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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