star Trek: Lower Decks

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