"We'll Always Have Tom Paris" is a good, solid, entertaining example of what this show might be in its most sustainable and prototypical episodic form. Although this show has been more insanely inventive in the past, this episode represents the straightforward sweet spot, featuring a series of comic adventures and character-based interactions that are breezy, fun, and mostly unannoying. The fact that it spreads things around across all the major characters is also in its favor.
To be sure, there's no shortage of Trek and fandom references. While these are sometimes too frequent and pushy, and I'm not going to list them, a lot of them work and are worth a laugh or at least a smile. Probably my favorite was Boimler constantly referring to Voyager as "VOY." (Why, how, and who, back in 1995, decided that would be the abbreviation for the show, anyway?) VOY's very own Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill extends the list of ‘90s-era Trek actors to guest on this show) is visiting the Cerritos and Boimler is excited. But of course he would be: He owns the limited-edition Tom Paris collectible plate.
The main plot arises from a personal request to Tendi from Dr. T'Ana, looking more feral than usual. I've barely talked about T'Ana in past reviews, but should probably correct that oversight now, and at least call out how she occupies the ever-crusty ship's physician role in the mold of McCoy and Pulaski (and, to a lesser degree, Voyager's Doc) — rather than, say, Crusher or Bashir. (She's the crusty doc amped up to a factor of about 10.) T'Ana needs a "family heirloom" taken discreetly out of storage from a nearby planet, no questions asked. Tendi and Mariner pair up for the task. Much is made of the fact that Mariner and Tendi have never gone on a mission of their own together ("Girls' trip!"), since this is a show where everything must be commented upon to highlight the writers' self-awareness.
Well, of course everything goes wrong. The "heirloom" is actually a life-sized sex toy (or not, given how things ultimately play out), needed to aid in T'Ana's version of Pon Farr. (I would've referenced Pon Farr even if the episode itself hadn't, but this series feels the need to explicitly call out every piece of source material it borrows from.) But Mariner and Tendi break it, so they then embark on a convoluted journey to repair it, which takes them to Tendi's Orion home colony where she has some connections through some unsavory family members. This is surprisingly well executed from the plot, character, and world-building perspectives. It's fun and light, and I like how the show keeps the stakes relatively low. (There's some subtle dialogue about Mariner's uncomfortableness in going undercover as a green Orion that doesn't feel the need to completely spell itself out as in-universe "problematic." I appreciate the subtlety; this show should try it more often.) The action works effectively as punctuation and plot advancement without hijacking the episode like in last week's "Kayshon." Meanwhile, we have a character core in the analysis of Mariner's and Tendi's friendship, where they discover they're maybe not as close as they thought they were. (Mariner doesn't even know Tendi's first name.)
Woven in here are plots for the other characters. Boimler, newly returned from the Titan, finds he's locked out of most of the ship's systems, including routine things like turbolift doors and food replicators. This leads him to crawl through the bowels of the ship in his attempt to get to the bridge, leading him to get trapped in hopelessly Boimler-esque fashion.
Also, Lt. Shaxs has returned from the dead (!) — with no explanation, because it happened outside the POV of the ensign characters, for whom it's merely an accepted mystery — which drives Rutherford crazy because he wants to know how the man who sacrificed his life to save him has now somehow un-died. (Ultimately, Shaxs reluctantly — and with due warning — gives Rutherford the dark and gritty details of death and un-death, which look likely to keep Rutherford up at night.) In citing all the possible ways a bridge officer could return from the apparent dead, Mariner rattles off a list from the Trek library that makes you realize just how many times this card has been played over the years.
This show features some good and unexpected jokes. One comes when Boimler, after spending hours in the Jeffries tubes, falls disheveled onto the bridge and Paris mistakes him for a Kazon. However, this show also doesn't completely avoid its typical problems. It ventures into Lower Decks Manic Excess when Paris continues to beat on Boimler well after his mistake should've become obvious. This series would be well advised to simply deliver a joke and then stop ("Thank you, good night!"), rather than literally beating its characters (and metaphorically us) over the head in a lame attempt to extend it. You can feel when this show jumps the rails and starts straining, and this is a perfect example.
But that's a minor gripe in the scheme of things. "We'll Always Have Tom Paris" is a step in the right direction for Lower Decks' second season and a good example of what this show can do with straightforward plot execution and sincere attention to characters.
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