After re-settling into its typical groove in the wake of a status-quo-resetting first few episodes, this season of Star Trek: Lower Decks is still trying to grapple with some of the trust issues between its ensign heroes. How well do they really know each other? Why do they all have the weirdest ways of processing their friendships in the first place? Well, it turns out it’s a matter of expectations and a whole lot of horny Mugato.
Episode four of the Paramount+ animated series, “Mugato, Gumato,” is named for the furry alien species at the heart of the original Trek episode “A Private Little War,” and furthermore no one’s ability to say the word “Mugato” in that episode the same way twice. It feels like a sister episode to last week’s “We’ll Always Have Tom Paris,” in that it rights a rare wrong of Lower Decks’ first season by splitting apart the usual Mariner/Boimler, Tendi/Rutherford pairings to actually explore the relationships between these friends.
This time, it’s a trio rather than a duo — although the episode primarily gets Boimler and Rutherford interacting together (Tendi is off hunting medical patients to scan in her own subplot), their teamup is framed through the lens of both of their confused relationships with Mariner herself.
Pairing Boimler with Rutherford is interesting. Last week focused on the distinct contrasts between the kinds of people Tendi and Mariner are, and strengthened their pairing by having them come together over the few things they do connect on. Boimler and Rutherford, meanwhile, are almost too similar, they’re loveably unassuming nerds who rejoice in the mundane and overthink every little thing… the latter of which puts “Mugto, Gumato” into action.
It’s a classic comedy setup of mistaken identity with a Star Trek twist: overhearing a rumour from the Cerritos’ bartender that Mariner may actually be one of Starfleet’s infamously not-quite-that-secretive secret black ops agents, Boimler and Rutherford begin to panic that they don’t know their “friend” as much as they thought they did. They’re unsure of whether or not Mariner is hanging out with them because she likes them or because they’re useful idiots for a kickass cover story.
This is all compounded when the trio is sent on an away team mission with Lieutenant Shaxs to the planet Frylon IV, to crack down on a group of Ferengi illegally trading Mugato horns in Federation territory. Even these play into the episode’s larger theme of assumptions not always being what they seem. When the away team beams down to the planet, it’s not the typically Quark-ian money-hungry businessmen of Ferenginar they encounter — as we would assume, as it’s become the default characterization of the Ferengi — but instead villainous huntsmen more in line with their original appearances in The Next Generation (as Mariner eventually needles them, asking if they’re some sort of “Last Outpost” style holdouts).
A few electrified whips and a Mugato containment failure later, everything goes to hell pretty quickly — and Boimler and Rutherford find themselves cut off from the rest of the group. Hunted by Mugato and Ferengi alike, they seemingly glimpse what they thought was Mariner attacking Shaxs, believing her Black Ops programming had kicked in.
Wandering and avoiding having to bear witness to Mugato mating season (and, uh, Mugato voyeur season apparently), Boimler and Rutherford’s worst impulses feed off each other. They continue to spiral in their assumptions about Mariner being a hardcore elite assassin using their “friendship” as a cover, and we start to learn why pairing them up may not a great idea. When Mariner breaks out of the Frylon jungle to find the duo, the episode climaxes with a moment of realisation: she started the rumour. She wanted to keep weirdoes away, her deep-seated trust issues about connecting with people intimately clashing with her desire to just be a bit of a lone wolf.
Although she’s hurt that Boimler and Rutherford would assume she’s not their friend anyway, it all goes to show that — as we learned with Tendi last week — Lower Decks still has a way to go to show these people actually growing and developing as friends. Much of last season hinged on the assumption that our ensigns were just friends for life, that they all knew each other pretty well, and got on in their usual pairings well enough. But pulling on that thread a little creates some interesting conflict points and texture to their bond with each other — and serves as a reminder that the seemingly quick status-quo reversion that kicked this season off isn’t going to be without some bumps along the way.
Everything, of course, is solved by people actually talking to each other instead of making assumptions. Her friendship with Boimler and Rutherford repaired, Mariner lets the boys step into the spotlight and save the day against the Ferengi, who it turns out are much more willing to become what we typically expect of Ferengi than they first let on.
Our heroes have a semblance of understanding between each other back, and Frylon IV now has a Ferengi-operated wildlife reserve/profitable gift shop venture. All’s well that ends well as usual on Lower Decks — but as long as the show keeps highlighting the challenges of watching these characters actually grow beyond our first impressions of them, there’ll always be more interesting conflicts to come. That’s the way the Gumato horn crumbles, after all.