This discussion and review contains spoilers for Star Trek: Lower Decks season 3, episode 7, “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption.”
If both “Reflections” and “Hear All, Trust Nothing” found Lower Decks working in a register that didn’t play to the show’s strengths, then “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” offers a welcome counterbalance. “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” is the kind of story that only Lower Decks could produce — a narratively and structurally ambitious piece of television that takes advantage of the flexibility of both animation as a medium and half-hour episodic television as a form.
Lower Decks is generally at its best when it is willing to depart from its standard format. “Crisis Point” and “wej Duj” were among the standout episodes from the first two seasons, breaking from the structural conventions of the half-hour workplace sitcom to try something novel. In some ways, this is similar to Voyager, which also worked best when it was willing to push the franchise’s storytelling rules in episodes like “Distant Origin,” “Living Witness,” or “Course: Oblivion.”
Like those Voyager episodes, “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” is notable for barely featuring the show’s primary cast. Barring the recap that opens the episode, the Cerritos only reappears towards the end of the story. Instead, “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” is built entirely around the returning guest character of Peanut Hamper (Kether Donohue), picking up just moments after the character abandons her shipmates to (seeming) certain death in “No Small Parts.”
This is a remarkable gambit on a number of levels. Most obviously, Peanut Hamper only appeared in a single earlier episode, so she is relatively untested. She hasn’t grown and developed like Deep Space Nine supporting players like Martok (J.G. Hertzler) or Damar (Casey Biggs). More than that, Peanut Hamper is a complete sociopath, and so building an episode of Star Trek around such a character is a bold choice. Also, Peanut Hamper is an exocomp. She’s effectively a flying box.
Lower Decks is animated in the famous (and controversial) “CalArts” style. It is an approach that favors simplicity over detail. However, the humanoid characters in Lower Decks are still expressive. It is possible to look at the facial expressions of characters like Mariner (Tawny Newsome) and Boimler (Jack Quaid) and understand what they are feeling. Peanut Hamper doesn’t have the same traditional modes of expression, so animating her as a central character is tougher.
It speaks to the confidence of the Lower Decks production team that none of these risks dissuaded them from building the season’s seventh episode around Peanut Hamper. Indeed, Peanut Hamper was the subject of one of the season’s first teaser posters, and creator Mike McMahan proudly announced the return of “the nefarious exocomp” at Comic-Con. Lower Decks knows that it has something special here and leans into it.
To put it simply, these are the sorts of risks that Star Trek should be taking on a more regular basis. Of the franchise’s 800-odd episodes, there really aren’t any that are directly comparable to “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption.” The last time a piece of Star Trek felt this formally experimental was the high-concept Short Treks episode “Calypso,” nearly four years ago. Before that, it was probably the subversive false pilot two-parter “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars.”
This is the kind of creative gambit that would have been impossible while The Next Generation was in syndication or while Voyager was on UPN. It’s the kind of episode that could only really work with the creative freedom that comes from streaming. In some ways, it feels similar to the bonus (partly) animated episode of The Sandman — a creative choice that demonstrates the sort of flexibility that should be standard in an era where content is no longer constrained by broadcast expectations.
From its opening scenes, “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” establishes itself as something unusual. Peanut Hamper introduces the “Previously On,” framing the episode through her subjective viewpoint. Even the recap follows Peanut Hamper, playing out “No Small Parts” as she experienced it, to the point of reanimating the action climax. “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” eschews the traditional opening credits, offering a slower and mournful variation on Chris Westlake’s theme.
“A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” is refreshingly willing to let Peanut Hamper be completely and irredeemably unlikable. Her (re-)establishing character moment arrives early in the episode. It is when she promises her imaginary friend “Sophie,” whom she has fashioned from floating debris, that the two of them are in it together — only to ditch Sophie at the first opportunity. It’s an effective signpost of Peanut Hamper’s journey through the rest of the episode.
To be fair, the plot of “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” is a familiar Star Trek cliché. Like a lot of Lower Decks episodes, it seems heavily inspired by the seventh season of The Next Generation. Specifically, Peanut Hamper’s journey echoes that of Data (Brent Spiner) in “Thine Own Self,” right down to Kaltorus’ (James Sie) boast about wanting to “show off (the) well.” Like Data, Peanut Hamper is a damaged artificial lifeform taken in by a primitive culture who subsequently becomes part of it.
Part of the subversive thrill of “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” is in replacing Data’s doe-eyed innocence with Peanut Hamper’s ruthless cynicism. Of course, there have been plenty of evil artificial lifeforms in Star Trek. “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” even features a cameo from AGIMUS (Jeffrey Combs) from “Where Pleasant Fountains Lie.” However, there has never been an episode that puts such a character in Data’s shoes. It’s a clever premise.
However, “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” is more than just a clever premise. The episode’s animation of Peanut Hamper makes the character feel surprisingly expressive and dynamic. As with the story’s aviation-themed setting, “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” demonstrates the advantages of animation over live action. It is difficult to imagine how “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” could work with a physical exocomp, like the ones in “The Quality of Life.”
The episode is buoyed by a strong central performance from Donohue as the “prissy little robot,” balancing Peanut Hamper’s frankly horrifying selfishness with enough nuance that her ruse is at least plausible. It helps that the cast is working from a strong script by Ann Kim, who was also responsible for the second season standout episode “I, Excretus.” Even if “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” weren’t formally ambitious, it would be a well-made episode.
On top of all of this, “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” is a surprisingly relevant episode. Lower Decks is quietly the most reliable modern Star Trek show when it comes to social commentary, using the franchise’s science fiction framework to play with big ideas about the modern world. The best part of “Hear All, Trust Nothing” was watching Tendi (Noël Wells) navigate timely issues around the idea of cultural identity as public performance.
As its title implies, “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” is an episode about the question of forgiveness. Obviously, this is a loaded topic in the modern age, where there have been a number of very public and high-profile reckonings around professional and cultural misconduct. As controversial and disgraced figures work their way back into public life following horrific behavior, it is only natural to explore the question of rehabilitation and reconciliation.
That issue is percolating through popular culture. Better Call Saul built its final episodes around the question of whether Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) and Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) could be redeemed. At its core, “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” is the story of a malignant narcissist who is seeking to launder their reputation by stage-managing a public rehabilitation. It’s essentially a clever and cynical Star Trek take on the modern phenomenon of the celebrity apology.
It would be easy for “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” to offer a shallow redemption narrative, with, for example, Peanut Hamper sacrificing herself (or trying to) and being immediately forgiven. The episode teases this. Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) is ready to welcome Peanut Hamper back, until the Drookmani Captain (Hertzler) reveals an audio recording of Peanut Hamper’s betrayal. There’s something almost optimistic in the fact that this audio record is enough to undo Peanut Hamper.
The result is one of the finest Star Trek episodes since the franchise came back. It’s a bold and formally ambitious piece of television, but it’s also just a well-written story that has something interesting to say about the world around it. It’s refreshing to see Lower Decks prove that Star Trek can still boldly go.