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Some Blundering About Star Trek: Lower Decks 1×03 Envoys

Well that was an improvement. We’re not all the way to “good”, but at least at a conceptual level we’re closer to where a show like this ought to be. The cold open has the Cerritos encounter an energy being, who demands worship and tribute. Mariner threatens to shove it into a container, but trades its freedom for it using its powers to manifest a high-end tricorder. It sets off to find someone else to demand worship from, but the effort of creating the tricorder has left it so diminished that it fizzles out unnoticed on the Captain’s shirt. I think. The framing of the scene was reminiscent of a setup for some kind of “Uh oh, a transcendental energy being just poofed into the female character’s torso; now she’s gonna be pregnant with a magic spacebaby!” plot, but so far, the cold opens have not connected up to anything else in the plot, so I guess it just died?

So, A-plot this week is that Boimer’s got a prestigious assignment to ferry a Klingon diplomat to a peace conference, and things go south and he finds out that his high-falutin’ book-larnin’ isn’t worth shit in the real world and he needs Mariner’s streetwise real-world smarts to bail him out and yeah, I am cringing a lot at this, and this isn’t even the cringiest part of the plot. But at least it’s the right sort of general shape for what I want out of this show: a sort of broadly sitcomish “Oh no, things got out of hand and now we need to clean up this mess before mom and dad the senior officers get home!”

The B-plot is, I think, a little better in execution, though something feels clunky at the conceptual level – it seems to slot into character arcs that aren’t ready for it yet. Rutherford has promised to watch a pulsar with Tendi, but his engineering duties interfere so he offers to change careers. Are they an item now? Even at the end of the episode, I’m not sure. I’m leaning toward, “Rutherford has a crush on Tendi but she hasn’t realized it and just thinks he’s being friendly,” but I don’t feel like the characterization of either one of them is strong enough on this. And given that Tendi is Orion, there’s an opening here for, “Without realizing it, Tendi has been ensorceling Rutherford with her sexy green lady pheromones,” which will greatly upset me if it comes to pass.

It turns out K’orinn, the Klingon diplomat, is an old friend of Mariner’s and also a notorious drunkard, so she tags along, but he steals their shuttle to go on a bender. As Boimer and Mariner give chase, Boimer repeatedly gets into trouble due to his lack of street smarts and has to get saved. He enrages a large blue alien when trying to speak its native language; he almost gets impregnated by a parasitic alien’s deceptive seduction attempts and he starts a bar fight trying to “save” a shapeshifting thief disguised as an elderly Andorian. Discouraged, he promises to quit Starfleet, having discovered that he’s not good at learning by experience and can’t get by on book-smarts.

Deep breath.

So… the first thing I’ll say is this: “The book-smart character doesn’t know anything about the real world and can’t get by without the street-smart character,” is a tired, tired, tired cliche. Not in-and-of-itself offensive in normal times, but as we are currently living in the highly specific hell of the cultural belief that one’s uninformed “gut” is more accurate and useful than actual expertise having brought civilization to a screaming halt, possibly this was not a good cultural moment for this particular cliche or really any anti-intellectual cliche? Particularly as completely, relentlessly straight as it is played here. Layer on top of it the fact that the “book smart” character is the white man and the “street smart” character is a woman of color, and now you’re tapping into some stereotypes that… I’m not qualified to discuss this in detail, but it’s a little cringey. It throws a bit of a spotlight on the whole setup of “Mariner is the sassy black woman who brings rebellious, counter-cultural excitement into the lives of the uptight square white folks.” That her parents are part of the Uptight Square Establishment helps a little, but we’re still talking about elevating it from “Black friend in an ’80s sitcom” to “Will Smith in Fresh Prince of Bel Air“.

But on top of all that, there’s another big issue with this use of the booksmart/streetwise cliche: they never actually establish Boimer as “book-smart”. Boimer has, over the course of these two episodes, pretty consistently been wrong about everything. Boimer asks, “I spent so much time studying! Why don’t I know how to handle these situations?” Even if they were aiming for, “Because not everything can be learned from books,” what they’re actually hitting is more like, “Because you are very stupid and haven’t learned a damn thing.” These feel like more shades of Philip Fry: Fry is a character who is in many cases stupid because he is a fish-out-of-water, being a thousand years out of date, but also because he’s just plain dumb. It’s kind of a double-edged joke in Futurama, but it doesn’t work as well in a Star Trek setting, plus, it’s not at all clear to me that it’s intentional. Boimer also has a lot of Fry’s “Mediocre White Man Entitlement”, and I really don’t think that‘s intentional. Fry is sort of lowkey contemptuous of the idea that he ought to educate himself about the world he lives in; it should be enough that he is a mediocre white man – that should be a guarantor of success. In Futurama, this is for the most part funny because the universe is not having his shit. Boimer shows signs of that kind of entitlement, but I don’t think they mean it that way. Boimer acts as though he has put in the work to understand his world and be good at his job, and is frustrated that his hard work isn’t paying off. That could be a good character arc, particularly if we see the reasons for his work not paying off as being largely due to the fruits of his labor being co-opted by others – last week, for example, when he spends hours receiving the world’s worst oral from a giant spider but receives no credit for the zombie virus cure he acquired from it. Here, it’s not really in service to anything. And besides, like I said, his labor here is purely informed. He doesn’t seem to have learned anything.

The climax comes when they get an offer of a ride to catch up with K’orinn from a transparently shady Ferengi, and…

Deep breath.

Despite having his spirit crushed, Boimer objects to taking a ride from a Ferengi, going on a long tirade about how Ferengi are shifty and untrustworthy and thieving, and drink the blood of Christian babies and– Okay, it’s not that bad. I didn’t notice anything that directly played on traditional antisemitic tropes. It’s all very generic. But all the same, even if it didn’t target any specific real human race, it felt very overtly racist. Not in the usual Star Trek way of “The characters do not themselves act overtly racist, but the depiction of this alien culture draws, posibly through negligence rather than intent, on racist stereotypes,” but rather, Boimer is himself, in the script, being overtly racist toward the Ferengi. To an extent that’s certainly not unique in Trek, but I can’t think of another example that’s so glib about it. It’s not a teachable moment, it’s not an insight into a character flaw, it’s not a call to reform and redeem; Boimer just tells a Ferengi to his face that his kind are dirty, and nothing comes of it. In a comedy.

Anyway, Mariner reckons the Ferengi seems trustworthy (also, she thinks he’s a Bolian), and is all set to go with him, but Boimer catches him in a lie using his book-smarts I guess (He asks for his landing authorization code, which he doesn’t have, since the shuttle was a lie), the Ferengi pulls a knife, Boimer stuns him, and regains his confidence. They reach the shuttle just in time to avoid going AWOL and dump the blacked-out K’orinn on the doorstep of the embassy.

Back on the Cerritos, the other junior officers celebrate Boimer’s cleverness as he retells the story in the bar. Mariner slips out, casting back a sly smile despite the fact that his story makes her look bad. Obviously, anyone with enough brain cells to actually work the CBS All-Access app knew that Mariner obviously did not confuse a Ferengi for a Bollian, and was just setting Boimer up to boost his confidence. Once again showing the utter lack of faith in the audience, she returns to her bunk and calls the Ferengi, an old friend of hers. I guess the scene isn’t totally pointless, since without it you would assume that the ambush was legitimate and Mariner had only faked falling for it, rather than the whole thing being a set-up. Never mind that part of the plot had hinged on the fact that you can’t call out from the planet’s surface due to its defense grid. Also, never mind that Mariner set her Ferengi friend up to get racial slurs shouted at him and then get shot.

The B-plot is lighter and, frankly, more satisfying. Right after receiving a round of praise and camaraderie from the engineering chief for his work in the tubes, Rutherford nervously requests reassignment. The scene darkens, the music strikes an ominous chord, we go tight in on the chief engineer’s look of betrayal and disappointment and… Everyone congratulates him and wishes him well because this is Starfleet and expanding your horizons and going beyond your comfort zone is praiseworthy, and some other department will be lucky to have him. This is the first time a joke in Lower Decks has felt like it came from a place of deep engagement with Star Trek rather than a very superficial mockery of the most obvious tropes. I’m not crazy about the pacing of the joke, but I love the concept.

Rutherford tries his hand at various other departments, with mixed results. In command, he destroys the Cerritos in two separate simulations, leaving the first officer eager to see how he’ll screw up other scenarios (This shtick with the first officer . Now, I was sort of expecting it to just be “He’s bad at everything else” over and over, so I was pleased that they actually did change it up. In Medical (There doesn’t seem to be distinction between Science and Medical on the Cerritos. Possibly that’s because they’re a support ship and original research isn’t their major focus), he’s technically competent but has terrible bedside manner, almost giving a patient a heart attack with his unfiltered reaction to the severity of an injury. The structure of the scene is solid, but the humor doesn’t quite land. As I said last time, the ship’s doctor’s whole thing is being over-the-top cynical and crochety. So having her dress down Rutherford for his lack of bedside manner ought to be joke in itself. There should be more humor in the construction of a character who is grumpy and impatient and gruff is complaining about someone else not sugarcoating it, but it’s just played completely straight, and it’s weird. His last stop is security, where the chief pits him against a simulation of a dozen Borg, which he later admits is meant to teach new recruits how to face getting curbstomped. But Rutherford’s implant calculates the optimal combat strategy, allowing him to take down the simulated attackers and winning the respect of the security chief.

He takes him back to security, introduces him around, and everyone heaps praise and brotherly camaraderie on him for proving himself worthy of the cream of the crop, expositing on how all the other departments aren’t fit to lick the boots of security (Fun visual which I feel like I somehow already knew but can not for the life of me remember ever having seen before: the soles of Starfleet uniform shoes are matched to the department color). But he spies a Jeffries tube along the wall and it tugs at his heartstrings, and the episode’s best joke evolves into an even better joke, as he tells the chief that he wants to go back to engineering. And the scene darkens, the music strikes an ominous chord, we go tight in on the security chief’s look of betrayal and disappointment and… Everyone congratulates him and wishes him well because this is Starfleet and following your heart is important and this is a post-capitalist society where a job should be about your own passion and self-fulfillment rather than prestige or advancement and Engineering will be lucky to have him back.

The announcement that he’s returned to engineering makes little impact on Tendi, who didn’t realize Rutherford’s job hunt was primarily about her. She cared more about the company than the view anyway, and is perfectly happy to watch the pulsar from a padd while curled up next to him in a Jeffries tube. Yeah… They’re not actively snuggling, but it seems more than platonic. I’m not sure I care either way, but the mixed signals feel like sloppy writing (This isn’t the only sloppy writing about Rutherford; they haven’t yet told us why he’s got a cybernetic implant, but the tone seems like it wants to imply he did it voluntarily for no medical reason, which is strange given humanity’s taboo about transhumanism).

A distinct improvement from last week. The execution of Rutherford’s plot is a little shaky, but its heart is in the right place: it’s a good mix of showing that he doesn’t fit anywhere but engineering without making him look like an idiot – it succeeds at doing what the parallel plot with Boimer fails at. I still don’t like that the first officer and the security chief are both being played up so hard as ridiculous caricatures – the first officer is basically Zapp Brannigan, and the security chief is pretty much your pick of Abusive High School Gym Teacher characters. The doctor and the engineering chief are okay, though.

If I were the one writing this show, you’d hardly ever see the senior officers. And when you did, it would mostly be in passing, as a way to reinforce the idea, “Normal Star Trek stuff is still going on, it’s just that we’re seeing the view from below.” The main joke for the senior officers would be that we don’t see the context. The Easter egg (because like 70% of the humor they are going for in this show is “Can the fans catch all the references?”) would be that mostly what we see of them is passing the junior officers in the hallway while talking about something borrowed from elsewhere in the canon: “So we have to change the frequency of the EPS grid to sour the milk,” or, “Now I have to figure out what to do with a hundred gross of self-sealing stem bolts,” or, “Maybe we can apply multimodal reflection sorting,” or “Ann…. Tee…. Bah…. Dees…”

But anyway, Rutherford’s plot feels like it’s properly engaged with Star Trek and finds a way to deal with it humorously without resorting to superficial pop-culture cliches. The Mariner/Boimer plot, on the other hand, is still screwing around in “Klingon names all have random apostrophes!” jokes (In fact, less than a quarter of the named Klingons in the franchise have apostrophes in their names) and “Kirk tears his shirt in every episode!” jokes (In fact, his shirt is torn seven times. Also, they haven’t actually made a “Kirk tearing his shirt” joke yet, but I feel like it’s got to be coming) and casual racism. They’re still doing Star Trek jokes while the other half of the plot is actually having a go at doing funny Star Trek. I hope that second half will become the dominant one.

Also, I hope they’ll get good at being funny, because neither half is especially good at that.

This post first appeared on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging | Welcome To The WORL, please read the originial post: here

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Some Blundering About Star Trek: Lower Decks 1×03 Envoys


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