Lower Decks’ biggest strength is that, while it’s funny, steeped in Star Trek lore, and generally provides a fun adventure-of-the-week, it’s first and foremost a character-driven show. All the sci-fi shenanigans the Cerritos encounters is ultimately a reason to bounce our four leads off of each other, and off of the authority figures and parade of weird aliens voiced by Paul F. Tompkins that they have to contend with.
So the show serves its characters well. But if we’re being honest, it serves D’Vana Tendi less well than the other leads. The show even lampshaded this in season 2’s “We’ll Always Have Tom Paris,” an episode that paired up Tendi and Mariner while openly acknowledging that the show hadn’t put those two characters together before, and that Mariner — and the audience — didn’t actually know much about Tendi or what lies underneath her endlessly chipper demeanor. We also don’t know much about the Orions, Tendi’s people, other than that they don’t like to be stereotyped as pirates and criminals, and are mostly pirates and criminals.
So it’s nice to finally get a Tendi-centric episode set on Orion. The captain grants Tendi leave to go home for her sister’s wedding, although she seems less than eager, even less so when Mariner and T’Lyn invite themselves along. The glimpses we’ve seen of Tendi’s past suggest she isn’t terribly proud of her heritage, and joined Starfleet to get away from the family and traditions she’s now being thrust back into.
The twist is, her family aren’t disreputable pirates she’s ashamed of; they’re fabulously wealthy and she’s famous on her home planet as Mistress of the Winter Constellations, whatever that means. She joined Starfleet to assert her independence and downplay the life of privilege she comes from, but now it’s all come rushing back. Her parents are gracious and welcoming, but they mostly see their children as assets. D’Erica (Kimiko Glenn) is being married off to secure an alliance with a powerful family, and Tendi was invited to the wedding largely so she can rescue D’Erica, who’s been kidnapped. (Kidnapping the bride is a longstanding Orion tradition.)
The rescue mission is simultaneously a sexy pirate adventure, a farce in which Tendi flips back and forth between the badass renegade Orions know her as and the overeager science nerd we see on the Cerritos (Noël Wells does a terrific job at managing the whiplash changes in tone), a clever reversal of the trope of an outwardly cool character trying to hide their awkward youth, and a thoughtful reminder that the identity that matters is the one you choose for yourself, not the one you’re born into. There is more to Tendi than she lets on, but the version she shows her friends is the one worth knowing. While Decks, at its best, can juggle action, comedy, and drama deftly, it only works as well as it does because it’s all ultimately rooted in who these characters are deep down.
• Just as the first two episodes of the season were bookend with the Klingon and Romulan versions of Lower Decks, we open on low-level officers on an Orion ship giving each other a hard time, before their ship is destroyed by the same mysterious ship that destroyed the Klingons and Romulans. It’s never mentioned again, but it’s definitely leading up to something.
• “What’s a Prime Daughter?” “I don’t know, but it sounds cool as hell!” “I concur.” T’Lyn’s a terrific foil for Tendi, but she and Mariner are pretty great together too.
• The B story, in which new roommates Boimler and Rutherford are so alike that they drive each other nuts, is so inessential we’re only just mentioning it now, but it’s also hilarious, particularly when they both dress up as Mark Twain for the same holodeck program, and Jack Quaid and Eugene Cordero get to do dueling terrible Southern accents.
• “Mariner getting stabbed repeatedly is a fun running gag” is a sentence I didn’t think I’d write, but here we are.