Star Trek: Lower Decks Pays Off A Joke Years In The Making

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

A bit of technical explanation is required. On "Star Trek," the engines on Federation starships function more or less like internal combustion engines. Instead of generating energy through the combustion of flammable petroleum products, however, they channel the overwhelming power created by a series of matter/antimatter explosions. Thanks to the miracle crystalline mineral dilithium — which grows in a unique lattice-like molecular matrix — the explosions can be transformed and stored. The energy is then used to generate warp fields which, true to their name, warp the very fabric of space, allowing ships to "skip past" traditional physics and travel over 1,000 times the speed of light. 

The explosions are mixed and wrangled in an enormous warp core, often depicted on screen as a decks-tall glowing blue tube where the matter and the antimatter mix. 

A lot of these details are readily available in Michael Okuda's and Rich Sternbach's 1991 tome "Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual," the kind of expanded universe ancillary sourcebook that deep-cut nerds savor while drinking Earl Grey on a winter afternoon. One might see it as a "Silmarillion" for tech dorks. 

Many stories on "Star Trek" revolve around the warp core, and the basic engineering functions of a starship are frequently explored in detail. Multisyllabic, specious techno-jargon is one of Trek's greatest pleasures. Those who pay attention to any show will know, then, that if there are explosive troubles with the warp core, there is a nuclear option for Trek's engineers: eject it. A trapdoor will open in a ship's hull, and the who kit 'n' caboodle, core and all, will launch into space. 

It's a dramatic, last-resort option. 

Shaxs' obsession

Security on the U.S.S. Cerritos — the central ship on "Star Trek: Lower Decks" — is overseen by a character named Lt. Shaxs (Fred Tatasciore), an outsize, scarred, tough-as-nails Bajoran who abides by a simple philosophy of tough love. In scenes on the Cerritos' bridge, Shaxs is usually seen standing in the back at the security station. When a crisis arises — as they so often do on "Lower Decks" — Captain Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) will ask her senior staff for suggestions as to how to handle it. Almost without fail, Shaxs suggests that they eject the warp core. It doesn't really matter what the crisis is, ejecting the warp core seems to be the single most reliable course of action in Shaxs' mind. Throughout the first three seasons of the show, Shaxs has made his suggestion multiple times, only to be rejected each time. Often, such an extreme action is not required. 

In the latest episode of "Lower Decks," however, called "The Stars at Night," Shaxs' suggestion is finally heeded. The Cerritos is being pursued by a trio of sentient Texas-class starships, and they are hopelessly outgunned. The ship is damaged, and is warping away from its pursuers as quickly as possible. Shaxs' suggests ejecting the warp core, and Captain Freeman realizes that it would work out for them. The Cerritos would fall out of warp speed, but their exploding core would surely disable the ships following them. When Captain Freeman allows Shaxs to do what he has always wanted to do, he tears up. Smiling and crying, Shaxs goes to the Cerritos' engine room, enters his security key, and wistfully fires the towering core out into space. 

It's a dramatic conclusion to a space battle, but it's also a personal triumph for Shaxs.

The proud tradition of shutting down the security chief

The warp core bit serves as an excellent punchline to a joke that's taken three seasons to set up. Whether or not Shaxs will continue to make the suggestion remains to be seen. 

Of course, turning down the suggestions of a Starfleet security chief is, for attentive Trekkies, a proud tradition. An enterprising fan once compiled an eye-opening YouTube video of every time the Klingon Worf (Michael Dorn) made a suggestion on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" only to have his ideas be overlooked or rejected. To Worf's credit, he continues to make suggestions, but it's very rare that Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) or Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) will heed his advice. 

While Worf's arc doesn't pay off as dramatically as that of Shaxs, he does get to have a brief moment of validation in the "Next Generation" episode "The Next Phase" (May 18, 1992). In that episode, the Enterprise must help a beleaguered Romulan ship that requires Federation technology to rebuild. Worf points out to Riker that giving Rolumans access to Federation computer cores is a horrendous security risk. Riker listens to Worf and suggests that they trade some 40-year-old computer parts instead, assuring that the untrustworthy Romulans only have dated tech. Worf says he'll make it so, and then discreetly leans into his commanding officer to give a quick "Thank you, sir."

It's not a large, teary moment, but for once, someone listened to the security chief. It's not frequent, but it does happen.