The problem with Lower Decks is that I don’t laugh at it nearly enough, and often not at all. The jokes are way too obvious, the action sequences are maniacally overcompensating, and the franchise-self-referential name-dropping is shamelessly in-your-face.
Take this week’s "An Embarrassment of Dooplers." Please. (Har, har.) It has a high-concept premise that could’ve potentially worked as a sitcom: A Doopler emissary (Richard Kind in a Richard Kind-ian role) is aboard the ship, being escorted to a conference. The Dooplers, you see, involuntarily and spontaneously reproduce when they get embarrassed. So the Cerritos crew has been walking on eggshells so they don’t set off his fragile, insecure personality lest he start splitting in half.
"Mugato, Gumato" continues this season’s trend of being generally more laid-back (aside from the season premiere) and less anarchic than much of season one. That’s in its favor. Unfortunately, I didn’t laugh very much, and the low-stakes nature of the episode somehow ultimately works against it. There’s a fine line between "laid-back" and "who cares." I’m not sure exactly what I’m expecting out of this series, but these shoestring plots are too low a bar to give this show a pass.
The Cerritos is assigned to "animal control" to investigate the presence of a mugato, which is basically a giant white gorilla with a horn, on a planet it’s not indigenous to. Upon beaming down, the away team learns the mugatos are being harvested by the Ferengi, who appear with their electrified whips for the first time since their initial appearance in "The Last Outpost." Lower Decks enjoys reminding us of all the Trek mistakes previous producers would’ve preferred to retcon from the franchise through our collective agreement to forget. Another example: the anbo-jyutsu combat in the cold open, not seen since Riker worked out his daddy issues in "The Icarus Factor," which I somehow gave three stars. Yet another example: the titular creature’s oft-mispronunciation and the title of the episode, which require a deep dive into the truly esoteric to appreciate.
"We’ll Always Have Tom Paris" is a good, solid, entertaining example of what this show might be in its most sustainable and prototypical episodic form. Although this show has been more insanely inventive in the past, this episode represents the straightforward sweet spot, featuring a series of comic adventures and character-based interactions that are breezy, fun, and mostly unannoying. The fact that it spreads things around across all the major characters is also in its favor.
To be sure, there’s no shortage of Trek and fandom references. While these are sometimes too frequent and pushy, and I’m not going to list them, a lot of them work and are worth a laugh or at least a smile. Probably my favorite was Boimler constantly referring to Voyager as "VOY." (Why, how, and who, back in 1995, decided that would be the abbreviation for the show, anyway?) VOY’s very own Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill extends the list of ’90s-era Trek actors to guest on this show) is visiting the Cerritos and Boimler is excited. But of course he would be: He owns the limited-edition Tom Paris collectible plate.
The titular character of "Kayshon, His Eyes Open" is the first Tamarian in Starfleet (see TNG‘s "Darmok"), who has been posted on the Cerritos as the new security chief. He doesn’t always speak in metaphors; just sometimes. But Kayshon and the title are red herrings, because they have relatively little to do with the episode, especially after Kayshon is transformed into a stuffed toy as a result of an energy beam aboard the museum-like ship of a dead curator, whose collection the Cerritos is helping catalog. (Talk about your low-priority missions.)
"Kayshon" is a notable step up from the season’s premiere episode, but I still found it lacking … something. This is an action-centric episode that’s light on solid jokes and heavy on attacks by armies of flying Roombas. Don’t get me wrong; it’s perfectly okay and I grinned a number of times — but this is not something that I feel like I should be going out of my way for.
“Strange Energies” opens with Mariner being interrogated in a Cardassian prison (“Chain of Command” style), which she breaks out of in a lively action sequence where she, as one individual, takes on an entire security force in a daring and fantastical escape. It’s a holodeck “workout routine” fantasy, but a fun and inventive one that serves as a good curtain raiser for the new season.
Unfortunately, I can’t really get behind most of the rest of the episode, which borrows from TOS and TNG highlight reels and amps them up with Animation Zaniness. The strategy seems to be: start with a smallish character story, then filter that through escalating, over-the-top cartoon action. This has the paradoxical but predictable effect of things becoming more boring as they get more outlandish. By the end, I was zoning out.