In 1986, Jeffrey Combs auditioned for the role of First Officer William T. Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation, a role that instead went to a man half a foot taller than him, Jonathan Frakes. Combs would finally appear on Trek in the third-season Deep Space Nine episode “Meridian” in 1994, an episode directed by Frakes, ironically.
That opened the floodgates. Combs would return later that season as the Ferengi Brunt in “Family Business,” then as the Vorta Weyoun in “To the Death” in season four, both roles that would recur all the way to the end of the series. (He even appeared as both in the penultimate DS9 episode, “The Dogs of War.”) He then appeared on Voyager as a fight promoter in “Tsunkatse,” on Enterprise in another recurring role, that of the Andorian Shran, throughout all four of that show’s seasons, and also played another Ferengi in “Acquisition.”
And now he’s added Lower Decks to his resumé.
The best part is that Combs plays the voice of that old Trek standby, the world-controlling computer. And it’s one of several Trek standbys we see in this, arguably the best episode of Lower Decks so far.
Honestly, this is the ideal LD episode to my mind: one that uses the existing tropes and setup of Trek and mines the comedy gold out of them. Blissfully absent from this entire episode is anything that feels like a workplace comedy sledgehammered into a Star Trek setting. Instead, the A and B plots are entirely based on things that can, and often do, happen in a more serious Trek episode.
“Where Pleasant Fountains Lie” is a veritable treasure trove of Trek clichés and it’s delightful.
We’ve got the aforementioned world-running computer (“Return of the Archons,” “The Apple”), named Amicus and voiced by Combs, who keeps trying to inveigle the organics into plugging him into some system or other. Combs, a veteran voiceover actor, is absolutely brilliant here.
We’ve got the shuttle crash on a deserted planet with our heroes trying to find a way to technobabble themselves off. (“The Galileo Seven,” “Power Play,” “Final Mission,” “Paradise,” “Gravity,” “Innocence,” and about fifty other Voyager episodes…)
We’ve got the visit to a character’s homeworld and get introduced to its weird customs (“Amok Time,” “Sins of the Father,” “Family Business”), complete with an overbearing mother who visits the ship regularly (all of TNG’s Lwaxana Troi episodes). In this case, it’s Billups, the chief engineer, who comes from the human colony of Hysperia, a world filled with dragons, and which is populated by Renaissance Faire types. This, by the way, is my favorite part of the episode—I adore the Ren Faire planet where all the citizens dress up in “period” clothes and refer to all science in magic-y terms and shout “Huzzah!” a lot.
Related to that, we’ve got in Billups the guy who joined Starfleet against the mores of his people and/or the wishes of his family (Spock, Worf, Saru).
We’ve got one or more members of the crew believed to be dead (“The Tholian Web,” “The Most Toys,” “The Next Phase,” “Armageddon Game,” “Shuttlepod One”), in this case Rutherford, who is believed to be in an explosion.
And, finally, we’ve got the title itself, which is a Shakespeare quote (“The Conscience of the King,” “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth,” “Thine Own Self,” “The Die is Cast,” “Mortal Coil,” “Such Sweet Sorrow”), in this case a line from Venus and Adonis which refers to oral sex, which is appropriate for the Billups plotline. You see, Billups abdicated his position as prince of Hysperia to join Starfleet. His mother the queen has been trying for ages to convince him to claim his birthright. But he can’t be prince as long as he’s a virgin, and Billups has steadfastly avoided having sexual relations of any kind, while the queen has tried every trick in the book to get him into a sexual relation.
It almost works this time, thanks to the faked-death part—the queen is said to be in the part of the Hysperian ship that exploded alongside Rutherford, and Billups finally does give in to his birthright because he thinks his mother is dead. However, Tendi saves the day, as she discovers that Rutherford is still alive by tracking his cybernetic implants, and the young engineer saves his CO from a hot three-way (yes, the royal sexual encounter is an MMF threesome) by telling him his mother’s alive.
On top of that, we get some actual character development, and it’s one reason why I think this season is much stronger overall, after some initial concerns in the first couple of episodes. The Mariner-Boimler plotline starts out seeming like every first-season storyline involving those two. Boimler is all set for a violent mission involving phaser rifles and giant centipedes, while Mariner is assigned to take a shuttle to drop off Amicus at the Daystrom Institute.
But then Boimler is reassigned to go with Mariner. We find out soon enough that Mariner herself made that request of Ransom. Ostensibly, it’s because Mariner doesn’t think that Boimler can handle it, though I suspect that it’s mostly so she can keep an eye on him, and/or keep him close so she can control him. When Boimler finds out—he’s told by Amicus, who is trying to sow dissent after the shuttle crash in the hopes that one of the two of them will plug him in to something—he is livid, and even goes so far as to shoot Mariner.
First of all, let me say that I cheered when he did that. Mariner is, truly, a horrible person, one who regularly endangers her crewmates with her doesn’t-give-a-shit attitude. I’ve been wanting someone to shoot her, and I punched the air a bit when it finally happened.
And that wasn’t even the best part. For most of the half-hour running time, we think that Boimler is being an idiot yet again. He seems to be listening to Amicus as they head out to another crashed ship that they might be able to salvage. It seems like Boimler has plugged Amicus into the ship, thus giving it control.
But Boimler has actually grown and learned, both on the Cerritos and on the Titan (which Boimler reminds Mariner of quite a bit, to Mariner’s annoyance). He was only pretending to go along with Amicus, needing the computer’s battery to power the ship they’re salvaging. Despite what he said, he only hooked Amicus’s CPU up to the dimmer switch, so all the megalomaniacal computer can do is change the lighting.
Not only that, but once again Mariner doesn’t save the day—except indirectly by not figuring out what Boimler was doing, thus helping sell the bit to Amicus. After an entire season of Mariner using Boimler, he returns the favor, and also saves their asses. It’s a beautiful thing.
Plus, Boimler shoots Mariner. Which is fabulous.
More episodes like this please, Mike McMahan and cohorts. This is a perfect Star Trek comedy.
The Daystrom Institute has an entire wall filled with world-running computers, who all rant and rave maniacally and futilely. Amicus joins them at the end, which is a hilariously Trekkish version of the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
To remind us that Boimler is still sometimes naïve, he thinks the phrase “wet work” refers to actually getting wet from water. Mariner kindly declines to correct him.
At one point, Mariner suggests burying Amicus like was done with Data’s head, referring to the events of TNG’s“Time’s Arrow.” Once again, the characters talk like people who watch Star Trek instead of living in the Trek universe, and once again, it threw me out of the story. The reference wasn’t even a good one or an appropriate one, and that threw me further out. It felt entirely like it was there just because they hadn’t referenced a specific TNG episode in five minutes and were suffering withdrawal symptoms from not doing so.
After Ransom packs Amicus away in a special box, he looks at the aliens who’d been under the computer’s thumb and asks if anyone wants lunch. “I could eat,” one of the aliens says. Cut to the Cerritos bridge, with Freeman lamenting the risks one takes by eating alien street food….
Of all the voice work Jeffrey Combs has done, my favorite is his loony take on The Question in the Justice League Unlimited animated series from the turn of the millennium. Just some great stuff, even though that version of Vic Sage owes more to Steve Ditko’s version for Charlton Comics (and Alan Moore’s riff on him, Rorschach from Watchmen) than the one Denny O’Neil wrote for DC.
I absolutely adore the ship design of the Hysperian vessel. It’s gloriously ostentatious. I also rather eagerly want to see more of Hysperia, not just on Lower Decks, but also in one of the live-action shows. Seriously, we need the Enterprise to visit the place on Strange New Worlds. You just know that Pike would totally get into it, while Spock would be completely nonplussed, and Number One would be sardonically amused.
Did I mention that Boimler shot Mariner? That was truly awesome…
Keith R.A. DeCandido will be one of the guests at the inaugural Suncoast Fan Fest at the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto, Florida. Among the other guests are Voyager’s Manu Intiraymi (Icheb), as well as actors Alaina Huffman, Corin Nemec, Casper Van Dien, Travis Wester, AJ Buckley, and Eddie McClintock, as well as several voice actors. More information can be found here.