“There’s a giant head approaching the ship” — Star Trek: Lower Decks: “Strange Energies”

And we’re back with another season of Lower Decks, and I’m pleased to say that it passed quite possibly the most important test of an episode of a TV show that is supposed to be a comedy: I laughed.

This may seem minor, but this didn’t always happen during the first season. More to the point, I didn’t cringe hardly at all.

Not that the episode was perfect, or anything, but it was good, and I’m particularly pleased to see that they didn’t restore the entire status quo.

SPOILERS AHOY!

The teaser for “Strange Energies” is a nice little bit of exposition, as Mariner runs a holodeck program of her being interrogated by a Cardassian and escaping by stealing a starship. (I can’t tell the name of the ship despite pausing the playback at various points, but it starts with “Macou.”) She responds to the Cardassian’s questions by talking about how her relationship with Freeman has changed now that her being Mariner’s Mom is public. Now Freeman supports Mariner’s little side trips and off-the-books missions. (The interrogator at one point exclaims, “Your captain is your mother?” to which Mariner replies, “Yeah, lady, everybody knows that. Keep up, I thought you were good at this!”) Along the way, Mariner passes a holographic version of Boimler, also being interrogated, and deliberately leaves him behind because she’s pissed at him for abandoning her to serve on the U.S.S. Titan.

It’s a great way to start the season, as the action scene is fun—Mariner kicks all the ass while breaking free of the interrogation and stealing a starship with the interrogator as a hostage—with some gorgeous visuals, and also bring the viewer back up to speed with what’s happening.

Meanwhile, Rutherford is still feeling the effects of having his implants ripped out and put back. Where he once hated pears, he now can’t get enough of them, and he’s once again dating Ensign Barnes, even though they didn’t work out after their date in “Second Contact.” Tendi is concerned, ostensibly worried that he’s suffering from Synthetic Memory Degradation, which will result in his brain liquefying and coming out his nose. In truth, she’s mostly worried that he’ll stop being her friend, which is incredibly sweet. Of course, this being Lower Decks, this concern is initially expressed by her trying all sorts of crazy-ass medical techniques from electroshock to vivisection of his brain.

The primary plot, though, is one that Star Trek has done plenty of times before, most notably in the pilot episode of the original series, which is explicitly referenced. Ransom is infused with strange energies—hey, what a great title!—and gets godlike powers. Of course, this being Lower Decks, it happens, not due to passing through a great barrier or the intervention of the Q or anything like that. No, it happens because Mariner cleans a building.

Lower Decks is at its best when it maintains a balance between mundane absurdity and Trek goofiness, and this particular plot point nails it. Mariner’s latest off-the-books side mission is to power wash a couple of buildings on this world where the Cerritos is making second contact. Apparently, they never cleaned their buildings after their industrial revolution. While Ransom is getting them to pick a subspace frequency code, Mariner cleans a building, which turns out to have a nifty mural on it and also activates with, um, strange energies. (No, seriously, that’s a great title!) It hits Ransom, and he goes all godlike. He creates a mountain with an image of his face, he changes all the locals’ faces to his own, he gets rid of the moon, and he transforms the entire planet into a giant gym. Oh, and his head breaks free of his body, goes into orbit, and starts to bite the Cerritos, which is my new favorite Trek visual.

Dr. T’Ana tries to stop him with a hypo, but Ransom changes it into an ice cream cone. (Which T’Ana, of course, starts to lick.) She also tries to hit him with a boulder, since that’s how Gary Mitchell was stopped when he got all godlike.

It turns out that what’s fueling Ransom’s divine anger is that Mariner and Freeman won’t admit that they don’t actually like each other all that much, even though they love each other. Their pretending to be all happy and lovey is making Ransom nuts.

At first, Freeman realizes that validating him and giving him praise is the way to stop him, as the more she compliments him, the less his power is. Unfortunately, she compliments him so much that he thinks he should be captain, which she says is going too far, which just pissed Ransom off more. So they need to find another solution. Of course, this being Lower Decks, that solution is for Mariner to kick Ransom repeatedly in the nuts.

That does the trick! Because of course it does!

For most of this episode, I was happy with what I was seeing. You had the silly references to past Trek productions, you had the over-the-top humor, you had the sweet goofiness of Tendi and Rutherford, you had T’Ana being awesome—and then, in the end, we’ve got Mariner being awful and the script twisting itself into a pretzel to make her right.

Maybe it’s just that I’m a lifelong owner of a pair of testicles, but I don’t find a character being repeatedly kicked in the, ah, lower decks to be that funny. To make matters worse, Mariner has to repeatedly kick him in the neutral zone (as Mariner puts it, because apparently we draw the line at saying “kick you in the balls”) until he barfs rainbows and is all better.

Okay, I thought barfing rainbows was hilarious. Humor really is subjective, isn’t it? (Then again, I’m the guy who scripted the Farscape comic book in which Moya barfed rainbows….)

Honestly, my issue isn’t so much that Mariner kicked Ransom repeatedly in the nether regions in and of itself, it’s that nobody in the cast is allowed to solve this week’s problem except Mariner, and it’s growing tiresome. I was genuinely thrilled at Freeman’s solution of curing Ransom with fulsome praise and feeding his ego, which manages both to be funny and also track with Star Trek’s trademark compassion over violence: a solution that involves sitting down and talking instead of shooting Ransom’s disembodied head. Of course, (say it with me now) this being Lower Decks, it’s feeding Ransom’s already-huge ego, but still. However, that can’t work because it’s not Mariner’s solution. Instead, we have to resort to nut-kicking.

I hit my breaking point with this last season in “Cupid’s Errant Arrow,” where Mariner was at her absolute worst, and the script contorted itself to make her right again, even though that required her incredibly mean-spirited view of Boimler to be accurate.

Which also leads me nicely to something I liked about this episode: not having Boimler around for Mariner to torment. The unpleasant interactions between the two of them were spectacularly annoying last season, and to not have it in “Strange Energies” was kind of a relief. Mariner’s chemistry with Freeman is much more interesting and funny. I especially love how it ends, with Freeman sending her daughter to the brig for disobeying orders. (“Love you, Mom!” “Love you too, never disobey me again!” “I do what I want!” all while two security guards escort her out.)

But my favorite part of the episode was the very ending, as we finally look in on Boimler on Titan. After Mariner, Tendi, and Rutherford wax rhapsodic about how happy Boimler probably is on his new assignment, we cut to the U.S.S. Titan being menaced by three ships and flying into a spatial anomaly, with Boimler screaming the entire time…

I was genuinely worried that they’d contrive to have Boimler back on the Cerritos immediately, so I’m pleased to get to the end of the episode and have it not happen. Having said that, I’m still expecting it to happen. We’ve already reverted to the Freeman-Mariner status quo of the captain being annoyed with the ensign, but at least that dynamic has shifted some with their familial relationship exposed. I just hope we see an even bigger change in the Mariner-Boimler dynamic, because that grew tiresome halfway through season one…

Star Trek Lower Decks "Strange Energies"

Credit: CBS

Random thoughts:

  • When Mariner is escaping the Cardassian interrogation on the holodeck, she comes across the holographic Boimler, who ‘s also being interrogated, and he comments that “They keep showing me lights.” This is a reference to Picard’s being tortured by a Cardassian interrogator in TNG’s “Chain of Command, Part II,” in which Gul Madred showed him four lights but insisted that there were five lights.
  • Tactical is being handled by a random alien dude this week. We haven’t yet met Shaxs’ replacement, who is apparently going to be a Tamarian from TNG’s “Darmok.” Given that next week’s episode is entitled, “Kayshon, His Eyes Open,” I’m guessing we’ll meet him next time. Fred Tatasciore, who voiced Shaxs, is still listed in the opening credits, so I’m also guessing that he’ll be voicing the new Tamarian.
  • Stevens, the officer who was having drinks with Ransom after their shift ended in “Second Contact,” is back, and he spends the entire episode sucking up to Ransom. This goes into overdrive when Ransom gains godlike powers, with Stevens genuflecting before Ransom, offering to worship him, and so on. When Ransom changes all the local aliens’ heads so they look like Ransom, Stevens pleads, “Do me!” (Meanwhile, the leader of the planet complains, “Hey, don’t transform my constituents!”) And after Ransom is cured and recovering in sickbay, Stevens reads “Nightingale Woman” to him. That’s the poem that is quoted in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” by Gary Mitchell when he’s talking to Elizabeth Dehner. Mitchell calls the poem, “One of the most passionate love sonnets of the last couple of centuries.” The poem, allegedly written in 1996 by Tarbolde of the Canopus Planet, has been alluded to a bunch of times since.
  • The disembodied Ransom head that bites the Cerritos (a visual that will never get old) also starts to grow hands, prompting one of the bridge officers to cry out, “Brace for grabbing!”
  • We meet an Andorian named Jennifer. Mariner doesn’t like her. Once again we have aliens with boring white-person names as if that’s supposed to be inherently funny. Oh, and she also snarks off at Mariner for using escaping a Cardassian prison for exercise, when she could just do yoga. I’m, frankly, stunned that they didn’t just name her “Karen,” to complete the obvious and stupid joke.
  • When Titan is under attack, Captain Riker says, “This jam session’s got too many licks and not enough comp,” prompting Boimler to scream, “What does that even mean?” I’m personally all for Captain Riker making as many goofy-ass music references as possible…

Keith R.A. DeCandido is also in the home stretch of his rewatch of Star Trek: Voyager, having kicked it off in January 2020 and now in the early seventh and final season. It appears on this site every Monday and Thursday. Look for his rewatch of “Critical Care” later today.

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