Star Trek: Lower Decks has had a rough third season, with rare moments of eking out character growth cast under the shadow of a regressive feeling of pulling main characters traveling paths they’d already navigated. Its finale, for better or worse, at resets the show in some ways, so we can forget most of this season actually happened.
Picking up from last week’s re-hash of the Captain Freeman/Mariner conflict that drove the first season of the show, “The Stars at Night” largely navigates away from that drama to give us some suitably finale-worthy stakes. With Admiral Buenamigo’s Texas-class drone ships revealed and proved of their potential saving the Cerritos last week, he now moves forward in his plan to replace the human crews of the California-Class shipswith his new drone vessels, threatening to put our heroes and all of their fellow support vessels out of service.
The idea of drone ships is an interesting conundrum for the Federation, especially given the long history we’ve seen of how Starfleet has handled, poorly or otherwise, the labor rights of non-organic beings in its service. What rights does the A.I. that controls an entire starship have? Are they officers in the fleet? What does it mean when these ships are put into drydock? Can you give a drone shore leave?
Since Lower Decks is a comedic adventure first and foremost, this idea is largely left unexplored, and instead given over to the much funnier idea of Captain Freeman’s desperate gambit to keep the Cali ships in service: a race between the Cerritos and a Texas-Class drone on a series of rudimentary Starfleet missions, to see which ship performs them the quickest and to the satisfactory standard. For the most part, the race is neck and neck, until a decision by Ensign Tendi—the correct decision—to double check if a planet is host to sentient microbial life not picked up on initial surveys means the Cerritos narrowly loses to the drone, and the fate of the California ships seemingly sealed.
But any interesting intellectual side of this conflict between the Texas and California classes is almost immediately kicked aside to reveal that Buenamigo is not so Buen an amigo after all: his victory assured, the Admiral reveals that it was his plan all along to undermine Carol to give the Texas-Class ships the edge among his fellow Admirals, and even worse, he’s the architect behind Rutherford’s memory loss, hiding the fact that the Texas A.I. is based on none other than the code for psycho hologram “helper” Badgey from the first season of the show. While Badgey’s return—and, thanks to the mid-credits scene, a reveal that he’s still around for more villainy—is a nice surprise, pinning the potential interest of the Texas-Class’ existence in Starfleet on the twist that it’s really just another bog-standard Star Trek Admiral-gone-bad completely undercuts it.
It does at least give “The Stars at Night” some suitably explosive stakes. As the Texas ships turn on Buenamigo and promptly kill him, it’s up to the Cerritos—and the timely arrival of all the other California-Class ships in the fleet, thanks to a change of heart by Mariner—to stop them all and save the day, which, of course, they do. Everyone’s happy! Boimler asserts his boldness! Rutherford has found meaning to his history! Mariner is back in Starfleet and in her mom’s good books! And... yes, it’s a win, but it also means so little that this season ultimately feels like it doesn’t really matter. We’re largely back to the status quo Lower Decks had before the shock of Captain Freeman being arrested in season 2's final moments. The fact that everyone on the Cerritos seemed to hate Mariner for betraying them in the last episode, her girlfriend included, is also brushed aside, so we really are just back with Mariner and Carol getting along—but given the rapid twist at the start of this season that soured their relationship as Captain and Ensign, what’s to say something like that just couldn’t come out of nowhere again, and we do this whole arc with them over?
At least some growth happened for the characters beyond Mariner and her status as Lower Decks’ defacto protagonist. Tendi’s path to senior officer training means that we at last get to pick up on the promise of season 2's excellent episode “Wej Duj,” with T’Lyn finally getting on board the ship as a fresh-faced counterpart to our seasoned Lower Deckers. Now that Rutherford’s backstory has been fleshed out, there’s a lot of potential on the stage for Badgey to potentially become a major villain in season 4. And even if Boimler’s progression t o “Bold Boimler” was a little slight, it pays off wonderfully when he bonds with Shax and gets everyone on the bridge to listen to the Bajoran’s explosive desires for once.
That’s enough that “The Stars at Night” doesn’t feel like some of the lows this third season of Lower Decks has endured so far. There is potential here, so the up-and-down journey of these ten episodes ultimately feels worth it. For now, it’s a good thing that Lower Decks seems right back where it was coming into season 3... if only because it makes it much easier to forget that a lot of those lows happened.
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