HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
Lower Decks closes its third season with what feels very much like an homage to Star Trek: Into Darkness, only Lower Decks does it better. Granted, given my opinion of Into Darkness, that’s not a particularly high bar to clear. However, the episode does remind us of the value of the metaphorical human element, which has long been a theme in Trek. “The Stars at Night” can’t entirely answer the question, but I still can’t shake the feeling that the story is meant to bring to a close more than just that debate. Something real has ended with this last episode of season three, and I wonder if the coming season four will show us what that is.
Freeman reports to Starfleet command where she and Admiral Buenamigo argue over the utility of his Texas-class, unmanned ships. Freeman contends that her California class ship and crew have value, but Buenamigo argues that they required the Texas-class Aledo to save them. Starfleet command initially sides with Buenamigo, but Freeman challenges him to a mission race that requires the completion of three tasks common to the California class’s mission set: repairs, resupplies, and outpost installs. Buenamigo agrees, so long as Freeman’s defeat means retirement for the entire California class in favor of his drones.
The Cerritos makes it to Galardon first, and the away team sets right to work building a power plant, but the Aledo simply beams down a completed, black one. Next up is LT-358, which is meant to be uninhabited. The Cerritos crew again sets to work installing the outpost, but the Aledo simply beams down an installation and warps away. Tendi, however, identifies what might be a sentient microorganism, which feels like a Picard reference, though her scans ultimately prove to be wrong.
Third and final, is Ockmenic 9, which is a planet that only phases into existence in the standard universe for a short time every year. Though the Cerritos races to its location, it only arrives after the Aledo has beamed down supplies and the planet begins to phase out of existence. Dejected, Freeman almost admits defeat, until she remembers that the Aledo didn’t bother with scans for life, which is Starfleet protocol.
Elsewhere in the universe, Mariner is enjoying her stint as an “archaeologist.” She’s liberating artifacts from temples, dodging angry Ferengi, and living that Indiana Jones lifestyle. She seems happy, but then Petra turns cagey about their funding source. Petra leaves the ship briefly, and Mariner investigates only to discover that Admiral Picard is the source of the funding. Petra responds badly to Mariner’s snooping, and Mariner admits that she was looking for a reason to go back to Starfleet.
Back with the Cerritos, Freeman’s confrontation with Buenamigo forces him to turn the Aledo on the Cerritos, using a thin cover story that the Cerritos attacked first out of jealousy. Rutherford finally recognizes the code underlying the Texas-class AI and realizes that it’s his; Buenamigo stole it from him and forced the implant on him. In addition, the code is flawed, as we learned with Badgey. Buenamigo doesn’t care and grants the Aledo its independence, and the ship immediately activates its two sister-ships. Its second action is to murder Buenamigo. From there, it attacks Douglas Station. A sovereign class joins the fray but is soundly defeated. The Cerritos engages, but things appear to be going badly.
Freeman orders the ship to flee, but the Texas-class ships give chase, even in warp. Shaxs suggests ejecting the warp core, and they do. The core detonates in warp, destroying two of the three ships. Unfortunately, the Aledo survives and continues coming after the Cerritos. Freeman has barely uttered the order to abandon ship when Mariner warps into the fray in Petra’s small ship.
Freeman yells at her daughter that she can’t defeat the ships, and Mariner explains that she called all of the Cali-class ships, just as they begin dropping out of warp. The ships proceed to do battle with the Aledo, and the ship eventually loses to their greater numbers and is destroyed. Freeman welcomes Mariner back aboard the Cerritos. Shaxs becomes Boimler’s bridge buddy, and everything more or less goes back to normal.
Remember when I said this episode reminded me of Into Darkness? The parallels are everywhere in the story. The unmanned ships reference not only the drones Starfleet intended to use against Quo’nos but also the Vengeance itself. Buenamigo’s arguments for the Texas-class ships’ existence could have been adapted from Alexander Marcus’ rationale for developing the Vengeance. The installations beamed down by the Aledo share the same mostly-black color scheme from the Vengeance. Mariner left the Cerritos and Starfleet due to her mother’s distrust while Scotty does the same thing in the face of Kirk’s anger in Into Darkness. Buenamigo steals the code for the AI from Rutherford while Marcus uses Khan to develop weapons and ultimately the Vengeance. The Aledo fires on Buenamigo much like “Harrison” does on the admirals in Into Darkness. Both Buenamigo and Marcus turn out to be out for their own glory. “The Stars at Night” and Into Darkness both have resolutions that feature a return to Starfleet’s core values of exploration and empathy.
I doubt these similarities are accidental, but more importantly, while Into Darkness was more interested in injecting Trutherism into the Star Trek franchise, “The Stars at Night” pursues actual truth. What “The Stars at Night” reminds us is that there’s always going to be a “human” element necessary in both exploration and combat. While drones may save lives on the side deploying the drones, they can create swathes of collateral damage. “The Stars at Night” identifies that collateral damage readily—in that case, it was the potential for intelligent life that the AI completely discounted. In Into Darkness, I’d argue that the damage is pretty limited to the Enterprise and their abstract morality.
By making the nature of that damage explicit, Lower Decks offers us a much cleaner story than we got in Into Darkness, with its muddled chase sequences and strange relationship squabbles between Uhura and Spock. Because that story is cleaner, the moral becomes clearer. There really is only so much we can automate, and there’s value in everyone’s contribution. That is, of course, the other theme woven throughout the episode and indeed the season. We’ve been exploring the utility of the California-class support ships throughout Lower Decks, and “The Stars at Night” serves as a reminder that underneath the silliness and the questionable activities in the holodeck, the crew of the Cerritos as with all the cali-class ships, is comprised of Starfleet officers and enlisted personnel. They have the same capacity for greatness as the crew aboard the Enterprise, and that’s something Buenamigo forgot in his rush to further his own career. These are people, and they fundamentally have value.
Even Mariner’s story has come to a conclusion of sorts. She’s made peace with her desire to stay in Starfleet and ends the episode by asking her mother to place Ransom as her mentor/supervisor. Not only that, but she also admits her own faults that she’s faced as her arc has unfolded. “The Stars at Night” feels very much like an ending, and I’m left wondering what season four has in store for us.
Four cups of Earl Grey Tea and a saucer
The Egg Hunt
- The episode takes its title from “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”
- I was kind of shocked that the DS9 episode was also meant to be a set-up, though I did suspect the Breen incursion was.
- Mariner’s hijinks are clear references to the Indiana Jones franchise.
- Ransom teaches the command cadets to sit like Riker.
- Billups wants all of his engineers to be like Geordi LaForge. One of the engineers even has a similar VISOR. However, he explicitly refers to Commander Data-levels of speed, which refers to Data’s speed with the isolinear chips in “The Naked Now.”
- Boimler’s impression of Dr. T’Ana involves the famous phrase, “I’m a doctor, not a…” made famous in “Friday’s Child.”
- There’s an argument to be made that some of Mariner’s adventures could be references to “Captain’s Holiday“.
- The idol could refer to the one in “The Emperor’s New Cloak.”
- The Brigadoon planet comes to us from DS9 and a failed romance for Jadzia Dax.
- There are so many more, but this list is already pretty long.