Star Trek: Lower Decks

"Strange Energies"

2 stars

Air date: 8/12/2021
Written by Mike McMahan
Directed by Jason Zurek

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"Strange Energies" opens with Mariner being interrogated in a Cardassian prison ("Chain of Command" style), which she breaks out of in a lively action sequence where she, as one individual, takes on an entire security force in a daring and fantastical escape. It's a holodeck "workout routine" fantasy, but a fun and inventive one that serves as a good curtain raiser for the new season.

Unfortunately, I can't really get behind most of the rest of the episode, which borrows from TOS and TNG highlight reels and amps them up with Animation Zaniness. The strategy seems to be: start with a smallish character story, then filter that through escalating, over-the-top cartoon action. This has the paradoxical but predictable effect of things becoming more boring as they get more outlandish. By the end, I was zoning out.

We have two character-based stories. In the first one, Mariner and Freeman are working more closely together, and Mariner's mother is extending her autonomy to call her own shots, which is vexing Commander Ransom, particularly on away missions. When Ransom gets zapped by some "strange energies" on the planet surface, he turns into a power-hungry superbeing, Gary Mitchell style. (Mitchell is specifically name-dropped, pursuant to this show's style of self-aware references.) The ensuing mayhem increases until Ransom's head detaches from his body, grows to a massive size, and goes into planetary orbit to attack (i.e., eat) the Cerritos. Freeman can only stave it off by assuaging Ransom's ego — while Mariner kicks Ransom's body repeatedly in the groin to beat him into submission, something that admittedly made me chuckle under the "repetition is funny" comedy axiom. But overall here: meh.

In the better, more initially grounded B-story, Tendi fears that Rutherford's memory loss and resulting slightly altered personality (he went on a second first-date with Ensign Barnes, which went well this time instead of ending in failure, and he now likes pears where he previously hated them) may result in her status as his best friend changing. This starts out as a decent character story, but again, it's not helped by its ensuing cartoon excesses, where the usually somewhat grounded Tendi becomes excessively crazed about the prospect of losing Rutherford as a friend — resulting in her giving him electrostatic therapy and chasing him around the mess hall with some sort of medical gun. You can feel the moment when this story goes off the rails, and it's not subtle.

This series really needs to trust the audience to invest in these character stories on their own merits rather than feeling the need to launch into these obligatory exercises in animated madcap excess. When it comes to character study, less is more. As a season opener, I was hoping for better.

Meanwhile, Boimler is facing all sorts of danger in his adventures on the Titan. But that's a story for another episode, merely teased here...

Previous episode: No Small Parts
Next episode: Kayshon, His Eyes Open

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19 comments on this post

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Barristan
Thu, Aug 12, 2021, 10:51pm (UTC -5)
Long-time reader; first-time commenter!

I think I actually enjoyed this episode *more" than any of Rick & Morty's new season so far.. did this show steal their best writer or something? Considering I never made it to Discovery's 3rd season, this is probably my favourite Trek material currently being produced.

The prison escape opening was entertaining (including all the ship cameos), the reference to Gary Mitchell was amusing, and I like that they waited to the end to show us a snippet of the Titan, which will presumably get more screentime next week before Boimler ends up shipped back to the Cerritos (not spoilers, just fairly confident speculation that they'll restore the status quo faster than, say, DS9's occupied station arc).

Best joke was the jab at TNG's "no interpersonal conflict among the crew" rule that the writers hated so much.
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Mint
Fri, Aug 13, 2021, 2:13am (UTC -5)
It was alright.

I still hope that they start to tone down the characters a bit more, it still takes me out a bit with everyone hamming it up, but when it comes to tone I do think that that's something that this episode got a bit right, or at least with the pacing. Unlike a lot of the early episodes of Season 1 this one wasn't quite moving at a breakneck speed, it made things a lot less jarring which I definitely liked.

The opening I definitely liked for the most part, the continuity with Mariner working out her problems in the holodeck was a nice and sensible callback, and it definitely showed some self-awareness for the nepotism to follow in the episode. The special effects were top notch, and all the 'member berries with the Miranda class and the TNG-phasers shooting off was splendid, though it did end in a bit of a groaner of a line.

I think I appreciated the B-story more than the A-story, Trek has never had a good relationship with... relationships, but watching Tendi chase Rutherford around with the medical gun and space scalpal was charming, and not stating the whole subtext yet was nice as well!

A-story I was less enthusiastic about. I like the idea of second contact, I also liked them toying around with the titular "strange energies" and their history and effects, it's all stuff that definitely works great with the freedom animation gives. On the other hand, the melodrama and stuff from God-powered Ransom was a bit too much, the sidekick Lieutenant Commader fella was definitely a bit too much, and the resolution of kicking him in the nuts just didn't do it for me.

Going forward, I still think this show is definitely improving, and if it goes up in the direction of the Orville then that'd be extremely ideal, which it very well might as it has more and more time to expand on and settle it's main characters. This show is definitely at it's best when it expands on things we couldn't or didn't see in TNG/DS9, or when it tackles wacky sci-fi issues that wouldn't have been as doable in 70's Trek. I definitely remain cautiously optimistic, and of the three Trek shows out right now I appreciate this one the most, if nothing else because it gets the aesthetic and feel of Trek right.

Next week, judging from the teaser clip and such I'm guessing we'll be getting a B-story on the Titan, definitely looking forward to seeing a Captain Riker in his prime.

Gonna call 2.5/4 for this one. Nice opening, solid B-story, eh A-story.
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Kim in Asia
Fri, Aug 13, 2021, 8:01am (UTC -5)
Tedious, apart from the opening surprise holodeck sequence. I'm tired of the rebellious daughter- type A mother captain fixation already.
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Bok R'Mor
Fri, Aug 13, 2021, 11:44am (UTC -5)
Too hyper-active in all regards. Although the references to earlier Trek are always welcome, it doesn't work at all well in this episode, which is just a frantic spectacle jumping from one thing to the next. The interplay between the various characters was scattergun and the pacing felt like it was stuck on 3x running speed. Too much happening too intensely. Exhausting to watch.

I grew to enjoy the first season of LD and recommended it here, but this opener is not the place for anyone to start.

Maybe later stuff on the Titan will be better. Didn't sound like Frakes' voice doing Riker, incidentally.
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Jammer
Fri, Aug 13, 2021, 1:05pm (UTC -5)
Review now posted.
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Chrome
Fri, Aug 13, 2021, 3:06pm (UTC -5)
Barristan wrote:

"Best joke was the jab at TNG's "no interpersonal conflict among the crew" rule that the writers hated so much."

I got a chuckle out of that as well. And of course this episode is about personal conflicts among the crew...

The character stories were good choices, and at least I liked how Mariner's maturing from season 1's finale seemed to take to some degree. But like Jammer says, this episode was zanier than it needed to be to tell these stories. There was also a missing opportunity to develop the angle that Captain Freeman's husband was pushing for the same sort of nepotism that Freeman was practicing on her daughter. Maybe they'll develop that later.

Next week is undoubtedly a Boimler episode. It looks like he'll want to transfer back to the Cerritos, but I guess we'll see.
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Tim C
Fri, Aug 13, 2021, 9:06pm (UTC -5)
With you on the middle-of-the-road rating, Jammer. I found myself onboard with the madcap escalation of Ransom's powers and the subsequent resolution - it felt suitably ridiculous for this show and yet perfectly in keeping with the Trek tropes it's playing with - but the Tendi/Rutherford subplot got tiring fast, which is a shame as it started out very promisingly.

Overall though this felt far less forced than the opening half of season 1 did, which I think is a combination of my own growing familiarity with the characters and the show's still-developing rhythms, as well as the writers learning they can throttle back a little bit and let things breathe occasionally. Hopefully they can continue the positive trajectory that season 1 finished on, where the worst we'll get is a "meh" rather than a "that was not funny at all".
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PM
Sat, Aug 14, 2021, 3:13am (UTC -5)
Honestly, didn't any of you sit around with your friends in the 90s making stupid immature jokes about things you couldn't take seriously about Star Trek because you loved it so much. And now there's a whole show that is that thing and it's extremely funny.
(If you want Star Trek to be what it was in the 60s and 90s, why don't you just watch reruns of Star Trek from that era?)
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Bok R'Mor
Sat, Aug 14, 2021, 6:08am (UTC -5)
@PM

I was pleasantly surprised by the first season of LD, and I actually consider LD to be the only NuTrek worth watching. I do understand your point, and I really am genuinely happy that you're so enthusiastic about LD; I have always liked that each individual Trek series has its own subset of fans.

I genuinely want the second season of LD to be good.
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Tomalak
Sat, Aug 14, 2021, 5:46pm (UTC -5)
"Too hyper-active in all regards. Although the references to earlier Trek are always welcome, it doesn't work at all well in this episode, which is just a frantic spectacle jumping from one thing to the next. The interplay between the various characters was scattergun and the pacing felt like it was stuck on 3x running speed. Too much happening too intensely. Exhausting to watch."

100% agree. It also doesn't even tend to affect the plot very much. Like other Star Treks, the actual plot is about dialogue between the characters and that is what moves things along. So all the madcap spectacles just feel like filler. And there is definitely an element whereby the action packed scenes are so intense that even very major events are devalued. A whole solar system going supernova seems less meaningful than a shot of Picard looking very concerned.
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SC
Sat, Aug 14, 2021, 6:24pm (UTC -5)
I'm not sure you get this Jammer. It's supposed to be madcap and zany! It's meant for a younger audience (and it's preciously the reason I love it as an adult.) It's different that regular Trek and refreshing as a result.
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Bok R'Mor
Sun, Aug 15, 2021, 4:17am (UTC -5)
@Tomalak

"It also doesn't even tend to affect the plot very much. Like other Star Treks, the actual plot is about dialogue between the characters and that is what moves things along. So all the madcap spectacles just feel like filler."

It's a pity, because LD is clearly trying its hardest to be a character-based show in the best tradition of Trek: no one can fault LD for having heart. The problem, as you point out, is simply one of balance and the inevitable jarring between this character interaction aspect, the madcap zaniness because cartoon, and the constant fourth wall breaking. LD is trying to have its cake and eat it, and getting said cake everywhere.

The character development in LD is well-intentioned. I don't care much for the flippant nepotism between Freeman and Mariner here, and Mariner is so glib and arrogant about that in this episode as to be unlikeable once again (perhaps that's the point?), but I can see the writers are aiming for an arc in which Freeman and Mariner realise something about themselves both individually and about the mother-daughter bond more generally. (And of course I expect they will portray this infinitely better than how Burnham and her mother were depicted in DIS.)
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Andrew Taylor-Cairns
Sun, Aug 15, 2021, 1:31pm (UTC -5)
I much preferred Strange Energies to Second Contact. It took three or four episodes to warm up during the first season, but I just had a better vibe with this one.

I may have only laughed a few times during this episode, but I felt more of an emotional connection to the characters, like the second half of season one.

Did Riker's enthusiastic face right at the end have anyone else howling with laughter?
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Yanks
Sun, Aug 15, 2021, 5:31pm (UTC -5)
@Andrew Taylor-Cairns

"I much preferred Strange Energies to Second Contact. It took three or four episodes to warm up during the first season, but I just had a better vibe with this one."

Definitely agree here!! I thought the same while watching this episode.

While I didn't enjoy the "mother-daughter" theme here, I'm glad they are past that and we can move on. That said, they needed to address it after the season 1 closer.

While the "god-like" powers were overdone, there were snippets during the show that cracked me up. Ransom's disciples lifting weights, the bolder... it wasn't too bad. It did seem to drag on.

Mariner's holodeck stuff was pretty cool. I liked this line from Boimler: "they keep showing me lights!" ... lol

Tendi zapping Rutherford was pretty funny. I like everything these two are in, and while a little over the top for Tendi - I can see her seriously worrying about losing Rutherford as a friend.

Mariner resolving this whole Gary Mitchell thing by repeatedly kicking Ransom in the nuts was not required IMO and a little tasteless. I would expect that on The Orville, not here.

Off to the Titan next week... I can't wait. We need to get Boimler back onboard the Cerritos.

Not horrible, but not up the level the last season ended with.

I'll go 2.5 stars.

Welcome aboard Barristan!!
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Latex Zebra
Sun, Aug 15, 2021, 6:33pm (UTC -5)
2.5 for me. The Ransom stuff was amusing and I really liked the B story.

It wasn't the worse possible start to season 2 so I'm still game for more.
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Tom
Mon, Aug 16, 2021, 5:13am (UTC -5)
If I could have 5 minutes to sit down with the creators/writers of Lower Decks I'd ask them one simple question:

"Why do you believe that this show can't have any quiet moments? Previous Treks had them. Thoughtful discussions between crew members which didn't proceed at warp speed. Holodeck scenes which weren't hectic battles but which were still amusing. Poker games or ten-forward scenes with a relaxed pace rather than ramping the tension up to 100."
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Paul C
Wed, Aug 25, 2021, 5:18am (UTC -5)
Spot on review.
(Got a ‘the the’ to edit Jammer)
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Yanks
Wed, Aug 25, 2021, 10:39am (UTC -5)
Nice review Jammer.
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Garak
Sun, Sep 26, 2021, 12:58pm (UTC -5)
Lower Decks is excruciatingly unfunny (tries too hard all the time), headache inducing in its overbearing chattiness (every talks all the time, way too quickly), too nerdy for its own good even by Trek standards, and really isn't written all too well.

A gigantic failure that should be given the boot, and yet here we are, renewed for Season 3.

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