Lower Decks is such a strange hit-or-miss affair that I should know better than to sing its praises (like I was working toward after the season's first two promising episodes) or give up on it completely (which I was halfway considering after last week's endurance test), because now here comes the Ferengi Episode, which somehow manages to be the best episode of the season so far, and in the upper ranks of this series, and one of the best Ferengi comedy episodes ever (granted, it's a low bar). Finally, the Ferengi have found a vehicle where they make sense — in a cartoon.
First things first: The Serial Mystery Vessel appears in the opening scene and destroys a Ferengi ship, in a sequence that plays out exactly as in the previous three examples. This is still uninformative and monotonous.
But after that's out of the way, we get into the episode proper, which follows up DS9 by showing reformist Rom after having taken over as Grand Nagus, with wife Leeta along as First Clerk. (The episode makes Leeta more valuable and competent than most DS9 outings, as a partner negotiating Rom's business deals. Both Max Grodénchik and Chase Masterson lend their voices to reprise the roles.) Ferenginar wants to apply to join the Federation, and Captain Freeman and Admiral Vassery must negotiate the terms. Vassery quickly finds himself snowed by Rom playing dumb (or dumber than usual, I suppose), and stupidly re-opens the contract for negotiation, allowing Rom and Leeta to insert all kinds of provisions to Ferenginar's advantage. Freeman tries to object, but is consistently dismissed by the gullible Vassery, so she can only look on in helpless annoyance — until the end when she takes control of the negotiation by strategically employing fine print.
This is one of four (!) threads in the story, and all of the threads are effective and amusing and use brevity to their advantage. Our four lieutenants are sent to Ferenginar's surface to do some tourism reconnaissance for the Federation to update the travel guides. (Mariner on the always-raining Ferenginar: "It's like what heaven would look like if God was stupid.") Mariner ends up reconnecting with her Ferengi pal Quimp (last seen in "Envoys" from season one), where she gripes about being a mentor, gets drunk, and then picks a bar fight with the galaxy's politest biker gang in a blatant act of self-sabotage. It's Mariner reverting to her worst tendencies for unknown reasons, and even Quimp — who has evolved — asks her why she's stuck in such a state of arrested development. I thought we had gotten past this with Mariner, but clearly not. The episode doesn't resolve this question, so I'd imagine we'll be seeing more of it.
Meanwhile, in his hotel room, Boimler discovers the wonder that is television, something the Federation has long since gotten over, and is reduced to a zombie by the intoxicating effects of lurid cop shows, soap opera melodrama, and relentless advertising. (The Ferengi have been said to be a reflection of current-day capitalism, and that stands as the case here.) The jokes are on point.
In the primary character story, Rutherford and Tendi pose as a married couple to review a romantic resort (and get a discount!), but quickly find they are very uncomfortable with any notion of sexuality regarding each other, like a romantic photo shoot that's foisted upon them. But then they find themselves in a bind when it turns out that defrauding the establishment to get a discount will land them in jail, so they have to keep the charade going, which eventually involves a very confused Migleemo as a third party. This is Sitcom 101, but it works, and asks a question about these two that was inevitable — is this couple going to couple up, or are they going to stay in the platonic friend zone? If there's a disappointment here, it's that the story completely dismisses the possibility of a romance when exploring it could lead to some interesting minefields with real stakes. There's a reason sitcoms so often play the will-they-or-won't-they game.
The Easter eggs are here, and they all work within context: Slug-O Cola, self-sealing stem bolts, a drink appropriately named "Dagger of the Mind." But the best is Quark's Federation Experience Bar & Grill, a perfect play on the Quark's Bar & Grill from the Star Trek: The Experience attraction in Las Vegas (shuttered in 2008), itself a take on Quark's bar from DS9. So the embedded references are themselves embedded references. Rutherford on Quark's Federation Experience: "Maybe this will feel like we're at work."
There's a reason this episode works where an episode like "Empathological Fallacies" fails, and that's because it makes the effort to approach the story from a standpoint of character and logical behavior rather than pointless, plot-manufactured lunacy. Also, it has good jokes instead of lame ones, making the episode enjoyable rather than eye-rolling. Crazy, right? I know humor is subjective, but the difference in the level of perceptiveness here is palpable. So it goes with the unevenness that is Lower Decks.
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