TELEVISION: Star Trek: Lower Decks, ‘Kayshon, His Eyes Open’ (dir. Kim Arndt)

Lower Decks works in part because its freewheeling approach to universe-building allows it to crib whatever it wants from all generations of Star Trek, and to explore the implications of species and situations who wouldn’t usually get more than an episode’s attention. A secondary consequence of this approach is that it also gets to comment on Star Trek itself as a television show, and this is made particularly explicit in ‘Kayshon, His Eyes Open’. By juxtaposing Boimler’s adventures on the Titan with those of the rest of the crew on the Cerritos, the show gets to make its own sharp statements about what Star Trek should actually be.

A terrifed looking cartoon Boimler grips the helm console in terror, while Captain Riker and the crew of the Titan cheer.
Boimler, let go of the console.

The title refers to Lower Decks‘ reintroduction of the Tamarians, the aliens from the popular TNG episode ‘Darmok’ who communicated solely in metaphors rooted in their species’ mythology. Lieutenant Kayshon is the new chief of security, and while his universal translator means he can communicate in the standard tongue, he still struggles to work out some basic phrases. There’s a nice riff here on language learning outside of one’s own culture, with Kayshon casting around for complex, convoluted metaphors to describe very simple concepts. And as in ‘Darmok’, it sets up a series of ideas around communication.

Taking Boimler’s place in the bunks of the Lower Decks crew is Jet, a too-good-to-be-true junior officer who immediately clashes with Mariner’s self-appointed leadership status, including the two of them nearly exploding their own heads by trying to out-shower one another in the sonic showers. The two, along with Tendi and Rutherford, find themselves on an away mission with Kayshon to a Collector (incidentally, between Kayshon not understanding metaphors and an intergalactic hoarder, there are clear riffs on Guardians of the Galaxy) who wants Starfleet to help him defuse any booby traps on a dead Collector’s horde. When, inevitably, the booby traps go off and Kayshon is turned into a glove puppet, Jet and Mariner need to work out how to get the team safely through the vaults of the dead Collectors’ archives.

The episode actually allows for some nice character development on a number of fronts, while still playing into the bathetic idea of Starfleet as a mundane corporate workplace. Captain Mariner’s command evaluation has told her that she’s a micro-manager, so she decides not to check in with the away team while they’re being attacked by the booby traps – a decision she later regrets. Mariner wants to take the hero route through the vaults to a reactor that they can shut down; Jet instead insists that they follow training and take a shorter and safer route to the escape pods. Inevitably, it turns out that if they’d stopped competing with one another and asked Tendi and Rutherford, the science geeks would have pointed out that they can use what they have to break into the vents and thus get to the escape pods while bypassing all the booby traps.

But this debate also asks us what kind of show Lower Decks is. Is it the kind of Trek that is about fast-paced action, hard-headed warriors phasering their way through dangerous situations? Or is it more aligned with the more cerebral, diplomatic Trek of earlier series? This is played out more explicitly in the parallel storyline on the Titan, which is very much of later Trek. Riker wisecracks and blasts his way through dangerous encounters with the Pakleds, while his hard-ass crew gear up for dangerous away missions, all while Boimler cringes in terror. Yet while the mercenary members of Boimler’s away team laugh at the idea of the Enterprise-D having string quartets and nurseries as being immensely boring, it’s Boimler’s knowledge of that ship’s mission and ethos that gets the away team out of a sacrificial death scenario and saves them.

When Boimler, having been cloned in a transporter and supplanted by his other self, returns to the Cerritos at the end of the episode (displacing the newly accepted Jet in a genuinely sad moment as he walks away, neglected), he comments directly on the heavily serialised action-adventures of complex individuals put into life and death situations that he’s been in for the last couple of episodes. In doing so, Lower Decks firmly rejects the new trends in TV generally and Trek specifically (especially Discovery and Picard) for that kind of high-stakes action, and embraces the comfort of TNG. Riker even tells Boimler how much he misses the Enterprise-D, and to enjoy that kind of relaxed episodic approach while he has it. And it’s that abiding love for the core tenets of Trek that makes Lower Decks a success.

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