“Nobody can stop you from speaking freely!” — Star Trek: Lower Decks: “Temporal Edict”

From the title of this week’s Lower Decks, I was really afraid that it was going to be a time-travel story, and the third episode is just too soon to dip into that already-far-too-deeply-dipped Trek well.

Luckily, it was about a completely different cliché, one that benefited from the comic interpretation: that old standby of padding your estimates on how long something will take.

[Some spoilers]

It all started when Scotty made a remark in The Search for Spock about how he always pads his repair estimates in order to maintain his reputation as a miracle worker. That quickly became the book on Scotty, despite the fact that it was likely written as a joke on the engineer’s part. Nonetheless, it became an integral part of Scotty’s character going forward, including his rebuking La Forge in TNG’s “Relics” for giving an accurate repair estimate to Picard.

What “Temporal Edict” does is take a different look at that notion, and it’s one that leans into the part of that tendency of Scotty’s (and some other engineers) that I always thought was an important component: As a general rule, engineers are being asked how long something will take by someone who knows absolutely nothing about the specifics of what they’re doing. So Scotty can tell Kirk that a task will take two hours—who is Kirk to gainsay him? What the hell does Kirk know about engineering, anyhow?

On the Cerritos, that has been ingrained into the lower-ranking folk on board as a cardinal rule, which they call “buffer time.” You overestimate the time an assignment will take, and either you finish it early and report it, and they think you’re a hero, or you finish early and don’t report it, and you get to spend the rest of the time hanging out and drinking margaritas with your friends. This is proven almost immediately, when Dr. T’Ana asks Tendi how long it will take to repair a biobed, and Tendi exaggerates and says, “five hours,” and T’Ana is thrilled that it’ll be that fast.

Unfortunately, Boimler makes the mistake of mentioning “buffer time” in front of Captain Freeman. Freeman’s already pissed off because a planned speech at a conference on Cardassia was yanked out from under her because the conference was moved to Vulcan, which the Cerritos is nowhere near, and so Freeman was sent on a less prestigious assignment after the change in venue. Now she discovers that her crew is all building in time to goof off, and—sick of her vessel’s reputation as a ship of slackers—institutes a rule that all tasks must be performed in a timely manner.

This results in utter chaos, as the entire crew is horrendously overworked under Freeman’s iron fist. Everyone has far too much to do, and they’re all behind and stressed and exhausted. The exception, amusingly, is Boimler, who thrives in this atmosphere, as he loves working hard and getting stuff done.

Unfortunately, an away mission goes awry. Ensign Bendo is so fried he packs the wrong box in the shuttlecraft, and instead of displaying an honor crystal to the Galrakians, he displays a log. The Galrakians hate wood—their entire culture is based around crystals, and they think wood is icky—and the away team is immediately attacked and taken prisoner.

Star Trek: Lower Decks "Temporal Edict"

Credit: CBS

This gives us another cliché, one that has run through genre television and movies for ages, from the original Trek’s “The Gamesters of Triskelion” to the Star Wars movies to Galaxy Quest to Thor: Ragnarok, to wit, the arena fight. The only way the away team can be freed is for one of them to fight Vindor, who is roughly the same size relative to the other Galrakians as the Hulk is compared to humans. (He’s also only pretending to be big and stupid and only able to say his name. He’s actually very smart, likes to read, and also has been trying and failing to get his society to do actual trials with judges and stuff instead of trials by combat.)

Mariner and Ransom argue over who gets to fight Vindor. At first it seems that Mariner is going to get to do it, as she is really lobbying hard for it, but then Commander Taggart—er, that is Commander Ransom stabs her in the foot so it’ll be him. He then rips his shirt off and goes into the arena and beats the crap out of Vindor, winning the fight in a scene that I swear was giving me Galaxy Quest vibes, but in an entirely good way.

The stuff back on the ship is less successful. Freeman’s insistence on working her crew into the ground is one thing, but her insisting that they continue to do their work even while the Galrakians are boarding the Cerritos and covering it in graffiti is carrying the joke a bit too far.

In the end, Freeman realizes the value of buffer time and makes it a shipwide rule, naming it after Boimler, which devastates the ensign, as his name is now attached to a rule that’s completely anathema to him.

Mariner hasn’t gotten any less annoying, but pairing her with Ransom instead of Boimler makes her much easier to watch. Her puncturing of the first officer’s ego is a delight, and her cynical attitude clashes entertainingly with Ransom’s gung-ho nature.

Once again, the jokes are a bit overdone, but I found myself enjoying this one as much as last week’s. The show is, at the very least, trending in the right direction, and I’m hoping that it settles on a consistent comic voice soon.

Star Trek: Lower Decks "Temporal Edict"

Credit: CBS

Random thoughts:

  • So far, Lower Decks is three for three in aggressively unfunny teasers, in this case a talent show in the bar where Boimler’s bizarre if impressively coordinated combination of Irish fiddle and Irish step-dancing is interrupted by Mariner and Tendi playing thrash rock at a loud enough volume for the bass line to be heard on the bridge, and interfering with a negotiation with some Klingons. It’s possible people who are not me found it funny, but my only chuckle was watching Boimler’s playing/dancing, which was hilarious. Mariner’s interruption was just an annoyance, ditto the rest of the scene.
  • I meant to mention this in the review of the first episode, but the show’s conceit that the junior officers on the Cerritos sleep in bunks in the corridor is ridiculous. These are officers. Current ensigns on submarines have better accommodations than that, and they don’t have 24th-century super-technology. The Cerritos may not have the spacious quarters that, say, the Enterprise has, but there’s no way Starfleet would pack officers like sardines in the hallway. (Amusingly, the setup is similar to the ones used by Klingon ground troops in my assorted Star Trek novels that take place on a Klingon ship, but those are grunts and, well, Klingons, who sleep on metal slabs and think comfort is for weenies. It’s absurd for Starfleet officers to have the same lack-of-comfort as Klingon soldiers.)
  • The episode made me believe that a bunch of people with spears and a proclivity for graffiti could successfully board a Starfleet vessel, which puts it one up on, for example, TNG’s “Rascals,” where I didn’t believe that a bunch of Ferengi in surplus Klingon ships did likewise with energy weapons. That’s probably more a comment on “Rascals” than on “Temporal Edict,” but still…
  • Best line of the episode comes (unsurprisingly) from T’Ana. After offering to get rid of Mariner’s (many) scars (which she proudly showed off to Ransom earlier), and Mariner loudly refusing, calling them her trophies, the Caitian doctor says, “Congratulations, you look like a fucking scratching post.”
  • Actually, T’Ana’s “fucking” is bleeped out, which is true of all the profanity, and it’s just weird. CBS All Access hasn’t been shy about profanity anywhere else, so I’m not sure why this show is being censored. Probably the still-clinging-to-life-despite-being-thoroughly-debunked notion that animation is inherently for kids. Excuse me while I bang my head against the wall.
  • Even if the rest of the episode was terrible, it would’ve been worth it for the very last line, which had me giggling, punching the air, and crying “Yes, yes, yes!” all through the credits. (No, I’m not going to tell you what it is. You have to watch it. Trust me.)

Keith R.A. DeCandido wants you to know that, if you like what he writes here for Tor.com, you’ll love what he puts on his Patreon, including one movie review and anywhere between one and six TV reviews per month, as well as excerpts from his works in progress, cat pictures, vignettes featuring his original characters, and more!

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