Last week, Decks made devastatingly effective use of Trek’s past by tying the series to the Next Generation episode (also titled “Lower Decks”) that inspired the series’ premise. In that episode, Sito Jaxa, a young ensign, is asked to take on a risky mission by Picard and pays the ultimate price. And in last week’s “The Inner Fight,” we learned that she’s the reason Mariner acts out and is so resistant to being promoted. Sito was Mariner’s best friend, and besides still feeling her loss acutely, Mariner doesn’t want to ever be in the position to have to order someone to their death.
But “Lower Decks” wasn’t Sito’s first appearance on Next Generation. She first appeared in “The First Duty,” in which a cocky group of Starfleet cadets (which included Wesley Crusher) decide to show off with a risky flight maneuver that gets one of them killed. So “Old Friends, New Planets” makes the connection between old and new episodes even more explicit, as we get a flashback to 13 years ago, when cocky Nova Squadron are planning their dangerous maneuver, and brushing off an overeager tagalong freshman… Beckett Mariner.
It’s weird at first seeing young Mariner as overeager as Tendi and nerdy as Boimler, but it makes perfect sense. We’ve seen flashes of that side of her all throughout the series, and it explains her friendship with her fellow Lower Deckers in a way that’s only been hinted at before. She’s protective of them because they remind her of herself, before she got hurt. And she doesn’t want Boimler’s love of Starfleet minutiae or Tendi and Rutherford’s unabashed excitement over science to curdle into her own oppositional defiance.
Back in the present, she’s face to face with Nick Locarno, who was Nova Squadron’s cocky leader, and is now a renegade who’s been stealing ships in the cold opens of several of this season’s episodes. (And kidnapped Mariner at the end of last week’s.) He’s assembled those stolen ships into a fleet, and now he wants Mariner’s help, seeing in her a kindred rulebreaker who he assumes will be eager to rebel.
Locarno managed to disable so many ships, not with advanced technology as it appeared in the cold opens, but by getting lower deck officers on each ship to rebel and join his movement. He puts out a galaxy-wide call to anyone who feels unappreciated and sick of taking orders. He assumes Mariner will be on his side on general principle, and having a Starfleet Admiral’s daughter at his side will be a feather in his cap.
But as we’ve seen time and time again, as willful as Mariner is, she’s also intensely loyal. She interrupts Locarno’s call to arms to declare his plan idiotic and make a call for help. Captain Freeman has been ordered to stand down, for fear of starting a diplomatic incident with any number of factions whose ships have been stolen. But she has enough of her daughter in her that as soon as she learns of Beckett’s whereabouts, she and the Cerritos fly to the rescue. (And it wouldn’t be Star Trek if someone wasn’t risking court martial to save their friends.)
It’s some rescue. Mariner gets to be a hyper-competent badass, as usual, but we also see Tendi embrace her Orion side to enlist her crimelord sister’s help; Boimler in the captain’s chair; Rutherford’s delightfully terrible Mark Twain impression; plans that go awry; a beautifully animated chase sequence through a crystalline asteroid field; and the Genesis Device from Wrath of Khan.
To lay out how all those things connect would spoil the fun. But they add up to a terrific cap on the season, and encompass why Lower Decks just might be the best Star Trek show. Both this episode, and the series as a whole, does everything well — action, science, idealism, character development — and has a deep love and understanding of the past, and understands how to use it for more than cheap nostalgia. Its only real flaw is that we only get 13 episodes a year. But season five has already been announced, and with Mariner working out some of her issues, it looks like it’s Tendi’s turn next. We can’t wait.
• The way Mariner puts a seat belt on the Genesis Device and declares it her first officer buddy is very cute.
• Besides the Genesis Device, there are a few nice visual references to Khan, including two ships playing cat-and-mouse in a nebula.
• And that’s it for season four of Lower Decks. Subject’s ongoing coverage of all things Trek will resume when Star Trek: Discovery returns for its final season at some as-yet-announced time in the new year.