The opening of Star Trek: Lower Decks’ third season has so far tackled the question of whether or not it’s time to knock our heroic ensigns down a peg or two, to get them back to the hapless nobodies they started the series as lest the whole premise fall apart. But three episodes in, its messaging is getting a bit confused beneath its layers of Trek parody.
“Mining the Mind’s Mines” sees the Cerritos team up with a fellow California-class ship, the Carlsbad. The two are called in after all the actual interesting action has happened—a negotiation between a group of Federation scientists and the silica-based Scrubble society they’ve found on the planet Jengus IV, and their colonies of fantasy-revealing psychic rocks—in order to clear up the mess left behind, as the Cerritos and Carlsbad’s captains look over the final details of peace between the Scrubbles and scientists.
So far, so very Star Trek. The Lower Decks layer comes in when, as the two teams of ensigns from each ship beam down to perform cleanup—team Carlsbad on dismantling the scientist’s outpost, team Cerritos (consisting of Boimler, Mariner, and Rutherford while Tendi has an actual job to do back on the ship) cleaning up the aforementioned psychic rocks—we discover that the Carlsbad ensigns have a bit of a short attitude with our crew. It turns out they know the Cerritos’ reputation, and it makes them want to get on with their jobs.
Naturally, this hurts Bomiler, Mariner, and Rutherford, but they’re also Boimler, Mariner, and Rutherford, so it quickly descends into chaos as they try to “beat” the Carlsbad crew at their own game and prove that they’re not just goofballs goofing around. They do this by, well, goofing around, treating disposal of the psychic rocks like a basketball game as they duck and weave their way through the fantasies they project for each other—Mariner and her Andorian girlfriend Jennifer, Bomiler and promises of heroics and promotion, and Rutherford with... warp engineer Leah Brahms offering him a chance to talk theory?—and this goes as well as you’d expect. So far, so very Lower Decks.
When the containment unit housing the rocks is smashed, destroying them, the psychic abilities within that project fantasies begin projecting nightmares, forcing the ensigns of the Carlsbad and Cerritos to work together to save the day. And, typically, this is where you’d expect some sort of mutual understanding to come through. Surely, the Carlsbad crew will learn that the Cerritos’ reputation for screwing up is unfounded, and that there are good and passionate people aboard it who just have been thrown into a fantastic amount of Star Trek weirdness during their tour of duty. But the twist of “Mining the Mind’s Mines” is that actually, the Carlsbad ensigns never thought the Cerritos crew were goofs. They think they’re awesome, because they get to deal with that fantastic amount of Star Trek weirdness all the time. They’re the heroes of the support class ships, the living legends of Lower Decks.
And... it’s weird. It’s so weird in an early part of a season that has largely been about puncturing that belief for our heroes themselves, so they can actually learn some important lessons about each other and their own roles in Starfleet. It would’ve been interesting to see Boimler, Mariner, and Rutherford accept that their peers just don’t give them the respect they deserve for managing to make their way through the bullshit the Cerritos faces every week, and prove that they can rise above it. Instead, the episode just tells them that they’re pretty cool and should carry on.
It feels like a mixed message, especially as the crux of the episode relies on Tendi back aboard the ship stepping up and learning something about herself. Having spent all day in science officer training with some very bad advice from the Cerritos’ counselor, it’s Tendi who uncovers the fact that the Scrubbles and the scientists are actually working together to fleece Starfleet, and the psychic rocks are actually advanced data-recorders set up in the hopes of catching Federation classified information to be sold on the black market—an uncovering that only happens when she stands up for herself and takes on board the advice that she first mistrusted. She didn’t need to be told that she’s one of the cool ones after all, but to earn her authority if she wants to become a science officer some day. That feels like the actual earned lesson of the episode, but it’s lost in the misunderstanding between the Cerritos and Carlsbad crews down on the planet.
And it leaves this early part of Lower Decks’ third season in a peculiar place. What does it actually want to say about our heroes? Are they destined to be stuck on the lowest rungs of command forever? Are they already the big damn heroes of their story? And how should they handle either of those revelations? So far, Lower Decks feels like it’s unsure to say—and in being so, it’s running a little thin on what it can do beyond loving parody.
New episodes of Star Trek: Lower Decks arrive Thursdays on Paramount+.
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