“You engineered a workaround to your own stress-meter?” — Star Trek: Lower Decks: “Room for Growth”

After four straight episodes (going back to the second-season finale, “First First Contact”), Lower Decks has been giving us previous Trek guest stars voiced by their actors. Alas, that streak is broken this week, as we have no special guest stars after getting Lycia Naff as Sonya Gomez, James Cromwell as Zefram Cochrane, J.G. Hertzler as Chancellor Martok, and Susan Gibney as Leah Brahms. Instead, we get an episode that is a bit of a throwback to LD’s first season, which is not a good thing…

DELTA SHIFT HATES SPOILERS!

So my biggest issue with season one of LD was that it kept going back and forth between being a Star Trek comedy and being a twenty-first-century workplace comedy transplanted to the Trek universe, and the former was often delightful and successful and fun and the latter is almost always not as funny, and also throws me out of the story. One of the things I liked about season two was that they were doing more of the former and less of the latter.

This week, we’ve got two plots, an A-plot with Boimler, Mariner, and Tendi racing against some ensigns from Delta Shift through various starship shortcuts to get to an air-gapped terminal where they can rig a crew quarters lottery. Apparently, on Cerritos, there are limited crew quarters available to ensigns instead of the hallway bunks, and who gets them is determined by a lottery. While chasing after her pet, Goopy, who keeps escaping his beaker, through the Jefferies Tubes, Tendi overhears some ensigns from Delta Shift planning to rig the lottery, and our Beta Shift heroes decide to beat them to the punch.

Image: CBS / Paramount+

All right, I’m going to sound like one of those annoying, humorless fangoobers here, but dammit, there is not a single aspect of that plotline that works in the Star Trek universe.

Look, the whole point of Star Trek from the beginning has been that humanity has improved and that we’ve moved past silly prejudices. In the second season of LD, they’d finally stopped doing annoying plots about “executive replicators,” and other such hierarchical notions that Trek has never had. Also the kind of underhanded scheming the Delta Shift ensigns indulge in here is very much not in character for twenty-fourth-century humans, particularly not ones who are also Starfleet officers.

The thing is, that plot does have its moments, but it’s entirely in the character work done with Mariner, Tendi, and Boimler as they wander through the bowels of the ship. It’s also fun to watch the bonding between Beta and Delta Shifts—which they then flush down the toiler by having Delta Shift still be assholes who screw over Boimler, Tendi, and Mariner to get at the terminal. It’s a cynical, misanthropic storyline that doesn’t feel even a little bit Trekkish. And yes, I get that this is a comedy, but you don’t need to violate the tenets of the universe for cheap laughs.

And as proof, we have the B-plot, which is way more fun. A mission gone horribly wrong has required that Billups and his engineering crew (including Rutherford) to work ’round the clock for a week. When the work is done, Freeman takes the entire engineering crew to a spa ship called Dove in order to relieve the stress of all the work they’ve had to do.

But these are engineers! As anybody who’s ever, y’know, met an engineer knows, what they love is to work! To tinker! To mess with stuff! So they resist every attempt to relax as they’d rather be tinkering. And in the end, they wind up building something, and that relaxes them. Which is good, as Freeman is getting more stressed by their unwillingness to relax, to the point where she’s about to burst a blood vessel. Luckily, she has Starfleet engineers on the job! They build a machine that wipes out stress in an instant.

Image: CBS / Paramount+

(Let me just state for the record that, of all the medical miracles that Trek has given us over the years, the stress-eliminator is in second place for Thing I Want Right Now, Please. The medical tricorder is, of course, first, as the notion of an accurate diagnostic tool that is programmed with all the medical knowledge extant is something that would make everyone’s life so much better…)

This plot is so much better than the A-plot, because it grows out of the Trek universe—and indeed, out of engineers in particular. Every engineer we’ve seen in the franchise—Scotty, La Forge, O’Brien, Barclay, Torres, Rom, Nog, Tucker, Stamets, Reno, Pog—has been like this, and so is every engineer I’ve ever met. I don’t know if it was a direct influence, but one of the best engineer portrayals in Trek history was how David Gerrold wrote Scotty in “The Trouble with Tribbles” on the original series. First there was Kirk seeing Scotty reading technical journals, and Kirk admonishing him to relax, and Scotty says, “I am relaxin’!” And then when Kirk confines him to quarters (after starting a bar brawl with some Klingons, which he only did because they insulted the Enterprise, not because they insulted Kirk), Scotty is thrilled, because he can catch up on his technical journals!

The B-plot of “Room for Growth” is a wonderful extension of that bit with Scotty. It works beautifully, because it grows out of character and out of the setting. It’s still a silly plotline, but it works in the Trek universe, as we’ve seen so many engineers like this over fifty-six years.

On the other hand, outside of LD, we’ve never seen Starfleet officers who were the level of petty we see in the Delta Shift creeps, and who went around finger-gunning like doofuses when hatching their evil plan to screw over their crewmates. (So much of that is going to age so badly…)

I did enjoy the bonding among three of our four heroes, as I said, and I especially loved the gossiping about the senior staff. That much, I am willing to believe would happen even in Trek’s future…

Image: CBS / Paramount+

Random thoughts

  • The head of Dove is from the same three-armed species as Lieutenant Arex from the animated series and the doctor from Division 14 in “Much Ado About Boimler.” That species is either Edosian, Edoan, or Triexian, depending on which ancillary material you use. It’s also the first female member of that species we’ve seen.
  • The engineering staff had to work overtime to get rid of the changes made to the ship by some D’Arsay masks like the ones seen in TNG’s “Masks.” A D’Arsay possesses Freeman, and she alters the ship in much the same way the Enterprise was changed in that episode. Why the producers decided to do a callback to one of the drearier and more forgettable seventh-season TNG episodes is left as an exercise for the viewer.
  • Kayshon gets some dialogue for the first time in a while, and he’s actually talking in Tamarian metaphor! It’s about damn time!
  • Doctor T’Ana, blunt as ever, diagnoses Chief Engineer Billups thusly: “A fucking pile of stress.” Billups’ response to this is to angrily retort that he doesn’t go to sickbay and tell T’Ana how to hypo her sprays, and then he slaps Shaxs and has a nervous breakdown, thus proving T’Ana’s point.
  • Speaking of T’Ana and Shaxs, Boimler, Mariner, and Tendi barge in on their holodeck adventure, in which they do a Bonnie & Clyde riff. We get way more about their sex life than anyone’s comfortable with. Also, in a nice touch, the holodeck is in black-and-whtie, which it was established as being able to do back in Voyager’s “Night” when they introduced the Captain Proton program.

 

Keith R.A. DeCandido urges everyone to check out the Kickstarter for Double Trouble: An Anthology of Two-Fisted Team-Ups, co-edited by Keith and Jonathan Maberry, which will feature team-ups of classic characters, to be published by the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers. Among the team-ups are Captain Nemo and Frankenstein’s monster by Kevin J. Anderson; Dracula, John Henry, and Jekyll & Hyde by Derek Tyler Attico; Prospero and Don Quixote by David Mack; Marian of Sherwood and Annie Oakley by Rigel Ailur; Ace Harlem and the Conjure Man by Maurice Broaddus; Van Helsing, Athena, and the Medusa by Jennifer Brody; Lord Ruthven and Lydia Bennet by Delilah S. Dawson; The Brain that Wouldn’t Die and Night of the Living Dead by Greg Cox; and bunches more.

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