First of all, I felt personally attacked by this episode’s cold open. Just because I listen to Star Trek warp engine sounds while I work sometimes and can definitely tell the difference between the Enterprise-D’s and Voyager’s ambient warp core sounds doesn’t mean that writer John Cochran can just make fun of me publicly like that. Rude.
That aside, “Terminal Provocations” was another solid episode of Star Trek: Lower Decks. Once again, the show seems to have figured out how to use its runtime to great effect; instead of trying to stuff way too much episode into the show’s 24-minute runtime, this outing gave us a reasonably-paced episode that felt brisk, but not breakneck. It’s nice that they’re starting to dial that in better than they were at the beginning of the season; it makes Tendi in particular feel like her mile a minute speaking pattern is a defining characteristic, since the rest of the crew aren’t quite as frantic anymore. It’s also thrilling to hear J.G. Hertzler’s gruff tones as the first series regular from a previous Trek series to make an appearance on Lower Decks, twenty-one years after the end of his role as Martok in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
In a behind-the-scenes video for this episode, Lower Decks creator Mike McMahan explains that the writers start with the main characters’ needs and desires, then add sci-fi elements on top of them; and this episode is a good example of that, turning in a good, middle-of-the-road episode for the show thus far. This piece does push characters and comedy into the foreground while letting the sci-fi take a backseat, which is fine, but I have preferred the episodes that let the comedy fall by the wayside in favor of character and sci-fi.
Still, it managed to ask some good questions and explore them in unique ways, which is what Lower Decks—and all of Star Trek—does best. In this case, it’s “what does it mean to be ‘Starfleet as hell?’”
Spoiler warning: plot and ending details for “Terminal Provocations” follow.
I have to be honest, I thought maybe they were setting us up for an alien infiltration situation with Fletcher in this episode. The way they introduced him as someone we were expected to know, even though he’d never appeared before seemed suspicious, and I wondered if he was an infiltrator trying to cause some sort of havoc like Kieran MacDuff in “Conundrum” from season 5 of The Next Generation.
It turns out that Fletcher was actually an old friend of Boimler’s from the Academy, and even appeared as a background character in an earlier episode. But much like that TNG episode, “Terminal Provocations” focuses on the philosophy of what it means to be in Starfleet.
“It’s not very Starfleet to take a swing at the bridge crew.”
“Pff. Whatever. I’m Starfleet as hell.”
—Boimler and Mariner, “Terminal Provocations”
Fletcher insists that there’s a baseline level of goodness that one needs in order to even be in Starfleet (though Dr. T’Ana throws some doubt on that idea as it pertains to officers on Starbase 80), and from what we’ve seen of the franchise over the years, that’s true; evil or even low-performing Starfleet officers are regularly treated as the exception, not the rule (and frankly, Fletcher provides another example of those exceptions).
Being a Starfleet officer is a prestigious identity to hold; and when it begins to slip for Fletcher, he starts to spiral out of control. Similarly, Rutherford’s identity as a smart guy in front of Tendi begins to slip even as drastic results begin to rear their pointy, shiny, creepily-friendly Jack McBrayer-voiced head.
And even though their motivations are a little different, both of them are driven by a desire to preserve their own identity. It’s a familiar feeling: we all want to hold tightly to an identity, even when it becomes clear that that identity isn’t true or otherwise can’t sustain us. We hang on to what we’ve done, who we are, what we’re good at, or some other identity as “who we are,” and we’ll go to great lengths to preserve that identity, even though it always slips, without fail.
Interestingly, both Fletcher and Rutherford unleash a killer AI as a result of their misplaced identity. That’s familiar to us, too; everything we create in an effort to preserve our identity merely magnifies our own flaws. Like Fletcher, our desire to know more might consume us and everyone around us; like Rutherford, a surprising, deep-seated rage might betray us at an inopportune moment and harm people we love.
In the end, Rutherford and Fletcher handle the situations they’ve created very differently. Fletcher continues to attempt escape from his lies through bigger and more ludicrous lies (surely in the Star Trek universe, the “Q Defense” is scoffed at by every judge and jury, only slightly more eye-roll-inducing than “it was Delta Shift” and “it was a random alien”). But Rutherford not only realizes and admits his mistake, he puts his own life on the line in a last-ditch, do-or-die effort to save Tendi.
Both have to discover that their identity can’t be fully realized outside of community. Rutherford figures that out. Fletcher doesn’t. Boimler and Mariner rediscover it. We’re made to identify ourselves as a part of a group, and one that’s on a mission; not to subsume our identity within that group, but contribute our personality and personhood to making the group better.
Within a community of faith, that gets even better. Together, we’re not just searching for an identity in a group that is working for something bigger and greater, we’re being given an identity that we can’t lose in any way! It’s a great comfort to know that we’re being built together upon the cornerstone of Jesus into something that will never be torn down; something that helps instead of hurts, something that keeps others safe and protects the needy and hurting. A crew with a good purpose.