So is this going to be a thing now? Every week are they gonna address one thing I didn’t like the previous week and then double down on the other things that are wrong with the show?
The pre-titles sequence sees Boimler performing Irish folk music in the bar for Open Mic Night. He gets pushed off-stage by Mariner and her rock band, whose performance shakes the entire ship and causes a diplomatic incident with the Klingons. Boimler retakes the stage just in time to take the blame when the security chief is sent down to smash his violin.
The middle of that is a good joke! You’re taking a familiar comedy setup of the noisy kids causing trouble for the parents and transposing it into the Star Trek setting. That works. It works extra well when Mariner is literally the captain’s daughter. And it plays into a subversion of a standard Star Trek trope as well: Trek, particularly the ’90s Trek Lower Decks is most directly addressing, is notorious for depicting people of the future as having no hobbies or interests involving culture more recent than what was considered respectable by middle-aged white men in the 1980s – jazz and Shakespeare and ballet are fine, but rock and Nora Roberts and stomp aren’t. So it works for By-the-Book Boimler to have a good respectable hobby with a violin and traditional musical styles, while Mariner gets everyone excited with hip cool rock music. But then they go and wrap it with the usual “And Boimler is the Butt-Monkey” joke.
This episode is definitely the most sitcom-ish of what we’ve had so far, and I kind of get it structurally, even if I’m not crazy about the idea. There are some nice touches, but it’s very Futurama, and while I liked Futurama (though like most everyone, I reckon it ran itself dry several seasons before it actually ended), I’d rather Lower Decks find its own thing to do rather than aping it. The Cerritos is en route to Cardassia Prime to participate in a peace treaty signing, but the captain gets the bad news that the signing has been moved to Vulcan on account of–
Everyone thinks the Cardassians are creepy, so they don’t want to go to Cardassia Prime. Yay! More casual overt racism! I guess that’s one of this show’s hallmarks now. With the Cerritos reassigned to deliver diplomatic gifts to a minor planet, the captain is frustrated and desperate to prove herself to her superiors. Okay. Again, not the direction I want for the show, but, “The captain of a minor ship wants to make a name for themself and does something stupid in a desperate gambit to do so,” is an established military-and-military-adjacent comedy trope that you can do good stuff with.
Unfortunately for the crew, Boimler inadvertently lets the captain in on the concept of “buffer time”. “Buffer time,” as established early in the episode when they explain it to Tendi, is the Junior Officer tradition of adding substantial padding to time estimates on every assignment to make sure they have time to goof off and – this is important – not get overwhelmed. Another okay here. That’s an established Star Trek trope. On the one hand, identifying it as a “lower decks” thing rather than an engineering thing is kinda weird. Weirder is the simultaneous implication that all junior officers everywhere do it and no senior officers anywhere know about it.
So of course, the captain immediately bans Buffer Time and requires everyone log their assignments to the minute and stay within official guidelines for how long things should take. And there’s two interesting things about this. First, Boimler never gets caught and abused by his friends for this. Seriously, he almost rats himself out by accident, but everyone gets distracted by… Being run ragged by their new schedules and doesn’t notice. The other thing – and this is where that whole, “Address one thing I didn’t like the previous week,” comes in, Boimler absolutely thrives under this new policy. We… Do not actually get to see much of this, just a few scenes of Boimler working normally while everyone around him is coming unglued. But it’s there, at least. The idea of his character, that he’s the “by-the-book” one, and that works for him is what was lacking last time.
Everyone else, of course, is boned. And they do a decent job of showing why, exactly. The transition is not very graceful, but I like the core of what they get at. Because they took something that was already a joke in Star Trek – Scotty padding his repair estimates to impress the boss – and rewrite the context. Once the junior officers have to live by the clock, every mistake they make, every unexpected interruption, every other person whose path crosses theirs, makes them fall behind. And once they fall behind, they can only catch up by pushing themselves, and then they make more mistakes, and fall further behind, and it’s an endless cycle of constantly racing to catch up even as you get less and less efficient. “Buffer time” isn’t about slacking off (I mean, except that it clearly was in the first scene when they introduced it, but we can’t expect narrative consistency from Star Trek these days. To be honest we probably couldn’t back in the ’90s either, but you didn’t notice so much because you weren’t really here for the writing); it’s about having a buffer. Increase your buffer whenever you can, because running out of buffer in an emergency is a very bad thing. This is actually good life advice provided your captain is not
a capitalist who can only see buffer time as labor he’s not extracting wealth from, so get your ass back to work, pandemic or no pandemic nursing a hurt ego over missing out on a prestigious assignment (Guess who just found out that “We’re returning everyone to work full time” is going to coincide perfectly with “Your son’s virtual school year is starting”?). And timely too! Sadly, there will not be a melodramatic speech at the climax of the real world leading to important life lessons being learned.
Anyway, as I hinted, everyone’s stressed out and falling behind and thus ill-prepared for a crisis. For the crisis, we need to switch to the B-plot. Remember that “Deliver diplomatic gifts to a minor planet” thing? So First Officer (I guess his name is Ransom? Not sure if I’m going to call him that since it’s also my sister’s last name) and Mariner and Several Unimportant Others fly down to the planet to deliver a crystal. It’s a planet that is real big into crystals. Unfortunately, due to the lack of buffer time, the Bolian ensign who was assigned to pack the diplomatic gifts grabbed the wrong box and presents a log to them instead. I’m guessing this is a reference to the Enterprise where Archer’s dog pissed on a sacred tree and Archer had to perform some weird humiliating log ceremony to prevent hostilities. The Geltrackians are gravely insulted and attack the Cerritos party. Ransom refuses to let them shoot back for diplomatic reasons, so everyone ends up getting captured. The Geltrackians sentence them to trial by combat against an enormous gladiator. Mariner and Ransom fight over who will face the giant. She calls him out on the fact that while Ransom is good at projecting the image of Starfleet, he is terrible at his job, while she’s a better fighter and willing to fight dirty. He stabs her in the foot, because he is the first officer and he’ll be damned if anyone is going to risk their life in his place.
And then he rips off his shirt, because Kirk ripping off his shirt is a thing people think they remember happening all the time in Star Trek.
He beats the everloving piss out of the gladiator, easily, despite refusing to use the (crystal, natch) sword they’d given him. Mariner finds herself troublingly aroused by the sight of it. The gladiator yields, and Ransom refuses to kill him. The Geltrackian leader is disappointed that they won’t get to execute the prisoners by dropping an enormous crystal on them. Which apparently they hardly ever get to do, because trial by combat doesn’t generally work out in the state’s favor on this planet. Hey, that’s actually a good joke! The gladiator (who, of course, is actually a sensitive soul who doesn’t really care for the tough-guy routine) tries to suggest that they try having an actual justice system instead, but the leader latches onto the idea of transitioning to a deathrace-based system and orders a crystal racetrack built. They pushed the joke maybe just a bit too far, but okay.
I like the outline of this, I really do. Just like having Boimler thrive under the time crunch finally establishes him as something other than a complete assclown, having Ransom defeat the gladiator and do it effortlessly does what the past few episodes have dropped the ball on: instead of “What if Star Trek but assholes?“, showing us that, yeah, this is a starfleet crew and the senior officers are in fact the sort of hypercompetent savants we have spent fifty years expecting from Trek. It’s not that Ransom was incompetent – as hinted when he refused to use phasers on the Geltrackians and was thus overcome by dudes with (crystal) spears, its that his commitment to The Starfleet Way forbade him from taking the pragmatic approach. If there is one thing you need to do in order to sell me that this is Star Trek, it’s that you have to hold fast to the choice to do things the right way rather than the pragmatic way. I hope at some point we will see Mariner fail for want of understanding that (Which doesn’t happen here; nothing challenges the idea that doing things her way would’ve been expedient and successful. It just would’ve been wrong).
While all that was going on, a force of Geltrackians invade the Cerritos, and the Captain – who at this point seems to have lost her marbles – orders everyone to stick to their schedule while repelling the invaders. Fortunately, the Geltrackians are mostly just interested in graffitting the ship so no one dies in the process. Everyone is too stressed out about deadlines to mount a proper defense, so the invaders have the run of the ship, though Boimler, who is, as I said, thriving, easily takes out any Geltrackians he comes across. He also seems strangely clueless about what’s going on, as though he doesn’t even see that everyone around him is struggling. It’s another very Fry moment that sacrifices sense for a joke I’m not sure I even get.
With everyone on the bridge glazed from overwork and distracted to the point of incompetence, the captain is trying to run all the stations by herself, with predictable efficiency – she herself seems only to see the efficiency numbers going down as the problem, ignoring the fact that her ship has pretty much been entirely conquered at this point. Boimler arrives on the bridge just ahead of the Geltrackians and has a sudden revelation while looking at the schedule clock displays on every terminal. He explains why buffer time is important and how most of the crew isn’t like him and doesn’t thrive under strict time constraints. The captain gets it and authorizes everyone to let their schedules slip and cut corners and do whatever they need to in order to regain control of the ship. Which instantly gives everyone the relief they need to use their phasers to overcome an invading crew armed with…
They made them literal spear-chuckers.
Were they worried that Discovery and Picard were too “woke”, so they’ve decided to let out decades of pent-up fantasy racism all at once in “the funny one”?
Anyway, the punchline to the B-plot is that Mariner refuses to report Ransom for stabbing her, but Ransom goes right ahead and has Mariner thrown in the brig for refusing to roll down her sleeves when ordered. Though he finds himself troublingly aroused when she repeatedly threatens his life as she’s dragged off by security. So that’s gross and abusive and awful.
The pen-punchline to the A-plot is that the captain is so impressed by Boimler’s suggestions that she institutes an official policy named for him, authorizing unlimited rule-breaking, corner-cutting and buffer time. Ha ha, the straight-laced guy who thrives under tight schedules and is a stickler for the rules made a name for himself by advocating rule-breaking and regulation-shirking. He’s a little hurt, but comforts himself in the knowledge that Starfleet official policies are a dime a dozen and this one will surely fade into obscurity…
Punchline time! Cut to a classroom in “the far future”, where the teacher finishes a lesson on the Boimler Effect, Starfleet’s most important policy ever, named for a man who is remembered as the laziest in Starfleet history. It’s not all about making fun of Boimler, though; we would assume he’d be horrified to have this as his legacy, but he is remembered as the second-most important person in all of Starfleet history for codifying laziness into an official guiding principle.
The first most important person in Starfleet history is Miles O’Brien. Which actually is a good punch line. Though the cartoon likeness of him is so weird that I’m not sure there isn’t another joke I’m missing about them showing a picture of the wrong dude.
There’s a lot I could say about this episode. There’s things I like structurally, and a couple of good jokes, but fewer than they intended. On the other hand, they very casually conflate laziness with responsible management of one’s time and vacillate on whether “buffer time” is about “slacking off” or, y’know, keeping able to do your job properly. It reminds me a lot of the movie The Invention of Lying which spends most of its time committed to ideas like “Loving someone who is not conventionally attractive is a lie,” or “Not constantly shouting every thought that pops into your head is a lie,” or “Assholes are the only honest people.”
But mostly I’m mad about the racism thing.
And I haven’t even gotten around to fully formulating the extent to which Mariner comes off as the Mary Sue from a twelve-year-old’s TNG fanfic who’s the best officer ever except that she’s cool and likes rock music and does sex and says swears. But I’m sure I’ll get to it eventually.
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