This Star Trek: Lower Decks review contains spoilers.
Star Trek: Lower Decks Episode 4
When Star Trek: The Next Generation boldly explored the idea of having families onboard the USS Enterprise the series didn’t really know how that was going to play out, other than the fact that Wesley Crusher was going to randomly save the ship every couple of weeks. But, other than Captain Kirk’s son David Marcus in The Wrath of Khan and The Search For Spock, the Trek franchise has rarely explored what it’s like when adult children work alongside their parents in Starfleet. But in “Moist Vessel,” that’s exactly what happens, and the result is the first episode of Lower Decks that feels fully independent from the rest of Trek canon.
Like Ensign Ro or Tom Paris before her, we know that Ensign Beckett Mariner has a history of getting demoted for insubordination. In “Moist Vessel,” we get to see how that actually plays out. As she says at the very end of the episode to Boilmler, “I’m pretty good at getting demoted.” Right now still early in its first season, Lower Decks isn’t’ shying away from its interest in how slackers behave in an egalitarian future in which there are almost no barriers for anyone to do whatever they want with their life. What Lower Decks suggests, particularly in “Moist Vessel,” is that in a quasi-utopian future, hell is still other people. And the greatest crime people commit in the near-perfect 24th century is that they can be endlessly boring.
TNG had a field day with this on a few occasions. In “Starship Mine,” everyone wants to avoid a pedantic trivial officer named Commander Hutchinson. In “The Perfect Mate,” Picard even tried to mock himself by calling himself “dull,” and noting that he liked to fall asleep while reading. Even Lt. Barclay’s slightly trivial tendencies would visibly irritate the senior staff of the Enterprise. With “Moist Vessel” this concept is flipped. As Mariner has been maintaining since the first episode, maybe everyone on the senior staff is uncool and the people having the most fun in Starfleet are those who are unambitious.
When Mariner’s mom — Captain Freeman — decides to promote her daughter as punishment, the rest of the episode is spent with Mariner in total hell as a result of this reverse-nepotism. In TNG, we always kind of assumed everybody loved going to see Riker play jazz on his trombone in Ten Forward, but what if Riker had busted out an acoustic guitar instead? “Moist Vessel” teases us with this possibility when Captain Freeman mentions that Commander Ransom is going to do just that. Even the beloved TNG games of poker are mocked here, because Mariner notices, correctly, that nobody ever seems to take any risks. The reason she’s not higher in rank is that she recognizes that on some level, more responsibility makes people more boring.
As someone who recognizes my past self in Mariner, I think this is generally true. When you’re in your twenties (which we assume Mariner is) having more responsibility feels like it will make you pathetic, and the greatest rub to being uncool is that you’ll never know it happened. Because Lower Decks is mostly a show that sticks with the POV of the Lower Deckers, this episode lets us really feel Mariner’s viewpoint. When she lays back in her bunk at the end of the episode, having gotten rid of her extra responsibility, you can relate to her bliss. I mean, anyone who has ever quit a job because they could will feel what she feels in this scene. And yet, the episode doesn’t really let her off the hook either.
This is actually the first episode that lets us have some sympathy for Captain Freeman. She might not be the greatest captain in Starfleet, but she does know what she’s doing, and contrary to what her daughter thinks of her, she is legit cool. And part of the reason we know that is because Freeman doesn’t even pretend like all the bullshit she has to put up with is good. She’s aware that Captain Durango is boring, and tells Mariner that the fact he’s boring isn’t the point. Later, she makes it very clear that she too dreads the various crew functions in which Ransom plays his acoustic guitar and one crew member does a one-person-show called “The United Federation of Characters.” Freeman’s attitude toward all of this is something Mariner doesn’t understand yet: Part of being an adult is knowing something sucks, but putting up with it anyway.
Freeman doesn’t have to convince herself that uncool things are cool to be the Captain, which proves there’s a fallacy in Mariner’s viewpoint. Obviously we’re gonna side with the slacker because it’s kind of her show, but when Mariner and her mom work together to save the USS Cerritos, it feels like a smart step for the show. Yes, these characters might tend to fall back into sitcom dimensions, but there is a glimmer of development happening, too.
If there’s any flaw this episode has, it’s that some of that super-absurd stuff that Freeman has to put up with is only mentioned and not depicted. Personally, I would have loved to have heard one of Ransom’s awful self-written songs. And, as painful as I’m sure it was meant to be, just WHAT WAS the “United Federation of Characters?” With “Moist Vessel,” we got the best character piece of the series yet, but let’s hope some of those jokes about shipboard entertainment come back in future episodes.