Usually, a show like the animated Star Trek: Lower Decks — where the events our ensigns get up to are mostly like the c-plot in any other series — upping its stakes and scope might come with a level of apprehension. Perhaps the show would move away from what made it work, and going big could maybe stretch its humour too far. This week we learned that, really, we shouldn’t doubt what’s become perhaps the smartest Star Trek series around.
Called “wej Duj” — or “Three Ships” — this was the first Star Trek episode that used an entirely Klingon language title even written in Klingon script rather than Federation Standard English in the episode itself. The story offered a premise that, at first, seemed much more comfortably in Lower Decks’ remit. In for a long-haul warp flight, the Cerritos crew are left with little to do in the downtime, and Ensign Boimler is the only one among our protagonist quartet who doesn’t have a “Bridge Buddy” to spend the day with. Mariner hangs out with her mum for mandated bonding, Rutherford spins clay with Shaxs, and even Tendi goes holo-mountain climbing with Dr. T’Ana.
Then there’s Boimler, who spirals into his usual paranoia of not using his time well, or not constantly thinking about his career advancement to the detriment of literally anything else he’s doing. As he runs around trying to slot himself into his friend’s warp-flight distractions (to no avail), he settles on trying to buddy up with Commander Ransom and his group of fellow Hawaiian officers, which necessitates a moral quandary. Does he lie about being from Hawaii as well to fit in and gain cachet with a bridge officer — he does — or is it the Starfleet thing to do to be honest, and hope frankness about his misjudgment will ingratiate him more? (It does, for a time.)
If “wej Duj” was solely about this arc, it would be a perfectly fine, and pretty funny, episode of Lower Decks. It ties in with a central push and pull that’s sat at the heart of the season — Boimler trying to navigate his innate desire for career advancement while not having those desires come at the cost of distancing his friends again. Plus there’s plenty of good gags to be found with both ensign and bridge officer alike outside of the typical Star Trek confines we find them in, as Boimler chases each one of them down (Shaxs, in particular, gets some suitably hilarious rage to deal with over his time in the Bajoran resistance).
But, as we mentioned up top, Lower Decks is a very smart slice of Star Trek, and expecting the bare minimum out of it only leaves room for it to keep surprising us — and surprise “wej Duj” does, as its titular meaning becomes very quickly apparent. We aren’t just following the lower decks of the Cerritos this week: we’re following the lower decks of three ships. Well, four technically thanks to one brief gag, but, we’ll get there.
The episode intersperses Boimler’s bridge buddy quest with the perspectives of two similar figures on two very different ships: a young Klingon (Ma’ah) aboard the Bird of Prey Che’ta, and a young Vulcan (T’Lyn) aboard the Vulcan cruiser Sh’vahl. Despite the clearly very different cultures aboard their respective vessels, Ma’ah and T’Lyn are in many ways quite like Boimler himself. Ma’ah is eager to prove himself ready to ascend through command ranks, albeit through the traditional Klingon methods of honour, ritual combat, and more than a little understanding of social duplicity. T’Lyn, on the other hand, is a rare Vulcan yearning to think outside of the comfortable narrow constraints of her position, operating on instinct and hunch as much as she does logic, and always ready to stand her ground instead of reasonably defer to command.
Their stories become more than just the mere “Oh boy, I wonder what lower deck life is like on that ship” they start out as. They become reminders of the universal commonality all these aliens races have in the ways their command structures play out — that even in enlightened utopias and empires, there’s always going to be the little folks on the bottom rung. But beyond that, when Lower Decks weaves T’Lyn, Boimler, and Ma’ah’s stories of frustration together into a bigger picture for the show at large, the series shifts into a gear not seen since the later stages of its first season.
Over the course of “wej Duj” it becomes clear that the stories of the Che’ta, Sh’vahl, and Cerritos are intertwined. Much to Ma’ah’s dismay, his captain has been undermining the Klingon High Council and stoking conflict with the Federation by providing advanced weaponry to the Pakleds in their own aggressions with Starfleet — something that’s been simmering in the background this whole season. He’s angry, not out of a love for the Klingon Empire’s most recent wartime allies, but because of his fervent belief that if a Klingon wants to fight an opponent, they do so proudly and out in the open. The same hunches and order-defying expansions of her scanning remit that keep getting T’Lyn sent to punitive meditation sessions are also the ones that let her discover the trace signal that brings the Sh’vahl to the Cerritos’ aid when both ships separately detect metreon particles from Klingon explosives as the Che’ta does its illicit trade with the Pakled Clumpship, err, Pakled.
One wonderfully explosive ship fight later — and one brief glimpse of what life’s like for the Pakled’s lower deckers — the day is saved, but the series is setting up something much larger than this episode led us to believe. Ma’ah’s honour is what lets him overthrow his captain’s illicit attempts to conduct a proxy war with the Federation, gaining the ascension in rank he craved but also setting the stage for much larger issues between the Pakleds, the Klingons, and now Starfleet, with the Cerritos ready to reveal the true architects of the conflict to Federation command. T’Lyn, despite saving the Sh’vahl from destruction with shield improvements she was not designated to work on, is reprimanded with the worst punishment a Vulcan ship can give: reassignment to a Starfleet vessel (if we can correctly estimate one thing about Lower Decks instead of it constantly vaulting over those estimations, it has to be aboard the Cerritos next season, right?). And even Boimler gets a just end, finding himself taking a young academy graduate under his wing on Ransom’s own recommendation, a chance for him to impart all the things he has learned to a new generation of junior officers.
It makes for an incredibly satisfying bit of groundwork to lay the final episode of the season on — a finale that has a lot to live up to after the equally satisfying way the first season came to its conclusion. That first finale threaded a great balance between familiar fan service and tying off the character work the show had built up around Mariner from its debut. Now, Lower Decks comes into a second finale with a much larger world and more characters to tie into the threads it’s weaved this season, with much bigger ramifications beyond just the Cerritos. But, as we learned here and have learned several times over the course of this season: there’s always room for Lower Decks to surprise us.