Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 3 Revives A Classic (And Silly) Trek Trope

This post contains spoilers for episode two of "Star Trek: Lower Decks" season 3.

There's an episode of "Star Trek: The Original Series" called "The Apple" that exemplifies one of the franchise's most superficially goofy tropes. The Enterprise crew visits Gamma Trianguli VI, a beautiful planet that they soon learn features exploding rocks, poisonous plants, and Vaal, a god-like technological system that looks like a crudely made dragon's head statue. There are also rust-skinned, blonde-haired townspeople who are both scantily clad and prohibited from having sex. It's fun, hokey, and convoluted as hell.

Some "Star Trek" tropes have withstood the test of time, while others have naturally died out. Luckily, "Star Trek: Lower Decks," with its group of Starfleet superfan characters, is in a unique position that allows it to gently poke fun at past "Trek" lore by revisiting the best "Trek" moments along with the worst. "The Apple" isn't exactly the worst, but it is one of an odd and ultimately problematic subset of "Trek" episodes that went by the wayside as the franchise matured. "Star Trek: The Original Series" is full of episodes with hot, seemingly primitive peoples with deceptively complex systems of governance.

The Original Series loves sexy, confusing alien cultures

The latest episode of "Star Trek: Lower Decks" episode tees up a similar plot when Billups and Rutherford get the chance to try their hand at a field mission without Commander Ransom's aid. "These guys are one of those sexy cultures that run everywhere and kiss hello, right?" Mariner asks, clearly hoping to join in the recreational navel-gazing. But when the team makes contact with the Delanians, their mission quickly goes sideways — in a hilarious way.

The trope of underdressed and over-complicated alien cultures has been with "Trek" from the start, with successive series trying to update it before modern "Trek" eventually abandoned the concept completely. First, there was "Star Trek: The Original Series," where episodes like "Gamesters of Triskelion" find excuses to put both Kirk and the locals in skin-baring outfits that adhere to local customs. This time, they're trapped, fitted with vaguely kinky "collars of obedience," and forced to fight against locals called thralls for the entertainment of, naturally, three light-up brains in a display case.

Traditionally, these types of episodes are among the most shallow "Star Trek: The Original Series" has to offer. They touch on topics of autonomy and cultural exchange, sure, but they feel more like they're catering to an audience that, perhaps due to the boom in sci-fi B-movies of the kind at the time, expect their aliens bodacious and outlandish. By the time "Star Trek: The Next Generation" rolled around, the trope was already growing outdated enough that the series both played into it and poked fun at it.

The Next Generation gets more meta

In the first season "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode "Justice," for example, the crew visits a place that perfectly fits Mariner's description of the "wellness planet" Billups and Rutherford end up on in "The Least Dangerous Game." The Edo people jog instead of walk, wear silly getups, and demonstrate romantic affection as often as they shake hands. But like the Delanians, who initially entice the Cerritos crew with a dance, a feast, and a drinking competition, the aliens from "Justice" aren't exactly offering the crew a vacation. Once again, a small transgression leads to a big punishment, as Wesley Crusher nearly gets executed for accidental property damage. It turns out that the Edo people worship an orbiting ship with a pretty ruthless sense of justice.

Wesley lives, of course, and the next time the Enterprise crew ends up in a similar situation, it's with a bit of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. A few episodes later, in "Angel One," the crew visits a women-run planet with some intriguing customs. Ahead of a dinner meeting, Troi and Yar poke fun at Riker for opting to wear a garment provided by the locals, a garishly sparkly, wildly '80s pastel blue outfit that seems built to accentuate chest hair. The women of the Enterprise get a nice meta moment here, as they vocally question whether or not the outfit is demeaning.

A silly trope with deeply questionable roots

By latter era "Trek," the "simple, beautiful peoples with complex gods and harsh justice" trope had all but disappeared, and that's probably a good thing. Beyond all the glitter and colorful body paint (which, in "The Apple," is also suspect), these portrayals seem to me to be rooted in anti-Indigenous stereotypes. They're clearly modeled after white colonists' ignorant first impressions of cultures they don't understand — as portrayed in old Western films, modern movies like "Avatar," and beyond. It's one of many examples of mainstream pop culture's historic inability to imagine Indigenous people complexly. "Trek" seems unsure whether its aliens-of-the-week are advanced or simplistic, generous or dangerous, and every time the answer turns out to be all of the above and more, the Enterprise crew is totally shocked and confused.

In episodes like these, invaders (who are shown as heroic explorers to us) take advantage of locals' generosity, underestimate their technology, and objectify them, only to be burned when they can't catch on to their customs. If done right, this could be a decent commentary on the evils of colonialism, and maybe that's how the show intends it. Yet older "Star Trek" too often ends these episodes without ever correcting the record, instead ultimately painting the locals as exotic, misguided, and intellectually inferior, while the Enterprise crew is coded as morally correct and rational. It's an unfortunate part of a largely thoughtful and compassionate franchise's history.

Lower Decks reframes the familiar

As a white person, I can't speak authoritatively to whether or not "Star Trek: Lower Decks" successfully avoided the anti-Indigenous mistakes of its predecessors, but I do think its new episode finds a way to pay homage to the goofy aspects of this trope without feeding into its frustrating roots. Until the last moments of "The Least Dangerous Game," Billups and Rutherford's entire field mission unfolds via video chats with Ransom, who meets each new development with an eye roll. So the locals want to sacrifice them to the volcano Lord Morgol because Billups has an outie belly button? Just ask for a parlay! When Mariner cracks a joke about how the planet's trio of leaders — a psychic baby, an evil computer, and a sentient volcano — is overkill, they snap back that it's just their own system of checks and balances. The episode clearly frames the Cerritos crew as the ignorant ones, since they didn't bother to study up on the Delanians.

In the end, Ransom saves the crew by taking off his shirt, a hilarious solution that matches the unorthodox system of logic that's dominated the mission so far. The rulers compliment his "lava tubes" and let everyone go. It's an irreverent take on a messy trope that both makes it feel new again, and recontextualizes it in a more thoughtful way than past "Trek" shows have. While Starfleet crews are always caught off guard by the seemingly labyrinthine customs, this time, it's clear that they're the naive ones for not knowing proper belly button etiquette. Just show off your lava tubes, duh.