One of the common complaints about Lower Decks is that it sometimes overdoes the references to other Trek stories. Most of the references are either to the original series or TNG, which is understandable given that they’re the two most popular iterations of the franchise, as well as the animated series, which is the spiritual ancestor to this show. Still, DS9, Voyager, Enterprise, Discovery, and Picard have been referred to as well, though not nearly as often. Those references sometimes work, often don’t, and can be a source of tremendous frustration.
“I, Excretus,” however, takes that proclivity for references and takes it to a hilarious extreme that actually works quite well.
This is LD‘s Boxing Day episode. The day after Christmas Day, the custom on the 26th of December in upper-class British homes was that the gentry and the servants would switch places for a day. In the military, that was adapted to the officers and enlisted trading places.
In “I, Excretus,” a Pandronian drill instructor comes on board who is trying to make the Cerritos more efficient. This is another reference, in this case to the animated episode “Bem.” The drill instructor—who calls herself a “drill administrator”—is named Yem, and she acts exactly like one of those efficiency experts that businesses hire to give seminars and Myers-Briggs tests and all that other nonsense. While most of the 21st-century office tropes that have been used on LD have annoyed me, this one I’m okay with.
Yem’s method of increasing the Cerritos‘s efficiency is to pull a Boxing Day: The bridge crew has to be the ensigns on the lower decks, and our four main characters (among others) get to be in charge.
The first half of the episode is dedicated to showing how bad almost everyone is at the other side’s jobs. Freeman, Ransom, Shaxs, and T’Ana are assigned to a ship under attack by a Klingon boarding party. Their job: Stack the crates in the cargo bay that have fallen over during the attack. The crates are hexagonal, too, so they’re very hard to stack and they very easily fall down. At no point are they ever told the specifics of what’s going on—including one point where they find out, in passing, that Q is on board. (Their CO is now dressed like Robin Hood, a reference to TNG‘s “Qpid.”)
Meanwhile, Mariner, Boimler, Tendi, and Rutherford each are put in command situations, all similar to ones we’ve seen onscreen before. Mariner goes to the Mirror Universe (“Mirror, Mirror” on the original series and numerous episodes of DS9, Enterprise, and Discovery), and then to a Western re-creation (the original series’ “Spectre of the Gun“). In the former, she’s discovered quickly as an imposter, and in the latter, she’s thrown from her horse. (This is particularly embarrassing because Mariner had two years of horse-riding lessons as a kid.) Tendi has to treat a Klingon who wants to die after a crippling back injury (TNG‘s “Ethics“), sustained while picking up a peanut (sure, why not). Her indecision over what to do leads to her failure. Rutherford is chief engineer during a warp core breach, and must fix it the same way Spock fixed things in The Wrath of Khan, but he struggles to get the door open without burning his hands (why doesn’t he have gloves?), which he fails to do, and the ship (which is a Constitution-class ship like Pike’s and Kirk’s Enterprise) blows up.
Then they’re all put on the Cerritos bridge, with Mariner and the ensigns in charge and Freeman and the senior officers subordinate. Their mission is to steal the Cerritos out of Spacedock (The Search for Spock), and they never even make it to the doors because Freeman and Mariner start bickering.
What’s fun is that the script cleverly turns the “lesson” on its ear. The effect of all these failures is to make the crew appreciate each other more, and Freeman and Mariner go to Yem to thank her—but it turns out that she doesn’t care about that. The point for Yem was to make everyone fail—the scenarios were rigged. Yem is apparently being phased out because her drills are unnecessary, so she asked for an assignment to a crappy ship and set it up so they’d all fail and so she’d still prove useful to Starfleet. Freeman wants to do the tests again, but Yem says it’s too late, once all the tests are done, there’s no going back.
Except there’s one person I haven’t mentioned yet: Boimler. Continuing this season’s theme of Boimler’s self-improvement, he’s the only one who succeeds. He’s sent onto a Borg Cube that he has to escape from (TNG‘s “The Best of Both Worlds,” numerous Voyager episodes), and gets a 79% rating. But Boimler is also a perfectionist, and won’t be satisfied until he reaches 100%. So he keeps retaking it, doing better and better each time.
This saves everyone’s asses, because as long as Boimler’s still in his simulation, Yem can’t submit the results. So Freeman orders him to stall—right when he was about to get 100%. Disappointed, Boimler nonetheless drags out the scenario, to the point where he’s assimilated, becoming Excretus of Borg. (Yes, he’s given the name Poop of Borg. Sigh.)
Freeman correctly pegs Yem as a bureaucrat with no real practical experience, so she has the Cerritos head for some nasty stuff: first a crystalline entity (TNG‘s “Datalore” and “Silicon Avatar“), then a black hole (the original series’ “Tomorrow is Yesterday,” Enterprise‘s “Singularity,” the 2009 Star Trek, etc.). It’s more than Yem can handle, and she promises to give them passing grades if they just stop dive-bombing into dangerous situations.
There are many things I love about this episode. Putting the crew into various familiar situations (and having them fail so hilariously) is enjoyable, at least in part because we’ve seen other Trek characters succeed in those scenarios. It really does help the bridge crew, and the lower decks denizens appreciate the other side more. (Freeman forgot how frustrating it is to be out of the loop, Mariner is not at all on board with all the responsibilities.) It shows how incredibly dopey those “team-building” exercises really are, which—having suffered through such inanities when I was an office worker back in the mists of prehistory known as the 1990s—I’m always happy to see.
And we continue the badassification of Boimler. The obsessive reading over of past Starfleet missions that we saw in season one has combined with his experiences on Titan at the top of this season to make him into a really talented officer, and it’s tremendous fun to see. (By the time he scores 100%, he’s captured several Borg drones, including a trio of babies, and has beaten the Borg Queen at chess and taught her empathy.)
Mariner does help save the day this time, but it’s in collaboration with Freeman, and it works here, especially since we get to watch her fail epically prior to that.
Having said that, one of the ways the bridge crew reaches out to the lower-decksers after it’s all over is to give them a shiny new food replicator that has the full menu options, and I just want to bang my head on the wall. The food replicators have never in any other Trek production had this kind of tiered system. Hell, prisoners have had full access to whatever food they want. I mean, it’s nice that the ensigns can have pesto now, but it doesn’t even remotely track that they couldn’t have pesto before.
I also did love the opening when the Cerritos answers a distress call, leaving Mariner, Boimler, Rutherford, and Tendi behind on a subspace antenna they’re repairing, not coming to their rescue for six hours. While this is pretty horrible, I find myself reminded of the original series episode “And the Children Shall Lead,” when Kirk realizes that he beamed two of his security guards into space rather than down to the planet to relieve the two guards that were already there. Leaving aside that he barely even acknowledges that two of his crew are dead, at no point in the episode does the subject of the two guys left behind on Triacus ever come up! Those two redshirts were left on the surface, probably shouting into their communicators, wondering where everyone was. When Kirk gets control of the ship back, he sets course for Starbase 4, not Triacus.
Just in general, Trek has had a real problem with secondary characters dying with no fanfare or interest. For every episode that gets it right (TNG‘s “The Bonding,” Discovery‘s “The Red Angel“) there are dozens that don’t (the original series’ “The Omega Glory,” TNG‘s “Lonely Among Us,” DS9‘s “The Adversary,” Voyager‘s “Faces,” to name but a fractional few) This episode’s teaser is humorous, but it also works really well as a commentary and satire on that rather despicable tendency.
- One of the best Boxing Day TV episodes was M*A*S*H‘s “‘Twas the Day After Christmas,” in which Corporal Klinger is put in charge, while Colonel Potter is the company clerk (among other switcheroos). In the end, Klinger proves unable to handle a genuine crisis involving making actual decisions, while Potter is utterly lost in a sea of paperwork that he doesn’t remotely comprehend. This episode is also notable for being M*A*S*H‘s fourth Christmas episode, which is a neat trick considering that the Korean War that the show chronicles only had three Decembers.
- When the Borg Queen showed up in Boimler’s scenario, I was wondering if they’d get either Alice Krige (who originated the role in First Contact, and reprised it in Voyager‘s “Endgame”) or Susanna Thompson (who played the part in Voyager‘s “Dark Frontier” and “Unimatrix Zero“) to do the voice. It turned out to be Krige, who did a lovely riff on her First Contact seduction of Data on Boimler.
- Yem is able to separate her body into three discrete parts—head, torso, legs—just like Bem in his eponymous animated episode (which was written by David Gerrold of “The Trouble with Tribbles” fame). Nothing significant is done with this, and indeed there’s no real need for Yem to be a Pandronian beyond the gratuitous animated series reference. However, I’m totally on board with gratuitous animated series references, so good job, Lower Decks! Keep it up! Still waiting for a Skorr, please and thank you…
- When Mariner is (justifiably) complaining about how cavalierly the lives of the lower-decks crew are treated, Shaxs protests: “We’re all equals on this ship!” Ransom has to take him aside and point out: “They sleep in a hallway.” Shaxs, surprised, says, “Oh.”
- Once again, we see Kayshon, but he gets no dialogue. Shaka when the walls fell, y’all.
- When Yem admits that the scenarios were rigged, Mariner is relieved, because she would never be thrown by a horse—she’s too good a rider. However, Yem says that she didn’t have time to rig that one in any way, so her being thrown was all on her.
Keith R.A. DeCandido hates pesto and does not understand why that would be restricted to senior officers. I mean, really…