HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
Nothing unifies Mariner and Captain Freeman as readily as a common enemy, and this week we certainly get that in “I, Excretus,” which ostensibly pits the Lower Deckers against the bridge crew to test their competence. The episode’s twist doesn’t come as much of a surprise for anyone who’s seen “Bem,” the TAS episode that gave us the Pandronians in 1974, but seeing Mariner and Freeman once again join forces is always satisfying. Moreover, “I, Excretus,” manages to incorporate the now mandatory Easter Eggs with the episode’s plot so that they are neither intrusive nor gratuitous, something Lower Decks has struggled to do all season. As an added bonus, “I, Excretus” gives us another episode focused on characters other than Mariner, so she forms part of a solid ensemble cast without overshadowing anyone. “I, Excretus” almost makes up for last week’s “Where Pleasant Fountains Lie,” making it worth a watch.
Ensigns Tendi, Rutherford, Mariner, and Boimler complete repairs on some sort of satellite, looking out into the beautiful nebula surrounding them before heading back to the Cerritos. However, the bridge receives a distress call from the Bakersfield, which has become trapped in a temporal loop. Freeman gives the order, and the Cerritos warps away, leaving the ensigns abandoned in space and kicking off this week’s episode in a very Lower Decks way. Six hours and presumably the rescue of the Bakersfield later, the Cerritos returns to retrieve the abandoned ensigns. After medical treatment and shouting between mother and daughter, Freeman reveals that Starfleet has sent a drill inspector to evaluate the crew’s readiness. She doesn’t want Mariner to skew the results over Mariner’s justified anger.
The entire crew reports to what looks like a storage room where Pandronian Shari Yn Yem introduces herself as the instructor and explains the drills. Crew-members will enter holopods where they will experience scenarios based on events experienced by Starfleet officers throughout history. Freeman and the bridge crew gleefully advance, but Shari Yn Yem stops them and indicates that the roles will be reversed for the drills. Ensigns will take on senior officer positions while senior officers will find themselves living and working below decks. The crew accepts their assignments, and they enter the pods.
Mariner begins, and the test drops her into a Mirror Universe scenario, plainly based on “Mirror, Mirror,” down to Mariner’s Terran uniform, plainly based on Uhura’s. Mariner fails her mission to infiltrate the Terran empire. Her next attempt places her in a Western-style-world clearly inspired not by “A Fistful of Datas” but rather by “Spectre of the Gun.” Mariner, after an unfortunate run-in with a horse, fails that mission as well. Her third mission bears the label “Naked Time,” referencing the TOS episode, and forces her to confront the mostly naked crew of the Cerritos. Mariner declines and flings herself out of an airlock to escape, once again failing her drill.
Tendi’s drill inserts her as the chief medical officer confronted with a Klingon seeking euthanasia after having been paralyzed, one of the plotlines in “Ethics.” She initially declines to aid the Klingon, which results in immediate point loss. Tendi then whips out a hypospray and offers to send the Klingon to Sto-vo-kor, but he demands that she use his d’k tahg. Tendi recoils, and a flock of doctors rush in, clad in all-too-familiar red surgical outfits, only to pronounce the Klingon still living. Tendi fails the drill.
Rutherford’s drill places him as the Chief Engineer in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, requiring Rutherford to sacrifice himself in order to repair the warp core and save the Enterprise from a warp core breach. Rutherford steps up to the plate, but the latch to the chamber is so hot that he can’t get it open. Just as he tries to use his boots to shield his hands, the core breaches, destroying the ship. Rutherford also fails his drill.
Boimler’s drill puts him back in TNG territory as it lands him on a Borg cube. He manages to escape assimilation by the Borg, but even though he escapes, he passes with a comparatively low score. Frustrated, Boimler runs the drill again, saving Borg infants (as seen in “Q Who”) this time. His score creeps up incrementally, so he continues running the drill despite receiving a passing score.
Unlike the Lower Deckers, the Bridge Crew find themselves together for their simulation. They’re assigned to stacking crates while Klingons attack the ship. They plead to be allowed to help, but their orders are to continue stacking those hexagonal crates. Each time the Klingons score a direct hit on the ship, the shuddering causes the crates to fall, requiring that Freeman and her crew continue stacking. A senior officer, now clad in Robin Hood attire a la “Qpid,” informs them that Q is now on board, but they have to continue stacking crates. Eventually, a final blast destroys the last of their progress with the crates, and they, too, fail the drill.
Frustrated with their results, the crew, sans Boimler, retires to the bar where Freeman and Mariner admit to each other that their respective jobs are harder than they imagined. They acquire a new understanding and sympathy for the other, and Freeman concludes that the entire point of the drill was to encourage the crew to feel empathy for their fellows. She and Mariner head over to see Shari Yn Yem to explain that they’ve figured it all out, but Shari laughs at them. She has exactly no interest in encouraging harmony in the ranks because she needed a crew that would fail her drills in order to provide her job security. The Cerritos crew exceeded her expectations, even without her drills being rigged to force failure, and they will all be reassigned for remediation. Mariner notices that the drills haven’t finished because Boimler continues running his. Freeman orders Boimler to stretch out his drills, and she and Mariner head to the Bridge. Freeman orders Tendi to find something dangerous, and Freeman proceeds to take Shari Yn Yem on a series of terrifying adventures to convince her to change the crew’s score. She does, and Freeman promises to include Shari Yn Yem’s deceit in her own report to Starfleet.
They go to rescue Boimler, who has just been assimilated as “Excretus,” and life returns to the level of normal expected on the Cerritos. The senior officers do grant their juniors a new replicator programmed with the senior officers’ menu codes in gratitude. Shari Yn Yem meanwhile has left her position due to job-related stress.
The script in “I, Excretus” is really a gem in that everything fits together so beautifully, even if one doesn’t recognize it on first viewing. The scenarios pick up just enough of the original plots to be plausible but do not provide the officer experiencing the drill the solutions that fit each scenario. Mariner’s own nonsense makes this difficult to see, especially as she’s responsible for the failure of her last two attempts. However, she lacks either a Marlena Moreau or Mirror-universe Spock character to aid in her efforts to infiltrate the ship’s command structure and find a way back to her own universe. Kirk relied on aid and support from both. Kirk found Moreau in his own quarters and learns about the Tantalus Field from her. She ultimately saves Kirk from Sulu’s henchmen, but Mariner finds that door literally barred and is therefore alone when Boimler and his flunkies corner her. For Tendi, that link is admittedly a little thinner. That said, she never gets the option to use an experimental and vaguely unethical procedure to rebuild the Klingon’s spine as did Dr. Toby Russell in “Ethics.”
Rutherford’s drill renders the sabotage most obvious, however. In Star Trek II, Spock incapacitates Mr. Scott and takes his gloves before going to sacrifice himself for the good of the many. Rutherford, though game to complete the scenario, has no gloves. They’re nowhere to be found despite being a significant part of the Chief Engineer’s uniform. Spock absconded with Mr. Scott’s protective gloves precisely to avoid the burns that thwart Rutherford, so their absence is a pretty good indicator that Shari Yn Yem is up to no good.
Shari Yn Yem is herself both an Easter Egg and a clue. She’s Pandronian, a species introduced in a TAS episode that featured another Pandronian, Ari bn Bem. Like Shari Yn Yem, Bem tried to test Kirk and Spock as representatives of the Federation, and he was less than forthcoming about his motives. As a result, Kirk and Spock run afoul of a god-like entity, and after they rescue him from said entity, Bem concludes that his method of testing was flawed. Both Shari Yn Yem’s position as a drill evaluator and her deception call back to that episode nicely.
The greater point that the episode makes, however, is that nothing is a better teacher than experience. Freeman and Mariner gain a greater appreciation for each other due to their experiences in the holopods. Shari Yn Yem, too, moves from a theoretical understanding to a practical understanding via the medium of experience. She claims to understand what life in Starfleet is like because she’s read about it, but Freeman’s admittedly malicious crash course in life aboard the Cerritos reveals just how wrong she is. While Shari Yn Yem cowers on the bridge, Cerritos crew members calmly go about their business because this is their lived experience. That weirdness of life in space generally and life in Starfleet specifically has been an overarching theme throughout Lower Decks, but “I, Excretus” explores how a crew-member’s experience of that weirdness depends on their rank and position. It’s a great nod to one of Trek’s bigger issues; the bridge crew gets to have greater agency with respect to and knowledge of that weirdness. The lower decks crew has a very different experience, but “I, Excretus” beautifully highlights the agency that the Lower Deckers do have. As a result, the episode calls back to the themes present in the TNG episode from which the series takes its name. After last week, “I, Excretus” comes across as a breath of fresh air, and I hope the season’s final episodes continue in this vein.
Four and a half cups of Earl Grey Tea
The Egg Hunt
- Shari Yn Yem’s admission that she’s read about life Starfleet also provides a neat explanation for why these drill missions feel so familiar. She has no actual experience, so she has no other choice than to lift her plots directly from what Galaxy Quest would term “historical records.” Lower Decks consistently does a fantastic job using what seem to be throwaway lines to explain the entire story.
- Her name mirrors (ha!) the Pandronian naming conventions from “Bem.”
- Freeman’s evaluation of Boimler as one of their best officers indicates that she’s a better commander than she might otherwise get credit for being. She recognizes his abilities when Mariner, who spends nearly all her time with him, does not. I really am just about ready for Mariner to get with the program. At this point, her blindness about Boimler is nothing but willful.
- Mariner’s horse issue may be a reference to Kirk’s affinity for horses. Shatner is an avid rider and adopted son of Kentucky’s horse country, so he incorporated that into Kirk, especially in Generations.
- I neglected to mention it above, but the bridge crew’s drill starts with the plot from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and then shifts to reference “Qpid.”
- The Crystalline Entity destroyed the colony at Omicron Theta, where Data lived.
- Boimler’s Borg simulation at one point casts him as Data from First Contact. He also mentions teaching the Borg Queen to play chess, which is a Trek staple. I wonder if his efforts to teach her empathy hearken back to her opinions of compassion from “Dark Frontier.”
- ”Excretus” is a scatological play on “Locutus.” The other reference in the episode title is to “I, Claudius.”
- Time quakes feel very much like a reference to “Millennium.”
- Transphasic matter may be a reference to the transphasic torpedoes from “Endgame.”
- Chronitons and tetryons show up frequently in Star Trek.
- Mirror Boimler gets the evil goatee treatment. Fun fact, “Mirror, Mirror” actually gave rise to that trope.
- I also love the bar symbol aboard the Cerritos–a delta shield with martini olives. Nice.
- Anyone want to make a bet that the Bakersfield is also a California-class ship? No one? Cool, cool.