Whether on a plate or on the Cerritos bridge, Robert Duncan McNeill’s return as Voyager pilot and holodeck aficionado Tom Paris was the big draw for Star Trek: Lower Deck’s latest episode. But as ever with this show, the Trek cameos are never really the big deal — it’s how they’re used to say things about Lower Decks’ actual heroes.
In the excellently titled “We’ll Always Have Tom Paris”, McNeill’s brief appearance as the cocky Lieutenant stands somewhere between season one’s brief gag appearances by Q and Miles O’Brien, and Jonathan Frakes’ return as a jazz loving jock Riker over at the U.S.S. Titan. While not quite so major a catalyst for our heroes as Riker’s presence — he’s mainly there for Boimler’s sake — Paris’ presence provides an interesting centre for a myriad of plotlines to spin around, ones that, refreshingly, push our Lower Deckers in some interesting new directions.
In what spins out to be not just one, but three different plot through lines in one of the series’ most narratively-dense episodes yet, Boimler, Rutherford, Tendi, and Mariner all largely spin off into their own arcs for the episode, a rare feeling for a show that has, at times, struggled to stretch beyond the obvious narrative pairings of Boimler and Mariner, and Tendi and Rutherford. Some of the best moments last season came when those pairings were mixed up (Like Boimler and Tendi in “Much Ado About Boimler”), and it’s much the same case here.
Two of the three arcs are a little more ancillary. Boimler, still trying to adjust to life back on the Cerritos, finds himself searching for a new identity rather literally, when updated security protocols after last season’s Pakled attack mean the ship’s computer doesn’t recognise him, leading him on an appropriately absurd arc that starts with him unable to order lunch from the replicators, to crawling through Jeffries Tubes high on engine fumes as he deseprately tries to find a way to the bridge to get Tom Paris to sign his ‘VOY’ commemorative plate (bless these nerds for canonising the way fans refer to the Trek shows once again!).
Rutherford, meanwhile, is horrified to discover that Lieutenant Shaxx is seemingly alive and well after he perished saving the young Ensign on the season finale, and tries to uncover what he thinks is a sinister coverup about what really happens to Bridge Officers who die in action. While these are both very fun side stories in and of themselves, the bulk of the episode is rightfully given over to the meatiest character work to be found in Tendi and Mariner’s plot.
After Tendi is passed up for a promotion in Sickbay and tries to get into Doctor T’Ana’s good books by going on a personal errand for her (while she is uh, undergoing the Caitian equivalent of Vulcan Pon Farr, the libido-driving mating season), Mariner decides to tag along, turning Tendi’s mission into a Girl’s trip, as the duo increasingly desperately intone to each other when things inevitably go wrong.
And go wrong they do, when the family artefact Tendi is meant to recover gets damaged, flinging the duo on a wild trip between shady starbases and Orion pirate outposts in an attempt to cover up their mistakes. A lesser episode might just stop there on hijinks alone, but Lower Decks thankfully uses the opportunite of thrusting Tendi and Mariner together properly for the first time in a very long while to actually address an issue that has bugged the show for a while: they don’t actually feel like the friends they think they are.
From Tendi’s increasing exasperation with Mariner escalating their trip into the adventure it becomes, to even basic things that the duo realise they don’t know about each other — Mariner can’t even remember that D’Vana is Tendi’s name, jokingly thinking it’s an Orion cultural title — the episode not only gracefully addresses the elephant in the room (that it’s leaned too often on treating Beckett and Boimler and Tendi and Rutherford as separate couples of friends, instead of a cohesive group), but also dives into Tendi’s own backstory a bit more, airing her frustrations as she has tried so desperately hard to be recognised as being more than an Orion, to put aside the cultural stereotypes of her race as piratical seducers to simply be the best Starfleet officer she can be. It’s great stuff, and a great example of the show taking one of its few actual flaws and using it to push its characters, even if it’s to an uncomfortable conclusion like them simply not being the people they thought they were to each other at this point.
By the end of the episode at least, Tendi and Mariner actually have more of a bond through 20-odd mintues of character work than they had across the entirety of the first season. Instead of it just being simply stated that they’re friends, because they’re the protagonists of the show, that relationship actually feels earned now.
Maybe it didn’t take Tom Paris showing up to facilitate that growth, but still — it was nice that he was there in the mean time.