Star Trek: Lower Decks


3 stars

Air date: 10/19/2023
Written by Ben Rodgers
Directed by Megan Lloyd

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

I think maybe the modest goal of Lower Decks should be to use the Star Trek universe to tell fun, lightweight, comedic stories where the tone of the episode lands on something more pleasant than annoying. "Caves" does just that by employing two standbys: (1) The flashback episode told as a series of mini-stories, and (2) the Star Trek cave setting that was obviously filmed on the reusable cave set on the soundstage at the Paramount lot.

In the case of Lower Decks, where the animators could give us any setting they wanted, using a cave is a deliberate and knowing wink, as is the complete lack of surprise on Mariner's face when the team becomes trapped by a cave-in — with a deadly growing mass of bioluminescent moss consuming the available space and threatening the four. The cave joke is something Trek fans will smile knowingly about, but that joke alone would not carry the day if this episode didn't also win us over by ultimately telling a nice little story about these four people and their enduring friendship.

We get a flashback from each of the four characters. Boimler's involves his away mission with Lt. Levy, whose rampant speculation turns out to be informed insight about the aliens — the Vendorians from TAS's "The Survivor" — who are behind the morality test that he and Boimler are currently undergoing (while under observation).

In Rutherford's flashback, he and T'Ana are trapped in a cave when their cave guide is killed in an attack by a ferocious cave creature. T'Ana must deliver Rutherford's baby after he's impregnated with a "consciousness clone" (through simple touch) by the dying cave guide. Turns out the ferocious beast is actually an intelligent creature who can be reasoned with if we just break down the communication barrier. (Although, if it observed them being good parents, why was it still trying to kill them?)

In Mariner's flashback, her team is stuck in a cave where one half of the cave ages you until you're too old to move. The problem is, the substance that will enable their escape is on that side of the cave. Meanwhile, Mariner is at odds with one of her team members over the question of Delta shift versus Beta shift. Delta shift never gets the good missions. And Mariner thought she had it bad on Beta shift. The biggest laugh for me: Mariner victoriously declaring, "F*** you, cave!" with a double flip-off when she realizes the cave is not blocking their communications. (There's also a throwaway line of the crashed shuttle's power being "dunsel.")

Tendi's story brings it all home. Set immediately after her arrival on the Cerritos in the first episode, it's actually not a trapped-in-a-cave flashback, but a trapped-in-a-turbolift flashback, where the four Lower Deckers were stuck for hours in an ordeal that solidified their friendship forever. It reveals the episode is actually about these four characters, not the mission they are on or the missions of their flashbacks (although a final reveal that shows the Vendorians were actually behind this latest cave trap, putting the group through a test that they unknowingly aced).

After the lamentable "Empathological Fallacies," I said I was close to giving up on this series. I was serious. Because — let's face it — this show is really only as good as how pleasant it is while it's happening. If it's obnoxious, it feels like I'm setting my time ablaze by watching it. But the episodes since then have all landed on the pleasant side of the coin, and "Caves" may be the most pleasant of the season yet. Could it be as simple as that?

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21 comments on this post

Jeffrey's Tube
Thu, Oct 19, 2023, 4:05am (UTC -6)
This is a four star episode as far as I'm concerned, and an example of the best this show can be with its premise. It takes a classic Star Trek plot set up--trapped in a cave on an away mission--and uses it to tell flashback stories of all the other times the characters have been trapped in caves on away missions, because being in Starfleet, of course this happens to them all the time. And then those stories also send up all the bizarre things that tend to happen to Starfleet officers in caves.

None of the humor is mean. It comes organically from the characters and the situation. The flashback plots are decently creative (any one of them could have made for a compelling episode on its own). It almost feels like a fake "bottle episode," which of course is a staple of past eras of television production including Star Trek. On top of that the episode ends with a positive Trekian message.

Yes, I really enjoyed this one.
Jeffrey's Tube
Thu, Oct 19, 2023, 4:09am (UTC -6)
Missed T'Lyn again, but I understand that's due to the structure of the episode. There was runtime for four flashbacks and the "wrapper," not five flashbacks.
Tim C
Thu, Oct 19, 2023, 6:12am (UTC -6)
I liked this one, but didn't get any big laughs out of it, so it goes into the mid-tier of Lower Decks episodes for me. Good to see our main cast back together in the same plot though!
Thu, Oct 19, 2023, 7:36am (UTC -6)
That was a sweet episode, even without T’Lyn. With its strong cha­rac­ter focus, it pro­vides a nice quiet back­seat ride be­fore the ex­pect­ed plot-heavy sea­son fi­na­le (which I still hope will be two epis­odes long).

The episode has a similar structure and feel to “Veritas”, but works far bet­ter, be­cause we know the cha­rac­ters by now, and there­fore can enjoy their inter­acti­on and re­ac­ti­on to cavey dan­gers much more. We get a fram­ing story with the whole team being trap­­ped in a cave with car­ni­vo­rous moss (bad me­mo­ries of the para­sitic ice in “Far From Home”), and ever­yone re­counts a story of a pre­vious cave-trap­ping. Each of these cave en­tries looks exact­ly the same, as stat­ed in the intro.

Of these stories, I considered Boimler’s the most funny. Lieute­nant Levy, the crack­pot who has been seen a couple of times be­fore (Wolf 359 was an in­side job etc.), was the worst guy to be stuck with. I am some­what sur­pris­ed that after all his BS talk he was onto some­thing real with his Ven­do­ri­an con­nec­tion, but he he was also way off in every de­tail, so I guess it can­not be taken as an en­dorse­ment of crack­pot­tery (“Your know­ledge is art­fully mixed with hy­per­bole and fic­ti­on”). The Ven­do­ri­ans now have been ret­con­ned to in­ves­ti­ga­te hu­man mo­ra­li­ty by set­ting up ela­bo­ra­te illu­si­ons, which does not make much sen­se gi­ven how they were intro­duc­ed as sche­ming and to­tal­ly ali­en ali­ens in “The Sur­vi­vor”, but I like this de­ve­lop­ment of a spe­cies (re­mind­ed me of the Ex­cali­bi­ans). Also, they look gor­ge­ous with their in­di­vi­du­al head marks and lu­mi­nes­cent eyes.

I found Mariner’s story in the aging field felt less funny, but was who­le­some with her re­con­cili­a­ti­on with the δ shift (per­haps the Ven­do­ri­ans were pre­sent, but didn’t re­veal them­sel­ves be­cau­se of the re­con­ci­li­a­ti­on. Huh, Levy lives in me!). Now we un­der­stand why these guys and gals are so hos­tile, it is just the lack of lime­light. Ru­ther­ford’s and T’Ana’s ad­ven­tu­re did he least for me, be­cau­se it was really a re­hash of “The Devil in the Dark” (fun­ny sin­ce Per­gi­um ap­pears in the next vig­net­te), and the clash of con­struc­tive en­gi­neer­ing ethos with a bad-mouth­ed doctor was good enough. Tendi’s story em­pha­si­zes the heart­warm­ing com­ra­de­rie be­tween all these cha­rac­ters, and I laugh­ed loud see­ing the on-duty shift scrub­bing the walls after that mess with the rage virus in “Se­cond Con­tact”; that’s what TNG al­ways glosses over.

The episode was as lowerdecky as can be; by now, the show has bro­ken enough ground that it can com­fort­ably refer back to it­self rather than draw ex­clu­si­ve­ly from pre­vi­ous Trek (even Ven­do­ri­ans have been seen be­fore in “Envoys”). This strength­ened world­­build­ing and thus the epis­ode as a whole. While it wasn’t the most ima­gi­na­tive plot-wise, it felt very ge­nu­ine Star Trek, and I give 3 stars. Quote of the epis­ode goes to Boim­ler: “Yeah, there shouldn’t be an­other dis­aster until 15:30 at the earliest.”
Karl Zimmerman
Thu, Oct 19, 2023, 10:28am (UTC -6)
When this first started, I was apprehensive. Another vignette show like Veritas? I was worried that it was just going to be a collection of half-baked ideas that weren't long enough to fill out an entire episode, hastily strung together in Lower Deck's version of a "bottle episode." But I was pleasantly surprised that every one of them had common themes around trusting and bonding with those who you are initially apprehensive towards - essentially, about the power of friendship.

Boimler's vignette with the conspiracy theory dude had me off to a somewhat rocky start, largely because there was only one joke here (that he was somehow right). I like that even the dude seemed surprised by the fact that he wasn't spewing total bullshit, but given how the past few years have gone, conspiracy theories have gone from a harmless quirk to weaponized insanity, so I felt a bit uneasy about this, even in jest. It didn't help that there was really only one joke here. Still, the message that even crazy people can help you get out of tough situations was...good? I guess?

Rutherford's short with T'ana was adorable, though it's hard to screw up a plot with a baby. While I did feel a bit of the tension between the two was manufactured, I loved that they basically did a speedrun of Devil in the Dark, with the solution communicating with the alien monster. Basically a bite-sized version of the classic Trek morality tale, and when I began warming to the episode.

Mariner's vignette was ridiculous, though the whole rapid aging thing was pretty much within canon of Trek. I suppose I could quibble here that there really wasn't any sort of cooperation between Delta Shift and Mariner - they just sort of fumble around until the last one finds a section they can get to without getting old. But they managed to have a heart-to-heart and Mariner discovered Delta Shift weren't so bad, which was...a nice message. Enjoyed the gross-out body horror of losing the leg too.

Tendi's was super short - probably less than two minutes. Didn't even try and be funny, just heartwarming. It was nice to have a callback to the very first episode, though it did remind me how...rough...that episode was.

And of course, there was the framing device. I liked that the beginning of the story noted since they were all Lt.'s now, they don't work together as much as they used to - which was causing some building of tensions throughout the episode, as the crew realize they've been having experiences apart from one another, before it circles back and they realize it's fine that they have, because they will always be friends.

So, a heartwarming bit of near pure character-based storytelling,. My only issue this week is it wasn't really funny, aside from one or two jokes. Charming, cute at times, but not funny.
Tim Heidecker
Thu, Oct 19, 2023, 12:59pm (UTC -6)
Five bags of popcorn.
C.T. Phipps
Thu, Oct 19, 2023, 1:33pm (UTC -6)
Yes, I have to say that conspiracy theories aren’t fun in RL and thus aren’t very funny in Lower Decks. Part of the reason I feel this way is because I used to be a huge X-Files fan and am an anarchist in RL. There’s numerous RL conspiracies of shady inside things like the fact that the NRA was funded by Russia to subvert democracy and a certain electorate vote scheme on January 6th. Things that certainly are straight out of Tom Clancy or John Le Carre. However, these aren’t the conspiracies that people focus on. Instead, the conspiracy theories of the internet are usually Far Right barely disguised anti-Semitic blood libel and often used as propaganda for the Far Right.


Which is to say it just didn’t work for me at this day and this time.

I wasn’t even fond of Rutherford giving birth to a baby plot because not only does that remind me of one of the worst episodes of ENT with Trip’s pregnancy but it also reminds me of “the Child” where I maintained that it really is a form of sexual assault that is just sort of glossed over. It happened to Carol Danvers in the Avengers and it wasn’t funny there either, lack of sexual contact or not.

Best story was Tendi’s by far.
Thu, Oct 19, 2023, 2:41pm (UTC -6)
@C.T. Phipps
Fantastic impression!
Took me until the middle of the first paragraph to realize what you were doing, haha!
Latex Zebra
Thu, Oct 19, 2023, 4:35pm (UTC -6)
I loved this one. One of my favourite episodes of LD from all seasons.
Easy 4. I'm watching this again tomorrow.
Thu, Oct 19, 2023, 5:00pm (UTC -6)
Agreed on the above opinion of the violation of Rutherford being a little eh, but I could let it slide. I enjoyed the metahumor (particularly the offhand line about the warp speed limit that pretty much immediately got ignored) and the repeated concept of the deadly alien organism actually being sapient and reasonable.
Thu, Oct 19, 2023, 5:33pm (UTC -6)
I find that I just don't like the flashback narrative device very much. They've done it a few times, and it just doesn't work for me. Still, I like what they were going for. Revisiting the absolute beginning of the series was very cute.
Thu, Oct 19, 2023, 5:43pm (UTC -6)
> ...I was close to giving up on this series...

We've endured far worse *entire seasons* of Star Trek than any single 24 minute dud of Lower Decks. This feels like a weird line in the sand, especially four seasons in. :P
Thu, Oct 19, 2023, 6:43pm (UTC -6)
The cave vignette framing device felt really weak. The Lower Deckers have had about a year as Lieutenant JGs and I felt like this reunion of the original team could have showcased how they matured since the promotion. Instead, it relishes its low-stakes comedy.

Mariner also came off as too jaded at the beginning of the episode. Is exploring a cave on a foreign planet really that boring? Could caves from other planets really be so comparable that the mere mention of a cave sucks any prospect of adventure out of it? I’m not sure I buy that premise.

The vignettes themselves were fairly light-hearted and inconsequential which allowed for some benign storytelling and fun callbacks. However, it was so painfully obvious that Tendi’s story (that was repeatedly shut down by Mariner) was going to somehow be the key to the crew escaping the cave. This is all sitcom plotting 101 and I’m surprised Jammer enjoyed it so much (in other episodes he’s quick to pounce on this same point).

This is a 2 for me. Nothing harmful but no real character growth either.
Troy G
Thu, Oct 19, 2023, 7:01pm (UTC -6)
Was Empathalogical Fallacies that bad? Enough to give up?
Trek fan
Thu, Oct 19, 2023, 8:22pm (UTC -6)
Three stars for me too; Jammer got it right. Light and insubstantial, but entertaining. And such a nice homage to the show’s animated format in its reference back to the first animated Trek.

I found it an unexpected delight to see a callback to one of the better TAS episodes, “The Survivor,” via the Vendorians, a species introduced there who I don’t think have ever been in live action Trek. This is also a worthy successor to its theme of empathy, building the same warm feeling as the original story. This episode could almost be considered a direct sequel to the TAS story.

I also liked the self-aware style of this episode being a “cave story” in which the characters trauma-bond by sharing past cave stories. It evokes buried memories of the trope in past Star Trek series without being too on-the-nose with references to all of them. That leaves the narrative uncluttered and is all too rare on LD.

While the anthology style of the episode feels original for Trek, the mini stories crammed within it are more of a mixed bag. Some glide by so quickly that they don’t make any impact, a limitation of a 30-minute episode, and the story May try to cram in a bit too much. Still, this is very entertaining and I’d watch it again, which I can’t say of many other LD stories.
Thu, Oct 19, 2023, 11:52pm (UTC -6)
“Caves” comes at the perfect time for our Lower Decks crew.

Star Trek Lower Decks could very well be reaching its mid-point. And that’s okay, folks. This narrative is revealing TO our characters that they’re starting to branch out.

They’re having separate lives. That’s life.
P Car
Fri, Oct 20, 2023, 5:13am (UTC -6)
Totally agree with you Chrome.
Fri, Oct 20, 2023, 6:13am (UTC -6)
How many "cave" episodes are there throughout the entire 50+ year of Star Trek?
Fri, Oct 20, 2023, 1:12pm (UTC -6)
I really enjoyed this episode. Loved the wink and a nod to the classic "oh no, we're trapped in a cave that looks just like every other cave we've ever been in" Trek cliché. The flashbacks were great, and as someone already mentioned, could easily have been their own episodes. Ultimately this story was about these four best friends, which was quite heartwarming... I would give this episode 3.5 stars, one of the best they've ever done.
Sun, Oct 22, 2023, 8:31am (UTC -6)
I think it is Jammer.

Nothing to add.

3 stars from me too.
Sun, Oct 22, 2023, 8:32am (UTC -6)
What am I saying...

FOUR STARS from me.

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