When CBS revived Star Trek and promptly turned it into a swath of new series about boldly going, these myriad projects all found themselves grappling with a familiar question. It’s one that’s underpinned over half a century of the franchise: is Starfleet a scientific organisation, or a military one? The time has come for Paramount+’s animated Lower Decks to reckon with it… in its own suitably loving manner, of course.
After last week’s premiere firmly focused on the exploits of our Cerritos ensigns, season two’s second episode, “Kayshon, His Eyes Open,” explores this question by asking what becomes two halves of the show. We see the arrival of new Security Chief Lieutenant Kayshon — voiced by Carl Tart, playing a Tamarian of “Darmok” infamy, and of course, there are plenty of allegorical linguistic jokes throughout. He leads Mariner, Tendi, and Rutherford — who are joined by last season’s too-cool-for-school hunk Jet (Marcus Henderson) — on their first away mission together. They’re tasked with helping archive the vault of a Collector — like, you know, those jerks that tried to collect Data.
Meanwhile, aboard the Titan, Boimler is dragged into an action-packed infiltration mission to help uncover what the Pakleds are up to subjugating a mining colony. On the one hand, stealth! Elaborate backstories! Phaser fights! The thrill of the chase! On the other… packing stuff up! Of course, being Lower Decks, the initially “dull” side of things promptly turns out to be just as chaotic as Boimler and the Titan’s battle with the Pakleds.
The Collector the Cerritos liaises with tries to steal an artefact — specifically the uh, sex helmet of Khaless… you’re welcome for that visual imagery. In doing so, he activates a wild defence system that, among other things, transmogrifies poor Kayshon into an adorable soft doll, and the Ensigns find themselves trying to escape with all their body parts still intact.
Even then, the push and pull between derring-do heroism and measured, practical safety that defines these two aspects of Starfleet across science and military comes to play here. Mariner, being Mariner, wants to enact a risky retreat plan that will drag Jet, Tendi, and Rutherford through several now-hostile exhibits (and some “harmless” radiation) to disable the vault ship’s engine. Jet, meanwhile, offers an alternative plan: why not just… get to the escape pods, which are closer to their current position, especially considering their commanding officer on the team just got turned into a doll?
We get to contrast these two dueling forces — the Cerritos team dodging killer security drones and impractically giant, sucking garbage disposal units with the Titan away team doing their own equivalent battling the Pakleds — with Rutherford and Tendi having a nightmare time on one hand, and Boimler having a similar experience on the other.
As both teams find themselves seemingly trapped with no way out, it’s these two facets of each away team that push them to make an important realisation: Starfleet isn’t just high-octane action or nerdy science puzzle solving — it’s both. Its tent is large enough for all sorts of people, some better at one of those than the other. And the way to navigate that duality is by getting them to work together, whether it’s the folks who are in Starfleet for adventure, or the folks who are in it to study moss.
There is no conflict that cannot be endured by Starfleet officers choosing to work together, regardless of whether they’re the equivalent of Starfleet academy Jocks and Nerds — and upon realising that, both away teams find ways to survive seemingly certain death. Boimler manages to modulate past a comms-blocking distortion field to beam his team out safely back to the Titan, Tendi and Rutherford work together to pilfer bits of the exhibition they’re trapped in to cut a shorter path to the escape pods, and everyone gets out safely. Well, mostly safely.
As heartwarmingly earnest as Lower Decks can be about Star Trek, it also equally loves its self-referentially loving mockery. So naturally, it turns out that Boimler’s plan — ripped right out of Will Riker’s playbook — gets himself a Thomas Riker of his own.
By that we mean a transporter malfunction clone who, unlike the Boimler we know and love, is quite all right staying aboard the Titan with its high-octane life of phaser fights and action-packed away missions. And so, Boimler (a Boimler, at least) gets to return to the Cerritos as an ensign, getting to live the nerdy Starfleet life of weird missions and weirder science, while the other stays aboard the Titan, swigging Romulan ale and getting ready to kick interstellar arse.
And that’s all perfectly Star Trek, of course. The franchise is, and always will be, big enough to house both of these seemingly contradictory views of Starfleet — cooperation between these “sides” is what makes Starfleet the community it is in the first place. Sometimes it takes working together to realise that. Sometimes… well, sometimes you just need a good transporter accident or two.