Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 1, Episode 3 – Debuted Thursday, August 20th, 2020
Written by Dave Ihlenfeld & David Wright
Directed by Bob Suarez
The third episode of this new animated comedy hearkens back to some classic Star Trek storylines and themes with mixed results. With some good laughs and its heart in the right place, “Temporal Edict” pushes the boundaries of the show’s own rules of playing within the lines of Star Trek.
WARNING: Spoilers below!
Cold open mic
This week’s opening teaser reminds us again that Mariner is the coolest and Boimler is a nerd, with the added nuance that he’s also a mama’s boy. By injecting herself into Brad’s violin recital with some old-school rock and roll cranked up to 11, the “music” makes its way through the ship to the bridge, leaving the commander of the Klingon Bird of Prey Captain Freeman was trying to talk to asking, “What is the meaning of this intense bass, are you mocking me?” One would think that speed metal would honor the warrior race, but apparently not.
By the time Shaxs gets to the bar to put an end to the noise, Tendi and Mariner have exited rock star-style, leaving Boimler’s violin to get the full not-a-merry-man treatment, thankfully before the ensign has a chance to perform “Requiem for a Hug.”
More than just another fun standalone gag of life on board the USS Cerritos to start off the show, these character dynamics will play key roles throughout the episode.
It’s buffer time!
The main story for “Temporal Edict” leans into the show’s premise that the USS Cerritos is the least important ship in Starfleet. After being informed that she won’t be needed for a “historic, once-in-a-lifetime summit” on Cardassia Prime (because the Cardassians “were creeping everyone out”), Captain Freeman channels Rodney Dangerfield, declaring her own ship a “joke” crewed by a “bunch of slackers.” And she really gets pushed over the edge when she finds out the crew has been exaggerating work estimates with “buffer time,” thanks to Boimler spilling the beans—seriously, Boims?
However, her solution of strict time quotas has the opposite of the desired effect, as the crew buckles under the micromanagement, becoming sleep-deprived, frazzled, and turning poor Tendi into something like a zombie. She can’t even remember what deck sickbay is on, or even how many decks there are on the ship. Of course, Boimler is loving every strictly-regimented minute of all of this, meta-asking himself, “Space, the funnest frontier?”
The consolation prize mission has the ship delivering peace tokens to Gelrak V, with Commander Ransom leading a landing party and a wisecracking Mariner along for the ride. While the planet has already gone through first contact and even has their own starships, the crystals-obsessed natives remain primitive to the point of cliché, right down to the xenophobic paranoia and hair triggers, or in this case, hair spearers. All it takes is the display of the wrong gift token—due to an overworked Bolian ensign—for the Gelrakians to start the stabbing and the throwing.
Turns out by displaying the “perverted sex charm” of their sworn enemies from Mavok Prime, the Federation has inadvertently declared war. Oops. Like a good Starfleet officer, Ransom wants to avoid a fight, eschewing the use of phasers. He figures he can win over the Gelrakians with the swagger of a Riker stance combined with some Picard speechifying. Vigorously returning the wood token straight to his groin, the locals put an end to his negotiated settlement, with the whole landing party now captured. Classic. By the way, Mariner points out it is a Kirk-like classic move in one of the too-many winking moments from this episode.
Things get even more classic as the crew learns their only way out is via trial by combat, and one of them has to fight the ginormous Vindor. The fate of the rest of the landing party is in the balance, or literally under “adjudication geode” of death. These guys really love their crystals.
From the mouths of babes
A fleet of incensed Gelrakians head up to the Cerritos and because everyone is so zoned out due to weeks of relentless work quotas, the shields aren’t functioning and the hostiles just start boarding and defacing the ship, again with just the spears. And still, the captain can’t let go of her scheduling edict, ordering the crew to multitask and repel boarders while finishing their other time tasks. Showing a pathological level of Starship envy, she admonishes, “They do it on the Enterprise all the time.”
Due to the power of his extreme nerdiness, Boimler is immune to the PADD-driven project management that is crippling the rest of the crew. It’s the greatest week of his life, but he has to shake Captain Freeman out of her OCD, teaching her the lesson that the rest of the crew needed a more flexible approach. Once the captain reinstates buffer time, the crew—perhaps with a message about our screen-obsessed culture—stop staring at their PADDs, and start using them as weapons to repel the wood-hating aliens, with surprising ease.
Down on the planet, Mariner is also doing her bit to teach a senior officer some lessons on breaking protocol. Arguing she should be the one to fight in the arena, her regular simmer of insubordination boils to court-martial level with, “I’m calling bulls**t on your whole thing here, sir.” (Hey, at least she still said “sir.”) She declares that SHE is the real pro, for “exploring strange new worlds, solving space mysteries, and kicking asses,” and she has the scars to prove it. And yes, rack up another wink at the audience there.
Ransom is a quick learner, so he does the very un-Starfleet thing of stabbing her in the foot so he can do the very-Starfleet thing of being the one to fight in the arena, and without the lethal weapon. Thanks to a masterful level of Kirk Fu, he finally gets to do some “I respect your sovereignty” speechifying between the double-fist punches, winning the day, and even Mariner’s respect.
With the honor crystal presented, the whole invading-of-the-ship thing is forgiven. Mariner decides to keep her new foot scar and chooses not to report Ransom for stabbing her. The whole experience has each respecting the other a bit more, with a hint there could be even more. But Ransom still sends Mariner to the brig for ignoring his order to roll down her sleeves, so that may put a dent in any romance in the near future, hopefully.
The captain is also showing her respect for Brad, bestowing him with a plaque for what she is calling the “Boimler Effect,” a new rule that allows the crew to take shortcuts and use buffer time. His rule-loving brain has trouble accepting a rule about not following rules in his name. He is assured no one will remember him for this. However in a bit of a coda set in the “far future,” we see a teacher telling her class “The Boimler Effect is something we will never forget,” thanks to him being the “laziest officer in Starfleet history.” Doh!
Oh, then they threw in references to the Great Bird of the Galaxy and Miles O’Brien, in case you forgot this was a Star Trek comedy. But you won’t get any argument that the Chief was “perhaps the most important person in Starfleet history.”
Bending Star Trek
The conceit of Lower Decks is that it is a canon Star Trek show, where funny things are happening. The events and the characters are supposed to fit into the universe we know, but we are just seeing the lighter side of that universe.
In “Temporal Edict” we are presented with Gelrak V, a planet home to a primitive race, prejudiced and prone to violence. There is no indication of democracy, and the justice system is barbaric, complete with capital punishment, even if we are assured the giant geode of death is part of their constitution. And yet we are told the Gelrakians have been invited into the Federation.
On board the USS Cerritos the captain has implemented new policies in order to increase efficiency. Her motivations were primarily personal concerns about being slighted and disrespected. These new strict policies had an obvious detrimental effect on the crew, driving them to inefficiency due to sleep deprivation. This also triggered the crisis on the planet with the Gelrakians leading to the ship being boarded, yet the crew is ordered to keep on task. Even the most feckless captain in Starfleet – think John Harriman – would know to make a priority of repelling invaders.
When people finally wise up and come to resolve both the planetary and the ship crises, in both cases the solutions are based on violence. Sure Ransom wasn’t using lethal force and espousing Federation language, but he did so while giving a The Rock-level beat down. On the Cerritos, when the crew are freed to come up with ways to take back control of the ship the only thing they can think of is various ways to punch and hit the Gelrakians in a sequence of Three Stooges-type skirmishes.
Couldn’t they all come up with more creative solutions? The whole adventure on the planet hearkened back to TOS, and while Kirk was known to get into a shirt-ripping scrape, he more often found non-violent ways to win the day. And on the ship, given the freedom to be creative, wasn’t there some fun TNG science solution to take down the Galrakians. Maybe the wood-hating aliens were adversely affected by the sound of woodwinds, and you swap Boimler’s violin for a bassoon, and Bob’s your uncle.
Is this just an exercise in extreme nitpicking? Yes, indeed it is. But it is putting Lower Decks up against the standard that the show has set for itself. In his TrekMovie interview, creator Mike McMahan said “it was a priority to never have somebody in Starfleet be stupid or dumb.” He also conceded that members of the crew could make mistakes, and fair enough. We don’t expect our comedy characters to be perfect, even in the 24th century. But it is hard to argue that the captain was not acting stupid here, and everything that followed flowed from that. As for the Gelrakians, there is simply no way a warlike, undemocratic, racist species like that would ever be invited into the Federation.
The challenge of the show is for us to feel like we’re living in the Star Trek world but having some laughs along the way. As soon as it no longer feels like Star Trek, we are taken out of the show, at least as fans. The first two episodes were successful in finding that balance, but this third outing too often went over that line. It may still be funny, but it stops being Star Trek. And no amount of references to Miles O’Brien and Gene Roddenberry can change that.
Looking forward to next week
While still entertaining, “Temporal Edict” was the least satisfying episode of Lower Decks so far. The series remains impressive in many ways and this episode was especially enhanced by a strong performance from Dawnn Lewis, who convincingly took us on Captain Freeman’s folly. But this third episode brought back some of the same issues in the first, with an over-reliance on winks and nods to the franchise.
Lower Decks is at its best when it rises above being just a collection of Star Trek references and twists the Trek tropes into an entirely different balloon animal. We have seen that done in all three episodes, but this “Temporal Edict” popped too many of those balloons along the way.
New episodes of Star Trek: Lower Decks premiere on Thursdays on CBS All Access in the U.S. and on CTV Sci-Fi Channel in Canada, where it’s also available to stream on Crave. It has not yet been announced where and when Lower Decks will be available outside of the USA and Canada.
Keep up with all the news and reviews from the new Star Trek Universe on TV at TrekMovie.com.