Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 3 Brings Back A Trek Character With A Bizarre History

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

In the world of "Star Trek," space isn't just a place of infinite exploration: it's also a reflection of self. Since the series' inception, "Star Trek" series have often employed plot devices that hold up a mirror to our heroes, allowing characters to see their own fears and desires more clearly through the lens of advanced technology or otherworldly phenomena. Many times, these turn out to be the basis for some of the franchise's most meaningful episodes. Other times, they turn out like the awkward case of Dr. Leah Brahms.

This week's episode of "Star Trek: Lower Decks" introduced a clever riff on this trope when the U.S.S. Cerritos team visit Jengus IV, a planet that initially seems deserted but is actually inhabited by a literal data mine. The system on Genghis collects information about each Cerritos crew member via glowing green rocks, then uses it against them by creating illusions of their deepest fears and desires. In a different series, this premise could've been the perfect plot device to reveal the secret feelings the team hides from one another, but since "Star Trek: Lower Decks" always chooses the wackiest, deep-cut-driven path imaginable, writers used the episode to do something unexpected: remind us of one of the most uncomfortable "Star Trek: The Next Generation" subplots.

A creepy TNG romance

When the planet starts creating physical manifestations of the group's desires, Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) is one of the first to be impacted. A short-haired woman with a turquoise Starfleet outfit appears, seductively asking, "Hey Samanthan, you wanna come over here and help me design some Galaxy class starship engines?" When Boimler (Jack Quaid) questions his fantasy, Rutherford explains the advancements Dr. Brahms made in her field, and she coos at him about needing a "big-brained engineer." He soon waves away the illusion, but for "Trek" fans, this is a joke that goes a lot deeper than a brisk cameo.

Warp field specialist Dr. Brahms appeared in just two episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," but they're unforgettable in the worst way. Her first appearance came in the season 3 episode "Booby Trap," only the character we saw on screen, played by Susan Gibney, wasn't the real Brahms. Officer Geordi (LeVar Burton), lonely and tired of having no game, accidentally discovers mid-mission that he can create a ship-saving "propulsion design model" by pulling from the file of a scientist he admires. He creates a lifelike holographic version of Dr. Brahms, "Lower Decks" turquoise suit and all, and the pair have a bizarrely sensual encounter in which they mostly just solve geeky technical problems.

When fantasy meets reality

This episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" is pretty creepy, especially given the entitled language Geordi uses when talking about his dating prospects. He gets irritated when his voice assistant denies him access to files, saying, "Great, another woman who won't get personal with me on the holodeck." He also constantly makes references to his intellect, as if his brain should be the only qualification he needs to gain companionship with any woman. Plus, the version of Dr. Brahms who appears is super into Geordi for reasons that don't exactly make sense given that she wasn't actually created to be his dream girl. She gives him a shoulder rub, offers to cook him Italian food, and the two share a kiss before he leaves the holodeck at episode's end.

It's a weird plot, one that gets even weirder a season later when the real Dr. Brahms comes aboard the Enterprise. Not only is she nothing like the holodeck version of herself, but she's also married, a fact that upsets Geordi despite his original declaration that he only expects friendship from her. Dr. Brahms eventually finds the simulation of herself and is understandably put off, but the episode ends with the two somehow becoming friends.

It's an unusually un-self-aware episode of "Star Trek," one that permanently changes the way we feel about Geordi while not actually reconciling with its unsettling consent issues by the time the credits roll. Instead, it tries to make the pair's ability to work together in a time of crisis a stand-in for an actual resolution, a decision that sidesteps whatever deeper conversations it meant to inspire about male fantasy.

Dr. Brahms' surprise return

Fans of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" aren't the only people who didn't love the Dr. Brahms plot. In a Rolling Stone interview last year, Burton said that when it came to imagining Geordi's love life, "whether they are aware of it or not, those white men who wrote the show had an unconscious bias that was on display to me and to other people of color." He points out that the Dr. Brahms plot may have been an "attempt to be cute," but that it "inadvertently created an aspect of Geordi's character that is very uncomfortable."

Burton is making his return to the franchise with "Star Trek: Picard" season 3, so hopefully the series will finally course correct and give Geordi a proper love interest, but it surely won't be Dr. Brahms. That makes this week's "Star Trek: Lower Decks" episode's throwaway gag all the better, since Gibney actually got the chance to reprise the character for the sake of a surprising and hilarious bit. After receiving such a non-ending on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the scientist gets the last laugh here as a well-respected (but still inexplicably sultry) manifestation of Rutherford's imagination.