"Old Friends, New Planets" seems to be an episode ripe for some sort of major character payoff, specifically around Mariner and/or Locarno. This seems especially true at the beginning of the episode when it smartly flashes back to 13 years earlier, where we see Locarno convincing his Nova Squadron team to take on the Kolvoord Starburst maneuver that would ultimately get their friend Josh killed in the accident at the center of TNG's classic "The First Duty." We see Mariner on the periphery of this group ("practically a junior member," Locarno notes), and we witness her hero worship of Sito Jaxa. Robert Duncan McNeill, Wil Wheaton, and Shannon Fill (the last of whom hasn't acted since 1995) all return to voice the cadets from that episode. The opportunity for character backstory seems endlessly promising.
But, in the ultimate irony, Lower Decks ends up succumbing to the Serial Mystery Plot nearly as much as any other serialized Star Trek show by over-promising and under-delivering. Even more ironic: It over-promises and under-delivers character while over-delivering on "action spectacle" which — let's face it — is not the reason we watch this show. The result is fine, and even kind of fun, but ultimately disappointing. Nothing new is learned here, and it seems like a missed opportunity given Mariner's very mysterious and hole-filled past. If you're going to build the season-long mystery up to the out-of-left-field idea of bringing back Nick Locarno from the long-ago past where he had a possibly mysterious connection to Mariner, that should be where the story pays itself off — on what that connection means. Even Sito seems like she should've been more central to this somehow, given the franchise's past interest — never realized — in revisiting that character.
Instead, we get a routine action/adventure. (Even the inevitable Locarno/Paris joke feels like a missed opportunity. All we get is Boimler and Rutherford commenting on their uncanny resemblance. Why not something crazier that brings Tom Paris into the plot directly, as a long-lost twin or clone or something?) In bringing back Locarno, they don't really do much except turn him into a stock megalomaniac. This could've been anyone's Evil Bond Villain Plot, which, let's be honest, doesn't make a whole lot of sense. He has gathered ships and crews from various worlds into his "Nova Fleet," which he calls "a coalition of equals" ... with himself as the Alpha. He has obtained a Ferengi Genesis Device that's at his disposal as a superweapon to use to ... something unlimited-power something?
Starfleet can't attack Nova Fleet to rescue Mariner because it's composed of members of other worlds that would consider it a hostile act to open fire on their people, even though those people have effectively defected to a foreign power. Okay, fine, whatever. But Freeman and the Cerritos crew aren't going to stand by and let Mariner be captive, so they decide to Disobey Orders and take matters into their own hands ... by going to Orion (it doesn't seem like they would have time for this) to ask Tendi's sister D'Erika for a battleship they can use to get through Locarno's massive shield. But D'Erika won't make such a deal without something in return. There's a red herring Arena Fight between a giant Orion and Tendi's battle designate, the unassuming Dr. Migleemo, where she intends to use Migleemo's ruffled feathers as the secret weapon against the very allergic Orion combatant. When that succeeds but somehow also fails, Tendi agrees to return home to serve her sister in exchange for the battleship.
Meanwhile, Mariner isn't waiting around to be rescued. She breaks through the shield perimeter with a stolen ship and the Genesis Device and leads the Nova Fleet on a pursuit through a crystalline debris field and later an electrical space storm that goes out of its way to evoke the hide-and-seek in the Mutara Nebula in Star Trek II. References — LD has 'em.
There are lots of moving parts in getting ships and people from A to B, but it's mostly just (competent) action noise that has Locarno as the villain and Mariner and the Cerritos crew as the heroes, and really nothing in terms of impactful character storytelling or suspense. The Cerritos crew obtains the Orion battleship, but it's nonfunctional, pursuant to D'Erika being a Treacherous Pirate, so they use it as a decoy to crash into the perimeter shield and open a hole. This solution is reached after a callback to the Steamboat Dueling Samuel Clemenses from earlier in the season, which I'm prepared to admit is a Your Mileage May Vary type of super-random gag, but does nothing for me at all. Boimler gets a nice moment by taking command of the Cerritos bridge. Ultimately, the Genesis Device is armed and detonated, with Mariner beamed out at the last moment while Locarno gets Blowed Up Real Good™. Nothing wrong with any of this, but nothing at all special or interesting about it, either.
The big season-ending character moment here is Tendi's, as she decides to live up to her agreement with her sister and return home to serve the Orion royalty. I guess this is supposed to play like a major character shift/consequence, but like Worf in "Redemption" (or even Boimler getting promoted to the Titan at the end of season one), we all know it's something that can and will be easily reset.
I guess part of the disappointment here is my heightened expectations. After the nice run of episodes in the second half of this season, and a cliffhanger last week that really seemed like it must be hinting at something significant in Mariner's or Locarno's past, this just felt like every other by-the-numbers action climax at the end of a season. Lower Decks chose to take the conventional route rather than the subversive one, and that's not playing to this series' most important strengths at all.
Previous episode: The Inner Fight
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