With Captain Freeman wrongfully accused and awaiting trial for the destruction of Pakled Planet, the Cerritos has been put in drydock and its crew placed on leave. Mariner, convinced her mother is going to be railroaded without additional exculpatory evidence, goes on a mission to find evidence that may clear her mother's name.
"Grounded" is a reasonable start to Lower Decks' third season. It's easily the best season premiere for this series, but still a bit of a mixed bag. This is fine, but not a ton here to write home about. It's got the usual Easter eggs, some of which I appreciated. (Boimler works on his family vineyard, where they cultivate grapes for raisins instead of wine. Rutherford and Tendi eat dinner at Sisko's Creole Kitchen, where the hot sauce is "ketracel-white hot." Boimler exclaims how something is ridiculous, "for Kirk's sake!" Etc.)
The opening sequence between Mariner and her father falls into this series' frequent self-made trap/assumption that repeating a noisy gag enough times — in this case, Mariner breaking a lot of things in her father's office out of fury and frustration — is somehow funny. It's not; it's merely loud and obnoxious.
Boimler comes up with the idea of using his personal logs to clear the captain, since the ship's official logs during the time of the crime in question were lost and is a big reason why Starfleet thinks Freeman is covering up a crime. The Lower Deckers decide to break onto the Cerritos to retrieve the logs. But they can't use the transporters because of interference caused by a migration of a swarm of space creatures near Earth's orbit, so they have to commandeer a ship.
Easily the most inspired idea here is the whole notion of the First Contact site in Bozeman, Montana, having become a kitschy tourist trap, replete with shops, restaurants, the original Vulcan ship sitting at the landing site, and a space launch ride in a replica of Zefram Cochrane's Phoenix, where a hologram of Cochrane pilots the craft. (James Cromwell provides the voice, in the spirit of this show's dedication to unwavering authenticity.) Somehow, this works as both comedy and world-building. It seems somehow right that the First Contact site would now be a tourist destination, and seeing it here provides a nice historically-themed revisit. Rutherford overrides the automation to pilot the Phoenix clone to the Cerritos, which is a pretty ingenious idea, honestly.
That's the only real inspiration in this story, which mostly plays through the usual Lower Decks plot and gags. When Boimler's logs turn out to be a bust, Mariner decides to steal the Cerritos and take it out of drydock because ... well, I can't remember exactly why, but it doesn't really matter. Her friends try to stop her from escalating a questionable situation into something far worse, which ends with a bunch of loud slapstick fighting that doesn't really accomplish much comedically. The use of the alien slugs in an elaborate con played on the security officers at a monitoring station is ... okay, I guess.
Ironically, Freeman is exonerated without Mariner's help. It turns out her defense was taken seriously, and Starfleet investigated the matter and found out the Pakleds blew up their own planet and framed her. Mariner just needed to "trust the process," as her father said. Because it's Starfleet, after all. They don't railroad people, right? This feels about right. Not inspired or hilarious, but about right.
Following Mariner's actions, Freeman washes her hands of any future disciplinary decisions for her daughter because she can't be objective. So she puts Mariner's future in the hands of Ransom. Not sure how this really changes the game except to further set up Ransom as Mariner's nemesis, but we'll see how it goes. We'll see how this season goes. More ideas like First Contact as a tourist trap would be the right way to go.
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