ssThe Cerritos crew faces tough tests in “I, Excretus.”
Lower Decks creator Mike McMahan calls the entire series a “love letter to Star Trek.” No single episode proves his point more than season 2, episode 8, “I, Excretus.”
Shari Yn Yem is a Starfleet drill instructor who arrives to put the Cerritos crew through a series of simluations. The “lower deckers” will face situations the bridge crew would normally face, and vice versa, because there’s “no better way to evaluate a crew’s readiness than from the bottom up.”
As Mariner, Tendi, and Rutherford are facing scenarios drawn from some of Trek’s more memorable episodes and movies, Captain Freeman and other senior officers are left waiting around for orders and carrying out menial duties. (One of this episode’s best moments is Shaxs complaining about the hexagonal storage containers of TNG-era Trek: “If they wanted us to stack these, then why are they shaped like this?”)
Everyone fails their tests except Boimler. He is in a “Borg Encounter” scenario. He easily escapes—but when he’s dissatisfied with his passing grade, he repeats the simulation multiple times in search of a perfect score. He ultimately achieves one—“I beat the Borg Queen in chess and I taught her empathy”—but that’s not the end of the story.
It turns out Yem’s tests were not about building teamwork and empathy, even though they had that effect on the crew. Yem rigged all the tests so she wouldn’t lose her job. She needed to find a crew who failed, in order to prove her tests had value. Realizing their scores won’t be final until Boimler exits his simulation, Mariner and Freeman order him to stay put. Boimler does, and his perfect score starts to plummet as the simulated Borg assimilate him, turning him into the titular “Excretus.”
But Boimler’s sacrifice of his score gives the Cerritos crew—senior officers and lower deckers united—time to take the ship straight into the path of a crystalline entity. Freeman threatens to keep taking the ship into dangerous situations Yem has never faced, and doesn’t want to, unless she changes the crew’s scores. Yem does, and Boimler finally exits his simulation—now the only crew member to have “failed.” But the Cerritos crew has escaped reassignment, and their mutual better understanding of and appreciation for each other remains.
“I, Excretus” delivers deep dives into Trek details and Trek teamwork
Each of the drills the characters in “I, Excretus” face pay doting and detailed homage to previous Star Trek adventures. For example, Mariner’s Old West scenario is lifted directly from TOS’ “Spectre of the Gun,” with that episode’s bright red soundstage background and everything. While the “Naked Time” scenario doesn’t exactly play out as TOS’ “The Naked Time” did—Shaxs’ excited holler of “It’s naked time!” is hysterical—we do see the same hastily painted graffiti on the corridor walls as we did on the Enterprise. And Tendi’s “Medical Ethics” test is an amusing riff on TNG’s “Ethics,” culminating with other medical officers, wearing the 24th century’s distinctive red surgical garb, “calling it” when it becomes clear the paralyzed Klingon is going to live.
Boimler’s repeated attempts to get a perfect score in his “Borg Encounter” are fabulous. I especially appreciated how series composer Chris Westlake scores each of Boimler’s earliest attempts with pitch-perfect homages to the more pulse-pounding cues from Ron Jones’s score for TNG’s “The Best of Both Worlds.”
Even the end of “I, Excretus” manages to be a Trek callback twofer. Shaxs makes the kind of corny joke that ended many a TOS episode, as everyone stood laughing around Kirk’s chair, but Boimler lets us know all is not well after his simulated assimilation—”They took everything that I was!”—just as all was not well for Picard after his actual one.
But the deepest and most loving dive “I, Excretus” takes is into an episode of The Animated Series. Yem is not only a Pandronian, like Ari bn Bem in “Bem.” She’s also the exact inverse of the animated series’ character. Like Yem aboard the Cerritos, Bem is aboard the Enterprise as an observer. While he doesn’t put Kirk and crew through tests, he is initially critical of them, as Yem is when she derides the Cerritos crew after they’ve (mostly) failed her drills. But where Yem is only interested in saving her job and doesn’t appear to learn anything from her time on the Cerritos, Bem comes to realize he, like the crew of the Enterprise, is an “eggling” who has more growing to do.
“I, Excretus” is a first-rate Lower Decks episode. It’s fun from start to finish, contains plenty of Easter eggs to keep fans busy for several viewings, and even manages to state, in a winsome way, a message about individual and team growth that would be at home in any of the series.
With only two episodes left this season, it’s hard to see how Lower Decks will top it—but I expect it will find a way!