The following article contains major spoilers for Season Four, Episode Nine
Star Trek: Lower Decks takes its name and premise from a late episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. “Lower Decks” pivots away from the show’s usual format to focus on four junior crew members and is told mostly from their perspective. One of them is Sito Jaxa (Shannon Fill) who had appeared two years earlier as a cadet in “The First Duty.” That episode focused on Wesley Crusher’s involvement in a conspiracy to cover up an accident that killed a fellow cadet. It also gave us our first look at Nicholas Locarno (Robert Duncan McNeill), the episode’s ostensible villain. Locarno was, at some point, intended to be the helm officer in Voyager and was named as such in an early draft of the series’ bible. But, during pre-production, Locarno’s name was dropped and McNeill instead played Tom Paris, with the same backstory. Producers have, in various interviews, said the issue hinged on Locarno’s redeemability after his actions in “The First Duty.” But it’s equally plausible that the character was changed to avoid paying royalties to the character’s creators. But, even if you knew none of the above information, I don’t think you’d get any less out of this week’s episode of Lower Decks. Because while this series was conceived at the get-go to play to the crowd and bury itself in references, it rarely does so at the expense of telling a good story.
Mariner is once again throwing herself into harm’s way to save her friends without regard to her own safety. Her cavalier attitude to life, death, and her own career have threaded through much of this season to the point that now, even Captain Freeman is worried. She pulls the rest of Beta shift into a plan that’ll keep her daughter out of harm’s way on the next mission. Starfleet thinks the rogue ship destroying everything in its path might be targeting former officers. The list of at-risk individuals includes high-profile figures like Dr. Crusher but, this being Lower Decks, the Cerritos is sent off to find Nicholas Locarno. And while that’s going on, Freeman sends Mariner, Boimler, Tendi and T’Lyn on what she hopes will be a zero-stakes assignment to fix a weather buoy in orbit around Sherbal V. Except, of course, the crew’s shuttle is attacked by a Klingon Bird of Prey and the crew have to beam down to the hostile planet below.
Meanwhile, Freeman, Shaxs and Rutherford head to what can only be described as a Star Wars planet where Locarno is meant to be plying his trade. Despite its reputation as a wretched hive of scum and villainy, it’s got a muscular bureaucracy that the inhabitants use to frustrate Starfleet officers. The episode makes full use of that disconnect between the stuffed-shirt crew and the rougher corners of the universe. It was rare that we’d see the Next Generation crew really get their elbows dirty – the best I can call to mind is the awkward moments in “Gambit.” There’s just something inherently funny about the primary-colored space communist scouts encountering hairy-assed people who live in the “real world.” That’s before you get to Captain Freeman trying to beat up a Balok puppet that turns out to be a real alien. Of course, it’s a double bluff – at each turn, the villains put bureaucratic obstacles in Starfleet’s way but wave through a sinister bounty hunter type out of spite. Except the bounty hunter in question is Billups wearing a silly helmet, who got the necessary data to track down Locarno.
On the planet, the rest of Beta Shift is left fending for their lives as chaotic weather makes survival even harder. It doesn’t help that the victims of other attacks, explorers from several other alien races, are all fighting to the death for supremacy. Mariner, frustrated at the gang’s wise refusal to fight their way to safety, opts to go it alone and bumps into a Klingon. But their own fight to the death is interrupted by a rainstorm of glass shards and, while they shelter, Mariner finally reveals the source of her angst. She’s been sabotaging her career because she’s deeply resentful about Starfleet, and her role within it. When she signed up, she’d bought into the idea of exploring strange new worlds, but instead the Federation has been embroiled in an endless parade of galaxy-threatening wars. Her best friend was Sito Jaxa, from “Lower Decks,” who in that episode was sent to her death on a covert mission. Starfleet quite literally chewed up and spat out one of her friends, but as much as Mariner may hate what Starfleet is, she can’t quite just walk away because of what the Starfleet ideal represents. And you don’t need to be fluent with the events of a TV series from 31 years ago — Good God, I feel old — or the para-narrative around Voyager’s pre-production, to appreciate that dilemma. Of course, her Klingon opponent counters, saying that Mariner’s angst dishonors Sito’s sacrifice, and that she needs to get on with the job at hand. And, much as she agrees, she adds (just before hugging her former opponent) that she’s still duty-bound to call out when Starfleet “can do better.”
Despite its love of self-referentiality, Star Trek has often struggled with any degree of on-screen self-interrogation. There are moments, best exemplified by the Root Beer scene in “The Way of the Warrior,” where the show touches on the values it espouses. The show’s numerous creative teams have often pushed the idea that Starfleet, and the Federation, aren’t as noble a force as the myth suggests. With Beyond, Simon Pegg wanted to focus on the nature of the Federation as a colonizing force, even if that concept is almost entirely erased from the finished film. I’ll leave it to better writers than I to explore this in depth, but it’s rare we get moments where Starfleet officers wonder, out loud or in private, if they aren’t the universally good force they’ve been led to believe they are. This thread is also paid off in the B-story as Freeman and Co. are told, more or less, that nobody in the real world likes having them around. Sure, it’s a gag in a sitcom, and our sympathies are almost universally with the Starfleet crew, but the fact it’s here at all isn’t to be sniffed at.
By the time we’ve reached the cliffhanger, Beta shift is trying to cajole the warring parties to work together. And, if we’re honest, the idea of disparate groups coming together to solve a problem as a whole is, surely, an idea worth upholding. But before we can see if they are able to be rescued, Mariner is beamed away to an ultra-minimalist starship. After forcing the door, she comes face-to-face with her rescuer / captor, and it’s… Nicholas Locarno.