"Where Pleasant Fountains Lie," the best episode of the (overall disappointing, so far) second season, is proof that less is more when it comes to the things most typically associated with Lower Decks. Less freneticism, fewer Trek references, less obviousness. Instead, this is a story that has a solid couple of stories and runs with them. The episode mostly plays it straight, but the humor and fun are baked into the situations rather than glopped on top like a distracting frosting. The reference that stood out for me was the joke about phaser rifles: "How are those different from regular phasers?" "Uh, they take two hands?" Yes. Nailed it. Fun-poking, subtle, and short. The trifecta, if you're going to do a joke like that. And it works because it's one of a few, rather than one of so many.
Similarly, the idea of this week's alien society, the Hysperians — a world that views all the sci-fi elements of Star Trek as magical fantasy elements — is an intriguing idea/joke that works all the better because it isn't insistent about itself. The Hysperian's Queen Paolana is the mother of the Cerritos' Chief Engineer Andarithio "Andy" Billups (Paul Scheer), who, we learn, renounced his status as prince and heir to the throne so he could follow his true passion of engineering in Starfleet. Furthermore, he's not allowed to lose his virginity or he automatically becomes the king under Hysperian law. His mother knows trying to coax him back home is futile, but has rather come to ask for his help as an engineer to repair a problem with her ship. (Or has she actually come here in a very elaborate plot to trick him into sex...?)
This plot works as a comedy because it simply plays out as a character problem that happens to be funny instead of a bunch of lame or broad jokes. The story ups the ante by having Billups' repair job result in an explosion and the apparent deaths of Rutherford and Billups' mother, leading Billups to realize he has no choice but to take his rightful place on the throne. Naturally, it's all an elaborate con by his mother, but as these things go, it finds the right tonal balance between jokey and sincere.
Meanwhile, Mariner and Boimler end up in a Shuttle Crash™ while transporting an AI named Agimus (Jeffrey Combs) to the Daystrom Institute to answer for his crimes of exploiting an alien society that fought a hundred-year war as a result of his god-like influence. This is, of course, a reference to classic Trek's penchant for frequently using this plot device, but the story takes the Mariner/Boimler survival scenario seriously and plays it through, and it's effective as a mostly straight adventure/drama. Jeffrey Combs as the guest voice is perfect as a nod to Weyoun — an unctuous manipulator constantly trying to trick our characters into plugging him into a computer that he can use to escape.
Agimus does everything he can to get access to a computer. Trickery. Flattery. Pleading. Then finally turning Boimler and Mariner against each other by using something true — accessing Mariner's logs and showing Boimler that she's the one that got him reassigned from a better mission onto this mission in the first place. There's a fight, and Boimler decides to take matters into his own hands and plug Agimus into the computer as a desperate survival tactic. But it's all a long con by Boimler, which pays off with a funny moment where the only power Agimus has is blinking some lights menacingly. (One missed opportunity here: a post-crisis acknowledgement that Mariner's betrayal of Boimler actually was pretty significant. Yes, Boimler used the betrayal to deceive Agimus, but there still should've been some sort of scene at the end with Boimler telling Mariner this is not okay. It might've made a decent character core stronger.)
The last shot is a pullback of Agimus on a shelf at the Daystrom Institute with a bunch of other computers who have tried to take over various worlds. It's a warehouse where these rogue AIs will surely be worked on by ... top … men. Turns out the episode's best reference is one that's not from Trek at all.
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