Lower Decks Is the Star Trek Show That Got Its Finale Right This Year

Lower Decks Is the Star Trek Show That Got Its Finale Right This Year
The saga of Mariner's place aboard the Cerritos comes to a head. (Image: CBS)

This year has already given us two brand new Star Trek shows, with a returning third imminently on the way. But of the two that have now come on gone — Star Trek: Picard and Star Trek: Lower Decks — only one’s grand finale managed to temper gleeful nostalgia with a sense of earned character work…and it’s maybe not the one any of us would’ve expected it to be coming into 2020.

Illustration: Jim Cooke Illustration: Jim Cooke

“No Small Parts” spares no expense building off of last week’s explosive holodeck escapades, either in terms of its splashy high-stakes action or, thankfully, its character work. It gets off at a remarkable clip, picking up where we left off (give or take an away mission to Beta III to check in on that rascally computer Landru) to have Boimler and Mariner get at it over the former knowing the latter’s secret. But, Boimler being Boimler, he doesn’t realise that he exposes said secret — that Mariner is really Captain Freeman’s daughter — over comms with the Cerritos, making what was a personal conflict between friends a suddenly ship-wide disaster.

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It’s not the disaster you might have expected, although still incredibly embarrassing for Mariner. No one is mad at Captain Freeman for hiding her familial link, and although Mariner is deeply upset at Boimler for, even inadvertently, exposing it, the problems it creates now is that instead of being mad at her all the time, the entire crew just wants to kiss her arse. It’s a fascinating moment of despair for Mariner in light of last week’s emotional resolution that she really did care about the people around her in Starfleet beyond her anti-authoritarian persona. Now she finds everyone, including some of her friends, putting on fake fineries and compliments in the hopes getting in with the Captain’s daughter will get them ahead.

Image: CBS Image: CBS

But it’s Boimler shooting his shot — hoping to use his connection to her to get a promotion to the Sacramento — that really hits Mariner hard. Deciding the only way to escape the hell of pleasantries she’s in is to leave the Cerritos altogether, she attempts to become the model candidate for the Sacremento promotion instead, putting her in Boimler’s persnickety crosshairs. Or, rather, would, if the duo’s fracturing relationship wasn’t rudely interrupted by the Bridge Officer’s A-plot of the week crashing in (almost literally). On what Captain Freeman assumes to be a routine check-up with the U.S.S. Solvang after a distress call, the Cerritos finds itself assaulted by a Pakled fleet — no more the seemingly dumb con artists they were when Picard and crew fought them in TNG, but now a…slightly less dumb but much more threatening group of pirate raiders, relying on the galaxy’s low assumptions of them to overwhelm and literally tear apart ships for tech.

With the Cerritos being sliced to pieces and Pakled’s boarding the ship — critically wounding Freeman as the Bridge Crew and the Lower Deckers desperately fight to hold off the inevitable against a surprisingly unstoppable force — everything suddenly feels… well, very Star Trek. Not Star Trek in the way Lower Decks has been, in its earnestly sincere manner, but a classic finale cut from the same cloth as the greats of the franchise came before it. OK, so maybe scale-wise it’s more of a “Basics” than it is a “Best of Both Worlds,” but for these characters? It’s big. And also, weirdly a lot like a Star Trek finale we got earlier this year with Picard.

Whether it’s the base-under-siege framing or the fact that for the second time running Will Riker shows up in a Captain’s chair to save the day (this time aboard the Titan, and this time with Deanna Troi at his side!), at points “No Small Parts” evokes the same sort of nostalgia-yearning that Picard’s “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2” did earlier this year — sorry, time-dilation fans, that really was still 2020 seven million years ago. But while Picard’s sudden dip into nostalgia it had keenly avoided for much of its first season felt sour, here the arrival of familiar faces to save the day feels triumphant, even if Lower Decks had already spent its season gleefully trafficking in jokey nostalgic celebrations of Star Trek tropes.

Image: CBS Image: CBS

Part of the reason for it is that, unlike in Picard’s finale — a median on what it means to sacrifice that, at the very last minute, decided its hero was far too important to face the consequences of sacrifice — “No Small Parts” actually has huge consequences for the Cerritos crew that will stick around beyond this episode. The ship is almost destroyed, leading to a refit (albeit a non-cosmetic one, as Captain Freeman chafes at the idea of her ship coming out like a Sovereign-class, ouch). Lieutenant Shaxs straight-up dies, sacrificing himself so that Rutherford can escape the Pakled ship after uploading a virus to disable their systems and Rutherford himself is physically wounded and experiencing amnesia, his implant ripped off after it’s revealed that murderous holodeck program Badgey staged the Virus’ almost-failure in an attempt to kill his creator (again).

In less drastic ways, the rest of our Lower Deckers are forced to confront how they see themselves in a moment of crisis, whether it’s Mariner having to put aside her issues with her mum to come into her own, or Tendi realising that she can’t achieve success solely through supporting others but on her own merits as well — thanks to her goofy new Exocomp mentee, Peanut Hamster, peacing out on the crew in their hour of need. Just because Riker shows up with the Titan’s phaser banks charged and the TNG theme cranked up to 11 doesn’t negate the fact that the Cerritos crew pays for surviving its encounter with the Pakleds, one it wasn’t prepared for because they’d gone in operating on assumption.

That really is what this episode, and Lower Decks, has been about: defying assumption. Mariner’s entire arc this season has been about dealing with how people see her and her future in Starfleet, on her terms, and are paid off here as she finally patches up her relationship with her mum seemingly for good. Rutherford’s sacrifices come at the expense of not having dealt with Badgey back in their first holodeck encounter builds off of what could’ve easily been a silly, one-off riff of holodeck-gone-wrong tropes, and now has lasting consequences going into season two. But perhaps the biggest consequence of all hanging over the show going forward is the assumption that both Mariner and the audience had made over the course of Lower Decks’ first season: that Boimler had learned to loosen up and put being with people he cares about before advancing up the Starfleet career ladder.

Image: CBS Image: CBS

When the dust settles on the Pakled encounter and the Cerritos is awaiting its refit, a chance encounter with Captain Riker sees Boimler, with zero hesitation, leave his friends behind and accept a promotion aboard the Titan. It’s a move that, initially, reads as surprisingly cruel: especially leaving a very enraged Mariner on pad-read as she leaves violent messages for him abandoning her and their supposed friends. At the same time, it brings it all back to that warning of operating on assumptions. Everyone, seemingly himself included, had assumed that Boimler had become more comfortable not chasing rank and just living the joys of being aboard a Starfleet vessel. But the impulse to be that kind of stickler never went away. It was just pushed aside, and now that impulse has drawn him to both a new rank and a chance to ingratiate himself to a new circle of people that could help boost his career further.

The signs were there, even in this episode — from the way he tries to hold the secret of Mariner and Freeman’s relationship over Mariner, to his anger at her masquerading as the pitch-perfect Starfleet ensign to poach the Sacremento job he wanted. His mid-battle admittance to her that the only reason he applies he because he thinks he’d never be considered for it goes completely out the window the first time it becomes tested: a somewhat bold move for Lower Decks to show that, for better or worse, some assumptions about people don’t always change.

Photo: CBS Photo: CBS

It’s an interesting set of scenarios the show finds itself facing heading into its second season. Once again we find our Ensign heroes divided into two separate plotlines, something that was somewhat of a problem this season, and hopefully, this isn’t an indication season two could suffer from splitting the Lower Deckers into two separate pairs instead of treating them as a cohesive whole. While Mariner has to deal with Boimler’s abandonment, Tendi finds herself looking over Rutherford’s recovery from his trauma with the Pakleds, helping him re-learn who he is without either his cybernetic implant or the memories he made with her over the course of the season.

It’s clear that it’ll once again be Boimler and Mariner that’ll be the focus heading into season two. Will betrayal at the hands of who she thought was her best friend re-orient Mariner’s own recent realisations over her place in Starfleet? Is it a career or the people around you that matter most in a Star Trek show? Whatever questions Lower Decks looks to ask going into its future, we can’t wait to see how it does. If “No Small Parts” was in some ways about challenging assumptions we’ve made about Star Trek or Lower Decks itself in the past, then we’re more than happy to be pleasantly surprised at just how strongly this debut season turned out.

Banner art by Jim Cooke.