"Mugato, Gumato" continues this season's trend of being generally more laid-back (aside from the season premiere) and less anarchic than much of season one. That's in its favor. Unfortunately, I didn't laugh very much, and the low-stakes nature of the episode somehow ultimately works against it. There's a fine line between "laid-back" and "who cares." I'm not sure exactly what I'm expecting out of this series, but these shoestring plots are too low a bar to give this show a pass.
The Cerritos is assigned to "animal control" to investigate the presence of a mugato, which is basically a giant white gorilla with a horn, on a planet it's not indigenous to. Upon beaming down, the away team learns the mugatos are being harvested by the Ferengi, who appear with their electrified whips for the first time since their initial appearance in "The Last Outpost." Lower Decks enjoys reminding us of all the Trek mistakes previous producers would've preferred to retcon from the franchise through our collective agreement to forget. Another example: the anbo-jyutsu combat in the cold open, not seen since Riker worked out his daddy issues in "The Icarus Factor," which I somehow gave three stars. Yet another example: the titular creature's oft-mispronunciation and the title of the episode, which require a deep dive into the truly esoteric to appreciate.
All this is well and good, but I happen to believe a story needs to survive on the textual level as well as the metatextual one — something I'm not sure this series fully buys into. The Ferengi stuff and the planet-bound adventure feel like bareboned off-the-shelf plot parts. The entire away team, minus Boimler and Rutherford, gets captured. So it's up to B&R to save the day. (First they're helped by a renowned biologist named Patingi, an expert on the mugatos, whose head is bitten off by a mugato immediately after he's introduced. This is mildly amusing as a joke, but narratively cul-de-sac-y. I suppose it's a very short cul-de-sac.) Your mileage may vary on the mugato sex-and-watching romp; this feels like the biggest go-for-it joke in the episode, but my reaction was ... shrug.
More valuable here is the exploration of the bartender telling B&R that Mariner is actually an undercover Starfleet black ops officer, which would explain why she's so good at ass-kicking, among other things, like why she has bounced around so many assignments for so many years. (For that matter, why does she have a different last name than her parents? I don't believe this question has been asked before, and nor is it here.) Unfortunately, what could've provided some interesting backstory is instead mostly (over)played at the sitcom level, where Boimler and Rutherford become terrified of Mariner, what with her stabbing and biting Shaxs in a transparently contrived misunderstanding to be cleared up later. This resolves as "Mariner made up the rumor herself for convoluted friendship reasons," which is a disappointment. I was genuinely hoping for some sort of useful revelation to fill in some gaps in Mariner's past and maybe shake up the status quo, but we don't get them.
In the B-plot, Tendi tries to develop her assertiveness, and is assigned by T'Ana to track down officers who have been avoiding their routine physical exams. She does this in a montage that proves if there's one thing about not getting a physical in Starfleet, claiming it's because you don't have time is beyond ridiculous. One mysterious officer on the list is identified only as a serial number. I was hoping it might be Mariner and connect to her alleged black-ops past in some way, but, no — it's actually T'Ana. ("You want me to see a doctor? I am the doctor!") Tendi has to chase T'Ana around the ship, with T'Ana frequently going into cat mode. This is okay sitcom fodder, nothing more.
In the C-plot, Freeman gets conned by a captain who stages the destruction of his own ship to make it look like the Cerritos is responsible so he can extort Freeman into giving him a shuttle and a bunch of other crap. This okay sitcom fodder, nothing more. (Noticing a trend?)
I did appreciate that the solution to the main plot has Boimler and Rutherford playing to their strengths as negotiators rather than action heroes, and convincing the Ferengi to turn their poaching operation into a conservation mission as an avenue to long-term profit. That's not a bad use of characters, ideas, and the setup material from the negotiation game earlier in the episode. So, not too shabby there. Much better than the obvious alternative of a stupid jail-break action sequence.
Bottom line: This is fine, but I can't quite recommend it. Lower Decks seems to put an awful lot of work into mining the Trekkian library in order to insert every Easter egg it logically can into a storyline. That's not an awful aspiration at the nerdy meta level, and I appreciate the effort. But I wish this show would put more effort into the more important task of keeping our interest at the basic story level.
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