"I, Excretus" is a pretty good example of what Lower Decks probably ultimately aspires to be. This is a story about an entire ship of scrappy underdogs — whose Lower Deckers are the most underdogged of the underdogs — working on a ship that don't get no respect. They must prove themselves to the people who don't respect them, in this case a Starfleet drill administrator named Shari Yn Yem (Lennon Parham), who has come on board to put the crew in a series of individualized holodeck-simulated mission drills where their performance is scored. The twist: The ensigns become command officers and the command officers become ensigns.
The simulated missions give the episode the excuse to do what this show does most often (I was tempted to say "best," but that would probably be false and would encourage them), which is to page through the library of Star Trek in order to feed us our regular diet of franchise references. The simulations include scenarios from, in order, "Mirror, Mirror," "Ethics," "Spectre of the Gun," The Wrath of Khan, "The Best of Both Worlds" (or perhaps First Contact), "The Naked Time" (or "The Naked Now"), and The Search For Spock. (Also, "Silicon Avatar," but that doesn't happen in a simulation.) As these things go, it's a clever and effective way of shoehorning a bunch of recognizable references into an episode, because they're actually baked into the plot as rather than being pointless fourth-wall-breaking asides. I can endorse this.
And there's fun in seeing these scenarios played through, as when Tendi fails medical ethics for not stabbing a paralyzed Klingon who wants an honorable assisted suicide. But far and away the highlight of all this is Boimler's overachieving obsession to get a perfect score on the Borg cube escape simulation. He's the only one to pass (on the first try with a score of 79 percent), but that's not good enough for him, so he keeps resetting and going through the simulation again and again, trying to do more and better (rescuing Borg babies from the nursery, then adult drones, and finally figuring out how to destroy the ship entirely) in order to increase his score. It's so Boimler. And then just when he gets to 100 percent, he's told he has to stay in the simulation (and sacrifice his score, and ultimately be simulated-assimilated) in order to bail out everyone else's failures. Also so Boimler. (Alice Krige reprises the role of the Borg Queen by providing her voice, which shows you that (a) this show goes to lengths it doesn't at all have to just to prove its bona fides and (b) voice acting probably makes these kinds of walk-on cameos easy for actors.)
Meanwhile the command officers are reminded what it's like to be completely left out of the loop on everything that's happening while relegated to pointless duties of inconsequence. This whole storyline is so obviously and clearly pointed toward a conclusion of "the whole drill is a morale-building exercise to remind everyone how the other half of the crew has it" that imagine my relief that the episode knows this is the obvious payoff that's coming and throws us the twist that the drill administrator's motivations are more self-serving: She's a career opportunist trying to use the Cerritos to prove her drills are still relevant. So now the Cerritos crew has to band together to show this bureaucrat the type of true dangers real Starfleet officers — even the disrespected ones on California-class starships — deal with every day.
And, yes, it also does the straightforward morale-building character-core thing, and pretty well. Lower Decks is solid when it remembers that although these officers are not serving on a ship as elite as the Enterprise, they still have a desire to do a good job both at the bottom and top of the command chain. And it works even better when it uses a story to show that without layering on a bunch of extraneous zaniness. As Freeman says, "The carpet's always grayer on the other side of the ship." That either means the opposite of the standard adage, or these Starfleet types really like their gray.
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