So far, Star Trek: Lower Decks has found itself striking a pretty fine balance between jabbing at its franchise’s nerdiness and truly embracing it. But this week, in perhaps its closest move yet to comedic farce, it ponders an interesting question: what happens when a Star Trek character has seen too much Trek for their own good?
“Cupid’s Errant Arrow” finds Lower Decks hitting the stride we’ve come to expect of the series so far, having been pleasantly surprised that the show was much more earnest about its place in Star Trek than many assumed it would be. We have the bridge crew dealing with a typically Trek-ian A-Plot—negotiating with a group of aliens who paradoxically require Federation aid to stop their entire civilization being ruined but would also like to complain Very Loudly about the process. Beyond that, we have our ensign heroes intertwined in stories that are, likewise, sendups of tried and tested Trek tropes.
In this case, it’s a mix of both romance where no couple has gone before, and basically every “benevolent figure is secretly a sinister alien/godlike being/general jerk up to no good” subplot that’s ever existed in the franchise. It turns out that Boimler has found himself a new girlfriend, Barb—from the U.S.S. Vancouver, a ship assisting the Cerritos’ current negotiations—who, to an overly suspicious Mariner, seems increasingly suspect.
It’s perhaps the most openly “sitcom-y” episode yet, as we’re treated to multiple scenarios of crossed wires, miscommunications, and farces as Mariner tries to prove to the lovestruck Boimler that Barb isn’t as perfect as she seems. Not only does the poor guy not get Mariner’s message that Barb might be a transporter clone gone wrong or a Suliban, he thinks she’s cheating on him with a much more attractive co-worker. It was perhaps wise to put this episode far enough in Lower Deck’s debut run, because it pushes the show into a much more conventional comedy space, feeling more like a sitcom with a Trek skin than, as it has proven to be so far, a Star Trek show that just happens to be funny on the regular.
Once again though, it’s Mariner that stops the story from losing that Trek heart and makes all the rom-com vibing really work. One of the consistent things that makes her the show’s most compelling character is her position as an almost metatextual Star Trek fan actually living within the Star Trek universe. Her extended career up and down (and up, and down) the ranks gives her the breadth of experience akin to our own extended consumption of the franchise. And so, she is just like us to assume that Boimler’s incredibly horny girlfriend is suspect.
Not because we don’t want to think that a nerdy do-gooder like Boimler could actually get a girlfriend like that, of course, but because we’ve watched Trek until our brains are mulch and we immediately suspect that Barb is some kind of alien reptoid up to no good. Hell, from the get-go in “The Man Trap” to “The Naked Now” to even Star Trek: Discovery’s romantic subplot between Michael Burnham and Klingon turducken Ash Tyler, Trek has always intertwined stories of romance with tales of alien duplicity. We’re trained to expect it, and Mariner, as a seasoned Starfleet officer, is trained that way too.
It’s what pulls the farce back from the edge of being a little too straight comedy, but it also highlights the earnest and very sweet development of Mariner and Boimler’s relationship. When it all gets resolved, they were both right. Barb was just a normal human woman who liked him, but there was an alien parasite, it had just bonded to Boimler and given off very attractive pheromones. The revelation isn’t so much that Mariner can let her Trek knowledge get the better of her, but that she’s allowed Boimler past her usual skeptic defenses that push other people away. The reason she goes down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole is not her Trek-addled mind, but because she truly cares about what’s best for her friend.
It’s very sweet, but also brings us to the episode’s weak spot: focusing so intensely on Boimler and Mariner’s relationship on the show so far means that once again Tendi and Rutherford are sidelined in a C-plot of their own. The story is very cute—the duo get very geeked out by the Vancouver’s flashy tech compared to the beaten-down Cerritos—and re-emboldens the show’s belief that these goofballs just love being in Starfleet doing nerdy stuff all the time. But at this point, they’re so uninvolved with the Boimler/Mariner side of Lower Decks it can’t help but start to feel like they’ve been sidelined.
That earnest compassion Tendi and Rutherford embody, when combined with Mariner’s metatextual humor, is where Lower Decks really shines, and the more they’re separated the more the show almost comes aground. It would’ve been fun to see her, in the depths of her speculatory mania, rope along her naive pals. Instead, they almost feel like they’re in a separate show, unable to interact with their colleagues and ostensible friends.
Lower Decks has settled into an easy rhythm at this point, balancing your typical Star Trek plot-of-the-week with its zany main narrative that is, more often than not, just as incredibly loving of Trek as the actual overarching plot. It’s a nice place for the show to be already, but it’s showing signs of starting to wear thin in spots, especially when it comes to the other, unexplored half of its main cast.
Boimler and Mariner’s dynamic has been well-mined so far, to the point that an episode about the sincerity of their relationship feels earned even five episodes in. But it’d be nice if Lower Decks could, like Bradward and his fairweather romance, cool off a bit and shine a spotlight a little closer to Tendi and Rutherford.
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