27 Years Later, Star Trek Finally Corrected Its Very Worst Episode Ever
Let's talk about alien babies born in caves.
Star Trek didn’t invent the idea of humans having alien babies after undergoing a sudden biological mutation. In fact, the idea of humans raising aliens is probably as old as science fiction itself. Whether we’re talking Alien Nation or Enemy Mine, nurturing and caring for a weird little critter pervades the genre. But in “Threshold,” an infamous 1996 episode of Star Trek: Voyager, we saw unplanned alien babies be straight-up abandoned, even though they were technically the offspring of Captain Janeway and Tom Paris. The absurdity of this episode has been mocked for almost three decades. Now, Star Trek has issued a correction of sorts on its weirdest storyline.
In Lower Deck Season 4, Episode 8, “Caves,” our four lead characters, Mariner, Boimler, Tendi, and Rutherford, get stuck in a cave, which leads each of them to tell a story about being stuck in a different cave with other characters. It’s caves all the way down, including the prominent return of the very obscure tentacled shape-shifting aliens called the Vendorians, first seen in the underrated Animated Series episode “The Survivor.” Then Voyager’s worst episode gets its comeuppance.
But the most obvious dissection of an old Trek episode comes midway through, when Rutherford casually mentions a time “when Dr. T’Ana and I were trapped in that cave with our kid... oh yeah, I had a cave baby with Dr. T!” Obviously, this shocks everyone, since Rutherford is human and Dr. T’Ana is a Caitian (that is, a cat person). Also, like Tom Paris to Captain Janeway in “Threshold,” Rutherford is T’Ana’s subordinate. The idea is unsettling, at least until we learn the details.
On a previous mission, T’Ana and Rutherford were harvesting some plants on Balkus 9, when a creature attacked and their local guide was slain. But before her demise, she transferred her mind energy into Rutherford, making him pregnant.
The idea of a male Starfleet officer getting impregnated by an alien vaguely references the Enterprise episode “Unexpected,” which also has a less-than-sterling reputation. But as Lower Decks showrunner Mike McMahan told Inverse in 2021, “You’ve gotta go with what Star Trek [canon] has given you. This show respects and loves all Star Trek. There is no bad Star Trek to this show.”
And so, through the nested storyline of Rutherford’s “cave baby,” the silliness of both “Threshold” and “Unexpected” are both somewhat rehabilitated. Although T’Ana isn’t the baby’s biological mother, she and Rutherford do care for it while waiting to be rescued. And unlike Chakotay, who left the salamander-alien offspring of Janeway and Paris to fend for themselves in their “new habitat,” Rutherford and T’Ana actually protect their little clone-baby. Later, they make peace with the murderous monster who, in classic Trek form, turns out to not be a murderous monster at all.
Taking a cue from the Original Series classic “The Devil in the Dark,” Rutherford and T’Ana eventually learn that the cave monster was only protecting its baby. And so a well-written Trek classic was mashed up with material from questionable episodes to synthesize something new and clever.
“Caves” isn’t a remarkable episode in its own right, but as Lower Decks approaches 40 total episodes, it may have just delivered the best-ever Star Trek episode about Star Trek episodes. When bad sci-fi tropes collide with good ones, the result is often rough. But this episode of Lower Decks proved that a mixed bag of conflicting ideas is sometimes the best way for science fiction to thrive.