Lower Decks’ TNG Nod Reveals Starfleet’s Weakness

The following contains spoilers for Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 3, Episode 4, “Room for Growth,” now streaming on Paramount+.

star trek was conceived as a utopian future where humanity had solved some of its most fundamental problems and united peacefully to explore the cosmos. As the franchise evolved, subsequent series examined the limits of that vision and where the United Federation of Planets couldn’t always live up to its ideals. This played out most strongly in Star Trek: Deep Space Ninebut other shows have looked at Federation failures from time to time, like Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 4, Episode 21, “The Drumhead”.

Star Trek: Lower Decks often focuses on a very different shortcoming: Starfleet’s inability to follow through on its actions. Technically, the Cerritos’ job is to clean up the details, as it arrives somewhere after a previous Federation ship’s visit and ends up fixing what turn out to be significant lingering issues. Season 3, Episode 4, “Room for Growth” finds a fitting way to demonstrate the trend, and as usual, it finds a powerful target from a classic past episode.

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Starfleet’s poor following has always been more implied than stated, and largely stemmed from the nature of television at the time Star Trek began. The original series and The next generation were designed with syndication in mind, which meant that episodes could be swapped in and out of order without serious breaks in continuity. Self-containment was the order of the day, and while The next generation began what became a solid continuity for the franchise, it and its predecessor rarely returned to the subject of any given episode. In effect, Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan relies entirely on the idea that Kirk essentially forgot about Khan and his people after they were abandoned, and never bothered to ask anyone to watch over them.

The Cerritos have dealt with the fallout of this more than once, and “Room for Growth” opens with a very amusing example. While the Lower Deckers complain about the lack of privacy in their “quarters” – essentially bunks in a hallway – Captain Freeman floats around, clearly under the control of an alien entity. Wearing a mask and spouting proclamations of doom, she quickly transforms the surroundings of the ship into a primitive jungle temple, complete with vines and prehistoric aqueducts. “It’s like the third time it’s happened,” Mariner growls as his possessed mother approaches. “Stop touching masks!”

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The whole thing is a riff on The next generation, Season 7, Episode 17, “Masks,” a decidedly odd endgame entry involving the same culture. In the episode, Data is infected by an alien archive found in the core of a comet and begins playing a plethora of mythical characters as the ship slowly transforms into a temple. Captain Picard resolves the situation by adopting the identity of an accompanying character — donning a mask to match a similar one Data wears — and re-enacting a key moment in the aliens’ formative stories.

Naturally, in the quarter century since “Masks” originally aired, nothing more has been said about the incident or the culture in the Star Trek canon. Considering both the power of alien technology and its impact on the Enterprise, this is a notable oversight in the world (although in reality, there probably weren’t enough dramatic potential to warrant follow-up). lower decks, always aware of this potential for humor, forces the Cerritos to repeat the same urgency simply because no one has informed them of the dangers.

But Lower decks takes an extra step that moves the concept beyond just a joke. Captain Freeman’s mask belongs to an entirely new mythical character – never mentioned in “Masks” – and its possession occurs through physical contact rather than a signal downloaded into Data’s brain. The writers legitimately expanded alien culture and technology not because it was necessary for the humor to work, but because it tied the ship dilemma more firmly to the rest of the franchise. As wacky as Lower decks gets, it’s still part of Star Trek, something that gags like “Masks” satire make clear.

New episodes of Star Trek: Lower Decks air every Thursday on Paramount+.