Back to Basics — Star Trek: Lower Decks: “Grounded”

Something I never did mention when I reviewed episodes of Strange New Worlds season one is that Paramount+ is doing a cool new thing: each episode of a Trek series now starts with the appropriate ship flying through space with a rainbow effect behind it before zipping past the Starfleet delta, and then we get the Star Trek logo. It was the Enterprise for SNW and it’s the Cerritos for Lower Decks. It’ll presumably be the Protostar for Prodigy and the titular vessel for Discovery. Real curious to see what it winds up being for Picard season three…

Anyhow, it’s nifty, I like it, and it opens up a wonderful third-season premiere of Lower Decks that resolves the cliffhanger in a most lower-decks manner…


One of the reasons why the TNG episode that inspired this series was so successful is that most of the stuff that we normally see in a Star Trek episode happened off-camera. Instead, we got bits and pieces out of context, because our POV characters were Lavelle, Taurik, Sito, and Ogawa.

“Grounded” brings us back to that setup, as Mariner is determined to get her mother off of the charges of blowing up the Pakled homeworld, and she doesn’t trust Starfleet to get it right because Mariner never trusts authority. Boimler, Tendi, and Rutherford offer to help, because they’re friends and lower-decks folk have to stick together, and it’s all very touching.

At first, this all seems like it’s doing that annoying thing that LD has done way too often, which is to do a twenty-first-century workplace comedy in Trek costumes—in particular the revelation that the judge in Freeman’s trial is a “planet’s rights” type, a not-so-subtle reference to contemporary conservative judges. Mariner goes through all kinds of crazy-ass things to find the evidence that will exonerate her mother, only to find out that the system actually does work.

Screenshot: CBS / Paramount+

I absolutely loved the ending. Mariner has gone to ridiculous lengths to find evidence of Freeman’s innocence because she’s convinced that she needs to be the action hero who flouts all the regulations and saves the day. After breaking a ton of things in her father’s office—and after Admiral Freeman told her to trust Starfleet, and later prompting a colleague to ask the admiral why he puts any breakables in his office given who his daughter is—Mariner gets Rutherford to use his access to find out which dock Cerritos is in, tries to sneak on board via transporter (that’s dashed by the transporter operator being a kindly old man who feeds them soup, so they can’t bring themselves to knock him out—plus, it turns out that transporting isn’t possible anyhow), steals a ride from the theme park at Historic Bozeman (more on that in a minute), steals the Cerritos from spacedock, and has to rely on Tendi bluffing them past security before Freeman shows up to save her ass.

Mariner is, of course, stunned that the system worked, and who would’ve thought that? At which point her father reminds her that he told her that. After all, this is Star Trek, not The Office—we’re still in Gene Roddenberry’s utopian future, and even if it isn’t always as perfect as TNG-era Roddenberry thought it should be, it’s still a place where the Federation does the right thing more often than not. Freeman’s lawyers found proof that the evidence against the captain was faked and it turns out the Pakleds blew up their own planet and framed Freeman, hoping to get the Federation to relocate them to a better planet. It was, says Freeman, a Samaritan snare. (Sigh.) Freeman’s renegade actions were wholly unnecessary, and only undertaken because she refuses to trust anyone but herself. (She doesn’t even entirely trust her three best friends, as she tries to abandon them in a shuttle while taking Cerritos to find better evidence, and they have to force their way back on board.)

The story of Freeman’s exoneration is told by the captain in quick flashbacks, and with cameos by Morgan Bateson and Tuvok (silent ones, so no need to get Kelsey Grammer or Tim Russ back, sadly). Because, of course, the interesting stuff all happens to the bridge crew and the big-name guest stars, while the lower-decks folk are busy with other things that don’t matter in the larger scheme of things.

One of the silliest aspects of the episode is the Historic Bozeman theme park. Located in the spot where Zefram Cochrane built the first warp-capable vessel, the Phoenix, as seen in the movie First Contact, it’s now a carnival. There is a re-creation of the bar where Cochrane and Troi got drunk, complete with jukebox, there’s a replica of the Vulcan ship that landed there, and there’s a ride on a re-creation of the Phoenix that takes you into orbit, complete with a holographic Cochrane who plays “Magic Carpet Ride” as you take off. They even got James Cromwell back to do Cochrane’s voice!

So, my absolute favorite part of First Contact was when Cochrane put the Steppenwolf song over the Phoenix’s sound system during takeoff, and to see it re-created here made my heart sing. And, since they can’t transport, Mariner and the gang steal the Phoenix re-creation to get into orbit and board Cerritos. (There’s also the Inevitable Sitcom Bit where some random dude named Gavin gets on the ride with them in an attempt to get over his fears. Encouraged by Mariner—because she really is the worst—he steals the Phoenix after the four lower-decks-ers disembark. He’s later caught by Starfleet Security and arrested. Yes, it’s funny, but it’s also horrible: this guy was just trying to get over his fears, and now he’s going to prison because Mariner is a terrible person.)

Freeman has supposedly had enough of Mariner’s bullshit—a refrain we’ve heard before in the first two seasons of the show. In fact, Freeman cops to the fact that she’s been bad at riding herd on Mariner. And so, going forward, her supervision is going to be handled instead by Ransom.

This is gonna be fun…

Screenshot: CBS / Paramount+

One other thing this episode does is give us only our fourth example of actual journalism in onscreen Trek. While plenty of works of tie-in fiction have dealt with the fourth estate, the only time we’ve seen reporters onscreen have been in the Generations prelude with the reporters on the bridge of the Enterprise-B, in Picard’s “Remembrance” when Picard is interviewed, and in the character of Jake Sisko in the latter days of DS9, who wrote for the Federation News Service.

And then this week we have FNN, a riff on CNN, and which obviously stands for Federation News Network, which reports on Freeman’s trial (among other things). It’s not the best representation of journalism, though it is in keeping with the stereotypical shallowness of journalism seen in Generations and Picard. (At least Jake was allowed to be a genuine journalist, particularly in “Rocks and Shoals” and “Valiant.”)

I like that Tendi’s confidence continues to increase—as does her nerdity. For the former, we see her totally handling herself when Starfleet Security wants to know why they took the Cerritos. For the latter, there’s her and Rutherford taking advantage of their being grounded for the duration of Freeman’s trial to see all the things on Earth she hasn’t seen. (She explains to Rutherford that she was so focused on her studies at the Academy that she never left San Francisco.) And watching her and Rutherford geeking out over Historic Bozeman is especially enjoyable—they’re even wearing replicas of the silly hat that Cochrane was wearing in First Contact! (Oh, and the centerpiece of the site is the statue of Cochrane that La Forge mentioned in the movie, in the very pose that the chief engineer described…)

And Boimler’s maturation continues in fits and starts. On the one hand, he is way more confident and sure of himself. On the other hand, he’s still wracked with hilarious insecurities, most of which we hear in his personal log. Because, naturally, Boimler repeats all of the official captain’s logs in his own personal log, with other personal stuff added in. Mariner’s thought is to introduce this as evidence in the trial, but she backs off that notion when she hears all of Boimler’s add-ons (like geebling over Ransom calling him “Boiler,” which means the first officer almost knows his name!).

Oh, and now we know that Boimler’s purple hair is dyed and he will never reveal his real hair color. I suspect that that will be a plot point down the line…

Screenshot: CBS / Paramount+

Random thoughts

  • Rutherford and Tendi dine at Sisko’s Creole Kitchen in New Orleans, the restaurant owned and operated by Captain Sisko’s father Joseph, as established in DS9’s “Homefront,” and seen many times after that. We don’t see Joseph, probably because Brock Peters has died, and while you can get away with a silent cameo from Bateson and Tuvok, there’s no way Joseph would be around and not talking, so keeping him off-camera was probably the wisest choice, sadly. In a nice touch, the alligator hanging from the ceiling can be seen in the background behind Rutherford.
  • Boimler’s family runs a raisin farm, and several of the women who work there make passes at him, all of which go directly over Boimler’s head. This sort of thing was de rigeur thirty-plus years ago, but comes across as tired and dated and demeaning and gross.
  • The FNN news broadcast also had fun stuff in the crawl that ran across the bottom of the screen…
  • Admiral Jellico (from TNG’s “Chain of Commandtwo-parter, having been promoted in the decade since) has banned the Zebulon Sisters (first referenced in “Terminal Provocations”) from performing on active-duty starships. So no more Chu Chu Chu Dance for Boimler…
  • The Buffalo Solar Knights won Game 1 of the ELDS ([something] League Division Series, presumably) against the London Kings. This indicates that baseball has been revived in the Federation beyond Cestus III. Baseball was established as having died out in the twenty-first century in TNG’s “The Neutral Zone” and “Evolution,” but having been revived on Cestus in DS9’s “Family Business.”
  • A six-year-old Zakdorn has been crowned Grandmaster at Strategema, the youngest person to achieve that honor. That game was introduced in TNG’s “Peak Performance,” and an adult Zakdorn character, Sirna Kolrami, was established as a Grandmaster at the game at the time.
  • Audience members rushed the stage at a Sonny Clemonds concert. Clemonds is a late-twentieth-century country singer who was cryogenically frozen and revived in “The Neutral Zone.” He anticipated a successful career, since all his old songs were new again, and fifteen years later, he seems to have been correct…
  • In addition, FNN later reports that they’re going to talk to the little kid who solved Fermat’s last theorem. Picard was talking about the theorem with Riker in TNG’s “The Royale,” which was famously unsolved. It was believed to be solved by Andrew Wiles in 1995, six years after “The Royale” aired, but it was using a different style of mathematics, so the original proof remains unsolved. Dax mentioned that one of her previous hosts, Tobin, had an approach to the theorem that rivaled Wiles’ in DS9’s “Facets.”
  • While journalism gets treated shallowly by this episode, as well as Generations and “Remembrance,” if your humble reviewer may be self-indulgent for a minute, one of the best reporter characters in the tie-in fiction is Ozla Graniv of the Trill news service Seeker. I created her and used her in my novels A Singular Destiny, Articles of the Federation (where she uncovers a rather nasty coverup by Starfleet), and A Time for War, a Time for Peace, and she later wrote the exposé of Section 31 that brought down that clandestine organization in David Mack’s Section 31: Control. And this even relates to LD, because Mack was a consultant on the show’s first season! So there!


Keith R.A. DeCandido is Co-Guest of Honor at Bubonicon 52 in Albuquerque, New Mexico this weekend, along with fellow word-slinger Rae Carson, artist Chaz Kemp, toastmaster A. Lee Martinez, and scientist Dr. Courtney Willis. He will be doing panels and such, and also selling and signing his books. Check out his full schedule here.


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