The Cerritos is assigned to its first First Contact mission, assisting the USS Archimedes under the command of Freeman's old friend Captain Sonya Gomez (Lycia Naff, returning for an animated version of a character she played in just two episodes on TNG more than 30 years ago, and yet who seems to loom much larger in fan circles than most guests with such limited appearances). This happens while Freeman is on the verge of a promotion that will take her to a new ship, leaving her daughter and crew behind. Freeman has not shared this information with anyone yet, but when Mariner overhears her talking about it, the cat is out of the bag, because Mariner proceeds to blab to the rest of the crew (who are not happy to learn this) out of pure spite.
This opens a new conflict between Mariner and her mother, and while it ultimately will circle back around to "Mariner is just acting out because she loves her mom and feels sad about the prospect of her leaving," it can still be a little tiresome to have the characters retread such traveled ground, especially after the various breakthroughs we've had on this front (especially in "Crisis Point," which remains the series' best episode).
Meanwhile, Tendi overhears T'Ana saying "she isn't cut out for medical," leading her to believe she's going to lose her assignment. Obviously, any partially overheard conversation is automatically going to be taken out of context (Sitcom 101), but Tendi is crushed, and takes comfort in her friendship with Rutherford, and together they declare their love for … the ship. Ultimately, we learn T'Ana actually meant that Tendi has too much potential to remain a medical assistant, and recommends she be promoted to science officer on the bridge. (Tendi, excitedly: "Like Jadzia Dax?" T'Ana: "Who the **** is that? I don't know who that is. No, like Spock!" Heh.)
But never mind all that now! A solar flare causes an unstable planet in the system to explode. (Earlier, we were given a briefing with graphics pointing out "UNSTABLE PLANET," which I suppose is about the clearest and most economical way you can telegraph a plot point.) The ring-shaped shockwave from the explosion hits and disables the Excelsior-class Archimedes in a fun visual callback to Star Trek VI. The Archimedes then helplessly hurtles toward the populated first-contact world, leaving the Cerritos and its crew the task of mounting a rescue operation before the countdown to the crash (about 20 hours) reaches zero.
"First First Contact" is essentially a technobabble jeopardy/disaster episode in the tradition of TNG's fifth season. It's a good one. The technobabble is pretty light, the plot's pacing is good, the action is task-oriented and focused on problem-solving, the animation is crisp and effective, and it keeps the characters and their stories front and center. The little bit of arbitrary technobabble we do get provides the crew with its mission: The entire outer hull plating of the ship must be removed, panel by panel, in order to successfully navigate through the debris field without getting blowed up by its bizarre properties, which are somehow mitigated by removing the outer hull plating. Check. On we go.
The jeopardy premise plays out with some decent excitement, including a sequence where Boimler has to risk his life by going underwater to release the final hull panel. This being Lower Decks, they find some LD-style goofiness to work in, in the form of two beluga whales who swim in a bay below decks and whose conversations are subtitled for our benefit and prove to be kind of charming. (They just want the humans to come swim with them, like puppies who want to be pet.)
This being a season finale, and a cliffhanger to boot, the most unexpected happenings in this episode won't be dealt with until next season. The biggest revelation is with Rutherford, who is storing multiple redundant backups of his memories with Tendi, in case he loses the originals again because of an error with his implant. (The sad idea of having to willingly purge old memories in favor of new ones was also done with Airiam on Discovery.) This leads to his memory filling up and error messages that prove increasingly distracting, so eventually he has to purge all the backups ... and that's when we see an old repressed memory of his implant being installed by two shadowy men who plant the false memory in his head that he chose to have it installed. Whaaaaaaaat? Basically, everything we thought we knew about Rutherford, and everything he thinks he knows about himself, is now suspect.
Will this tie into the other big revelation here, which is that Starfleet Security has come to arrest Freeman and charge her with the destruction of Pakled Planet in collusion with the Klingons? The planet's destruction just happened this very morning but can supposedly be traced back to the Cerritos' visit to the planet in "The Spy Humongous" and their encounter with the Klingons and Pakleds in last week's "wej Duj." This is merely a teaser, and we'll eventually see how all the evidence supposedly makes this unlikely case plausible, but I'd imagine Rutherford would play into it as an unwitting agent somehow. So ... some intriguing and potentially darker new threads to consider for season three, depending on how quickly they play out. But for now, question marks.
This season of Lower Decks took a long time to get going, and there was a lot of disposable stuff and forced humor in the first half, but they managed to close out pretty strongly in the second half. I think this series tends to be better when it's just trying to be Star Trek and not trying so hard to be a wacky comedy. Interestingly, the comedy shines through better when it's just a part of the stew and not the main course. The more I think of it, the more I believe Lower Decks and The Orville essentially occupy the same tonal space, and feature many of the same strengths, weaknesses, and penchant for unevenness. Of course, Lower Decks has all the internal references and continuity (and the much-of-a-muchness baggage) to fall back on, for better and for worse.
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