Lower Decks exemplifies the appeal of Star Trek’s out-of-format episode

This discussion on the value of outsize star trek contains spoilers for Star Trek: Lower Decks season 3, episode 7, “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption.” There is also a together a lot of Traveler talk.

This week, Star Trek: Lower Decks came out out of format. “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” eschewed the show’s usual structure, episodic adventures focusing on the lives of four junior staff members on the USS Cerritos: Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid), D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells) and Samanthan Rutherford (Eugene Cordero). Instead, it told the story of a lost exocomp, Peanut Hamper (Kether Donohue), following the events of the Season 1 episode “No Small Parts”.

“A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” offered a “previously on…” introduction that enlivened the events of “No Small Parts” from Peanut Hamper’s never-before-seen perspective. It lacked the traditional opening credits, instead offering a mournful rendition of Chris Westlake’s score, playing to shots of Peanut Hamper adrift in an interstellar debris field. The Cerritos doesn’t even show up until the last act of the episode, with most of the episode following the adventures of Peanut Hamper.

It’s breathtaking, but it’s not unprecedented. “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” is a reminder of the fun star trek perhaps when the franchise allows itself to take advantage of the vast fictional universe in which it is set. Lower decks is particularly adept at this type of storytelling, with each 10-episode season featuring at least one experimental adventure that breaks the show’s usual format and established language of star trek television.

“Crisis Point” was the first such example, a story largely set in the holodeck that served as an affectionate parody of the excesses of the star trek feature films, highlighting the oft-discussed differences between the franchise as it appears on television and in cinemas. With lens flares, aspect ratio changes and other instances of “cinematic” language, “Crisis Point” marked the first time that Lower decks really seemed to be testing the limits of its own format and potential.

The following season, “wej Duj” pushes further. It is remarkable that the first star trek episode to be titled outside of the Latin alphabet, translating from Klingon as “Three Ships”. The episode divided its attention between junior staff members on three different ships: the Federation ship Cerritosthe klingon bird of prey Che’Ta’and the Vulcan Cruiser Sh’Vahl. Inevitably, the three different stories told, featuring three different sets, turned out to be part of a larger whole.

“A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” seems built on the success and acclaim of “Crisis Point” and “wej Duj,” leaning more into off-format storytelling. For example, the episode’s decision to avoid the opening title sequence recalls showrunner Mike McMahan’s original plans to alter the opening titles of “wej Duj” to alternate English, Vulcan, and Klingon credits. It’s good. It’s good to see a star trek show becoming more experimental, instead of more conservative.

One of the big problems with modern franchise media is the reluctance to try new things, take advantage of embedded audiences and massive budgets to make interesting choices that enrich the stories being told. When Boba Fett’s Book decided to do two “out of format” episodes, “Return of the Mandalorian” and “From the Desert Comes a Stranger”, they were just episodes of The Mandalorianan already existing TV show, rather than something really interesting.

More than that, “Crisis Point,” “wej Duj,” and “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” demonstrate the potential of episodic storytelling. Very few streaming shows understand the basic structure of TV episodes, to the point that She-Hulk seemed to uncover the A-plot/B-plot structure of real-time sitcom storytelling in “The People vs. Emil Blonsky” and “Is This Not Real Magic?” — not to mention streaming shows that seem to cut their content into arbitrary 40-minute blocks.

The Call of the Star Trek Oversized Episode - Lower Decks 307 A Mathematically Perfect Basket of Redemption Peanuts

The TV episode is an art form in itself, and critic Alan Sepinwall has rightly (and repeatedly) expressed concern about how this art form has been neglected in the age of streaming. . Indeed, some viewers seem wary of the episode as a unit of storytelling, throwing in terms like “filler” to describe anything remotely self-contained. These concerns have some legitimacy, especially for audiences who have grown up with star trek storytelling at the turn of the millennium.

There are over 800 episodes of star trek. It’s easy for the franchise to fall into repeat patterns unless the creative teams are willing to push themselves. This was especially evident with later Berman-era shows. Whereas Deep Space Nine pushed towards a more adventurous and insightful storytelling, Traveler was largely content to indulge in nostalgia and recycle familiar storylines and beats from The next generation.

Traveler was aesthetically conservative. As the television landscape changed around her, Traveler stubbornly refused to update his narration. In hindsight, “The Voyager Conspiracy” feels like a rejection of the very idea of ​​continuity and long-form serialization, while the therapeutic framing device in “Pathfinder” makes the show seem like it’s poking fun at dynamics. central which led The Sopranos. Episodes of Traveler often felt like rehashes of better The next generation episodes.

That said, it should be recognized that Traveler could sometimes produce brilliant television episodes. This happened about once a season, usually when Traveler was ready to break its established format and structure. It’s no small irony that many of the best episodes of Traveler were the ones who sidelined the show’s main cast. Traveler was at his best when he was ready to step out of the rather lackluster comfort zone he had built for himself.

The Lure of Star Trek's Out-of-Format Episode - Lower Decks wej Duj

“Distant Origin” was an episode built around two guest characters, Professor Gegen (Henry Woronicz) and his assistant Veer (Christopher Liam Moore), chasing the ship through the Delta Quadrant as evidence for the radical theory of evolution of Gegen. “Living Witness” is set centuries after the events of the show, with a backup copy of the EMH (Robert Picardo) confronting the confusing historical record of Voyager’s encounter with the Vaskans and Kyrians.

“Race: Oblivion” was built around a brilliant twist. It initially appears that the ship and its crew have been afflicted with a mysterious illness, only for a late episode that reveals audiences aren’t watching the real crew at all. Instead, they’re looking at the perfect duplicates that were created (and quickly forgotten) at the end of the previous season’s “Demon.” “Timeless” finds future versions of Chakotay (Robert Beltran) and Kim (Garrett Wang) trying to erase their own timeline.

These stories were the exception rather than the rule. The creative team on Traveler often had to tone down their lofty conceptual arguments. Brannon Braga originally conceived “Future’s End” and “Year of Hell” as longer arcs, but had to limit those stories to two-part adventures. Michael Taylor originally launched “Once Upon a Time” as a story told exclusively from the perspective of Naomi Wildman (Scarlett Pomers), but the finished episode was much more conventional.

In this direction, Lower decks builds on some of the best aspects of Traveler. It’s possible to draw a straight line between something like the stylized black-and-white holodeck return from “Bride of Chaotica!” and the high-concept aspect-ratio change premise of “Crisis Point”. Part of what makes Lower decks distinct from others star trek shows like Discovery and picard is the fact that its storytelling is episodic, so it’s good to see the show using that pattern to try new things.

Crisis point ST LD

Indeed, there’s a strong argument to be made that “Crisis Point”, “wej Duj”, and “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” are the most experimental. star trek for years, since the strange stand-alone romance of “Calypso” or the Discovery premiered “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars,” where the show set up a standstill that felt like another cover of The next generation only to have him literally blown to shreds to try something more compelling.

Lower decks always put something like Strange new worlds to shame as the standard-bearer of “traditional” star trek narration. Strange new worlds is oddly inert and unambitious in its storytelling, with episodes like “Children of the Comet” offering boring reheats of earlier episodes like “Fight or Flight.” Strange new worlds is so dedicated to recreating the letter of star trek that the spirit is missing. It’s lifeless and empty star trek karaoke.

In contrast, the format-bending episodes of Lower decks do it star trek the universe seems bigger and much more interesting. Part of the call of star trek is that it exists in a vast fictional universe that feels rich and expanded, so there’s room for all kinds of stories from all kinds of perspectives. There are new angles on familiar stories just waiting to be explored. There are new ways to tell these stories.

On The next generation, writers like Ronald D. Moore complained about how their storytelling methods were limited by the constraints of broadcast television. Those constraints don’t exist in the age of streaming, so it’s odd that these franchises feel more narratively conservative than ever. There is some value in the Vulcan philosophy of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations”. At its best, in episodes like “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption”, Lower decks celebrate that.

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