HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!
“Terminal Provocations” thrives on nostalgia. There’s a corrupted, malevolent AI and a problem with the holodeck safety protocols, all familiar fare for the Star Trek franchise. The episode promises a send up of these tropes but ends up mired in story elements that its source material did better, or at least, more honestly.
Starfleet dispatches the Cerritos to negotiate the return of century-old Starfleet cargo under salvage by the Drookmani, and despite Captain Freeman’s attempts to resolve the situation peacefully, things go sideways.
Somewhere below the command deck, Ensigns Boimler and Mariner leave fellow Lower-Decker Fletcher to recalibrate the ship’s isolinear cores on his own while they go watch a spectacle. Upon returning, they find Fletcher passed out on the floor and one of the isolinear cores for the shield array missing. Fletcher panics, and Mariner declares that they will get to the bottom of this mystery. The intrepid ensigns storm the barracks to accuse the infamous Delta Shift of sabotage, but Boimler discovers the missing component in Fletcher’s bunk. Fletcher confesses that not only was he overwhelmed by the task he agreed to take on but that he attempted to connect a computer core to his brain to make him smarter and therefore better at his job. Moreover, he fabricated excuses and stories to cover his tracks, and his conduct horrifies both Boimler and Mariner. Boimler, Mariner, and Fletcher discover that Fletcher’s actions have led to the creation of an AI corrupted by Fletcher’s insecurities, causing ship wide system failures at critical moments. Those failures nearly result in the destruction of the Cerritos by the angry Drookmani, but Boimler and Mariner eject the evolving AI into space where it destroys the salvage ship, saving the Cerritos.
The ship’s weapons systems aren’t the only systems affected by Fletcher’s rogue AI. The holodeck safety protocols also fail while Rutherford and Tendi run a program Rutherford designed to teach important skills. Tendi, as it happens, never completed her space walk training module at the academy, so Rutherford offers to teach her using his program. They head to the holodeck where Rutherford introduces her to “Badgey,” his Starfleet answer to the Microsoft Paperclip. Rutherford requests an appropriate simulation, but Badgey freezes, prompting Rutherford to kick him, calling him a glitch. Badgey restarts the simulation, but the program glitches again when power gets rerouted away from the holodeck. When Badgey re-initializes, the infamous holodeck safety protocols are off, and Badgey proceeds to attack Rutherford and Tendi. Rutherford cycles them through various simulations, and Badgey graphically murders his way through them. Rutherford inadvertently discover that the physical parameters of the programs affect Badgey just as they do Rutherford and Tendi, so Rutherford takes a gamble, opening an arctic simulation on the off chance that Badgey will freeze to death before Rutherford and Tendi do. His gamble pays off, and he holds the dying Badgey just as the holodeck resets.
The Bridge crew storm the lower decks to determine what destroyed the Drookmani ship, and Mariner gives Fletcher the entirety of the credit. Freeman promotes him to Lieutenant and sends him off to the U.S.S. Titan. Mariner revels in making Fletcher someone else’s problem, and unsurprisingly, some time later, Fletcher comms Mariner to tell her that he’s been fired.
“Terminal Provocations” mirrors the more traditional Star Trek format in which there are distinct A and B stories, making this episode feel more like a TNG or Voyager episode than any previous installment. The suspension of the holodeck’s safety protocols reinforces that overall feeling, and that’s the episode’s problem. “Lower Decks” is meant to be a parody, taking familiar Trek tropes and using them to poke fun at the source material, and while I can see how this episode means to do that, it just gets bogged down in its own plot. Part of the issue is that “Lower Decks” has a much shorter running time; “Terminal Provocations” has twenty-five minutes in which to fit both plots. That not-quite-half-hour just isn’t sufficient to do both plotlines justice and grapple with the minor plotline involving the Drookmani and Captain Freeman. As a result, the Fletcher plot gets rushed to completion in order to ensure that we get to experience all of Badgey’s murderous rage.
The Badgey plotline is hugely problematic because we watch the literal symbol of Starfleet gut characters onscreen. Even if these are characters generated to populate Rutherford’s Bajoran marketplace program, we still get to watch the hyperviolence. At one point, Badgey threatens to rip out the ensigns’ hearts and burn them. Sure, the gag here is a twist on the irritating paperclip run amok, but no part of this works. First, the gag is incredibly outdated even if we are talking about a show whose source material comes from the nineties and before. We’re all here to watch Star Trek, so the show’s audience already demonstrates a buy-in for that source material. That buy-in doesn’t extend to the paperclip. Secondly, Badgey is a delta logo, so watching Badgey engage in that level of graphic violence runs counter to everything Starfleet is.
The Fletcher plotline brings up the question of what makes a Starfleet officer, and it twists the response by having Fletcher express something about the innate goodness of all Starfleet officers. Fletcher, of course, has none of that goodness and has been pretending for years. Badgey’s murder spree mirrors that twist, but unfortunately, the sheer weirdness of seeing that violence overshadows whatever the episode wants to say about the necessary struggle to embody Starfleet’s morality. Sure, Rutherford and Tendi both demonstrate that morality when they comfort the dying Badgey, but their affection just comes off as weirdly misplaced. With Fletcher, Mariner gets the opportunity to express where her own moral line falls, which constitutes an important insight into her character. However, again, there simply isn’t enough development of that theme to make her statement anything more than a throwaway one-liner.
I like that the show attempts to address those themes, but the promise inherent to “Terminal Provocations” never coalesces into reality. That the episode opens with our intrepid ensigns mirroring the warp core noises of various famous ships is fitting because “Terminal Provocations” fails to achieve escape velocity from the tropes embraced by previous franchise installments. If anyone wants me, I’m going to be watching “A Fistful of Datas” as a palate cleanser.
One cup of Earl Grey Tea and a saucer.
Stray Thoughts from the Couch:
- There are some decent Easter Eggs, including Rutherford rattling off the various uses of the holodeck that align almost perfectly with TNG.
- At one point, Fletcher mentions Q, and if the news is to be believed, John De Lancie will be reprising his role for a cameo on Lower Decks.
- J.G. Hertzler has a cameo as the eye-patch sporting Drookmani captain, which is a great visual reference to his famous role as Martok. Jack McBrayer‘s turn as Badgey is terrifying.
- The reference to the Titan brings up more nostalgia for Riker. Maybe they’ll get Jonathan Frakes to do a cameo in the future.