This Star Trek: Lower Decks article contains spoilers.
In “The Inner Fight,” the penultimate episode of Star Trek: Lower Decks‘s fourth season, the big bad is revealed to be someone we haven’t seen in a long time. Once a promising Starfleet Cadet and talented pilot, he let his youthful arrogance get the better of him, ending his career in disgrace. Even before Beckett Mariner opened a bunker door and the shadowy figure emerged, we heard the smarmy voice of Robert Duncan McNeill and realized who was back.
No, not Tom Paris. It’s Nick Locarno!
Yes, McNeill (or B-Duncs, in the parlance of the hit podcast The Greatest Generation) did play Lt. JG./Ensign./Lt. JG. Tom Paris for seven seasons on Star Trek: Voyager. And yes, he was a gifted pilot whose career ended in disgrace due to his arrogance. And Star Trek producers would have us believe that McNeill never appeared as a member of Starfleet before the Voyager premiere “Caretaker.”
But McNeill did appear before as the remarkably similar Nick Locarno in The Next Generation episode “The First Duty.” That episode from TNG‘s fifth season catches up with Wesley Crusher, who had previously left the Enterprise to join Starfleet Academy. In the episode, the annoyingly talented Crusher joins up with other impressive cadets to form the elite Nova Squadron, led by Nick Locarno.
When one of the Nova Squadron members dies during training, Starfleet conducts an investigation into the group. All of the members remain tightlipped, including Wesley — that is until Picard turns his impressive rhetorical prowess against the boy and reminds him that “the first duty of every Starfleet Officer is to the truth!”
Instead of shouting “You’re not my real dad!” Wesley heeds Picard’s advice and testifies against Locarno, revealing how his reckless behavior resulted in the cadet’s death. Locarno gets expelled from the Academy before his graduation, and the other members of Nova Squadron — including Crusher and Sito Jaxa, revealed in this episode to be Mariner’s friend and inspiration — lose their flight privilege and receive a reprimand.
To be clear, Tom Paris doesn’t have exactly the same backstory. His disgrace involved joining the Maquis, less as a political stance and more an act of youthful rebellion against his father, a respected Admiral. And to be fair, actors do often play multiple roles across the franchise, including McNeill’s Voyager casemate Tim Russ.
However, the Locarno/Paris connection stands out because of tinkering behind-the-scenes. Initially, Voyager producer Jeri Taylor planned to reuse Locarno in the series, giving him a redemption arc, similar to the one enjoyed by Sito in her second TNG appearance, “Lower Decks.” Taylor even included Locarno in her story notes for the series, naming as one of the main protagonists of the series. However, she and other producers claim to have decided that Locarno’s actions in Next Generation made him irredeemable, and instead created a new character for McNeill with a more forgivable transgression.
But Trekkers have never really accepted that argument. “The First Duty” writers Ronald D. Moore and Naren Shankar have said themselves over the years that they didn’t agree that Locarno was any less redeemable than Paris, especially considering Sito’s aforementioned second chance. While never confirmed, it’s long been theorized by some fans that Trek producers created Paris in order to avoid having to pay residuals to Moore and Shankar for Locarno’s appearances in Voyager.
This controversy has made Locarno something of an elephant in the room for Star Trek. Everyone knows that Locarno and Paris are basically the same guy, even if not actually, but the franchise has never really addressed it. It’s almost like they’ve adopted Worf’s explanation for the different looking Klingons: “We do not discuss it with outsiders.” That said, Locarno did show up in the non-canon novella “Revenant” from the collection Seven Deadly Sins, where he ended up getting assimilated by the Borg. And Wesley Crusher does mistake Tom Paris for Locarno in the recent Star Trek: Coda book The Ashes of Tomorrow.
But Locarno’s appearance at the end of “The Inner Fight” is the first canonical mention since “The First Duty,” proving once again that Lower Decks never forgets.
Star Trek: Lower Decks is streaming now on Paramount+.