The 2nd episode of CBS-All Access’ latest Star Trek series (three, for anyone who’s counting) is now available to stream, and it’s a marginal improvement over last week’s overstuffed, overly-busy pilot.
I was glad to see a better delineation of the characters, as well as more coherent ‘A and B’ stories. That said, I still have issues with the show’s juvenile humor, and the hyperactive hijinks of lead character Ensign Beckett Mariner. To quote Dr. McCoy in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, “Would you like a tranquilizer?”
*****STARSHIP-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
Off to a promising start, we see Ensign Mariner (Tawny Newsome) and recent Orion transfer Ensign Tendi (Noel Wells) taking a cargo flatbed through the corridors when they’re confronted by a blob of light that pierces the hull of the ship (a smirk-worthy riff on Star Trek’s other such energy beings, like those seen in TOS’ “The Lights of Zetar,” or TNG’s “The Child”).
The energy being immediately begins to threaten them with bolts of energy until a quick-thinking Mariner physically grabs it (this was an option?) and threatens to stuff it into a container. The inexperienced Tendi is wondering about the legality of stuffing a sentient being into confinement, while Mariner is already demanding that the powerful being make a new tricorder for her (with a purple stripe, and don’t forget the batteries). The energy being is already regretting its encounter with Mariner, until she inexplicably releases it…and it zaps itself into the body of Capt. Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) who just happens to be passing by. This could’ve been the entire story, with the captain possessed by an energy being, but nope…this was just a teaser played for laughs.
Doing grunt work in a cargo bay, Ensigns Mariner and Tendi are joined by a smug Ensign Boimler (Jack Quaid), who has just been assigned as shuttle pilot for a Klingon general bound for an important peace conference on the neutral planet Tulgana IV.
Boimler immediately brushes up on his Klingon greetings, and seems quite pleased with himself. As with most Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, this escort mission to Tulgana IV is clearly established as the episode’s A-story. Star Trek of the late 1980s and 1990s often used this soap operatic, dual-story formatting.
The B-story sees Ensign Rutherford and his flirtation with Ensign Tendi. We see Rutherford crawling out of a Jeffries’ tube, filthy and full of blisters, but loving every second of it. He’s a born engineer (the cybernetic eye is a direct nod to TNG’s Geordi La Forge and his VISOR). As he boasts of his two weeks spent crawling along the innards of the USS Cerritos, Ensign Tendi casually asks if he would like to see a pulsar with her that night. Rutherford’s duties won’t permit it, but somehow he gets the idea that if he transferred to another division, he’d get to have his date with Tendi. I realize this is a comedy-cartoon version of Star Trek, but I can’t imagine anyone in any other Trek show switching careers just for the promise of a date (?).
Note: I’m guessing Ensign Sam Rutherford’s last name is a reference to New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford, whose 1911 model for super-dense atomic nuclei formed the basis for atomic fission, which ultimately led to the creation of atomic bomb and nuclear power plants. Fitting that an engineer would bear his name, however low-ranking.
Rutherford tells his chief engineer that he’d like to transfer, and in a joking nod to the friction-free crew relationships mandated by Gene Roddenberry in TNG, the chill chief is totally okay with it. In fact, the entire engineering duty staff throws Rutherford an impromptu going away party! Trying out various other departments, including disastrous turns at Command (recalling Counselor Troi’s command training in TNG’s “Thine Own Self”) and Medical (he nearly kills a man by stressing him out), Rutherford finally takes a stab (NPI) at Security, under the tutelage of grizzled Bajoran security chief Shaxs (Fred Tatasciore).
Note: In one episode, Sam wears all the colors of the ship’s divisions; gold, red and blue.
Using tactical information gleaned from his cybernetic eyepiece, Rutherford is able to defeat a ‘no-win’ holodeck training scenario where he is surrounded by Borg drones, all determined to assimilate him. The tactical info also seems to coordinate with his own reflexes, and Rutherford takes down the Borg drones in swift hand-to-hand combat, even ripping out a Borg drone’s holographic eye (!). Lt. Shaxs is thoroughly impressed, and he instantly welcomes Rutherford into his Security wolf pack…
Down in Security division’s ops center, Shaxs and his guards give Rutherford a former welcome, as Rutherford gazes longingly into an open Jeffries’ tube maintenance hatch. Realizing engineering is in his blood, he decides to quit Security on the spot. Shaxs seems ready to blow up at him, and then….gives him his best wishes (once again, a gentle riff on Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s old ‘no conflict’ directive between main characters). He then tells Tendi that he can’t make their date, but she’s fine with it…saying they can watch it together on her PADD.
Note: The PADD is Star Trek’s pre-iPad personal-access-data-device, which inspired the real iPads and tablet computers a few years later.
My annoyance with the character of Ensign Mariner last week intensified a bit with this episode. A nervous Boimler reports to his shuttle bay, in full dress uniform, ready to deliver the Klingon to the conference, when he boards the ship and finds Mariner eating noodles, which she’s spilled all over the flight console. She “pulled a few strings” (easy enough when your mother is captain, I guess) to go on the mission with Boimler.
Note: The Cerritos’ class of Starfleet ships, the California-class, even use California names for their shuttlecraft; in this case, the “Yosemite.” Yosemite National Park was also the wilderness vacation site of Kirk, Spock and McCoy in “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” (1989) and was recently mispronounced by president Donald Trump as “Yo Semites” (that live, on-air gaffe was actually funnier than anything I saw in this episode, to be honest).
Immediately, she begins playing with the shuttlecraft shields and generally doing everything she can to get under Boimler’s admittedly uptight skin. The Klingon general boards, and as Boimler tries to greet him in his native language, Mariner immediately picks a fight with him, as it turns out they’re old buds, and she knew he might enjoy some combat (this is a riff on Deep Space Nine’s resident Klingon whisperer, Jadzia Dax). Once again, this show seems to rely on the tired sitcom trope of omitting relevant information as to confuse, misdirect, and/or just annoy the hell out of your partner. If Mariner had simply told Boimler when he first got the assignment that she and the general were old friends, most of the hijinks that follow could’ve and would’ve been avoided, but nope…buckle up, folks.
Ready to land at Tulgana IV, the now drunk-off-his-ass general wants to eat some live Gagh (hot live serpent worms) in the ‘Klingon district’ of the planet (akin to the Chinatowns of major cities). They decide to land in the Klingon zone, away from the peace conference site, and against Boimler’s objections.
The drunken general then steals the shuttle, leaving Boimler and Mariner stranded. The two wander into Klingon-town looking for clues as to where he might’ve gone. The serious, studious Ensign Boimler is nearly killed, impregnated (yeah, that happened) and duped by every alien he encounters. Meanwhile, Mariner saves his ass at every turn… the character who never studies, never reads manuals, and never follows protocols seems to think best on her feet, rescuing Boimler repeatedly. Boimler begins to doubt his own resolve to remain in Starfleet, as his troubles dealing with non-Federation cultures makes him the equivalent of an “ugly American” tourist.
Worried that they might be late in finding the general and getting him to the conference, Mariner seems willing to trust an infamously greedy Ferengi named Quimp (Tom Kenney) to secure a ride to the conference. Boimler repeatedly reminds her of the Ferengi’s untrustworthy reputation around the galaxy (repeating the racist Ferengi “warning” that Lt. Tom Paris gave to Ens. Harry Kim in the pilot of Star Trek: Voyager). Finally heeding Boimler’s advice, Mariner agrees, and the two humans finally arrive at the peace conference, where the drunken Klingon has arrived ahead of them. The day is saved. Mariner and Boimler return to the ship.
Back aboard the Cerritos, in the ship’s lounge, Mariner gets to listen to Boimler regale the junior officers with the tale of how he “saved” her from the Ferengi, whom she ‘mistook’ for a Bolian. Mariner says nothing, letting Boimler have his moment. Rutherford also seems to make some progress in his budding relationship with Tendi, as they enjoy a virtual date together watching the pulsar together (a nice metaphor for COVID-dating, intentional or not). Meanwhile, we see Mariner in her bunk, talking with her old friend, the ‘greedy’ Ferengi Quimp on her PADD, thanking him for going along with her ruse in order to build Boimler’s sagging confidence. While I appreciate Mariner letting Boimler have his moment, I still don’t see why she couldn’t have just come clean with him in the first place. Her deceptions could’ve (literally) gotten him killed.
And that’s that.
This second episode had a much sharper focus on characters than the frantic, all-over-the-place pilot (“Second Contact”), though the humor still isn’t quite working for me. Oh, the show tries to be funny… too hard, in fact; and that’s probably my core issue with it. Most of the gags are gross-out food/poop jokes, obscure Star Trek references that only register with the faithful, or the old sitcom trope of characters deliberately withholding information from each other, creating ill-timed misunderstandings. “Envoys” has too many of all three. The humor could just as easily come organically from the characters’ interactions with each other; as it did so effortlessly with Spock and McCoy’s ribbing of each other, or Odo and Quark’s hunter-quarry relationship. For some reason, writer and series co-creator Mike McMahan also seems fixated on selling Mariner’s obnoxious and juvenile behavior as charming or endearing somehow. For me, it’s neither.
I do appreciate that Mariner has become the focus of this series; despite her behavior, she is the ‘glue’ holding the Lower Decks’ team together. This was a feat that Star Trek: Discovery wrestled with for two seasons; making a Star Trek series centered on a character other than the captain of the ship. In that regard, Lower Decks has succeeded where Discovery still struggles. Discovery had issues keeping itself centered on series’ lead Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) because the show featured supporting characters (Lt. Saru, Ensign Tilly, Captain Pike) who were arguably more compelling than the overly-stoic, overly-selfless Michael Burnham. This is not a slight on Sonequa Martin-Green, who does a phenomenal job with the material as written, but her character often comes off as a bit aloof sometimes. Star Trek: Lower Decks has now swung to the other extreme with Ensign Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), who is juvenile, childish and utterly annoying. She is the anti-Burnham.
This is either a blessing or a curse, depending on one’s tastes for character and comedy. Personally, I’d prefer to see Mariner toned down a bit…becoming more of the reliable “Sarge”-type you see in movies or TV shows about military underlings following their non-com officer on missions. As she is now, she’s much too unstable and irritating for me, but user mileage may vary depending on one’s personal tastes. Some will no doubt find Mariner’s hijinks adorable (I loved Tawny Newsome in Netflix’s “Space Force”), but until we start to see her mature a bit, I don’t see myself warming up to her just yet. Of all the characters on the USS Cerritos, I think I appreciate Ensign D’Vana Tendi best. Tendi captures some of that wide-eyed optimism I see reflected in many other Star Trek fans. Tendi acts with the same awe and enthusiasm many of us might feel in her place. Like Ensign Tilly, she’s a more genuine audience avatar.
Here’s hoping Ensign Mariner, and the series, will grow up a bit…
Star Trek: Lower Decks is available for streaming on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Crave in Canada. No word just yet on an overseas release streaming platform.
To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic as well. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States is nearing 168, 000 as of this writing (that number is increasing daily). So, for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing wherever possible, wear masks in public, and avoid crowded outings as much as possible.
Live long and prosper!