This Star Trek: Lower Decks review contains spoilers.
Star Trek: Lower Decks Episode 5
Sherlock Holmes once said (while kind of quoting the King James Bible) “there’s nothing new under the sun.” For serious science fiction writers and fans, this tends to be true, too. After all, the website TV Tropes is dominated by sci-fi plot devices for a reason.
What has always made Star Trek unique is that it’s dodged the worst kinds of sci-fi plot devices, or, at the very least, made cheesy sci-fi plot devices seem new and interesting? Or…maybe…Star Trek succeeded because it leaned-into some of those cheesy plot devices and made them even more cheesy? Can both things be true?
In Star Trek: Lower Decks episode 5, “Cupid’s Errant Arrow,” the show has its corny sci-fi trope cake and eats it, too. It’s not the best episode of Lower Decks yet, but it might be Trek’s best “monster in disguise” episode since “The Man Trap.”
The only thing this episode of Star Trek: Lower Decks doesn’t have going for it is a solid B-plot. Just like last week, the USS Cerritos teams-up with another Federation starship, this time, the USS Vancouver. And, just like last week, there’s some low-stakes envy and competition between that ship and our ship. Or rather, Tendi and Rutherford’s love of tech and cool Starfleet stuff makes them excited about this ship. Why Tendi continues to perform engineering-tasks with Rutherford when she, in theory, works in Sick Bay is unclear, but hey, let’s keep in mind this is a comedy and nothing makes sense about the fact that Harry Kim never got promoted, either.
The only issue with the B-plot isn’t that it doesn’t make sense or doesn’t work with Trek; it does. It’s just that relative to the A-plot, it’s simply not as funny. The idea that Rutherford and Tendi are excited about a random scanning gizmo called a T-88 is a joke that feels underdeveloped and never really finds a landing place. As Mariner says, the USS Vancouver seems exactly like the Cerritos, which is really the best joke from this particular line of jokes and is the proof that the B-story here is nearly a C-story.
That said, the A-plot is wonderful. When Boimler reveals he’s dating a successful lieutenant named Barb (Gillian Jacobs), Mariner is suspicious. Barb is too good to be true, which, in the long history of Star Trek means, she’s totally not. After accusing Barb of being everything from an android to a shapeshifter, Mariner eventually has to come to terms with the fact that Barb just likes Boimler for who he really is. Maybe there is no alien plot after all. Maybe some couples in Star Trek can just end up happy.
Turns out Barb didn’t have a parasite, Boimler did. And that alien parasite was making Barb attracted to him, not the other way around. The parasite was using Boimler (and Barb?) for its own purposes. Although this seems like an anti-Trek twist, is actually very in line with the best kinds of Star Trek twists. Instead of Barb being controlled by a known alien or android, she and Boimler were being manipulated by an unknown lifeform. Marnier’s deep knowledge of various Star Trek conspiracies (“I mean she could be a Suliban!”) ends up meaning nothing when faced with the simple fact that this alien parasite was brand new.
While most of the episode relies on this jokey twist to work, that’s kind of okay. So far, we’re learning what to expect from Star Trek: Lower Decks. And, considering this is the first Trek series to feature self-contained stories in over 15 years, and the first of three new Trek series post-2017 to tell standalone stories, its track record so far is pretty good. If you strip away the over-the-top humor, and a few misfires (not sure we needed Boimler moonwalking) the actual Star Trek plots of any given episode of Lower Decks are slightly more clever than most of the first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. If you know the unevenness of early TNG, that might sound like a backhanded compliment, and maybe it is. But, because Lower Decks is daring us not to take it seriously, what’s interesting is when it succeeds at being more than just a comedy.
“Cupid’s Errant Arrow,” comes pretty close to the meta-fictional smarts of “Temporal Edict,” but because it suffers from a slightly dull side plot, the main story feels oddly low stakes, too. And while it might be unfair to criticize an animated sci-fi sitcom for having low stakes, Lower Decks has shown in the most recent two episodes, including “Moist Vessel,” that there is some reason to be concerned about all the actual space danger. With this outing, things seemed a little too comfortable.
Oddly, the best part of the episode might have been Mariner’s flashback to her previous ship. When her shipmate actually gets eaten by a guy who is secretly an alien, you can only help but wonder what would have happened if it hadn’t been played for laughs. It’s funny. But, at the same time, that person really got eaten, right? Having it both ways is what Lower Decks is all about. But sometimes that result is a little messy.