We all have questions about some of the banal things that happen on Star Trek ships. One I’ve always loved thinking about the most is that interplay when an officer asks somehow how long it’ll take do some technobabbley thing, and they reply that it’ll take hours. Why does it take so long to do things in this magical future? Well, Star Trek: Lower Decks had a hilarious answer.
Most of “Temporal Edict” is focused around Mariner and Commander Ransom’s (Jerry O’Connell) incredibly messy relationship as they find themselves basically trapped in an episode of the original Star Trek. An away mission gone awry leads to their second contact team being captured by a crystal-obsessed race called the Galrakians, forcing the two officers to argue like children over which one of them—the Riker-esque pitch-perfect encapsulation of the ideal, action hero First Officer or the rule-breaker who’s earned more than a few years of experience in knockout bar brawls—gets to get their “Arena” on in a trial by combat. So far, so very Star Trek.
But why their away mission goes wrong is the heart of the episode. One of the exhausted ensigns on the team accidentally packed the wrong diplomatic gift for the Galrakians because, for the past week, the Cerritos has broken one of the unspoken rules of Star Trek itself: Captain Freeman has discovered the existence of “buffer time.” And after she forbids it, everything aboard the ship has promptly gone to hell.
Buffer time, as Mariner explains to Tendi, is why we’ve always been told in past Trek TV shows that realigning the plasma manifolds, degaussing the warp core, or calibrating the isolinear chips—whatever mundane task is necessary to keep a Starfleet vessel flying through space—takes hours and hours in the first place. Bridge officers, who spend all their time telling other people to do things instead of doing them themselves, have forgotten how long it actually takes to do all these things. The lower-ranked officers now tasked with doing them take the opportunity to futz the amount of time it’ll take to finish the task at hand to get some relaxation in. Or, in our heroes cases’, some replicated margaritas.
But Boimler accidentally rats out the existence of this “buffer time” to the captain while gleefully reciting all the jobs he got finished, a furious Freeman, having been burned by the Cerritos constantly being diverted from big, important missions to go do second contact checkups, immediately mandates that all crew must now complete assigned tasks in a set, short amount of time, and promptly get started on the next item that needs doing. This, of course, completely breaks the crew.
With no free time and a need to get everything done as quickly as possible, naturally everyone but Boimler buckles. They’re stressed out and running around sniping at each other for being in the way. Everything’s a mess because the minute one thing’s finished, another thing goes wrong, so everything’s dropped to deal with it. They’re so distracted by getting every tiny little thing done that there’s no room for creativity or even defense. The Galrakians on the surface wind up invading the Cerritos for the away team’s accidental slight, and they’re too busy to do anything about it—the only reasonable way a Starfleet crew should ever lose to a civilization still running around with crystal-tipped spears. As Boimler notes, they have phasers. This shouldn’t be a problem. But it is because buffer time isn’t just about the slacking off.
If Lower Decks were as cynical about what Star Trek is really about as some perceive it to be, that would be the end of the joke. It isn’t. As Boimler explains to a frazzled Captain Freeman in the episode’s climax, everyone tacitly agrees to futz the numbers not just for the time they get but because it allows crews like the Cerritos’ to do their jobs (that they clearly love doing so much) as creatively as possible. Sure, they could shortcut it. Or they can dive nerdily deep, figuring out creative solutions that wouldn’t be found in any academy handbook or Starfleet regulation. It lets them be passionate and proud about the way they approach a job, and that in turn is reflected in a happy, unstressed crew that is psyched to be doing Cool Shit in Space. Which is what Star Trek is actually about!
Perhaps then, Lower Decks’ metacommentary is a warning: if we pick at the tropes of Star Trek a little too hard, the whole thing falls apart in spectacular fashion. But it does also admit that while watching it fall apart can indeed be fun as hell, glancing over some of the sillier parts is what allows us to see these heroes thrive in the first place.
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