Star Trek: Lower Decks

"First First Contact"

3 stars

Air date: 10/14/2021
Written by Mike McMahan
Directed by Jason Zurek

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

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.

Previous episode: Wej Duj

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23 comments on this post

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Galadriel
Thu, Oct 14, 2021, 4:26am (UTC -5)
Now, that was — unexpected.
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Tim C
Thu, Oct 14, 2021, 6:10am (UTC -5)
It's a sign of how far this show has come that they had the confidence to do a dramatic cliffhanger, and I was actually *interested*!

Like last week, Lower Decks is showing off what it can do with Star Trek when freed from the constraints of a live action format. With no sets to build and no limit to the VFX, they're free to pull off some wild shit we haven't seen before (i.e. stripping the entire hull off the ship). Also like last week, the jokes weren't in-your-face but rather arising naturally from the situations at hand, which meant it wasn't a laugh-out-loud gag fest but did maintain a pleasant vibe throughout, even while the action was kicking off.

The drama itself was a classic Trekkian "the crew works a problem" disaster scenario, complete with a ticking clock, and pulled off well. Rutherford, Tendi and Boimler were all somewhat shortchanged on the character development front, but like most of the best episodes of the legacy Trek shows, it was better off for picking one character thread to focus on (in this case, Mariner and Freeman's relationship). It's not groundbreaking stuff, but it was enough to invest in, even if Mariner's immaturity is still grating me a little - defence mechanism or not, it can be a bit much.

My favourite jokes? There were some good ones, but the MVP has to be the horny dolphins constantly entreating everyone to get naked and jump in. It just got funnier every time it was repeated.

3 stars for "First First Contact".

Lower Decks season 2 as a whole? Hmmmmm. Like with season 1, it's easy to focus on the strong run of episodes at the tail end of the season and forget the bad ones that preceded them. *Unlike* season 1, though, there wasn't a single episode in the season that I thought was bad. Some definitely duller than others, but all of them had at least some good gags (minimum expected standard for a comedy) and most of them had, at the very least, some sort of semi-interesting spin on a classic Trek trope.

The show's weaknesses are still there: it is still far too often tempted to just use a reference for a joke rather than writing original material (even if it can be amusing, like Dr T'Ana tonight saying she doesn't know who the hell Jadzia Dax is). I get that the characters are stand-ins for us, the Trek fans, but there's got to be a way to do this more subtly and less frequently. And it still occasionally has the characters shouting things in a way that's obviously meant to be amusing, but without enough a joke backing it up to truly be so.

And although it's subjective, the fact is that when the show goes for broke comedically, it still falls short of the heights that a "Futurama" or "Rick and Morty" can reach. Jammer noted in an earlier review that this may just be a consequence of being too affectionate for their own universe and the legacy they're carrying on. To truly make a hilarious Star Trek show, you'd have to be willing to slaughter some sacred cows, and the Lower Decks writing team may just not want to go there. It's too bad; I feel like there is potential yet to be mined.

All of that said, season 2 has been a step in the right direction for the show. Unlike Disco, where I find myself repeatedly hoping for the writers to do better and repeatedly being disappointed, the Lower Decks team seems to have a better handle on the show they want to make, and they *are* getting better at it. If season 3 is the same step up over the previous year as season 2 was, it'll be quite the impressive showing.

I'll see you all back here for Disco season 4. The trailer looks awful and my expectations are low!

(Jammer, are you going to cover Prodigy? Is a children's show worthy of this format?)
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AMA
Thu, Oct 14, 2021, 7:43am (UTC -5)
A very good, but not great end to the season.

The story and action were compelling, though, admittedly, my brain could not shut off wondering about the effects of dismantling the ship's hull. The appearance of a certain pair of operations crew members was incredibly unexpected and a joy to see. Lots of nice character moments for Boimler, Tendi, and Rutherford; and I appreciated that Mariner and Jennifer were able to come to an understanding of one another. Finally, it was heartening to see the crew get to make their first first contact. Lots to like in this episode.

On the downside, I have long found the mother-daughter conflict between Captain Freeman and Mariner to be grating, so, relationship development aside, those portions of the episode were not all that welcome.

As a whole, the series is progressing nicely. I would say the series is at its best when it doesn't portray the crew, and namely Captain Freeman, as incompetent; Mariner isn't denigrating others; and it relies on situational comedy rather than in-universe references and jokes. Really looking forward to the next season.
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Karl Zimmerman
Thu, Oct 14, 2021, 8:08am (UTC -5)
Lower Decks ends strong once again, though I may have enjoyed this a tiny bit less than last episode, if only because my expectations were already so high.

This episode plays to the strengths of Lower Decks - straight-ahead, character-focused drama, and once again the memberberries take a back seat. Yet at the same time I laughed more than in any previous episode, largely because the dolphins in cetacean ops had such wonderful, random lines. Still, the setup was very "normal Trek" - crew working collaboratively to deal with a life-threatening problem - and executed amazingly well. Honestly I find it odd how much better LDS is doing this than Discovery (which had a very similar plot in Season 2's New Eden) despite having like half the run time.

Not only that, but we get to end on a cliffhanger! I'm genuinely excited to see where Season 3 goes. It appears that the show is slowly moving towards semi-serialization. I presume it will take several episodes to spring Captain Freeman out of prison. We'll get to see who the captain is during her absence (I am guessing a familiar face), see if Mariner/Jennifer will end up a thing, and follow up on what the hell is happening with Rutherford (Section 31 sleeper agent?).

If I have any reservations about the final episode, it's that I don't think the Rutherford/Tendi plot felt quite right here. I understand the desire to give the actors something to do, but in an episode with high stakes things felt a tiny bit deflated every time it focused back on Tendi's angst about her job. I'm also not entirely sure whether we were supposed to believe they both are masking their feelings for one another by stating their love for the ship, or if they are genuinely just friends. I honestly wish the show would do something here and shake up the dynamic.

3.5 stars.
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Colin Lindsly
Thu, Oct 14, 2021, 2:38pm (UTC -5)
My issue with the episode is one that I have with many Hollywood films and episodes is how they treat criminal cases. Captain Freeman is arrested on the flimsiest of evidence. Where was the investigation, the forensics? If not for the final minutes of this episode, which introduced this intrusive subplot, I would have rated the episode more highly.
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Chrome
Thu, Oct 14, 2021, 3:03pm (UTC -5)
Thematically this was set up to be a transitional piece, like a *series* finale. People were moving on: Freeman was getting promoted to admiralty, Tendi was getting transferred out of medical, Rutherford was possibly losing all his memories in order to make new ones, Boimler risked his life -- and Mariner was not okay with any of it.

What worked well were the stakes of the episode, taking a hard left from the seasonal Pakled plot to give us a routine mission gone disastrous. I suppose it was only natural that Sonya Gomez would be prominently featured, as she was used to kick off another routine mission gone bad back in TNG ("Q Who?").

The episode has multiple story threads (and a twist!) But perhaps this mainly was about Mariner opening up to improve as a Starfleet officer. Mariner can't be James Kirk just by being a maverick; she needs to really trust her circle. Just look at Kirk and his close relationships with Spock, Bones, Uhura, Scotty, Sulu, and Chekov. In other words, a family. Thus "First First Contact" has two meanings; Both the literal meaning of the Cerritos getting its initial First Contact with an alien species and a more intimate meaning of Mariner allowing the crew of the Cerritos get emotionally close to her.

Also enjoyable was seeing how Tendi had grown over the season. We had seen earlier in "We'll Always Have Tom Paris" that Tendi came from a very different background and gave up her aggressive Orion traits in order to fit in with the Starfleet way. We also saw that she was capable of being much more than a nurse when given the opportunity. This tracks well with Tendi's promotion in this episode. (Also, I must admit that Jadzia Dax joke had me rolling. I suppose just like in the Trek fanbase, most people would know about Spock but not necessarily Jadzia.)

It was amazing to see the Cerritos stripped of its hull. This type of shot was not possible during the TNG era of Star Trek and it's always nice when we see Lower Deck's animated format put to good use. It also harkened back to "Star Trek: First Contact" where the crew needed to detach an outer part of the Enterprise in order to destroy a Borg communications transmitter.

What's more, the hull project gives everyone something to do which shows off the best thing the crew has going for it - teamwork. This allowed for both Mariner to realize that she wasn't really alone on the ship as well as showing Freeman what she'd be missing if she moved on to a bigger role.

Then the ending goes off in a strange direction, turning the Pakled threat into a conspiracy perpetrated by Freeman. Obviously this arrest won't stand, but the showrunners are telling us they're willing to do multi-episode arcs in addition to its comfortable, more episodic fare.

Ultimately, this wasn't as good as last season's "No Small Parts" or even the previous episode (which, to be fair, was a remarkable break-out hit.) But it was better than an average episode in terms of scale and gave us a reason to look forward to next year.
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Jeffery's Tube
Fri, Oct 15, 2021, 1:00am (UTC -5)
Four star episode, and Star Trek at its best (if, admittedly, not its *very* best.)

Favorite references: the Excelsior-class-with-Sovereign-class-parts ship (first time we've seen Sovereign design elements on a ship other than Enterprise-E, if I'm not mistaken) and Ransom flying the Cerritos with a joystick like Riker does in that much derided scene from Insurrection.

I'm not even going to point out that in space they can just go "over" or "under" the cloud to rescue the ship. Nope, not going to do it. Star Trek!

At the very top of my wishlist for next year: A quick cutaway scene of Tawny Newsome and Jack Quaid, in live action, in uniform and in character as Mariner and Boimler. I'd add Eugene Cordero and Noel Wells, but the Cordero doesn't look anything like Rutherford and the green makeup would probably be cost prohibitive for Tendi, although Wells otherwise does look enough like her. C'mon, Lower Decks, make it happen!
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Jeffery's Tube
Fri, Oct 15, 2021, 1:05am (UTC -5)
@ Tim C

"All ages" doesn't necessarily mean Prodigy is a "children's show," although it might very well mean it's a children's show.
We'll see.
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PM
Fri, Oct 15, 2021, 2:39am (UTC -5)
While you folks were all "My issue with the episode is one that I have with many Hollywood films and episodes"ing, did no one notice the sinister Rutherford-implant-origins foreshadowing?

Also, for all the supposed old-Trek-superfaniry of the folks who pop up in these comments , you guys sure spend a ton of time picking apart things no one ever meant to be analyzed so savagely until all chances of any joy from them are sucked clean (i mean that in the most friendly way possible) and not a lot of time picking up on the more interesting legacy threads laid out for you in plain sight...For example, the chances are 0% that first-officer-Jack Randsom's last name is a random coincidence and not that of one of Starfleet's most morally compromised captains (VOY: "Equinox: 1 & 2) . I hope such things that LD has laid out will bear fruit in Season 3.

Just saying is all. (Also, those porpoises need their own show...)
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PM
Fri, Oct 15, 2021, 5:21am (UTC -5)
Also, apparently they're not porpoises, they're Beluga whales (Mike McMahan just said so on ScreenRant)
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Tom
Fri, Oct 15, 2021, 5:47am (UTC -5)
Finally. This is what this show needs to be trying to be.

Best episode so far, which means it's also the first episode better than 'just 'okay'.

2.5/4
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Tom
Fri, Oct 15, 2021, 5:50am (UTC -5)
I also find it appropriate that it uses the TNG font for its credits (though rather uninspired) since it looks like the 3rd season will be when the show, like TNG, finds its footing.
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Midshipman Norris
Fri, Oct 15, 2021, 8:29am (UTC -5)
Y'know... The opening theme is starting to kind of grow on me

This is basically Star Trek taking it's chance to return fire at Galaxy Quest, and I feel like it does some of it's due diligence, but in a lot of ways, the TNG metaphor @Tom is speaking of seems to apply heavily.

There have been some growing pains; that's to be expected with any new series, as the cast and crew acclimate to each other and the material, and in some cases, acclimate the material to them... The first set of TNG costumes were apparently iron maiden-like contraptions that had braces built into the spinal column and legs, so I'm starting to see why everyone's movements were so wooden in S1-S2.

By the same token, Lower Decks is experimenting, trying out things, some of them work, some of them don't. But if "Wej Duj" and "First First Contact" are meant to be a promise of the quality level of things going forward, then I welcome Lower Decks to the pantheon of Star Trek Shows That I Like, because this is getting pretty good!
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Andrew Taylor-Cairns
Fri, Oct 15, 2021, 8:44am (UTC -5)
What an end to a strong season. Easy 4 out of 4.

The hull plating looked amazing on-screen. The rising tension of the impending collision with the planet was also nicely realised.

Poor Pakled Planet! Did no one raise the Red Alarm? It's good that the producers are confident enough in themselves to leave a cliffhanger like this.

I think, much like the first season, season two has had a very strong end to the year. I think there have been one or two more dull episodes this year, but on the whole, it's been a lot better executed.

Boimler and Mariner had been toned down a lot more, and the focus on the other characters has been better. The gag rate has been pretty good as well, whether they've been callbacks to other Star Trek episodes, or sight gags.
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Bok R'Mor
Fri, Oct 15, 2021, 11:55am (UTC -5)
Hmmm. Don't really know what to make of that. It felt like a step backwards from the creative pinnacle of 'wej Duj' and a fall back to certain LD low points - the endless repetition of 'You got this' 'I got this' 'We got this'; the blasé nepotism that sees Mariner swaggering around calling Captain Freeman 'Mom' in front of everyone; the seedy humour (with dolphins this time); etc.

That said, this episode also works well enough. The return of Sonya Gomez was a nice and not too intrusive touch, letting the references service the plot rather than vice versa; the shedding of the hull plating and exposure of the bridge, while an odd decision, was a striking visual that enabled some real peril; the character interactions were as consistently good as ever (T'Ana purring was a wonderfully silly touch), with Shaxs quite hilarious in the background at crucial points. Finally, the arrest of Freeman was a longstanding Trek trope (the wrongful arrest) and it'll be interesting to see what they do with it. 'To Be Continued...' indeed. It's not quite BOBW, but it's trying and mostly succeeding on its own terms.

Lastly, I really do like Tendi, Rutherford, Boimler and Mariner as a group of friends now, and the senior staff do a nice job of playing inverted second fiddle to them as main characters.

Not bad at all.

(Also, freakish to see Sovereign-class nacelles on an Excelsior-class ship...)
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Bok R'Mor
Fri, Oct 15, 2021, 12:19pm (UTC -5)
@Midshipman Norris

Yes, agree about the theme. I like it a lot now.

Also agree with everyone pointing to the Jadzia Dax/Spock line from T'Ana as being both very funny and very clever. Brilliantly done.
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Jammer
Fri, Oct 15, 2021, 12:56pm (UTC -5)
Review now posted.
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Tim C
Fri, Oct 15, 2021, 3:31pm (UTC -5)
Jammer, you have a very different interpretation of the whales' dialogue than me...
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philadlj
Sat, Oct 16, 2021, 5:54pm (UTC -5)
A great season finale that does what it's supposed to: be big and bold, take risky steps, and leave us on a cliffhanger. It's no Mr. Worf Fire, of course (Trek never reached that high again, but what a high!) but it's another sign of the growth of this series. Just as it took time for the other series to find their footing, Lower Decks is looking as confident as it looks fantastic (seriously, seeing a capital ship dwarfing the Cerritos drives home its lesser status, while the "naked" Cerritos was something to behold!

While I get that we've retread the general conflict between Beckett and her mom, the fact that it's repeated here shows that repairing their relationship is no easy fix, and sometimes circumstances, like Freeman's presumed transfer, trigger a backslide into old bad habits. There's no doubt that mother and daughter are in a much better place now than ever.

It was also surprisingly lovely to see Beckett and the Andorian ensign lower their shields and befriend one another, and for Rutherford and Tendi's relationship not to take that obvious next step, but remain the way it is...at least until more hidden memories resurface, threatening Rutherford's very conception of his free will and existence...

I rank this among the top half of the better Trek season finales. It certainly borrowed from a lot of previous Treks, but that's (a) borderline unavoidable and (b) quite effective when just the right combination of past premises and themes are employed, and executed with such panache as they are here. That Lower Decks has a much larger "budget" to show super cool Star Trek Stuff, and the fact Westlake score picks up right where TNG, DS9, and VOY's composers left off, definitely helps.

That's not to discount the great voice work, which has become much more nuanced since the first episodes of the series, and the fact I care not only about the four main characters in Beckett, Boimler, Rutherford and Tendi, but also Freeman, Billups, Kayshon, T'ana, Ransom...I haven't cared about this many secondary and tertiary cast members since DS9!

I'm still hoping T'Ana ends up on the Cerritos. There were moments I thought she'd be installed as her interim CO with Freeman's arrest. In any case, I just hope her transfer to Starfleet wasn't a parting gag, and we'll see her again soon in some capacity.
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Danielle
Sat, Oct 16, 2021, 7:00pm (UTC -5)
@Colin Lindsy

"My issue with the episode is one that I have with many Hollywood films and episodes is how they treat criminal cases. Captain Freeman is arrested on the flimsiest of evidence. "

In our world, in most countries, military police can arrest a service member without a warrant, and just under the suspicion of committing a crime. Members of the Armed Services don't have the same legal rights as civilians do.
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Jeffery's Tube
Sat, Oct 16, 2021, 9:37pm (UTC -5)
@ Danielle

But the cuffs are a bit out of place for Star Trek, aren't they? I'm trying to remember if an officer or crew member sent to the brig has ever had cuffs slapped on them before being escorted. Plus, Freeman's a command-level officer. It really seems like she would be privately summoned to an admiral's office, relieved of duty, and paroled pending trial. Not have cuffs slapped on her by a lower ranking officer and then paraded out in front of her crew.

It doesn't really matter, I mean, obviously it makes for a much better scene to do it the way they did. Much more dramatic. Cuffs, even if we've never seen them, clearly must be used in certain circumstances, and diplomatic circumstances could warrant their use, as well. Consider that the Pakleds are probably screaming for "Janeway" to be brought to justice (for something they obviously accidentally did to their planet themselves, heh), and seeing her led away in cuffs is something their little brains would clearly understand. The image may be important to forestalling a diplomatic crisis, for now.

And, I mean, the crime of which she's accused is basically just short of Garth of Izar. If they really think she is capable of that (for whatever reason), they might not want to take any chances.

But really, it was just to make an overly dramatic cliffhanger for the season finale. Is it overdramatic? Sure. But I wouldn't say it strains credulity too hard.

...
Oh, and let's not assume Starfleet really believes Freeman is guilty, either. Something else may be going on here. The show does like to zig when we expect a zag.
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Latex Zebra
Sun, Oct 17, 2021, 8:36am (UTC -5)
@Danielle - Yeah, it could just be a big show to let the culprits think their plan worked.

Yeah, great end to a decent season in my opinion. I care way more about the characters than I did after season one.
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Chrome
Sun, Oct 17, 2021, 10:47am (UTC -5)
"cuffs are a bit out of place for Star Trek, aren't they?"

I think it was supposed to be like that scene in DS9's "Inquisition" where Bashir was arrested and marched across the promenade in irons. Not to say Section 31 is involved, but Rutherford getting a bionic implant put into him that can affect his behavior is some serious black ops.

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