The Cerritos is assigned to its first First Contact mission, assisting the USS Archimedes under the command of Freeman’s old friend Captain Sonya Gomez (Lycia Naff, returning for an animated version of a character she played in just two episodes on TNG more than 30 years ago, and yet who seems to loom much larger in fan circles than most guests with such limited appearances). This happens while Freeman is on the verge of a promotion that will take her to a new ship, leaving her daughter and crew behind. Freeman has not shared this information with anyone yet, but when Mariner overhears her talking about it, the cat is out of the bag, because Mariner proceeds to blab to the rest of the crew (who are not happy to learn this) out of pure spite.
This opens a new conflict between Mariner and her mother, and while it ultimately will circle back around to "Mariner is just acting out because she loves her mom and feels sad about the prospect of her leaving," it can still be a little tiresome to have the characters retread such traveled ground, especially after the various breakthroughs we’ve had on this front (especially in "Crisis Point," which remains the series’ best episode).
Well, imagine that. Right after I expressed my disappointment with the bulk of this season, Lower Decks went and turned itself around and put itself on a multi-episode roll. Now we have "wej Duj," the best episode of the second season so far, and one that works because it makes the effort to tell a solid story, link multiple threads together, expand the series’ scope, and find a good deal of humor without needing to do a lot of "jokes."
This is like the "Lower Decks" of Lower Decks, in that it finds novelty in an off-format presentation, featuring a bunch of characters we’ve never met before. The episode is seen from the point of view of not just the Cerritos Lower Decks, but also the Lower Decks on a Klingon Bird of Prey and a Vulcan science vessel. That these three strands are on a collision course probably goes without saying, but one of the pleasures of this episode is seeing these vastly different takes on low-ranking officers and seeing how all their stories inevitably converge.
"I, Excretus" is a pretty good example of what Lower Decks probably ultimately aspires to be. This is a story about an entire ship of scrappy underdogs — whose Lower Deckers are the most underdogged of the underdogs — working on a ship that don’t get no respect. They must prove themselves to the people who don’t respect them, in this case a Starfleet drill administrator named Shari Yn Yem (Lennon Parham), who has come on board to put the crew in a series of individualized holodeck-simulated mission drills where their performance is scored. The twist: The ensigns become command officers and the command officers become ensigns.
"Where Pleasant Fountains Lie," the best episode of the (overall disappointing, so far) second season, is proof that less is more when it comes to the things most typically associated with Lower Decks. Less freneticism, fewer Trek references, less obviousness. Instead, this is a story that has a solid couple of stories and runs with them. The episode mostly plays it straight, but the humor and fun are baked into the situations rather than glopped on top like a distracting frosting. The reference that stood out for me was the joke about phaser rifles: "How are those different from regular phasers?" "Uh, they take two hands?" Yes. Nailed it. Fun-poking, subtle, and short. The trifecta, if you’re going to do a joke like that. And it works because it’s one of a few, rather than one of so many.
Any day now, Captain Freeman is going to get that big break that will earn her a promotion off the Cerritos — but, okay, probably not. With that perpetually confident look of swagger on her face, I feel bad that she’s convinced herself she’s going to impress bosses that don’t care. This week she’s assigned to a diplomatic mission to engage the Pakleds on their homeworld (which, appropriately prosaically, is called "Pakled Planet") and finds herself in the middle of a planetary power struggle. Meanwhile, a Pakled beams aboard the Cerritos and requests asylum, but is very clearly actually a spy trying to get information. The crew decides to go along with it to see what happens. If you thought the twist would be the Pakled is smarter than he looks, then you would be wrong, because the twist is that there is no twist.