HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!
If last week’s Lower Decks installment demonstrated what can happen when the show gets bogged down in its own canon, “Much Ado About Boimler” highlights how good the show can be when it just nails it. “Much Ado” succeeds where “Terminal Provocations” failed because it takes canon tropes, turns them around, and uses them to push the show forward.
Captain Freeman, Commander Ransom, and Lieutenant Shaxs have been assigned a mission involving Rulot seeds, so Freeman turns over command of the Cerritos to visiting Captain Amina Ramsey who brings with her a hand-picked command team. Initially dreading the temporary changeover, Mariner welcomes her old Academy friend, Ramsey, on to the Cerritos, and Ramsey is only too delighted to promote Mariner to First Officer temporarily.
In the ship’s work shop, Ensign Sam Rutherford needs a test subject to determine whether his tweaks to the transporter system will result in increased efficiency and decrease the amount of time required for transport. Ensign Brad Boimler volunteers, only too happy to try and impress the incoming visiting command team. However, despite initial success, a second beaming experiment leaves Boimler “out of phase,” meaning that he glows blue and produces the transporter hum from his body. Boimler reports to the bridge in this state only to have Amina order him to Medical. T’Ana gathers samples from his body and informs him that he will be transferred to the ominously named recovery facility, the Farm. She reassures him that the facility is more spa-like than hospital.
Ensign Tendi has been tinkering with inert carbon and has sequenced enough DNA to produce a credible facsimile of a dog, if dogs could transform into cubes, walk on ceilings, or flip open their heads to eject bats. Therefore, Tendi’s creature, which she names The Dog, has also been selected for transfer to the Farm. Boimler, Tendi, and The Dog board the Osler for transport to the Farm, and an Edosian medical specialist warns them that they will encounter officers afflicted with some of the most disturbing injuries they will no doubt see in their careers. One of the patients, a man afflicted with simultaneous advanced aging and age regression informs Boimler that the Farm is merely Starfleet’s way of separating the Freaks away from the general population in order to hide its failures. He attempts to instigate a mutiny, but Boimler rats them out to the Edosian, who confines them all to quarters. The mob of patients, however, makes a pit stop at an airlock where they plan to space the spontaneously recovered Boimler for his betrayal. Boimler rolls out onto a verdant field of grass and looks up to see the beautiful Farm facility, which is as spa-like as T’Ana promised.
Back aboard the Cerritos, Mariner, Ramsey, and Ramsey’s crew transport down to a bog planet where Mariner spectacularly messes up the mission. They return to the Cerritos and proceed to their appointed rendez-vous with the Rubidoux where Ramsey gleefully anticipates she will once again save the ship and her captain from certain danger. The Rubidoux fails to arrive at the appointed coordinates, prompting the Cerritos to search for the ship. They find her adrift in space, powerless. Upon boarding, Mariner continues her inexplicable slide into incompetence, but Ramsey confronts her. Mariner insists that she knows Ramsey wants to offer her a promotion to her own vessel and that Mariner simply does not want the responsibility. Ramsey accepts her terms, and they go on to save the Rubidoux’s crew from the alien that has converted their ship into its shell.
On the Farm, Tendi must say goodbye to The Dog who offers her own verbal goodbye before flying off into the sunset. Bomler asks if Tendi knew The Dog could do all of those things, and Tendi insists that she did because that’s what dogs are meant to be like. Boimler corrects her, and they return to the Cerritos.
“Much Ado About Boimler” owes much of its success to how deftly it weaves canon references into its story-line. Freeman’s super spy squad and Ramsey’s presence directly mirror the opening to TNG’s “Chain of Command,” and in case you couldn’t remember the title, Mariner helpfully name-drops Jellico to jog your recollection. Boimler’s transporter-related ailment is classic Trek-fare from TNG’s “The Next Phase” to TOS with the “Enemy Within” and even Enterprise (“Daedalus”). However, “Much Ado” refuses to follow in its predecessors’ footsteps and instead does something different and uniquely Lower Decks with these plot elements. Unlike the grossly fatal accident in The Motion Picture, Boimler’s ailment is, as Rutherford assures him, merely cosmetic. Where Jellico’s command was disruptive, Ramsey’s temporary assignment feels mostly run-of-the-mill, at least as far as Star Trek goes. Even Freeman’s mission is low stakes, despite Ransom’s overly-enthusiastic training. As viewers, we’re forced to agree with Ramsey’s wry observation that their plant mission must be “really important.” “Much Ado” takes what had been deeply serious plot points and in rendering them less fatal and more banal, makes them funny.
Boimler’s trip aboard the Osler almost requires an entire reference round-up, but most importantly, it pokes fun at Star Trek’s failure to treat disability well. Trek struggles with long-term disability damage because the series hand-waves away most medical issues. Starfleet replaces Nog’s leg with seemingly no actual difference from his original (“It’s Only a Paper Moon”). Dr. Russell replaces Worf’s actual spine in “Ethics.” Geordi’s blindness gets uneven treatment throughout the TNG series run. TOS literally farms Captain Pike out to live in an illusory world rather than finding ways for him to participate in real life. “Much Ado” takes all of that history and uses it to inform the story. The patient mutiny makes sense in that context, but because this is Lower Decks, that trope gets cleverly subverted. “Much Ado” assures us that Starfleet does take good care of its people. That Edosian is just awkward. This type of subversion is what “Terminal Provocations” attempted and failed, and having watched “Much Ado,” I think I’m all the more disappointed at that failure.
“Much Ado” does not rest on those laurels, though the episode could. Instead, the story pushes Mariner into admitting certain truths about herself. The dichotomy between Mariner’s obvious competence and her equally obvious refusal to accept any responsibility has been a recurring theme throughout Lower Decks. It irritates her mother, and it baffles Ramsey. In “Much Ado,” Mariner doubles down on it, insisting that she is happiest as an ensign because she can do as she pleases while still demonstrating the occasional spark of brilliance. Ramsey accepts this explanation with grace, and “Much Ado” seems to imply that we should as well, despite the difficulties Mariner’s own reputation caused her in “Temporal Edict.” Whether Lower Decks continues to stand beside the validity of her choice remains to be seen. What “Much Ado” does successfully do is turn the trope of the driven Starfleet officer on its ear, rejecting the implication in “Tapestry” that the drive to seek command is the end-all, be-all of Starfleet life.
The whole pot of Earl Grey Tea
Stray Thoughts and Reference Roundup:
- Somehow, “Much Ado” manages to invoke the worst episode of Voyager without being cringeworthy. Anthony is hilarious.
- The poor ensign caught between being Benjamin Button and doing a turn on the Genesis Planet constitutes a reference to: “Rascals,” “Unnatural Selection,” “The Deadly Years,” and likely others.
- One of the patients sits in Pike’s chair from “The Menagerie” and apparently has been exposed to Delta radiation.
- The Edosian is the same species as Arex from TAS.
- Mariner’s anecdote with the car recalls Kirk’s destruction of the classic car in Star Trek: 2009.
- The conjoined officers recalls “The Pegasus.”
- One of Ramsey’s command crew is a Rigelian, whom we saw in “Demons,” and the Vulcan Durga apparently engages in Suus Mahna, also from Enterprise.
- The alien in the starship looks an awful lot like the alien from “Encounter at Farpoint.”
- While Division 14 isn’t the Time Travel Police, the Time Travel Police are actually A Thing.
- Was The Dog’s demonic transformation a quick Doom reference? You decide.
- I do wonder at how old Mariner is and how long she’s been an ensign, especially as her classmate from the Academy has already made captain.