The problem with making low-rank Starfleet officers the heroes of your Star Trek show is that, at some point as it keeps going, they’ve done enough being heroes that it starts feeling a little weird that they’re still low-rank officers. Star Trek: Lower Decks, thankfully, is back to remind us that it’s very clever, and knows how to solve this issue wonderfully.
“Grounded,” the third season premiere of the show, comes in the wake of Ensigns Mariner, Boimler, Tendi, and Rutherford having done a whole lot for the U.S.S. Cerritos over the first two seasons of the show. They’ve paired up with senior officers, they’ve nearly died multiple times, they’ve been the heroes of the ship over and over, especially so as this picks up immediately where season two‘s explosive finale ended off, with the ship saved but Captain Freeman arrested and framed for the destruction of the Pakled homeworld. They’re less your standard Ensign at this point, but your... well, your Voyager’s Harry Kim kind of ensign: undoubtedly main characters of the story, yes somehow inexplicably still the lowest rank on the Starfleet-issue ladder.
And, for the most part, “Grounded” seems like it’s going to continue to play into our ensigns as the big damn heroes of their narrative. With the Cerritos locked down in drydock while Freeman stands trial before the Federation court, the crew and our heroes have gone their separate ways. But of course, Mariner cannot let her mother stand by and be framed for a crime she didn’t commit, and so goes about rallying the troops and hatching a suitably crazy plot to reach the Cerritos, bypass Starfleet security, and use, of all things, Boimler’s comically over-detailed personal logs to prove that Freeman couldn’t have been near the Pakled planet at the time of its destruction.
It’s a rip-roaring adventure of getting the band back together. There’s loving references from Deep Space Nine to First Contact, there’s beating unlikely odds, and the glorious, triumphant return of Star Trek civilian wear that looks like sweaters made entirely out of early ‘90s theater chain carpeting. It’s also very much a story in the mold of stories Lower Decks has gotten quite comfortable telling—Ensigns being told not to do something, doing it anyway, and getting away with it because without defying their status as the Lower Deckers of Starfleet, there wouldn’t have been heroes to save the day. And that’s all well and good, because Lower Decks is still incredibly adept at telling this kind of story with the sort of fun gags and heart we’ve come to expect of its three seasons in.
But what elevates “Grounded” is a sort of reset that manages to both address this idea that our Ensigns have become a little too enamored with the heroic spotlight, while also being deeply funny about it: none of the above adventure actually matters. Lulling us into a false sense of security, just as Mariner and her friends’ absurd plan—using a shoal of passing aliens that was blocking transporter access between the Cerritos’ drydock and Earth to provide cover as an important scientific research mission they’d been tasked with to dupe Starfleet Security—is about to pay off and they’ll get to court and prove Freeman’s been framed, Freeman herself shows up. And so does the rest of the Cerritos bridge crew. It turns out while Mariner, Boimler, Tendi, and Rutherford were hijinking around the Solar System and trying to be the heroes, an actual episode of Star Trek was happening off screen. A top team of Starfleet officers secretly investigated a link between the Pakleds and a data forger, and thanks to the help of a Command Tuvok mindmeld (see, it’s definitely an actual episode of Star Trek, with cameo and everything!), uncovered that it was actually the Pakleds themselves who destroyed their world—framing Captain Freeman so the Federation, out of shame, would be forced to relocate them to a new homeworld richer in resources.
All this is told in a couple-minute long montage narrated by Freeman herself in her best, most heroic voice, resplendent in the triumph of Starfleet having believed in one of its own despite appearances to the contrary on the surface. But immediately after, as Mariner tries to brush off her and her friends’ antics as “all’s well that end’s well” chicanery, Lower Decks gets even smarter, and doesn’t let her get away with it. Our heroes are well and truly knocked down a peg: Bomiler, Tendi, and Rutherford have to clean up the mess they’ve made, and Mariner crucially no longer has her mother responsible for tutting and passing off her repeated escapades because of their familial link, with Commander Ransom assigned to be Beckett’s final authority. Now, if she skirts authority, there’ll be actual repercussions, and the threat of her being kicked out of Starfleet suddenly feels more real than it has been for about half of the show’s lifetime at this point.
It adds a layer of stakes to Lower Decks’ third season that are much more interesting than the typical “save the ship, save the day” antics that the show has gotten up to in its first couple of seasons. And it’s not like those stories can’t happen any more, it’s just now our heroes, especially Mariner, have to be much more careful about how they navigate them. It refreshes the show coming into season three brilliantly, while still being funny as hell and true to what Lower Decks has always wanted to be: a series about the people milling in the background of an actual Star Trek narrative. Only a show like this could kick off a season by knocking its own heroes down a peg or two, but really, only a show like Lower Decks could make us love watching it happen.
New episodes of Star Trek: Lower Decks stream Thursdays on Paramount+.
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