Star Trek: Lower Decks Finally Offers A Sequel To One Of The Next Generation's Darkest Hours

This post contains spoilers for the latest episode of "Star Trek: Lower Decks."

The newest episode of "Star Trek: Lower Decks," called "Trusted Sources," is about a new Starfleet initiative proposed by Captain Freeman (Dawnn Lewis). Tired of constantly performing Second Contact missions — the less glamorous expansion of First Contact missions — Freeman has suggested the U.S.S. Cerritos take part in what she calls the Planetary Follow-Up Initiative that would require ships to drop in on planets Starfleet hasn't looked into for a while. If successful, Project: Swing-By would become standard operating procedure across every California class starship. Yes, Second Contact and Swing-By missions are pretty much the same thing. That's the gag. 

Audiences will also recognize that Operation Swing-By also gives the "Lower Decks" writers an organic excuse to write sequels to just about any Trek episode they want. If a viewer is in the habit of re-watching old episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," they might note that Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) left a lot of planets to fend for themselves after a crisis, hoping that they would be able to recover from the week's drama on their own. Only in rare instances did Picard ever return to see how recovery was coming along. With Project: Swing-By in effect, the Cerritos can now return to Picard's unfinished business as a matter of course. 

A notably abandoned civilization was the one seen in "Symbiosis," the 22nd episode of the first season of "The Next Generation." In that episode, as Commander Ransom (Jerry O'Connell) points out, Picard discovered a two-planet drug addiction scheme that had been in place for generations. After exposing the scheme ... Picard just left. The Cerritos follows up on the story to see if Picard was indeed as irresponsible as he seemed.


"Symbiosis" (April 18, 1988) involved the planet Ornara and its neighboring world Brekka. For many years, the two worlds had formed their mutual economy around the production and delivery of a rare medicine that relieves the symptoms of an unusual plague. This plague only affects Ornarans, and the Brekkians are the only species capable of providing the medicine. A symbiosis. The late Merritt Buttrick from "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" and "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" plays one of the Ornarans. Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) eventually discovers that the "medicine" is in fact an addictive narcotic and the "plague" is nothing more that withdrawal symptoms when they Ornarans can't get their "fix" on time. The Brekkians have intentionally kept the Ornarans addicted for centuries, as the once-real plague was cured long ago. 

Picard finds that the Prime Directive prevents him from breaking the parasitic cycle, but that he also doesn't necessarily have to help repair the delivery ships required to move the drugs from planet to planet. He leaves the episode with the Brekkians and the Ornarans having to fend for themselves. The natural evolution of their planet, it seems, will now involve a total societal collapse. The Enterprise saunters casually away, knowing that the two worlds are about to be hoisted with their own petards. 

Abandonment is perhaps not the most ethical thing the Enterprise can do, but the ending is dramatically satisfying. Some Trekkies have, however, always been left uncomfortable by the fact that Picard never again mentioned the Ornarans or the Brekkians. It's hard to argue that allowing potential planets-wide entropy is the ethical thing to do.

Wesley's PSA

"Symbiosis" is a notoriously razzed episode, notably for a conversation in its middle wherein the teenage Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) talks about drugs with Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby). Drugs, it seems, have been eliminated in Roddenberry's optimistic future, and chemical addiction is so far in the past that kids don't even understand the concept. Wesley — speaking like a narc — asks with total wide-eyed ignorance why anyone would want to become dependent on a chemical. 

Yar — speaking like a helpful Ninja Turtle — explains that drugs are a dandy escape from poverty and violence. "How can a chemical substance provide an escape?" Wesley asks. Yar gravely returns with "It doesn't. But it makes you think it does." This scene, with its mawkish tongue-clucking, is little more than a late-'80s anti-drug PSA. Audiences even felt so at the time. In the future, not only has addiction been defeated, but humanity has evolved to be a little condescending about it.

"Trusted Sources" reveals that the Ornarans, once all addicted, went through a decade-long period of chaos as their entire planet went cold turkey, experiencing painful drug withdrawals. Luckily, they emerged on the other side peaceful and healthy. Now the local magistrate has to cut an interview short in order to run his daily 4k. Picard may have left abruptly, but everything seems to have worked out in the end. Well, almost. The Brekkians experienced a darker fate which I will not reveal. "Trusted Sources" also ends on a cliffhanger, and so the mystery of Brekka will have to remain unanswered for another week. 

Thank you, "Lower Decks." We'll learn it by watching you.