This discussion of the value of off-format Star Trek contains spoilers for Star Trek: Lower Decks season 3, episode 7, “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption.” There’s also a whole lot of Voyager talk.
This week, Star Trek: Lower Decks went off-format. “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” eschewed the usual structure of the show, episodic adventures focused 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 season 1 episode “No Small Parts.”
“A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” offered a “previously on…” introduction that animated events of “No Small Parts” from Peanut Hamper’s previously unseen perspective. It didn’t feature the traditional opening credits, instead offering a mournful rendition of Chris Westlake’s score, playing over shots of Peanut Hamper adrift in a field of interstellar debris. The Cerritos doesn’t even show up until the episode’s final act, with most of the episode following Peanut Hamper’s adventures.
This is stunning, but it is not unprecedented. “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” is a reminder of just how much fun Star Trek can be 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 sort of storytelling, with each 10-episode season featuring at least one experimental adventure that breaks the usual format of the show and the established language of Star Trek television.
“Crisis Point” was the first such example, a story set largely in the holodeck that served as an affectionate parody of the excesses of the Star Trek feature films, underscoring the oft-discussed differences between the franchise as it appears on television and in cinemas. Featuring lens flare, aspect ratio shifts, and other examples of “cinematic” language, “Crisis Point” marked the first time that Lower Decks seemed to really test the limits of its own format and potential.
The following season, “wej Duj” pushed further. It is notable as the first Star Trek episode to be titled outside the Latin alphabet, translating from Klingon as “Three Ships.” The episode split its attention across junior staff members on three different ships: the Federation Starship Cerritos, the Klingon Bird of Prey Che’Ta’, and the Vulcan Cruiser Sh’Vahl. Inevitably, the three different stories being told, featuring three different ensembles, turned out to be parts of a larger whole.
“A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” seems built on the success and acclaim of both “Crisis Point” and “wej Duj,” leaning further into off-format storytelling. For example, the episode’s decision to eschew the opening title sequence recalls showrunner Mike McMahan’s initial plans to alter the opening titles for “wej Duj” to alternate the credits in English, Vulcan, and Klingon. This is great. 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 a reluctance to try new things, to take advantage of the built-in audiences and massive budgets to make interesting choices that enrich the stories being told. When The Book of Boba Fett decided to make two “off-format” episodes, “Return of the Mandalorian” and “From the Desert Comes a Stranger,” they were just episodes of The Mandalorian, an already existing television show, rather than anything actually 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 television episodes, to the point that She-Hulk seemed to discover the A-plot / B-plot structure of sitcom storytelling in real time in “The People vs. Emil Blonsky” and “Is This Not Real Magic?” — to say nothing of the streaming shows that seem to chunk their content into arbitrary 40-minute blocks.
The television episode is an artform unto itself, and critic Alan Sepinwall has rightly (and repeatedly) expressed concern about how that artform has been neglected in the streaming age. Indeed, some viewers seem wary of the episode as a storytelling unit, throwing around terms like “filler” to describe anything remotely self-contained. These concerns have some legitimacy, particularly for audiences who grew up with episodic Star Trek storytelling at the turn of the millennium.
There are over 800 episodes of Star Trek. It is easy for the franchise to fall into patterns of repetition, unless the creative teams are willing to push themselves. This was particularly obvious with the later shows during the Berman era. While Deep Space Nine pushed itself towards more adventurous and insightful storytelling, Voyager was largely content to indulge in nostalgia and recycle familiar plots and beats from The Next Generation.
Voyager was aesthetically conservative. As the television landscape changed around it, Voyager stubbornly refused to update its storytelling. With the benefit of hindsight, “The Voyager Conspiracy” feels like a dismissal of the very idea of long-form continuity and serialization, while the therapy framing device in “Pathfinder” feels like the show mocking the central dynamic that drove The Sopranos. Episodes of Voyager often felt like rehashes of better Next Generation episodes.
That said, it is worth acknowledging that Voyager could occasionally produce brilliant episodes of television. This happened roughly once per season, usually when Voyager was willing to break its established format and structure. It is no small irony that many of the best episodes of Voyager were those that marginalized the show’s primary cast. Voyager was at its best when it was willing to step outside of the rather dull comfort zone that it built for itself.
“Distant Origin” was an episode built around two guest characters, Professor Gegen (Henry Woronicz) and his assistant Veer (Christopher Liam Moore), chasing the ship across the Delta Quadrant as proof of Gegen’s radical theory of evolution. “Living Witness” was set centuries after the events of the show, with a backup copy of the EMH (Robert Picardo) confronted with the muddled historical record of Voyager’s encounter with the Vaskans and the Kyrians.
“Course: Oblivion” was built around a brilliant twist. It initially appears that the ship and its crew have been afflicted by a mysterious illness, only for a late-episode reveal that the audience isn’t watching the real crew at all. Instead, they are watching the perfect duplicates that were created (and quickly forgotten) at the end of “Demon” in the previous season. “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 Voyager often had to tone down their high-concept pitches. Brannon Braga originally conceived of “Future’s End” and “Year of Hell” as longer arcs but had to confine those stories to two-part adventures. Michael Taylor initially pitched “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 sense, Lower Decks is building on some of the best aspects of Voyager. It’s possible to draw a straight line between something like the stylized black-and-white holodeck throwback of “Bride of Chaotica!” and the high-concept aspect ratio-shifting premise of “Crisis Point.” Part of what makes Lower Decks distinct from other modern 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 template to try new things.
Indeed, there is a solid argument to be made that “Crisis Point,” “wej Duj,” and “A Mathematically Perfect Redemption” are the most experimental Star Trek has been in years, since the weird standalone romance in “Calypso” or the Discovery premiere “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars,” where the show set up a status quo that looked like another reheat of The Next Generation only to literally blow it to shreds to try something more compelling.
Lower Decks consistently puts something like Strange New Worlds to shame as the standard-bearer of “traditional” Star Trek storytelling. Strange New Worlds is curiously 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 it misses the spirit. It is lifeless and empty Star Trek karaoke.
In contrast, the format-bending episodes of Lower Decks make the Star Trek universe appear bigger and much more interesting. Part of the appeal of Star Trek is that it exists in a vast fictional universe that feels rich and developed, so there is room for all types of narratives from all types of perspectives. There are fresh angles on familiar stories just waiting to be explored. There are new ways of telling these tales.
On The Next Generation, writers like Ronald D. Moore complained about how their storytelling methods were restricted by the constraints of broadcast television. Those constraints do not exist in the era of streaming, so it’s strange 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 celebrates that.