There are two ways to think about Star Trek: Lower Decks. On the one hand, it's the most accessible version of the franchise, because a new viewer needs to know almost nothing to start watching. It's also possibly the least accessible Trek, because at least half the jokes reference some kind of existing lore. With its fourth episode, "Moist Vessel," Lower Decks is trying out something different. The non-Trekkie material made it funny, fresh, and less reliant on the larger scope of the Final Frontier. Spoilers ahead.
The primary plot conflicts in "Moist Vessel" revolve around three fairly common science-fiction tropes:
- A Generation Ship (a spacecraft that contains multiple generations over a long period of time)
- Terraforming (changing a planet's biosphere to make it inhabitable for people who don't normally live there)
- A human who ascends to become pure energy (Self-explanatory.)
Each of these concepts alone is enough entire science fiction novel work. For example, the Larry Niven book Ringworld is almost entirely devoted to the concept of a generation ship, which is also a giant planet. That said, if you look at it from a certain point of view, Snowpiercer is also a kind of generation ship, just not one that operates in space. Meanwhile, terraforming is probably most famously explored in the Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books, while the Iain M. Banks Culture novels have an ascension process called "Subliming" that makes a little more sense than other similar stuff you see in different sci-fi, and also, has nothing to do with the band Sublime.
Of course, there are examples of all of these tropes within Star Trek too, but Star Trek isn't exactly famous for these tropes at all. There are a few Generation Ships in Voyager, and yes, The Wrath of Khan had insta-terraforming with the Genesis Device, but again it's not like these are ideas people immediately associate with Star Trek.
The TNG episode "Transfigurations" — in which a dude turns into pure energy— is not anyone's favorite episode. At the end of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a similar thing happens to Will Decker. All of these ideas are rattling around the science fiction writers' toolbox, but it's not like Star Trek has ever nailed any of these tropes naturalistically or realistically.
What's cool about this episode of Lower Decks is that the writing staff seems to know that. Even though the idea of the terraforming emulsion is mostly played for laughs, the overall feel of the ancient generation ship stocked with planet-transforming properties feels like it's been imported from a different science fiction universe. This isn't a bad thing, and in fact, these qualities give the latest episode of Lower Decks a more legitimate science fiction feeling. The generation ship looks like it could have bumped into something in the movie Prometheus— and not in a bad way. If this version of Star Trek is going to survive, it will need to try to do some cool science fiction stuff that feels new.
The last time the Trek franchise pulled this off was with Discovery Season 1's Spore Drive. Sure, the technology was controversial with hardcore fans, the concept was quickly moved to the back burner in Season 2, but still. It was new. Because Lower Decks looks and feels like so many Treks that have come before, and is overtly referential to the cozy '90s version of the franchise, it needs to have an edge. Part of that edge comes from the snarky characters and the way they interact with the faux-utopia of the Federation. But, the other part, needs to come from cool sci-fi, stuff.
With "Moist Vessel," Lower Decks didn't boldly do anything brand new. By tackling a few old sci-fi tropes, and making those tropes seem less Star Trek-y, it took a step toward becoming its own thing. Right now Lower Decks is an odd hybrid of Easter eggs, references, and broad comedy. But, if it has more episodes like this one, it might become something else: Edgy science fiction.
Lower Decks airs Thursdays on CBS All Access.