A lot of Star Trek: Lower Decks has been about taking classic setups and premises from series past and reframing them or poking holes with loving fun. So it’s rare to see the series riff on not one, but two fun stalwarts of the past and not really play them for laughs — even if it still uses them to strengthen the bonds between its characters.
“Where Pleasant Fountains Lie” once again splits its storytelling into its familiar format of putting Rutherford and Tendi, and then Boimler and Mariner, through two different homages to classic Trek episode archetypes (interesting for an episode about comfort zones, but we’ll get to that later). The first, for Tendi and Rutherford — the latter in particular — is a riff on a much more hyperspecific Trek gag: the idea of a highly advanced race whose technology and civilisation just so happen to look like those ren fair costumes already in the studio’s costume departments that you could borrow for a couple of weeks.
In this case, it comes with an interesting twist on a little-explored character, Paul Scheer’s Chief Engineer Billups, who, it turns out, left a life of royalty — and royal bloodline continuation, more specifically — on his homeworld to join Starfleet. As his mother, Queen Billups (herself a riff on Troi’s extravagant mother Lwaxana, albeit with less of Majel Barrett’s camp charm), and her royal flagship come knocking on the USS Cerritos’ door for repair and refit requests, the chief drags Rutherford into the strangely sex-obsessed life of his former society.
It’s a bizarre mishmash of all those classic “period” civilizations that Trek has been fascinated by, whether it’s wild gods like Trelane or the Q, who just happened to look like cosplayers as a way to explain themselves to “lesser” races, Holodeck programs like Voyager’s Fair Haven, or actually technologically regressed societies like TNG’s, uh… not exactly great colonists of Bringloid V. But it also plays into another long-running facet of Trek a little more subtle than most Lower Decks jokes: the series’ fascination with the interplay of sex, sexuality, and in many ways, heteronormativity in a supposedly utopian future.
It turns out Billups’ mother has spent her life since her son left for Federation service desperately trying to get him laid — and not because Billups himself has a problem doing the deed. In fact, he’s willingly celibate. The backward rules of his people include the next in line losing their virginity in order to ascend to the throne.
Should Billups ever fornicate, that means he’s announced his intent to sire an heir and become king. Like other episodes this season, this all comes down to trust between the people closest to you. Rutherford is dragged into the awkward song and dance of Billups’ testy relationship with his mother, as the latter keeps trying to trick him into sex so he can take her place, while the former is increasingly frustrated that his family and even his people have essentially ignored the pride he takes in his duty and life’s work as a Starfleet engineer because it’s not what is expected of him.
It’s the same for Rutherford and Tendi too after she pushes him to go on the assignment with Billups in the first place — attempting to help her friend overcome his lingering confidence issues and break out of his comfort zone. But the move backfires when Rutherford and Billups’ mother are seemingly killed in an accidental systems overload, only for it to be revealed that it’s just the latest in the Queen’s line of (horrifyingly drastic) attempts to get her son a one-way wormhole to the Bone Zone. It’s all about trust in the people around you, something Billups and the Queen just don’t have — but Tendi and Rutherford do, and are able to expose the plot in time to keep the chief where his heart wants to be: by a warp core, rather than in a threesome.
Trust is the matter of the day in Boimler and Mariner’s arc, as well. Tasked with escorting Yet Another Star Trek Evil Computer to the Daystrom Institute for containment — Agimus, a delightful turn from Trek legend and man of a million faces Jeffrey Combs — Boimler finds himself reassigned from a more high-profile away mission to help Mariner with the busywork. It’s something that puts a bit of a dent into the relationship they’ve reforged over the course of this season. Things get worse when, as with all good shuttlecraft-based away missions, there’s an emergency crash landing, and suddenly the duo find themselves on a planet with little in the way of sustenance.
There’s no life beyond a few roaming wild animals and little chance for getting a distress signal out, plus that evil computer that just really wants to be plugged into any socket it can get its cables on. Dehydrated, exhausted, scared, and seemingly only able to replicate black licorice for food, Boimler and Mariner’s relationship is really put to the test, and nearly torn apart when Agimus manages to reveal that Mariner is who got Boimler reassigned, believing he wasn’t ready for such a dangerous mission in spite of his repeated talk of his time aboard the Titan.
It’s a great conflict and goes to show that the work these two have made so far in closing up the rift between them is ongoing work, and not solved even when they make great strides toward being close once more. But it’s made even better when, having seemingly decided to cast his lot in with Agimus and use the evil computer’s power to hijack a still-functioning wrecked ship to get off-world, it’s revealed that Boimler manufactured at least some of his animus with Mariner to convince the rogue AI he was on his side.
He only ends up letting the computer power a distress beacon, rather than the ship itself, but more importantly, Boimler goes a long way in showing how much trust has been restored between himself and Mariner — what she did to him wasn’t cool, but he understands her intentions were well-placed. That, and he’s come a long way himself to be able to convincingly appear to Agimus like he’d turned on her in the first place, so the trust isn’t just a matter of him placing it back in her, but trust in himself to get the job done, like any good Starfleet officer.
It’s that element that makes “Where Pleasant Fountains Lie” more than the sum of its pointed franchise referencing parts. By building in these moments of trust between our heroes, bringing together a season that has become much more character-focused and introspective than it seemingly might have first let on, Lower Decks is finding a heart for itself that’s larger than just its love for the idea of what Star Trek is, and how silly and fun that idea can be in the first place. And as the series goes on to bigger things, that’s an important step on a road we can’t wait to see the series travel further on.