Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Lower Decks Seasons 1-2. Further spoilers are present for the following Star Trek productions: The Original Series, The Next Generation Season 4, Discovery Season 1, and Picard Season 1.
Prior to the broadcast of Where Pleasant Fountains Lie, there was arguably more hype than for any other Lower Decks episode so far this season. The return of actor Jeffrey Combs to the Star Trek franchise – he’d previously played Shran in Enterprise and Weyoun in Deep Space Nine, among other characters – was something that the marketing team were keen to show off on social media, and with this episode having been teased earlier in the season, as its broadcast approached there was certainly a degree of hype.
Considering how a couple of previous returning actors’ roles landed – John de Lancie in Season 1’s Veritas and Robert Duncan McNeill in We’ll Always Have Tom Paris just a few weeks ago – I wasn’t really sure what to expect. But I was pleased to see that Combs’ character of Agimus – an evil computer – was handled well and played a significant role in the story.
I didn’t know that the one thing Lower Decks had been missing was a spotlight episode for chief engineer Andy Billups, but you know what? It worked far better than I would’ve expected. The rest of the senior staff – Captain Freeman, Commander Ransom, Dr T’Ana, and Shaxs – have had aspects of their characterisations and backgrounds explored gradually, with little tidbits dropped in previous episodes. Billups didn’t have much of that; the closest he’d gotten to a spotlight moment until this week was in Season 1’s Crisis Point, where he was part of Rutherford’s story.
Billups was certainly the least well-known of the senior staff, despite being Rutherford’s boss. Lower Decks just hasn’t spent as much time in engineering as it has in other areas of the ship, so he’d been a background presence at best for much of the show’s run to date. This week’s episode felt like Lower Decks was almost trying to make up for lost time by dropping Billups into a major plotline that not only gave him a starring role but that also explained much of his background.
One thing that I liked about this storyline is that it was a riff on the old maxim “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Billups, in his earlier appearances, seemed to be a bland, uninteresting human, probably from North America. He was dedicated to his work in engineering, and though he was on friendly terms with others on the senior staff, we never really saw him as a party animal or even having a close friendship. He seemed to be a pretty plain, uninteresting character – and we would’ve expected his background to match that persona.
Billups’ people – the Hysperians – are very far removed from that expectation! There was something about the Hysperians that reminded me very much of peoples Captain Kirk encountered during both The Original Series and The Animated Series; a throwback to Star Trek’s earlier days, where planetary societies based around ancient Rome or 1920s Chicago were commonplace. These kinds of stories and civilisations had faded from Star Trek by the time of The Next Generation, and it was a pleasant surprise to see Lower Decks bringing them back.
The aesthetic used for the Hysperians and their vessel was unique, too. Inspired by a “renaissance fair” – as the episode noted – there was something fun and whimsical about their appearance. On the surface, factions like the Hysperians may seem “less realistic” than others in Star Trek, but I’d actually argue the opposite. It seems perfectly reasonable to me to think that future groups of humans might settle colonies and establish societies based around mutual likes – it’s basically an extension of online communities where people share what they have in common.
The design of the Hysperian cruiser was neat, and both inside and out it reflected their “renaissance fair” society. The hallways being lined with huge portraits reminded me of more than one stately home that my parents dragged me to visit as a child, and I liked that the Hysperians re-named their ship’s systems to match their culture.
Billups’ storyline raised a very interesting question. Apparently, in addition to (or as part of) their medieval-fantasy culture, the Hysperians have a strange attitude toward sex and sexuality. Losing one’s virginity seems to be a big deal in their society – at least among the aristocracy. (Are all Hysperians aristocrats? Or are there peasants to go along with the knights and castles? An interesting aside!) So Billups had been avoiding losing his virginity as doing so would mean he would have to become king.
Given that Billups was incredibly reluctant to have sex – to the point that he had to be tricked into it – and that he seemed uncomfortable both before being taken to his quarters and immediately prior to getting into bed, I wonder if Billups might be asexual? Certainly this is one of the most overt references that the Star Trek franchise has ever made to asexuality, and although parts of it were – somewhat disappointingly – played as a joke, as someone who is asexual myself I find the whole thing particularly interesting.
Many asexual people – myself included – have had sex. This can be for a variety of reasons: societal pressure, the lack of education or awareness of asexuality, and the desire to appear “normal,” among many others. Because Billups seemed so genuinely uncomfortable at what would’ve been his first time, and that he’d made it to adulthood without ever losing his virginity, I’m wondering if we could make that inference. Billups chose to prioritise his work and his love of Starfleet over having sex, at any rate, so sex is clearly not a high priority for him.
We need more positive portrayals of asexual people in all forms of media – as well as portrayals of LGBT+ people in general. Though there were some issues with the way Billups’ role in the story was handled when viewed through that lens, such as how his apparent impotence was being played as a joke, I want to give Lower Decks credit for tackling this kind of story. Some folks might choose to attack the show for going down an overtly sexual route for part of this week’s story – particularly in light of the “adult content” controversy that blew up in the aftermath of Mugato, Gumato recently – but I’m honestly just pleased to see anything tangentially related to asexuality appear!
There is also a second dimension to this, and it’s one Star Trek has tackled recently. By attempting to trick Billups into sex, the queen and the other Hysperians were essentially forcing him into a sexual act that he couldn’t consent to. Billups also made it clear on several occasions that he categorically did not want to have sex. There’s a word for forcing someone into sex or tricking them into it under false pretences: rape.
Ash Tyler’s portrayal in Star Trek: Discovery, particularly in the latter part of Season 1, was a very powerful analogy for male victims of rape and sexual assault. Though the way Billups’ sexual encounter was handled in Lower Decks was very different, the premise is comparable. Star Trek has never shied away from tackling these tough topics, but Lower Decks didn’t really provide much closure in that regard. Rutherford’s timely arrival prevented Billups from being tricked into having sex, but there were no consequences for his mother and the Hysperians who tricked him. The whole thing was played very light-heartedly, and when we compare this to the powerful Ash Tyler storyline in Discovery it feels as thought it comes up short.
There was a distinct and out-of-place light-heartedness to the way the Hysperians and their queen were portrayed, both before and after their most recent attempt to trick Billups into a sexual encounter that he absolutely did not want to have. Lower Decks played some of this for laughs, and while humour is definitely something subjective, the jokes obscured some pretty dark and serious subject matter. Society as a whole needs to do better with helping and believing victims of sexual abuse and sexual assault, and male victims can be particularly invisible. Some male victims of sexual crimes have even reported being mocked and laughed at by law enforcement when they attempted to report what happened and seek help. Portrayals like this one don’t help the mindset that “men can’t be victims.”
Shelving that side of the story for now, we come to Rutherford. He played a role on this side of the story, but parts of it felt a little out-of-character. Though his conversation with Tendi at the beginning of the episode, in which he shared his reluctance to take on the assignment and work on a different ship, set up her devastation later on when she felt she’d pushed him to take an assignment that led to his death, the idea that Rutherford of all people wouldn’t jump at the chance to work on a fancy new starship engine for a change just didn’t seem to fit.
Rutherford’s death always felt like a fake-out, even though the episode put us through several minutes of seeing other characters reacting to his supposed death. The way Dr T’Ana informed Tendi was sweet, and I wish we could’ve seen more of the usually-grumpy doctor showing a softer, more sympathetic side for a change. Tendi of course reacted very strongly and with emotion – and the performance by Noël Wells was fantastic at that moment.
In light of Rutherford’s memory loss at the end of last season not really manifesting in a major way this season, and particularly after Shaxs came back from the dead in unexplained fashion, Rutherford was clearly not in any danger. I don’t even think that Lower Decks wanted to convince us as the audience that he was really dead, even though the characters went along with it at first. It wasn’t exactly a waste, as it set up the conclusion to the story quite well, but I’m not really sure what to make of it.
Rutherford being “dead” obviously hit Tendi the hardest. And even after he was shown to be alright, she was still very clearly affected by the experience. We might yet see some consequence of this in a future story; Tendi seemed very nervous and might try to interfere in a future story if she thinks it’ll help save Rutherford’s life. But that’s just speculation – it’s just as likely this whole thing will be forgotten as Lower Decks moves on to new stories in future.
Tendi and Rutherford spoke about getting him out of his comfort zone at the beginning of the episode. Though I stand by what I said earlier about Rutherford’s reluctance to work on a new ship being out-of-character, as a concept I liked what Tendi had to say. It can be important for everyone to push themselves and try something new. It can be something work-related, learning a new skill, or even visiting a different place for the first time. Though this wasn’t exactly the core of the story – and Tendi expressed regret when she thought Rutherford had been killed – the message itself is worth paying attention to for anyone who feels like they’re settled and haven’t tried anything new or different for a while. It’s very unlikely to end as explosively as it almost did for Rutherford!
On the other side of this week’s story were Boimler and Mariner, paired up once again for a mission aboard a shuttlecraft. After Agimus had been taken into Federation custody at the beginning of the episode, the duo were assigned to transport it (him?) to the Daystrom Institute for safekeeping. I liked that the Daystrom Institute was name-dropped here, as it has recently appeared in Star Trek: Picard. Dr Jurati was a scientist who worked there at the beginning of Season 1. The Daystrom Institute has appeared in other iterations of Star Trek as well, and was named for Dr Richard Daystrom, a computer scientist who appeared in The Original Series.
Jeffrey Combs has always played devious, villainous characters exceptionally well in Star Trek, and Agimus was no exception. Combs’ distinctive voice gave the evil computer a genuinely menacing quality, as each syllable dripped with malice and their attempts at manipulating Boimler and Mariner were obvious.
Agimus picks up another trope from The Original Series – computer-dominated societies. Lower Decks already brought back Landru at the end of Season 1, but there are other examples of this, such as Vaal and the Controller of Sigma Draconis VI. Again, this was a welcome step back to what felt like a story that could’ve been part of the franchise’s early days. Agimus is very much in line with the way other evil computers had been depicted – but elevated by Jeffrey Combs’ portrayal.
Though this side of the story teed up some Mariner-versus-Boimler tension, I was glad that the way that particular storyline ended showed Boimler in a positive light. Boimler has grown a lot since we first encountered him at the beginning of Season 1, and particularly after the lessons he’s learned this season about maintaining his close friendship with Mariner, if he had succumbed so easily to Agimus’ manipulations it wouldn’t have felt right.
But Boimler certainly had Mariner and Agimus fooled! I like seeing a more confident Boimler following his jaunt aboard the USS Titan. There must’ve been a temptation to reset the character after he returned to the Cerritos, but realistically an experience like that would have changed him. We see this change manifest in Boimler becoming more confident in his own abilities and more secure in his knowledge – even to the point that he surpasses Mariner in this particular story, figuring out a solution before she could and seeming to go along with Agimus only to gain access to the malignant computer’s battery.
It was a well-executed story, and one which didn’t come at the expense of Mariner. Though she was understandably unaware of what Boimler was doing, she wasn’t portrayed as being naïve or stupid in order to give Boimler his surprise ending. She underestimated him – believing him not to be ready for a different away mission. But we could also interpret her meddling as a desire to keep Boimler on the lower decks with her. Having lost him once, she isn’t prepared to lose him again. Whether she’s aware of that as she’s going behind his back isn’t clear – and I suspect that this side of their relationship will have to be explored again at some point. But this time, in the context of this story, it worked well.
Their shuttle crashing on a desert planet reminded me of The Next Generation fourth season episode Final Mission. In that story, Wesley Crusher and Captain Picard would similarly find themselves crash-landing on a desert world, and having to survive with a somewhat hostile companion. That episode would also mark Wesley’s departure as a permanent cast member (though he did return to The Next Generation for a couple of other stories). Whether intentional or not, it was neat to feel that Lower Decks was channelling that episode at points.
Agimus made for a difficult adversary for Boimler and Mariner to overcome, especially considering the crash severely damaged their shuttle. The stakes were raised higher by the damaged replicator and the loss of their emergency rations to an alien monster. It seems to have been around this point that Boimler formulated his plan! The joke about the replicator only being able to serve up black liquorice was also funny – as was the plant that also tasted of liquorice. I guess it must be an acquired taste – though I’ve always liked liquorice personally.
Mariner and Boimler’s trek across an unforgiving landscape also presented a comparison to their first away mission together in the second episode of Season 1: Envoys. That story saw Boimler at his most anxious and out-of-place; the contrast with the confident way he executed his plan this time around could not be more stark. The fact that both episodes saw an away mission aboard a shuttle go awry is interesting – Lower Decks is almost being poetic!
After their rescue, Boimler and Mariner returned to the Cerritos aboard a shuttle crewed by officers in the black-and-grey uniform style that Boimler wore aboard the USS Titan. Presumably these officers were from another ship, but it was interesting that they weren’t just picked up by the crew of the Cerritos. It was funny to see Agimus in their “prison” – surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds, of near-identical evil computers. Apparently out-of-control AI is a huge problem for the Star Trek galaxy… no wonder the Romulans in Star Trek: Picard were so concerned!
This week’s episode had two stories that both felt well-paced. Neither story felt rushed, and the number of characters present felt about right. Though the two stories went in completely different directions – literally and metaphorically speaking – both harkened back to The Original Series in ways that were very clever. It’s been a while since Star Trek produced an episode that felt so connected to the planets, peoples, and storylines of its first iteration, so that was fantastic.
Though there were some issues with the way Billups’ story was handled, I maintain that he could be asexual. At the very least there was an interesting asexuality-adjacent storyline this week, and it’s the first time that I can recall that Star Trek has come so close to touching on this subject. It wasn’t perfect, for the reasons I laid out above, but it was something – and there’s power in almost any form of positive representation, even when things aren’t perfect. If you’re interested to read my story about coming to terms with being asexual, you can find it by clicking or tapping here.
Mariner and Boimler had an exciting story too, and Jeffrey Combs put in a wonderful performance as the antagonistic Agimus. It was great to welcome him back to Star Trek – and to see solid evidence of Boimler’s growth as a character.
Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 2 is available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States, and on Amazon Prime Video in the UK and around the world. The Star Trek franchise – including Lower Decks and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.