"The Inner Fight" might be the most plot-heavy episode of the season. It's more adventure than comedy, and that ends up working in its favor, because it feels like more meat than fluff. It also has a character core that's intriguing, although not outstanding. And it ends in a cliffhanger, setting up next week's season finale with the most unlikely of villains. The result is an entertaining, albeit very busy, episode that separates into a reliable A/B story structure that comes together at the end.
In the A-plot, Mariner, Boimler, Tendi, and T'Lyn are dispatched by Freeman via shuttle to Sherbal V, which is supposed to be a safe and routine mission. Safe and routine is exactly what Mariner needs right now, because she has recently been acting out and putting herself in extreme danger (picking fights, risking her life playing the hero) for some unrevealed personal psychological reason. (Mariner's behavior reminds me of Torres' behavior in "Extreme Risk," which this episode strangely doesn't reference directly.)
Well, surprise — the safe and routine mission turns significant and dangerous when some Klingons attack the shuttle and destroy it, leaving our crew stranded on the planet surface below. There, they encounter the different leaders from the various crews who were attacked and abducted by the Serial Mystery Vessel and subsequently left here, marooned by their own crews, who were manipulated into turning against them. They spend their time fighting one another in hand-to-hand combat because ... well, what else are they gonna do while marooned, I guess? Our stranded Starfleet officers lie low to stay out of the fray (and to keep Mariner out of trouble).
Naturally, Mariner sneaks off into the night to embark on some dangerous reconnaissance. She ends up encountering Klingon Ma'ah, marooned here by his crew, and after an initial round of ass-kicking combat and then a flight from a literal storm of glass, they take refuge in a cave where they talk to each other and Mariner opens up about her reckless behavior: She never wanted the promotion to lieutenant. She wanted to remain an ensign like her academy friend and mentor, Sito, who sacrificed herself for a mission greater than herself in the very TNG episode this series is named after. In the years since, Mariner went through the Dominion War and became disillusioned with a Starfleet that seemed too preoccupied with wars and conflict and less with exploration and discovery.
While the character work is welcome — and the nod to this series' progenitor is an especially apt tie-in — the actual idea of how this manifests itself in Mariner feels contrived for a character who is typically so cynically self-aware. I guess it makes some sense since Mariner has clearly always had her self-destructive demons. But her read on all this is that she shouldn't rise above the rank of ensign because her mentor tragically died as one? Really? Ma'ah is right to point it out as an absurd dishonor to Sito's memory. Still, I appreciated the underlying thought and the resulting dialogue between Mariner and Ma'ah.
Mariner and Ma'ah return to the fray — which, weirdly/amusingly, takes place at a base in the middle of the forest that is designed to exactly resemble the Imperial base on the moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi, complete with a John Williams-esque score — where Mariner makes a big speech arguing that everyone needs to work together against the common enemy who brought them here rather than fighting among themselves. But then she is suddenly beamed away ... to the Serial Mystery Vessel.
In the B-plot, Freeman, Ransom, and Rutherford attempt to track down Nick Locarno, one of four ex-Starfleet officers (the others being Seven of Nine, Beverly Crusher, and Thomas Riker) who are the newest targets in the Serial Mystery Vessel's apparent kidnapping plot. (Why Starfleet thinks ex-Starfleet officers are the new targets in the first place is elided so thoroughly from the plot's rationale that it feels like invented intelligence.) This leads them to the seedy Mos Eisley-like New Axton (which might as well be M'Talas Prime), where someone has information about Locarno — and where they find that no shady character wants to talk to Starfleet, because they might as well be the FBI.
This leads to a mildly amusing bit where Freeman refuses to be conned by an alien puppet that resembles the one from "The Corbomite Maneuver" before learning the puppet is actually a small alien. It's an obvious punchline, but still a fun one. Ultimately, Freeman shows that the Cerritos crew can be competent and clever: She knew being Starfleet would get them nowhere, so she had sent Billups undercover as a bounty hunter to get the information they needed, playing the anti-Starfleet bias in their favor. The crucial piece of information leads them to a secret facility, where they find the real truth about Nick Locarno...
Locarno (Robert Duncan McNeill) is the one behind the Serial Mystery Vessel, and now he has Mariner as his prisoner, with unclear motives. This is a most puzzling development, albeit one that will probably make sense in its Lower Decks way before it's all over. What's more puzzling is that there's no joke here equating Nick Locarno to Tom Paris. That's a fastball right over the plate that the Lower Decks writers just stare at as it whizzes by. I'm guessing they're saving the joke for part two, but they probably should've gotten it out of the way now. I mean, it's not that great of a joke.
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