Star Trek loves itself an explosive storyline or six, season finale or otherwise, modern Trek or classic. Lower Decks is no exception to this, but if its first season finale leveled a kind of threat unforeseen at that point in the show, its second season goes even bigger into a full-on disaster movie epic — but it never loses sight of the things that matter to the show most.
“First First Contact,” as the name implies, kicks things off in suitably Lower Decks fashion, even if the stakes are a little higher than usual already. In light of her extensive work attempting to quell the Federation’s skirmishes with the Pakleds, Captain Freeman has been tasked with directly attending a first contact mission for once, despite the Cerritos’ usual status as a second contact ship. Tasked with assisting the U.S.S. Archimedes — captained by none other than The Next Generation’s former ensign of big dreams, Sonya Gomez (voiced by the returning Lycia Naff, no less!), from “Q Who” — it turns out Carol isn’t just stepping into the big leagues for this mission. As Mariner manages to overhear while smuggling some contraband off-Starbase, it could be Captain Freeman’s last aboard the Cerritos: not only is she being promoted, Starfleet isn’t letting her bring her bridge crew with her.
At first, this seems like it’s going to become the big conflict of the episode. Mariner, hurt that her mother has kept this news a secret from her after all the bonding they’ve done this season, does what Mariner does best: throws a fit, dropping the news to Shaxs, Billups, and Ransom in the process, to get them hurt and disappointed, and frustrate her mother in the process. Time and time again, we’ve seen Mariner lash out when she’s personally aggrieved like this, but it’s clear this time that as much as her mother is hurt by her actions here, deep down it’s Mariner who’s the most distraught about her mother’s upcoming exit from her day-to-day life.
As if this personal crisis wasn’t enough, it’s from here that “First First Contact” really starts pushing our heroes to, and beyond, their limits. Although tensions are high among the senior staff thanks to Freeman’s upcoming departure, everything is sent into a tailspin when the Archimedes’ mission starts going very wrong. When a freak plasma discharge from the Laaperian system’s sun breaks up a planetoid and sends ionized debris slamming into the Archimedes as both it and the Cerritos enter the system, the former ship is turned into a disabled, spinning asteroid uncontrollably hammering its way to the Laap system’s only habited world — and at first no one on the Cerritos is prepared to know what to do. With the planetoid now turned into a sea of asteroid debris that’s still ionized, the ship can’t fly through to aid the Archimedes without the magnetized debris slamming into its own hull. Everything smashes together: Mariner and Freeman’s conflict, the frustrations among the bridge crew at large, even our other ensigns (notably Tendi, who having received a request from Dr0 T’Ana for an impromptu conversation in her office, spends most of the episode convinced she’s about to be re-assigned off-ship), and suddenly Lower Decks finds itself in a disaster epic that it’s never done before, ripped right out of past Trek epics like Voyager’s “Year of Hell” or Generation’s infamous Enterprise crash.
After “wej Duj” masterfully expanded the world Lower Decks inhabits last week, “First First Contact” feels like another level up for the show too. Not only is it the most explosive the show has been since last season’s finale and the cinematic pastiche of “Crisis Point” — delivering visuals and scale that are some of the series’ most sumptuous so far — it’s also the first time a threat on the series has escalated in this manner. It starts off with the interpersonal strife by Mariner’s mean-spirited actions, then moves to the Cerritos itself being in danger, to the lives of a whole other crew — and an entire planet! — being put into their hands. And while it’s great to see the show swing big with a movie-worthy disaster epic in the space of a half-hour animated show (like I said, Lower Decks has rarely looked this great, and that’s even beyond the general bump-up in quality this season has seen thanks to Titmouse’s work), what makes “First First Contact” truly, properly work is that it never trades this spectacle for the core that matters most to Lower Decks.
This entire season from the get-go has been about the idea of trust — not just in trusting yourself, as Mariner learned across season one in particular — but the confidence that comes in putting that trust in the people around you, that a struggle shared is a struggle overcome. That runs throughout the very heart of this finale, too. After another explosive argument as the two try to find a way for one or the other to heroically sacrifice themselves to save the Archimedes, Freeman begs Mariner to let other people get close to her, saying that she can’t solve the problems of the day by pretending to have Kirk-ian machismo when the truth is that she just doesn’t have the confidence of that kind of Trek hero while she keeps pushing other people away. That realisation is the catalyst that brings the crew all together to save the Archimedes only by leaning on each other: it takes the whole crew to enact Rutherford’s risky plan to give the Cerritos a path through the asteroid field by stripping its own primary hull away, making it extremely vulnerable in the process. Mariner has to work with huffy Andorian Jen — who she’s joked off-and-on about hating all season — to help Ransom manually guide the vulnerable ship through danger. Even in the lighthearted fun of the series finally paying off on its long-running gag about the existence of Cetacean Ops on Starfleet vessels (here literally run by two delightful dolphins in uniform), there’s this theme of teamwork and communal trust being valued over the actions of the individual, when Boimler, Tendi, and Rutherford basically scream “Go talk to your Mum, dammit!” at Mariner when she tries to be the one to heroically and dangerously risk her life to swim through the Ops’ waterworks and unlock the final hull plate.
All our characters have learned this season about pushing each other, trusting in each other to get the job done, and, crucially, letting each other know they all have each other’s backs and don’t need to shoulder struggle, professionally or personally, alone, is brought to the fore in some incredibly dazzling fashion, as ensign and bridge crew alike come together to keep the Cerritos in (mostly) one piece, and save the Archimedes before certain doom. They only do so because they stand together instead of, as Mariner tried to at the episode’s opening, pushing people away, and everyone is rewarded for that act of compassion. Mariner’s friendships with her closest allies and her mother are re-emboldened simply by her acknowledging her vulnerability to them (and in turn allowing her to open herself up to Jen after pushing her away all season). Tendi decides, at Rutherford’s behest, to trust in her ability and face Dr0 T’Ana head on, only to find that she’s actually being promoted to a science officer track. Rutherford in turn trusts her, letting go of his doubts of re-losing his memories after the end of season one (even if he does uncover a snippet of a much larger mystery in the process), and even Boimler, who arguably gets the least to do this episode, is still the one that gets to step up and be the heroic Starfleet officer he’s always been capable of being.
And yet, despite this extreme thematic catharsis and a job well done by our heroes, what makes “First First Contact” even stronger is that, while it takes time to rest some laurels upon our heroes, it acknowledges in that entering a higher set of stakes, things can’t just magically be solved with a single act of unity. With the Archimedes saved and the Laaperians successfully contacted, aboard the Cerritos we find that Starfleet is not at all happy with Captain Freeman — now, instead of being promoted off the Cerritos, she’s arrested and escorted off it, accused of being the instigator of a terror attack on the Pakled homeworld alongside the Klingon extremists we met last week… leaving us on the show’s first big step into another Trek staple: the “To Be Continued” season finale cliffhanger!
Now that Lower Decks has learned this lesson however, in some ways there’s no going back for the series. Now that our heroes have learned to stand together, they need to put that lesson into practice in a world much bigger, and much more dangerous, than the kinds of threats they’ve already been dealing with. That goes double when one of their own is threatened at the hands of the animus of a Starfleet that doesn’t really quite understand what it has in a crew as hardy and now as united as the Cerritos team.
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