“A lot’s changed since slightly earlier today” — Star Trek: Lower Decks: “Mugato, Gumato”

One of the great Star Trek trivia questions is to ask what, according to the closing credits of the episode, was the name of the creature Janos Prohaska played in the original series episode “A Private Little War.” While the white-furred, horned alien beast was referred to as the mugato in the episode, the closing credits list him as “the gumato.”

This was because DeForest Kelley had a hell of a time pronouncing “gumato,” and so they changed it to give in to his metathesis. However, that was not the only issue folks had pronouncing that animal’s name, which led to an entire episode of Lower Decks based partly on that.

SPOILERS AHOY!

That inability to pronounce the word is part of the basis of this episode’s A-plot, which borrows stuff from three different not-very-good Trek episodes. The first is the aforementioned “A Private Little War,” from which we have the mugato, which is rarely pronounced the same way twice (moo-GAH-too, MOO-goo-too, goo-MAH-toe, moo-GAH-toe, etc.). We also get one character who is poisoned by the mugato, as we saw in that episode.

The second is “The Last Outpost,” in its use of the Ferengi. As originally envisioned, the Ferengi were meant to be the major antagonist of TNG, piratical evil capitalists with electronic whips. Their comical appearance in that and subsequent TNG episodes led to their becoming comic relief instead.

These Ferengi are breeding and harvesting mugato to sell their horns and pelts. It’s a particularly odious practice, one the Cerritos is sent to deal with after a couple of Denobulans are attacked by a mugato.

Shaxs leads an away team down to the surface, and things go wrong in a hurry, especially when the mugato cages are accidentally opened, and the mugato go on a rampage. The Ferengi are able to capture most of the away team in the confusion, leaving only Boimler and Rutherford free. The pair of them barely manage to survive, but in the end, they save the day with full-frontal nerdity. They convince the Ferengi that it would be cost-effective to create a zoo and mugato amusement park, complete with tons of merchandising, and they’ll make way more money and not hurt any animals. The Ferengi go for it.

This works beautifully on two different levels: one, it’s funny as hell; two, it’s Boimler and Rutherford who save the day, not Mariner, for the second week in a row. I’m all for keeping this trend going.

Image: CBS

It took me a while to get my arms around this episode because of the teaser. First of all, it brings back anbo-jytsu, which is the third episode that’s referred back to, to wit, “The Icarus Factor,” a truly terrible TNG episode that proposes that the goofy-ass anbo-jytsu is “the ultimate evolution of the martial arts,” which it really isn’t. Like, at all.

Second of all, the scene just angered me on multiple levels.

One of my least favorite movies is California Suite, due entirely to one of the four storylines in the movie, to wit, the one involving Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Gloria Gifford, and Sheila Frazier. Things keep going wrong, and the four of them keep getting hurt by different things, and the last scene is them hobbling out of the hotel covered in bandages and using crutches, and it’s supposed to be hilarious, and it’s gross and disgusting.

Comedy violence can be funny. Bugs Bunny blowing up Daffy Duck with no real harm done to Daffy beyond being covered in soot temporarily is funny. The Three Stooges bonking each other on the head can be funny. (I don’t think so, but I can accept that others find it hilarious.) But violence with actual consequences is really not funny.

Rutherford and Boimler go up against Mariner in anbo-jytsu having been practicing in the hopes of doing better against her, as even two against one, she usually wins. But when they say that the kid gloves are off, Mariner cuts loose and knocks out teeth and breaks bones and is incredibly violent and nasty and brutal to her two best friends. The show desperately wanted me to laugh at this, and all I could think was that this was horrible.

Maybe it’s the same martial arts training that keeps me from accepting the notion that anbo-jytsu is the ultimate evolution of the martial arts when it’s really just an evolutionary dead end. For a student of Asian martial arts, violence is a last resort, not a first one, and also I’m fully aware of the kind of damage you can do to the human body if you know what you’re doing. But there’s nothing funny to me about being the cause of that violence, and to make matters worse, the next scene Boimler and Rutherford are in has them covered in bandages just like that icky last scene in California Suite, and no. That’s not how that works. When I’m sparring in the dojo, we’re wearing protective gear, and if someone is actually seriously injured even a little bit, the fight stops and we make sure the person is okay.

We’re introduced to a new character in this episode as well: Otis, the bartender. Speaking with a comedy accent, Otis is a rumormonger of the highest order, and he manages to convince Boimler and Rutherford that Mariner is truly a Starfleet black ops agent who is on the ship undercover. For most of the episode, the pair are convinced that Mariner is a secret agent who will snap and kill them all the minute her back is against the wall, thank to Otis’ dire warnings.

Aiding and abetting this is on the away-team mission when they see Mariner stabbing Shaxs and then biting him. Boimler and Rutherford run away, thinking she’s gone nuts, even though what she’s actually done is save Shaxs, who has been poisoned by the mugato. But it’s the heat of battle, as it were, so Mariner looks crazed when she’s doing that, and the two schlubs run away rather than be her next victim.

Eventually we find out that Mariner herself started that rumor as a way of keeping annoying people away from her, and she’s appalled that two of her actual friends fell for it. To make up for it, she tells Otis a very exaggerated version of how Rutherford and Boimler saved the day against the mugato and the Ferengi, which will make them seem like badasses instead of big honkin’ nerds.

Image: CBS

The B-plot with Tendi amuses the heck out of me, because one of the hoariest clichés in the book is the people who refuse to go for their physical. This is especially ridiculous in the world of Star Trek, where the physical mostly consists of a medical professional non-invasively examining you with a tricorder for a few seconds. And yet, lots of incredibly lazy writers use the character-refuses-to-go-for-a-physical as a spectacularly lame plot device. (Astute readers might be aware that your humble reviewer used this very same plot device in his 2007 TNG novel Q & A, wherein the Enterprise-E’s new chief of security keeps putting off his physical. Guilty as charged.)

What I love is that it leans into how incredibly non-invasive the procedure is. Tendi is charged by T’Ana with getting the last batch of holdouts. So she travels around the ship, interrupting Stevens when he’s chatting up a woman in the bar, interrupting Jet and Kayshon having a sparring session in the gym, and walking in on a holodeck date. In each case, she just walks up to them, examines them, and leaves. Easy peasy.

The last holdout is T’Ana herself, and for the second episode in a row, she goes all stereotypical-cat and runs away, forcing Tendi to chase her down, eventually getting her in the Jefferies Tube by falling and breaking her arm. T’Ana’s Hippocratic Oath overcomes her biological imperative to be a contrary pain in the ass, and she moves to treat Tendi. For her part, Tendi takes advantage of this kindness to examine the doctor.

I question the wisdom of doing two episodes in a row in which T’Ana acts exactly like a house cat, as that joke will get repetitive if overdone, but it’s still funny, and it means more T’Ana, which is always a good thing.

This is also the second episode in a row in which Tendi gets to be more assertive, and I’m all for her growing more and more of a spine. Indeed, T’Ana gave Tendi the assignment expecting her to give up after being frustrated, and the doctor is not expecting the medtech to be this dogged or determined.

Overall, this is a better episode than I was expecting it to be after the teaser, even if it does call back to three particularly terrible episodes.

Star Trek: Lower Decks "Mugato Gumato"

Screenshot: CBS

Random thoughts:

  • The C-plot has the Ferengi’s client buggering off as soon as Starfleet’s away team shows up. Once he makes orbit, Freeman—who doesn’t yet know what’s going on down on the surface—hails him, and he tries to run away. The Cerritos puts a low-level tractor beam on him, and his ship immediately falls apart. My first thought was, “This is a grifter who’s going to try to convince Freeman that she destroyed his home,” which turned out to be exactly the case. Except Freeman fell for it, and didn’t turn the tables on the alien until her admiral husband told her about a con artist who was doing exactly that. Sigh. I know it’s a comedy, but you can be funny without your captain character being actively stupid…
  • Shaxs finds mugato dung, and feels the need to taste it instead of, y’know, scanning it with his tricorder. And he tastes it every other time he comes across it. This is hilarious, probably.
  • Mariner actually refers to the episode “The Last Outpost” by name when talking to the Ferengi, and also asks if they know Quark, as if to show that they should be like the more well-known versions of Ferengi. This is a little too meta, if you ask me, but it also helps to remind folks who may not remember (or have gone out of their way to forget) first-season TNG why the Ferengi aren’t acting like Quark, Rom, and Nog.
  • Boimler and Rutherford come across a Tellarite biologist named P’Tingy (I have no idea if I spelled that right or not). He claims, “I have five books on mugatos,” which turns out to mean that he’s read five books on mugatos, a nuance Boimler and Rutherford don’t cotton to until a few seconds before a mugato bites the Tellarite’s head off.
  • Also, we see Boimler and Rutherford playing a game called Diplomacy, where the object is for all players to be unhappy, thus achieving compromise, which is, in my opinion, the funniest (and also most accurate) thing in the entire episode.
  • For the second week in a row, we see Kayshon but he has no dialogue. Again, you’ve put a Tamarian on the ship, take advantage! Not giving him even a throwaway line of abstruse metaphorical dialogue is just wasting the character.

 

Keith R.A. DeCandido is one of the author guests at Dragon Con 2021 in Atlanta this weekend. He’ll be doing a ton of panels, workshops, readings, and autographings: his incredibly full schedule can be found here.

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