This Star Trek: Lower Decks review contains spoilers.
Star Trek: Lower Decks Episode 6
Part of the ongoing, overarching joke of Star Trek: Lower Decks is a clever, interwoven meta criticism of stock sci-fi plots, and also, very famous Trek plot tropes. The jokes tend to cut both ways: How often have these plots worked in other Treks, and how often have they failed? After passing the midway point of its first season, Lower Decks has demonstrated that in some cases, lovingly mocking a less-than-brilliant Trek trope (like hidden alien monsters) can result in a great episode. But, in other cases, like the latest episode— “Terminal Provocations”—the episode just makes you want to watch a different bad episode of The Next Generation.
“Terminal Provocations” is the first episode of Lower Decks that truly feels like it’s two B-plots. Some might say that having two plots that are intentionally low-stakes is the overall point of what Lower Decks is all about, and philosophically, that makes a lot of sense. That said, in this case, neither of these plots is all that satisfying on their own, and I think that’s partly because the catalysts of both subplots are characters that are probably, only here for this episode.
One storyline revolves around Mariner and Boimler dealing with their fellow Lower Decker named Fletcher, after he creates an out-of-control A.I., that he also subsequently tries to cover-up. This results in shipwide system failures, which — of course — creates a malfunction on the holodeck while Rutherford and Tendi are still inside. If you had never seen Lower Decks, you can easily see how these story ideas could easily fit into a passable episode of Voyager or The Next Generation. And, that fact is to this episode’s credit. The storyline might not seem plausible in general, but it does feel like a real Star Trek episode from the ‘90s.
The problem is that the rogue A.I. created by Fletcher creates a second, accidental rogue A.I., created by Rutherford. In what can only be described as an outdated reference to the Microsoft Office paperclip “Office Assistant,” Rutherford has made a program called “Badgey” who appears as a Starfleet badge with arms, legs, and a face. Badgey is annoying before things go wrong, but when things do go wrong he’s even worse. When the holodeck safeties are disabled by Fletcher’s accidental A.I., this causes Badgey to turn homicidal, which we’re supposed to believe is because its program is left running all the time, kind of like Moriarty in The Next Generation.
If you want to see an anthropomorphized Starfleet badge rip people’s limbs off, until blood gushes from their bodies, well, then this is your episode! But, by having the literal symbol of Starfleet also turn into a holodeck character who kills people, it seems like Lower Decks is kind of asking for its harshest critics to get upset. To put it another way, you can’t imagine Badgey’s murder rampage being in any of the trailers. Obviously, the idea of Badgey going crazy and trying to murder people mocks all the other holograms-gone-bananas stories from the ‘90s Trek heyday. And, on paper, Badgey murdering people would be fine, as long as it was funny or had something to say. The issue is, that this hologram-gone-nuts story is both less funny and less interesting than say, an objectively bad TNG episode that had the same premise, specifically, “A Fistful of Datas.”
In case you forgot, in “A Fistful of Datas,” Worf, Troi, and Alexandar get stuck in an Old West Holodeck simulation gone berserk, and every single character they meet looks like Data. This notion is kind of what “Terminal Provocations” is sending-up, but the problem is, this episode doesn’t improve upon the source material, it only makes you nostalgic for a legitimate holograms-try-to-kill-everyone story from Voyager, TNG or even, DS9.
To put it another way, a good episode of Lower Decks — like last week’s “Cupid’s Errant Arrow” — can take an old Trek trope, make fun of it, and make it a little bit new. Watching “Cupid’s Errant Arrow” didn’t make me need to rewatch “The Man Trap,” but getting the references made the episode that much better. But, with “Terminal Provocations,” all I want to do is to rewatch “A Fistfull of Datas” or “Our Man Bashir,” if only to see how blatantly cheesy and absurd Star Trek is done well.
The intent of “Terminal Provocations” is there, but in the end, you’re mostly watching Fletcher lie or a Starfleet insignia murder people. Mariner points out that Fletcher’s incompetence has made her rethink her solidarity with all Lower Deckers. In this way, the episode almost criticizes itself. Lower Decks is best when it’s in love with Trek, and doing new, fun things with its central characters. “Terminal Provocations” is oddly too dark and too far removed from its core cast to work. Lower Decks is still a wonderful experiment, and I did find myself laughing at some of the more obvious inside-Trekkie jokes in this one. In fact, the opening scene where all the characters are trying to imitate the different hum of starship engines is the best part. There are a few jokes like that strewn throughout “Terminal Provocations,” but with Badgey trying to rip-off your arms, it’s hard to remember the good times.