Paramount+’s animated Star Trek: Lower Decks has already done a fantastic job of really diving into the internal conflict and privileges of the typical Starfleet bridge crew and the tough lives our lower deckers live. But just as much of this season has been about building on the bonds between our four heroes, this week the show dipped into a Smörgåsbord of Trek gags to strengthen the bond between the whole crew.
The initial set up for “I, Excretus” leads you down the line of expecting Lower Decks to re-litigate the same kind of dramas it covered in its first season — a splash of “Moist Vessel” and its examination of the Mariner/Captain Freeman relationship here, a splash of “Crisis Point” and its holoprogram riff on classic Trek movie scenarios there. A Federation drill officer comes aboard the Cerritos to test the readiness skills of the crew and things are quickly thrown into chaos when it’s revealed that, for the duration of the exercises, bridge crew and lower-ranking officers will trade duties and mission parameters. Single-person holopods have been dragged along for the endeavour and we’re prepared for a story about our heroes getting ready to learn how the other half lives.
In a way, that is what part of the episode is about at least. Rutherford, Tendi, and Mariner find themselves hard-pressed by the stressful rigors of being main-cast Star Trek characters — heady medical ethics decisions, riffs on Spock’s Wrath of Khan death, and, of course, a trip to the planet of the cowboys.
Meanwhile, Boimler finds himself in a loop of trying to perfect a Borg Cube escape he’s already excelling at (featuring delightful guest star Alice Krige, returning as the Borg Queen!), and Captain Freeman and her team find themselves left to sort cargo while much more exciting things happen around them. After work is done, our Ensigns feast on the finest pesto the replicators have to offer and our commanders learn that Ensign-assigned bunk beds make for an uncomfortable sleep.
Things come to a head when the united Ensigns and bridge crew, still in reversed roles, manage to mess up a Search for Spock-inspired spacedock thanks to Mariner and Captain Freeman’s sniping. But the duo, and the crew at large, consider that the real point of all these tough exercises they’ve been botching is not necessarily to pass them but to commiserate with each other, and bond as crewmates beyond the barriers and social distance that rank creates.
If this was Lower Decks’ first season, perhaps the episode would end there, a sweet lesson learned…but then you realise there are still about ten minutes left, and in its second season, the show has become much smarter at the kind of targets it wants to aim at when biting its proverbial thumb at the world of Star Trek. It’s not the divide between our wacky Cerritos crewmembers the show wants to target, but instead a much larger, existential divide at the heart of Starfleet: the gap between crews on the front lines of all that boldly going and the bureaucracy at home in the Federation’s paradise.
It turns out that Instructor Shari Yn Yem (guest star Lennon Parham), who spent most of her career behind a desk rather than on a starship, has it out for the Cerritos. Her drill program is set to be shut down as an increasing redundancy in an organisation that is, by default, made up of extremely capable officers who deal with Weird Shit every day of their working careers. The tests the crew failed weren’t meant to teach them resilience in failure or to bond over those mistakes, but to fail them hard enough to prove there are still crews bad enough to require Yem’s tutelage. Of course, neither Mariner nor her mother is up for that kind of bullshit, proving that the crew of the Cerritos is more than willing to put differences in rank and standing aside when it comes to taking a bite out of some Federation authority.
A quick flash through the most dangerous scientific anomalies the entire crew can find — and more than a few crystalline entities — freaks the hell out of Yem. She’s not used to this kind of frequent amount of danger, the kind that’s just normal for the Cerritos to go through. It’s fun not just for digging at levels of idle, corrupted administration in a system as vast as the Federation in the first place, but because of just how unphased the Cerritos crew are at this kind of danger.
Whether it’s Mariner, Rutherford, and Tendi (with Boimler still trying to endlessly run through his Borg program to keep the test score system from being finally calculated), or Captain Freeman cackling her head off as the ship flies through danger, these are truly Starfleet officers who know what they’re doing. They can work together when their backs are against the wall (or at least several time-warping black holes), and recognise the parts every member of the crew has to play.
Yem relents, and not only passes the Cerritos, but flees Starfleet service entirely. The Ensigns are rewarded with the sense of satisfaction that the entire crew is capable of working together and respecting the challenges of service in Starfleet, whether it’s the rigour of command or the back-breaking work the lower deckers put in to keep everything running in between the big league adventures. That, and a refurbished replicator as a gift from the bridge crew that gives them access to lobster mac n’ cheese and pesto, of course. What would biting your thumb at the Federation itself be worth if not a few good meals along the way?