Any day now, Captain Freeman is going to get that big break that will earn her a promotion off the Cerritos — but, okay, probably not. With that perpetually confident look of swagger on her face, I feel bad that she's convinced herself she's going to impress bosses that don't care. This week she's assigned to a diplomatic mission to engage the Pakleds on their homeworld (which, appropriately prosaically, is called "Pakled Planet") and finds herself in the middle of a planetary power struggle. Meanwhile, a Pakled beams aboard the Cerritos and requests asylum, but is very clearly actually a spy trying to get information. The crew decides to go along with it to see what happens. If you thought the twist would be the Pakled is smarter than he looks, then you would be wrong, because the twist is that there is no twist.
There's often something dumb at the core of a Lower Decks episode that proves to be its own undoing because of the sheer obviousness of it all, and this week it's the Pakleds, who continue to be too dumb to live and yet are essentially treated as this series' primary nemesis. Their speech patterns remind me of the 1980s Dinobots ("Me Grimlock!"), and they inexplicably keep referring to Freeman as "Janeway," as if they got the meta memo that Janeway was the only other woman captain to lead a Trek series up to this point in the timeline. Okay, we get it. It's not especially funny, but sure, fine.
Meanwhile, the Lower Deckers are on anomaly collection duty, i.e., bizarro trash day, cleaning out all the weird sci-fi stuff that has accumulated on the ship. It's not a bad low-stakes subplot for driving some jokes, and it's well-suited to animation. Tendi tries to put a positive spin on this garbage duty, much to Mariner's and Rutherford's constant annoyance ... until, that is, she gets eaten and excreted by a screaming slime snail, which changes her mind.
The main character core is actually pretty decent, emerging when another set of pompous, ambitious ensigns (who have unwisely named themselves "the Redshirts") try to recruit Boimler into their supposedly elite group because they see untapped potential in him since he briefly served on the Titan. They give him a makeover and try to convince him that his friends are losers who are holding him back from promotion. When Tendi gets rage-induced into turning into a giant scorpion and goes rampaging through the ship, Boimler has to de-Hulk her by publicly embarrassing himself for her amusement in front of his new so-called friends. It's a decent arc about friendship and loyalty that plays to this show's strengths. But is it enough to carry the episode?
I dunno. Humor is subjective, but laughing so rarely at Lower Decks made me again wonder what it is about this show that doesn't work for me as comedy. What does work for me as comedy in this (sort of) genre? Well, South Park, for starters, because it's sharp and savage. Lower Decks is trying to stake out something gentler and more sincere. In that wheelhouse I always cite Parks and Recreation. Lower Decks is just too much into meta-references and Star Trek homage-paying to focus on developing really good character jokes. And as a Star Trek show, it's usually too irreverent to work as pure adventure or philosophy. It occupies a middle ground of compromises that can be difficult to pull off.
"The Spy Humongous" is dumb fun that's more dumb than fun, but it's not a bad way to waste 30 minutes. I did laugh at the idea of "prank-calling Armus," because that's a good concept for a joke; Armus deserves a taunt like that. But then the way the joke itself plays out is just lackluster. The idea of it is better than the actual execution of it. That's Lower Decks in a nutshell.
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