Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Lower Decks Seasons 1-3.
After a somewhat disappointing season premiere last week, The Least Dangerous Game was an improvement – but it still wasn’t a particularly spectacular episode. Lower Decks’ third season hasn’t yet managed to hit the highs that we know the series can reach, and I think the best thing that I can say about this week’s offering is that it was mostly inoffensive. There were no glaring faults that dragged it down in the way that Grounded’s non sequitur ending did last time, but there was nothing that really elevated the story, either. Even an appearance by J.G. Hertzler as a simulated General Martok didn’t do much for what was a fairly bland and uninspired outing for the Lower Decks ensigns.
After the incredible Season 2 finale and last week’s premiere both followed a single story that brought all of the ensigns together, The Least Dangerous Game returned to the A, B, and C-plot structure that split up the main and secondary characters into groups. Pairing Mariner with Commander Ransom was something that Lower Decks hadn’t done to any great extent since Season 1’s Temporal Edict, and this time the addition of Ransom having final say over Mariner’s continued service in Starfleet added an extra dimension.
I’m glad that Lower Decks didn’t drop that angle after it was introduced in the somewhat rushed conclusion to last week’s outing. With Mariner’s parents being a captain and an admiral, there’s been a bit of a question-mark over how her misbehaviour and occasional insubordination gets excused, so assigning her to Ransom’s jurisdiction feels like a way to both circumvent that issue and also potentially shake up the way Mariner has to act, at least when on duty.
As an aside, I promised as far back as Season 1 in 2020 that I’d take a look at how Starfleet seems to fall victim to nepotism and favouritism on occasion, and Ensign Mariner is hardly the first example! We have characters like Wesley Crusher on the Enterprise-D and Nog (at least to an extent) on Deep Space Nine who made full use of their relationships with senior officers as examples of this phenomenon. This is absolutely ripe for a deeper dive (and I’ve had a piece in my writing pile tentatively titled Nepotism and favouritism within Starfleet for the better part of two years now) so we won’t get into too much of it here. But suffice to say that I like the idea that Captain Freeman and Admiral… Mariner(?) seem to recognise that they have a soft spot for their daughter and can’t remain objective. When we think about how some past Starfleet captains went out on a limb to back up their favourites (even when they were in the wrong), this is something new and different.
On the surface, Mariner and Ransom shouldn’t be at loggerheads. Both can be laid-back, and you’d think that Ransom’s less formal attitude would sit well with Mariner – and that he might be inclined to cut her some slack. But there’s a definite personality clash, and Tawny Newsome and Jerry O’Connell really sell it through their performances.
As is sometimes the case with Lower Decks, we have to try to set aside some of the nitpicking. It doesn’t make a lot of sense that an away team wouldn’t assign the engineering task – repairing the orbital lift – to its two engineers, nor that Ransom would be able to get away with essentially jeopardising a mission simply to push Mariner’s buttons. And jeopardise the mission he did – not only in terms of repairs to the elevator but also in terms of the Federation’s relationship with the planet of Dulaine. In this case, the normal structure of a mission like this took a back seat to story concerns, and in a less-serious series like Lower Decks I can forgive it. I would caveat that, though, by saying that the story for which the basic operating procedures of Starfleet were sacrificed was pretty mediocre.
After Lower Decks took Mariner on a two-season-long journey from being a bratty, angsty “teenager” through to being a more complex character with an evolving and improving relationship with both her mother and Starfleet, there was a bit of a question-mark over what would come next. For my money, I’d have liked to have seen a continuation of Mariner’s progress, coming to terms with her role in Starfleet and perhaps coming to realise that, if she wants to be able to make her own decisions without consulting others, she needs to climb the ranks. Last week’s episode trotted out a “trust the system” story, and that could play well. But this week, with Mariner getting frustrated with Ransom, I felt perhaps the first steps toward a regression that could undo some or all of her progress.
As the story concluded, Mariner worked hard to undo her act of rebellion or insubordination, seeming to realise that it would jeopardise her continued service in Starfleet as Ransom would surely have been given the excuse he needed to discipline her. But the fact that she ended up in that situation in the first place could be indicative of that kind of regression, and while there’s blame to go around – in the sense that it was Ransom who was manipulating the mission to be as annoying to Mariner as possible – that doesn’t excuse her reaction. I guess this cuts to a deeper issue with Mariner’s characterisation, and how the whole “loose cannon” character type doesn’t really fit within an organisation like Starfleet. Regardless, I hope the next episode can begin to put this aspect of Mariner to one side. Lower Decks isn’t at its best when putting Mariner into storylines like this one – and it’s something we’ve seen on multiple occasions already, so it isn’t even new or innovative at this point in the show’s run.
Boimler’s storyline this week was something and nothing. The design of K’ranch was interesting, perhaps one of the most visually distinctive aliens that Lower Decks has created so far, and I liked that. His passion for the hunt was also reminiscent of both Klingons and Voyager’s Hirogen, which was a neat inclusion. But I just never felt that there was any real sense of danger once the hunt had been agreed to and got underway; there just weren’t any stakes. Without feeling that Boimler was genuinely being hunted “to the death,” this whole chapter of the story just felt incredibly flat.
Taking a step back, I like the idea that Lower Decks may be trying to give some of its main characters something different this season. Mariner has to keep herself in check because of being watched over by Ransom (though she didn’t succeed this week), and now Boimler, at least in this episode, is trying to be bolder, more outgoing, and more adventurous. Spurred on by the news that Vendome (a character we met briefly in Season 1) had been promoted to captain, Boimler vowed to say “yes” to everything that came his way – something that I feel was lifted from the plot of some ’80s comedy film… but I can’t remember which one!
Because Lower Decks is so episodic, it isn’t clear if “bold Boimler” will stick around, but even if not it was at least an interesting concept to try out, and one that could return in later seasons if deemed a success. As I said, I didn’t feel that the hunt that Boimler got involved with was a particularly strong story in and of itself, but the concept underpinning it feels like it has potential. To see Boimler stepping out of his comfort zone and having new experiences is no bad thing for a series that’s racing towards its thirtieth episode.
Tendi and Rutherford drew short straws this week, and neither made a huge impact on the story. It was nice to see all four ensigns together playing their Klingon game – a game based on a real-world video board game from the 1990s – but after that, Tendi and Rutherford didn’t have very much to do. Not every episode can give equal screen time to every character, though, and I’m sure both of them will have turns in the spotlight before Season 3 is over.
One final point that made me a little uncomfortable was the presentation of Chief Engineer Billups. Season 2’s Where Pleasant Fountains Lie gave Billups a really interesting story – one that felt like a Star Trek analogy for asexuality. Billups was incredibly uncomfortable at the idea of sex and sexuality – perhaps being “sex-repulsed” – and this was a big part of his arc in that story. As I wrote afterwards, Where Pleasant Fountains Lie was one of the best and most understandable depictions of what it’s like to be asexual that I’ve ever seen on the small screen.
However, in The Least Dangerous Game we seemed to see Billups a lot more comfortable with scantily-clad aliens on a kind of “pleasure planet,” and while he ended up getting into difficulty as the mission went off the rails, I would have liked to have seen more from him about his lack of interest in sex and lack of sexual desire. He seemed, at one point, to be very happily enjoying what the planet had to offer, and I guess it just feels like a pretty big difference when compared to where he was in Season 2.
This matters to me because, as someone who is asexual, Billups’ story in Where Pleasant Fountains Lie was actually a big deal. It was a first not only for Star Trek, but one of the very few stories in the world of entertainment at all that felt like a reference to asexuality. Trying to move Billups away from that presentation, especially for the sake of a minor role in an otherwise forgettable episode, is just a bit of a disappointment. While I don’t expect Lower Decks to make a big deal of Billups’ potential asexuality again, I definitely don’t want the series to start undermining that story – and it felt to me that it happened – albeit in a small way – this week.
All in all, I didn’t hate anything about The Least Dangerous Game. But neither of its main storylines were particularly strong, and where there should have been some sense of danger or some degree of high stakes for Boimler, the story setup didn’t really allow for that. It certainly isn’t Lower Decks’ worst-ever episode, but The Least Dangerous Game just feels bland and generic. Nothing consequential really happened, and where there could have been major disruptive events, at least for two of the ensigns, the end of the story seems to have basically reset everything back to normal. Mariner got away with abandoning her post, and Boimler easily survived his “hunt” with K’ranch.
And finally, the short sequences featuring Billups, as mentioned, made me a little uncomfortable when considering his Season 2 presentation and how powerfully that resonated with me. All of these things came together to make The Least Dangerous Game a bit of an underwhelming episode.
But I’m hopeful that Lower Decks will pick up as Season 3 gets going! There are still eight episodes left to shake things up, and I’m always going to go into every new Star Trek episode hoping to have a good time. Although I’ve found some criticisms of Lower Decks Season 3 so far, I genuinely enjoy the series and what it’s brought to the table. Some of the points of criticism have arisen in light of the successes of past episodes; I just don’t feel that Lower Decks has hit those same high notes yet this season.
My writing schedule is all over the place at the moment, so unlike in Seasons 1 and 2 I may not get these reviews out in a timely fashion. That can’t be helped, unfortunately, and I hope you’ll bear with me. I still intend to review each episode this season, but some of the reviews may be later than usual.
Star Trek: Lower Decks Seasons 1-3 are available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States and on Amazon Prime Video in the United Kingdom and around the world. The Star Trek franchise – including Lower Decks and all other properties discussed above – is the copyright of Paramount Global. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.