Star Trek: Lower Decks review – Season 1, Episode 4: Moist Vessel

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the first four episodes of Star Trek: Lower Decks, and for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.

Last week’s episode, Temporal Edict, was fantastic. I had a great time with that story – as I’m sure you could tell from my review – and I especially enjoyed seeing Ensign Mariner step up and start being more of a protagonist I could get behind. I was optimistic and even excited for this week’s episode after what I saw last time, and although Moist Vessel started with a scene that got me worried Mariner would wholly regress back to being vain, selfish, and annoying, I was pleasantly surprised with another largely enjoyable episode.

Even now that we’re four weeks into Season 1, there’s still no news regarding an international broadcast. Practically nobody outside the United States and Canada is paying any attention to Lower Decks any more, and what was probably Star Trek’s best opportunity since the 2009 reboot to reach out to new would-be fans has been thoroughly wasted. It’s such a shame to see the hard work put in by Mike McMahan and the rest of the team behind the show being squandered by ViacomCBS in what has to be one of the worst business decisions in Star Trek’s recent history. As I predicted, Lower Decks is being heavily pirated practically all over the world, reducing its value in a packed market – assuming ViacomCBS still hopes to sell the international rights. With no one at the company even acknowledging Star Trek’s international fans, and with no information as to when or even if the show will get an international release, piracy is quite literally the only option for fans who don’t want to miss out.

But of course I’d never sink so low! As you know, when it became apparent that Lower Decks wasn’t going to be coming to the UK I had no choice but to up sticks and move to America. I’m relaxing in my home in northern California as we speak, looking out on the Blue Ridge Mountains in Yellowstone National Park. Tomorrow I’m going to take a short drive to Atlantic City to sample the famous New England cuisine. I can hardly wait!

This is undeniably my house. It’s in the United States, of course. That’s where I definitely am.

As I indicated at the beginning, Moist Vessel begins with another scene in which the humour was supposed to come from Mariner’s selfish “I-don’t-care” attitude. And as I’ve covered several times already, those moments generally don’t work for me. I find that side of her character childish and rude, and the attempted humour derived from that isn’t my thing – at least not in a Star Trek setting.

A scene in the Cerritos’ briefing room introduced the first major Tellarite character to appear in Star Trek for a very long time – Captain Durango of the USS Merced. The Cerritos and Merced will be working together on a mission to tow a long-lost “generation ship” that contains a previously-unknown kind of terraforming fluid.

Mariner isn’t a good source of humour in moments like this, when the entire “joke” is centred around her selfishness.

I liked this setup; it felt very “Star Trek”. Bringing in a second minor ship – the Merced appears to be a California-class like the Cerritos – was a nice touch too, and allowed the rest of the story to work better than if we’d just been following the Cerritos. Animation as a format allows for more variety and versatility than live-action in a lot of ways, and including a second ship is much less of an expense in an animated series than it would be in a live action show. In a way I’d have liked to see the Merced as a different starship class; as I noted in the finale of Star Trek: Picard, having lots of identical ships doesn’t look as good as having varied styles. But that’s just a minor point really.

The generation ship was massive, far larger than the Starfleet ships. And it wasn’t made obvious which species it belonged to – it’s possible the crew of the Cerritos didn’t know either. It’s clear that the generation ship had already been discovered and explored by a previous Federation crew; the Cerritos and Merced are just there to tow it back to Starfleet. This ties in with Lower Decks’ premise of following an unimportant ship, but was done in such a way as to still give the crew a genuine adventure.

The scale of the generation ship was impressive.

After the title sequence, Mariner is getting another well-deserved dressing-down from Captain Freeman; her mother. When we learned at the end of the premiere that Freeman and Mariner were mother and daughter it was surely only a matter of time until that fact became relevant, and here we get to see the first real interaction between them. As happened in either the first or second episode, I was wholly on the side of the officer giving Mariner a stern telling-off, despite her being the show’s supposed protagonist.

Mariner’s anti-authority streak has a distinct feel of teenage rebellion, which is compounded in this scene by the fact that it’s her own mother that she’s in trouble with. Perhaps that kind of character appeals to, well, teenagers and children, but it’s a trait I find particularly annoying in Mariner. I was hoping after last week’s episode she may have turned a page, but this scene – complete with sarcasm, whining, and a Vulcan salute delivered in the way one might flip the middle finger – was Mariner right back where she’d been. I was disappointed by this, though she would regain some of her standing from last week via her actions later in the story.

Mariner gets scolded like a misbehaving child.

Captain Freeman is upset, and along with Commander Ransom hatches a plan to force Mariner to request a transfer – giving her the worst jobs on the ship. Ransom allows his captain to take credit for what had been his idea – I got the impression that’s something he does a lot. He seems to know how to deal with Captain Freeman, and while he had seemed to take a shine to Mariner last week, it’s clear where his loyalties lie.

The second-in-command coming up with an idea that the captain pretends or thinks is their own is a pretty common trope, though, and while it was okay as a one-off joke, I’m not sure how well it works for Freeman’s character. We know her as a pretty strict captain with ambitions for her ship and crew, and to show her as vain or easily manipulated like this makes her far less relatable and likeable. Neither of which are good things.

“That’s why you’re the captain!”

The ensigns are given their assignments in the next scene. Boimler would be absent for much of the episode, but was present here briefly. As Ransom and Freeman had planned, Mariner is given the worst jobs, though Rutherford initially seems unhappy with his – he wanted a different kind of calibrating.

This sequence sets up the B-plot, which this time focuses on Tendi. She’s given the opportunity to witness an “ascension” – a seemingly human crew member is going to ascend to become a “being of pure energy”. Rutherford compares the process to becoming a Q or being the Traveller (from The Next Generation), and though Tendi dismisses those comparisons it seems like a fairly similar process.

Tendi expresses her excitement to Rutherford.

Along with Boimler, we won’t see much of Rutherford until near the end of the episode; Moist Vessel follows Mariner and Tendi’s stories much more closely. And that’s okay, many Star Trek episodes focus on a particular character or group of characters, and we’ve spent time with Boimler and Rutherford before, and surely will again.

When trying to make a comedy series like Lower Decks, it must be hard to give each character a fully-rounded personality while still keeping open possibilities for jokes and humour. In the next scene, Tendi is at the ascension ceremony when she becomes distracted and ultimately disrupts the proceedings in what was an incredibly slapstick sequence. I don’t mind slapstick, visual comedy, but in a similar way to making Captain Freeman easily-manipulated, oblivious, or someone who takes credit for her officers’ ideas, turning Tendi into a bumbling idiot wouldn’t have been my choice.

Tendi ruins the ascension ceremony.

Tendi doesn’t appear to have done any research or read her assignment brief, as she turns up late (the ceremony was already in progress) and doesn’t know what to do or even whether she’s supposed to observe or participate. But then, midway through, she becomes distracted and wanders off to look at an object in the room – this is what leads to the slapstick falling over and ruining the ceremony. I could excuse accidentally knocking something over, but the way she put herself and her own interest in the gong ahead of everything else that was happening was selfish and childish – something we might have expected from Mariner, but not Tendi.

Keeping each of the four ensigns’ characters and personalities distinct is a pretty basic expectation, and the fact that Lower Decks is an animated comedy series may lower the bar in some ways, but it doesn’t work as a catch-all excuse for everything. And in this scene, Tendi seemed to act way out of character; this would have been an acceptable (but still silly) storyline for Mariner. Boimler has been established as the “by the books” anxiety-riddled nerd. Rutherford is the workaholic who loves even the most tedious of tasks in engineering. Mariner doesn’t care about Starfleet. Tendi doesn’t really have a personality yet, and this was a good opportunity to show off what she could be. Instead we got her dumped into a sequence that didn’t seem to fit, and while she wasn’t exactly Mariner 2.0, she wasn’t her own character either.

This sequence with Tendi wasn’t my favourite.

The ceremony, and Tendi messing it up, was really just the setup for what would be the B-plot of the episode, though, and if I’m being charitable I guess I could say I can see why the audience might have found it funny on a visual level. I liked that Tendi tried to replicate more sand for the sand-design that she ruined; that was an amusing moment.

Boimler and Mariner are up next, and he’s teasing her about being assigned the worst jobs while he gets a (comparatively) better one. Boimler seems to have picked up some of Mariner’s traits as well, as he repeats the sarcastic Vulcan salute that she used earlier in the episode. Mariner telling him it doesn’t look cool when he does it, only to admit a moment later that it did was a pretty funny joke, and I certainly cracked a smile at this point. Mariner and Boimler can work well as a duo provided their bickering stays on the friendly side and doesn’t cross over into anything mean-spirited. In this instance I think they stayed on the right side of the line.

Mariner, dejected about her duties, and Boimler.

The next sequence showed Mariner undertaking the various dirty jobs on the ship, including cleaning out the holodeck filters (yuck), applying grease to a turbolift, and phasering carbon from a carbon filter. I’ll excuse the fact that these tasks could be performed by robots (even today, in some cases) because we were always going to get moments like this. It didn’t harm canon and it wasn’t immersion-breaking; in many ways, this is what Lower Decks promised to be about. We were going to see unimportant crewmen performing unimportant tasks on an unimportant ship. The sequence was great; it had some comical moments and I enjoyed it.

At the end, though, was a moment that didn’t work particularly well. As Mariner turns her final task – cleaning the carbon filter using a phaser – into a fun game and seems to be enjoying herself, Ransom spots her. He reports back to the captain that Mariner is “finding little ways to inject joy into otherwise horrible tasks”. It was incredibly on-the-nose for a character to say aloud; the audience saw Mariner doing that firsthand, so we didn’t need to have it explained in such an obvious way. It felt pretty patronising, as if the team behind the series didn’t trust the audience to understand what was going on.

Did Ransom really need to say out loud that Mariner was having fun right after we’d seen this sequence?

Tendi is trying to make up for her earlier mistake, as she feels awful – so she’s definitely not Marinier after all! It was pretty funny that the lieutenant who was supposed to be so calm and zen that he was on the verge of ascending from this plane of existence became very grumpy and annoyed with Tendi, and this being played for laughs worked pretty well – at least the first time it was done.

The storyline between these two characters was kind of a cliché though. Someone trying to make up for a mistake while the person they wronged wants nothing to do with them has been done and overdone in countless comedies and dramas over the years, played both humorously and straight, and nothing about Lower Decks’ take was original or innovative. It was fine, and there were some funny moments, but it wasn’t spectacular.

Tendi spends much of the episode trying to make up for her mistake.

Freeman and Ransom are still scheming about how to get Mariner to request a transfer off the ship. From Freeman’s conversation with Mariner’s dad in the premiere, it sounded like her parents had an understanding that one of them would keep an eye on her on her Starfleet postings – and I would suggest that perhaps the only reason she’s still employed as an ensign is because they’ve been intervening on her behalf. So it seems to run counter to that conversation that Freeman would now be plotting to get her removed from the ship.

Interestingly, my (totally legal) version of the episode had one word censored when talking about the holodeck filters. I assume this was done on CBS All Access, perhaps it was deemed too raunchy for TV? Regardless, Freeman hits on the perfect solution. She’s found the thing Mariner would hate even more than the dirty, disgusting jobs: being promoted.

Mariner does not want a promotion!

This scene, in which Mariner is promoted to lieutenant, kicks off what I guess was supposed to be the C-plot of the episode. Boimler, who was cleaning the conference room while Mariner was receiving her unwarranted promotion, decides that he needs to be a rule-breaker like her in order to get ahead in his Starfleet career. But in what was a busy episode there wasn’t enough time for this to play out, and it’s pretty clear that trying to run three storylines each featuring a main character is too much to cram into an episode barely twenty minutes long. Boimler’s sub-plot added nothing, and was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it thing anyway, taking up practically no screen time.

Star Trek shows of the past have rarely tried to have three or more stories on the go at once, and they were all using far longer episodes. It was never going to work, and it’s a shame in a way because the idea of Boimler trying to put on a Mariner-esque persona could have been funny (so long as it was clear he wasn’t committed to being a selfish jerk). But it feels totally wasted here, and if this was the one attempt this season to try that concept, it’s a shame. Maybe it will be revisited in more detail in another episode, though.

Boimler’s reaction to Mariner’s promotion. His story had potential but there was simply not enough time in the episode to do it justice.

Should we talk about nepotism in Starfleet? Because Moist Vessel seems to suggest that the practice is possible and relatively easy to get away with. We’ve seen situations before in which an arguably undeserving character is given a position aboard ship (I’m looking at you, Wesley Crusher) simply by having a good relationship with the captain, so it isn’t wholly without precedent. However, it raises some alarming questions about elitism within the organisation. Starfleet has usually been presented as meritocratic, but if Freeman can promote Mariner – her own daughter – when she’s clearly undeserving, presumably any captain or admiral can do the same to their relatives? It’s definitely worth considering the implications of this, I think.

I keep saying that we need to treat Lower Decks as an animated comedy first and a Star Trek show second. And it’s true, the show works way better when putting canon and the minutia of the franchise to one side. But moments like this raise questions, and because Lower Decks is officially part of canon and in the same timeline and universe as all the other series, sometimes it’s hard to avoid comparing the way Starfleet is presented here with how it’s been presented elsewhere. Perhaps the topic needs looking at in more detail; I’ll add it to my writing pile!

Sometimes it’s not what you know, it’s who you know…

A montage goes on to show Mariner not enjoying her time as a lieutenant, and some of the activities we might’ve enjoyed seeing the senior officers engaged in in other Star Trek shows are clearly not to Mariner’s taste. Some of these – like the poker game – were little references to past iterations of Star Trek, which I appreciated.

Tendi is explaining to Rutherford how she’s trying to make up for her mistake, and while he’s sympathetic and clearly a good listener, he doesn’t put much stock in her plan. She seems to think she can get the lieutenant – named O’Connor – back on track with his ascension by studying spirituality, but Rutherford is a voice of reason telling her it doesn’t work like that. Tendi is not dissuaded, however, and rushes off with her collection of books. She leaves her unfinished lunch to Rutherford who seems excited that she left her pudding; I’m sure this was a reference to something – but I have no idea what!

Though I’ve no idea what this moment was about, it surely will have made sense to some viewers.

Mariner has received new quarters to go along with her promotion, and Boimler visits her. This furthers the underdeveloped C-plot that we discussed earlier, and it really feels like a way to force Boimler into a story which offered no organic role for him.

In Engineering, Tendi is trying different spiritual techniques to help O’Connor ascend, and as I said this storyline started leaning heavily into the trope of one character trying to help and the other not wanting their help. It was fine, but not particularly funny or interesting from my point of view. O’Connor being so grumpy and annoyed when he’s supposed to be on the verge of ascending due to his calmness and composure was funny the first time, but that should’ve been a one-time-use joke, and building this whole story around it stretched it past breaking point.

O’Connor shouts at Tendi in engineering.

When Mariner and Freeman had their next scene in what looked like a lounge or perhaps the captain’s ready room, Mariner was close to cracking. She clearly hates the role of a senior officer, along with all of the “boring” things they have to do – like attending a birthday party for Commander Ransom, who will apparently play the guitar. Despite that, she is unwilling to admit defeat and request a transfer. This scene had perhaps the funniest one-liner of the episode, too. When Freeman says she’s doing what she needs to do, and “it’s called being a captain”, Mariner hits back with “no, it’s called being a dick!” That definitely won a laugh from me.

In the next scene, there’s a contrivance to suit the plot. It’s not worth getting too worked up over – animated comedy first, Star Trek show second, remember? – but Captain Durango moves the Merced closer to the generation ship, believing he should be in that position as its “his” mission. Moving out of formation ruptures the generation ship’s hull, spewing out the terraforming liquid. Because the liquid transforms everything it touches, whole sections of the Merced are affected, disabling the ship in an instant.

The USS Merced (left) is disabled after being hit with the terraforming liquid.

The Cerritos is soon affected too, as the terraforming liquid is drawn to the ship along the tractor beam. On the bridge, Commander Ransom ordered an evasive action, but it was too late. Across the ship, various crystals and plants emerge, transformed from the ship’s own hull and material. I love the way the terraforming liquid works – it’s something we could have absolutely seen in past iterations of Star Trek. The idea of the ship itself being transformed harkens back to Masks, from the seventh season of The Next Generation, where something similar happened to the Enterprise-D.

From here, the story follows two pairs of characters – Freeman and Mariner, who had been together when the crisis occurred, as well as Tendi and O’Connor. Both pairings put together characters who had been antagonistic to each other earlier in the story, and this concept can work very well. We’ve seen Star Trek stories of the past do similar things; one example that comes to mind is the episode Disaster, from the fifth season of The Next Generation. Disaster made my list of ten great episodes from that show, as it’s one I really enjoy.

Freeman and Mariner will have to work together…

The terraforming liquid has also introduced large volumes of water to parts of the ship – including engineering, where Tendi and O’Connor are. Just as Freeman and Mariner will have to put aside their disagreements to work together, so too will Tendi and O’Connor. No one seems to know what to do amidst the chaos to save the ship, but Freeman and Mariner both come up with the same idea – and it turns out that Mariner had read the mission brief after all. Tying in with last week’s theme of Mariner stepping up when the ship and crew need her to, this worked so well.

When the episode began with Mariner having seemed to regress, I was concerned that Lower Decks was going to continue to use her selfishness as one of its key points of humour, and as I keep saying, “Ensign Rick Sanchez” just doesn’t work for me in this Star Trek setting. But I’m glad that she once again proved she isn’t just interested in herself, and that despite proclaiming boredom and lack of interest at the way Starfleet operates, she still does the work – including reading the brief.

Tendi and O’Connor in a flooded and overgrown engineering.

Both pairs of characters overcome their differences thanks to the chaotic situation. Tendi realises that her desperation to help O’Connor is motivated by a desire to be liked by everyone on the ship, while Mariner’s dislike of her mother and authority seems to come from being treated like a child and smothered. In Mariner’s case, I have to say I’m still kind of on the captain’s side – Mariner does undeniably behave like a bratty teenager, and if I were responsible for someone who behaved that way, I’d certainly treat them accordingly.

However, this sequence was really interesting from a character point of view, and we got to see the mother-daughter relationship in detail. Freeman and Mariner are more alike – especially in terms of how stubborn they are – than either would be willing to acknowledge. Both are also – in their own ways – dedicated to their friends and crewmates, and while Mariner might sulk at the notion of spending an evening at Ransom’s birthday party while he plays the guitar, she wouldn’t let him down if he needed her help. This side to her character goes a long way to making up for her attitude, and after the last two episodes showed this, I have much more respect and admiration for Mariner and her abilities.

Freeman and Mariner tunnelling their way through the partly-terraformed ship.

The dichotomy in Mariner has always been that she’s perfectly capable officer, but she has such a bad attitude and a selfish streak that she doesn’t make use of her talents. The past two episodes have put her in situations that required her to step up, and this has been great news for her character – it’s made her far more likeable and relatable, which are qualities a protagonist needs to have. I just hope these traits stick around for the rest of the season and aren’t lost as the show retains an episodic approach to storytelling.

Lower Decks’ episodic nature, though, has been in many ways a welcome reprieve. Television storytelling in recent years has become all about serialised stories, season-long arcs, and the like. Star Trek shows of the past – especially prior to the Dominion War arc in Deep Space Nine – took this much more episodic approach, and in that respect, Lower Decks feels like a return to that kind of Star Trek story. The downside, as I suggested, is that we can go from what feels like a genuine character arc to a regression in the next episode if that transformation doesn’t stick!

Still digging that tunnel…

After their journey to the environmental control room, Freeman and Mariner are able to reverse the transformation – thanks to some very Star Trek-y technobabble! They even shared a hug as the terraforming was reversed, in what was a very sweet moment.

After Tendi managed to use an exploding pod to drain the water from engineering, saving her and O’Connor’s lives, he returned the favour by saving her life when a large crystal or rock fell from the ceiling. Doing so helped him find his centre and his composure, and he was finally able to ascend – though it looked very painful! This was another joke that dragged just a little too long, in my opinion, and the humour wore off by the time O’Connor was finally fully ascended. But that’s just personal taste, and for many animated comedy fans I think it would be right in line with what they like.

O’Connor’s painful ascension.

It wasn’t possible to use the same process to reverse the damage done to the USS Merced, which seems to have been more severely damaged. However, Mariner and Freeman were able to use the Cerritos’ transporters to beam the Merced’s crew to the generation ship where they’ll be safe – and I liked their shared joke about dumping the boring Captain Durango with the mummies and fossils!

Freeman gets a little over-excited, thinking that this concordance with Mariner may last. It won’t, of course, and the idea that the mother-daughter team will work this closely going forward was put to rest pretty quickly! Despite how well it worked here, Lower Decks’ fundamental premise means we won’t be seeing it happen any time soon.

Mariner and Freeman share a hug.

With Tendi having made her peace with O’Connor and him having ascended, all that was left for the episode to do was reset Mariner’s status in time for the next story – and by insulting an admiral in front of the captain, she was demoted back to ensign and rejoins her crewmates in their shared living space.

Tendi isn’t quite as okay with not being liked as she thought, though; she presses Rutherford to tell her who else aboard the Cerritos doesn’t like her when he suggests there may be others besides O’Connor. Boimler is upset that Mariner got everything he wanted – i.e. the promotion – but rejected it. But Mariner is back where she she’s happiest, and I think we can agree that (if she belongs anywhere in Starfleet) she belongs there.

Mariner is back where she wants to be.

So that was Moist Vessel. Another slow start, perhaps, but another solid and enjoyable episode followed after the opening titles. It was nice to get to spend more time with Tendi, even though at the beginning of her story she felt a little out of place. She grew into it, though, and by the time the ship was in peril she had firmly established who she was and how she was going to react. In that sense, this episode laid the groundwork for establishing Tendi as more than someone who’s just wowed by everything in Starfleet because she’s new.

Mariner once again stepped up to be the officer we know she can be. I could certainly leave behind the attitude and the brattiness, but if she continues to demonstrate that she’s a decent person underneath it, I’ll put up with it. Boimler’s storyline was a waste in Moist Vessel, though, and added nothing whatsoever. I’d like to see this angle explored again – the idea of Boimler trying to be more like Mariner – because I think it has the potential to be both funny and interesting. Unfortunately in an episode barely twenty minutes long there just wasn’t enough time to dedicate to it; it really needs to be the focus of half an episode or more to work effectively.

Boimler’s story needed more time.

At time of writing I don’t believe a title for episode 5 has been announced. Perhaps that’s to avoid spoilers, or perhaps it’s something that will be coming imminently. Either way, Lower Decks is off to a good start and I’m very much looking forward to next week’s offering. I hope you’ll check back afterwards for my review; I’ll be looking at every episode this season as they air.

If you missed my reviews for the first three episodes, you can find them on my dedicated Star Trek: Lower Decks page, along with other columns and articles that I’ve written about the show. Click or tap here to be taken there.

Star Trek: Lower Decks is available to stream now on CBS All Access in the United States. No international broadcast has been announced. The Star Trek franchise – including Lower Decks – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.