This STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS review contains spoilers for Season 2, Episode 1.
With very few exceptions, each new season of any given Star Trek series always feels like a moment for the specific show to change things up. Riker grew a beard in Next Generation Season 2. Worf crashed Deep Space Nine in season 4. Archer started unbuttoning his collar and mussing up his hair in Season 3 of Enterprise. Discovery has literally had a different captain and premise every season. Even in The Original Series, the crew got themselves some Chekov. after their first year. You get it. A new season of Trek usually means one question: What’s new? What’s the same?
But, with the debut Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 2, that question doesn’t work. The show doesn’t feel remotely different, retooled, or radically changed from Season 1. If anything is different it’s simply that it’s even funnier and nerdier than Season 1. In 2020, Lower Decks was still novel and strange, but, now that we’re used to it, the show is proving to be better than perhaps anyone gave it credit. The debut Season 2 episode — “Strange Energies” — is hilarious, but it’s also deeply layered, so much so, that each part of itself is like a tiny replica of itself. Like a hilarious member of a funny, and thoughtful Borg collective.
The episode begins with Mariner playing out a badass fantasy on the holodeck, in which she is such a kickass Starfleet officer, that she escapes a Cardassian prison without really even trying. In this world, like last year’s “Crisis Point,” Mariner is god. She even leaves a hologram of Boimier because she’s “still pissed” at him for ditching her on the Cerritos in Season 1. Mariner has let her privileged status as Captain Freeman’s daughter go to her head, which is an arrangement neither of them likes and is pissing everyone off, including Ransom. So, when Ransom accidentally gets hit with the titular “Strange Energies,” and turns into a faux space god, the idea of someone else becoming a control freak takes over the plot. On top of this, Tendi is convinced that Rutherford isn’t his most authentic self, because — following a memory erasure in Season 1 — he now likes things he didn’t use to like, including eating pears and dating Ensign Barnes.
This layered theme works in all three storylines: Mariner and Freeman aren’t being their authentic selves and abusing their authority. Tendi is accusing Rutherford of not being himself and abusing her authority. Meanwhile, Ransom isn’t being his authentic self — actually, no, Ransom is totally being himself! But, of all the people “playing god” in this episode, Ransom has an excuse — he’s been imbuded with some “sci-fi stuff,” which Dr. T’ana likens to Gary Mitchell’s glowy eyes flip-out, a great callback not only to the famous TOS pilot episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” but also a reference to the very first episode of Lower Decks, “Second Contact.” In that episode, Mariner hit Boimler with a litany of famous Trek characters, including Gary Mitchell, who Boimler had never heard of. Lower Decks isn’t just content to reference other Trek, now with this new season premiere, it’s also referencing itself. Mariner feels a sense of faux-déjà vu when she asks Rutherford questions about his date with Barnes which is exactly what happened last year. The ship runs into a crisis because a second contact mission uncovered something the first contact mission missed. And, it all ends up with Mariner getting busted, even though she tried to do the right thing.
The only thing missing is Boimler. At the very end, we see our wayward Bradford on the USS Titan, freaking the fuck out because whatever this crew is up to it’s way more hardcore than what’s happening on the Cerritos. Or is it? What’s great about Boimler losing his cool over a chase sequence on the Titan is it allows Lower Decks to make a statement about Star Trek’s bizarre ability to vary tone and style within the same narrative framework. The Next Generation arguably perfected this kind of thing in an episode like “Data’s Day,”; most of Data’s famous day is spent learning to tap dance, feeding his cat, and trying to not screw up Miles and Keiko’s wedding. But, the subplot also involved a Romulan spy who was gaslighting Data, stealing intel from the Federation, and was probably a secret member of the Zhat Vash! We don’t think of “Data’s Day” as an episode that sets up the dark Romulan action in Star Trek: Picard, we think of it as a goofy, heartfelt little Trek ditty. But that’s the trick. Ransom turning into a space god and trying to eat the ship, is, on paper, 100 times scarier and more dangerous than whatever “fluidic” action was happening with Boimler and the Titan at the end of this episode. The Titan is doing run-of-the-mill Star Trek stuff and so is the Cerritos. Kirk and Picard were always being hassled by space gods, who yes, were sometimes members of their own crew.
The joke of Lower Decks is that the spectacular things that happen in Starfleet are treated as run-of-the-mill. This lets the show refine a formula created by TNG, use the sci-fi backdrop to tell a heartwarming character story. And in this way, Lower Decks has captured the essence of why so many people love Trek in general, that unique combination of likable characters, who are good people, doing “sci-fi stuff.” In this way, “Strange Energies” is near perfect. The only reason it can’t get five stars out of five is Boimler isn’t in it enough. Let’s hope he Boims-up next week.