Today’s Star Trek: Lower Decks asks its surprising lead character if it’s worth trying to do something out of your comfort zone, even if you fail. At least unlike its surprising lead character, Lower Decks is much better having tried, even if not everything quite worked out.
That surprising lead in “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” is none other than Peanut Hamper, the Exocomp science ensign who appeared in Lower Decks’ first season finale. There, the singular gag—recapped at the start of the episode, helpfully—was that Peanut Hamper, despite being perfectly suited to help her new friends aboard the Cerritos in their dire battle with the Pakleds, was an absolute jerk, and beamed herself away to leave them to figure it out themselves. What we learn in a surprisingly muted opening credits sequence—the first of many experiments Lower Decks goes for this week—was in fact just the debris in the aftermath of the battle between the Pakleds and Starfleet, and the start of a whole new adventure for the little sentient computer that becomes the focus of this episode’s plot.
This is a big swing, and not just for the fact that this is the first Lower Decks episode with practically almost an entirely new cast—the crew of the Cerritos doesn’t come in until two thirds of the way through, and even then the focus largely remains on Peanut Hamper and the tribal, avian-humanoid population of the planet Areolus that Peanut crash-lands on after her attempts to stop floating in space. But it’s less of a big swing due to the unfamiliar perspective and introducing an entire new world (which is handled pretty well, for humor and creative purposes, taking time to explore an alien Star Trek society that, while tropey, is fleshed out deftly in the episode’s runtime), and more about another simple fact: Peanut Hamper sucks.
That’s the gag, really, and in Lower Decks’ first season finale, her short appearance being pretty much about the fact that she’s a terrible person-slash-computer works because that’s just it. Peanut Hamper reveals she sucks, and then she’s gone, and that’s funny! But asking us to sit with a character who existed to be so explicitly unlikeable for an entire episode from their perspective—a perspective that, for the most part, still sucks, and we’ll get to that—is a really tough ask. And Lower Decks comes so close to making it work.
Over the course of the episode, as Peanut Hamper spends more time with the Areore, we begin to get a classic reversal on a Star Trek hallmark—a Starfleet officer (or kind of ex-Starfleet) enmeshing themselves within a “primitive” culture and, when their dismissal is challenged, coming to accept that culture’s viewpoint and grow into a better individual. The interesting idea of having such a completely irascible—and very deliberately un-Starfleet—“hero” thrust into this trope quickly gives way to what seems to be an earnest retelling of that trope, and while not entirely new, it would’ve at least given Peanut Hamper depth being her original existence as a singular, unlikable gag.
But then “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” reveals that its twist is, in fact, a twist on a twist: the redemption of the title is not genuine. As Peanut Hamper seemingly saves the Areore and her old allies on the Cerritos when the planet is attacked by scavengers, it’s revealed that she actually orchestrated the entire event so Starfleet wouldn’t arrest her for desertion. The Arerore’s society is literally and metaphorically torn apart by the battle, Peanut Hamper is just a terrible little Exocomp, and she gets thrown into a vault at the Daystrom institute with other asshole computers, including beloved Star Trek recurring guest star Jeffrey Combs, teasing a team up between Peanut and his evil AI Agimus from season two somewhere down the line.
That end result is pretty fun, but it also means that the entire episode you’ve just watched boils down to “hey, this character you thought sucked? Well, maybe they don’t. Oh, hahaha: they do!” While it is technically an extended joke to play on your audience befitting a comedy series like Lower Decks, as an episode of television, in a show that’s proven it can be really good at character development in unlikely ways, it just feels like a joke that’s a little more intellectually cruel than it is a compelling gag. In a season that has been decidedly up and down in its approach to character over comedy too, it doesn’t help but feel like an experimental leap for the series that is just not bold enough to work, so it retreats to the comfort and security of a “Gotcha!” gag.
And yet, I can’t help but praise Lower Decks for trying, unlike its thoroughly unlikeable “hero” this episode. Even if this long-winded path to setting up Peanut Hamper as a potential threat down the line didn’t really pan out all too well, it’s a very Starfleet thing, in fact, to try and do good and fail—instead of not trying at all.
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