When we last left Star Trek: Lower Decks, its excellent debut season ended with an explosive sea change. Our beloved goofball ensigns had started big new chapters in their lives in Starfleet and relationships with each other — and so by the end of its second season premiere, you might find it a little odd that some of those changes have seemingly already reverted. But Lower Decks is smarter than that, and it returns to ask us to trust it.
There is, appropriately, a lot of strange energy in “Strange Energies.” After Lower Decks’ big finale last year brought with it a sense of weight and consequence that outmatched most of the other ongoing Star Trek shows around it, the fact that the series picks itself up and dusts itself off with a breezy, silly one-off adventure like very little’s actually happened to harsh its vibe is both perfectly in line with the cheeky, loving bent Lower Decks shone with in its first season, and at times oddly jarring. It opens with Mariner (Tawny Newsome) breaking out of Cardassian interrogation like a riff on last season’s “Crisis Point” — all lavishly cinematic and proving that the animation team at Titmouse is just flexing on us at all times.
The way it layers Mariner’s frustrations with her changed relationship with her mother, Captain Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) and her still tumultuous feelings about Boimler (Jack Quaid)’s promotion to the Titan — along with the repeated bit that this is, in fact, just Mariner’s excercise holodeck program — is perfect stage setting. Riding off the explosive high of that finale, it reminds us that these big changes for our heroes are still raw and in the moment, and that the status quo they’ve laid out is still in the process of evolving.
We see that all over this episode, interwoven with the typical Trek plot of the week — the Cerritos providing second contact to the Apergosian civilisation in the form of what is, basically, their intergalactic phone number — as Mariner, Tendi (Noël Wells), and Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) all try to navigate their changed relationships with each other. It’s more than just Boimler’s absence, although we learn by the episode’s end that he too is struggling to adjust with “main character” levels of Star Trek action aboard the Titan, that permeates the sense of unease among our heroes. On the surface, Beckett and Carol’s new buddy-buddy team up relationship seems good for the mother and daughter.
But it’s made clear quickly on, and then exacerbated by the plot of the week going all Gary Mitchell — an unsubtle nod to one of Star Trek’s first ever episodes — on Commander Ransom (Jerry O’Connell), that their newfound looseness with each other is getting in the way of both mission protocol and Captain Freeman’s relationship with her first officer.
Meanwhile, Tendi and Rutherford find themselves at odds with each other as the former becomes increasingly anxious about the latter’s changed personality, in the wake of having his cyborg head implants ripped out and re-attached during last season’s finale — with everything from his dates with a cute Trill, Ensign Barnes, to a newfound love of pears putting Tendi on edge that Rutherford’s no longer the friend she knew him as.
Naturally, because this is Lower Decks, our heroes all attempt to cope with confrontation in the wake of these changes in the zaniest manner possible. Tendi, increasingly convinced Rutherford is suffering from a cyborg-only memory degradation illness that could lead to his brain leaking out of his nose, harasses the poor engineer all over the Cerritos, threatening to electroshock him or scoop his brain out for some suturing in attempts to “solve” his evolved personality come hell or high water.
Down on Apergos, when Mariner’s captain-approved side mission accidentally blasts Ransom with unknown energies that transform him into an egotistical, rainbow-blast-spewing omnipotent godlike being/floating head, frustration that their easy-going freewheeling sparked an over-the-top mess makes Mariner and Captain Freeman immediately start butting heads with each other again.
As the two plots come to a head — more literally in Ransom’s case, when his almighty noggin floats up to the Cerritos and starts munching on it — these two conflicts come to a fascinating conclusion, one much smarter and mature than you might expect if you somehow were still of the belief Lower Decks was just silly Trek fluff for the sake of it, or even if you might be somewhat disappointed by the status quo reversion their outcomes appear to be on the surface.
After Mariner decides to solve the God-Ransom issue with, err, tactical applications of force to his neutral zone, she and Captain Freeman decide that the best way going forward is to go back to their old Captain/Ensign relationship. Tendi and Rutherford decide much the same, after the latter begs the former to trust him that despite the changes he went through he still is, and always will be, her friend. And so while we end “Strange Energies” with Mariner in the brig and Tendi and Rutherford hanging out with her like the best nerdy friends they were last season — same old Lower Decks, for the most part — it’s actually something much more than that.
Mariner and her mum might be back to the commander and subordinate dichotomy, but they’re still a loving mother and daughter, now embracing a much less fraught relationship than the one we saw them with for most of last season. Tendi and Rutherford might be back to being best friends, but Tendi’s at least now more accepting of the fact that Rutherford’s gone through his own changes (even if the duo re-rewird his cybernetics to make him hate pears again anyway). It’s down to moments of trust: Mariner has to ask for trust from her mother than sometimes they’re not always going to be on the same page as each other, and Rutherford has to ask Tendi to trust that he’s still who he was before his accident.
It’s not that the show is saying the changes it brought about in the climax of its first season were momentary things to promptly throw out the window, or that change is not always a good thing — it’s telling us that these characters have grown and matured in themselves and in their relationships with the people in their lives, and that sometimes taking a step back from a big upheaval but still maintaining the lessons learned from that big step in the first place is a vital part of growing into a better person.
And so, even as Lower Decks quickly settles back into its comfort zone, it does more so than prove it knows its groove, and what made season one such a delight to watch in the first place — it also reminds us that even as the plot of the week resets, our characters don’t, and still have a lot of growing to do. Something we can’t wait to see continue, alongside all the silly Trek antics it has to offer along the way.