31 Years Later, Star Trek Just Rebooted Its Most Unexpected Villain Ever
Nick Locarno is back! What, you don’t remember ol’ Nick?
Remember when bargain basement Tom Paris almost got Wesley kicked out of Starfleet Academy? In 1992, The Next Generation episode “The First Duty” featured a scandal involving a character with a face that became very familiar to Trek fans... three years later. Robert Duncan McNeill played the ambitious Nick Locarno before getting the role of Tom Paris in Voyager; as fans might know, Tom Paris was modeled on Nick Locarno, which makes the fact that these two rogue Starfleet characters are played by the same person a bit confusing canonically.
Now, in the penultimate episode of Lower Decks Season 4, “The Inner Fight,” Nick Locarno is back, seemingly as a full-blown villain. Ingeniously, the return of Locarno also means that Lower Decks created a sequel not only to “The First Duty,” but also to the original TNG episode “Lower Decks.” Spoilers ahead.
At the start of “The Inner Fight,” we’re told Starfleet is assigning special protection to various former officers, including Beverly Crusher, Seven of Nine, and Nick Locarno. There are a ton of Easter eggs in the list, most of which connect to TNG and Picard. For example, the final name on the list is Thomas Riker, the transporter duplicate of William Riker produced in the TNG episode “Second Chances.” The last time we saw Thomas Riker, he was a member of the Maquis. Is he still considered a criminal at this point? In Picard Season 3, Will Riker told Jean-Luc that members of the Maquis were no longer the enemy, which means it’s possible Riker had been pardoned by the time we reached Lower Decks’ early 2380s timeline.
But, the Cerritos crew isn’t going after any of those Easter eggs. They’re on the hunt for discount Tom Paris, Nick Locarno!
Lower Decks is now part of “Lower Decks”
“The Inner Fight” ends with the revelation that the mysterious vessel that’s been attacking ships throughout the season is seemingly controlled by Nick Locarno. This is the first time he’s appeared in canon since “The First Duty,” making him the strangest low-key Trek villain to ever have such a big comeback. The revelation that Locarno is perhaps the big bad of this entire season is a very Lower Decks move, similar to the twist in Season 1 that the silliest TNG aliens of all time, the Pakleds, were actually a serious threat. Like the Pakleds, Nick Locarno is a C-Squad villain, made all the more hilarious because he looks like Tom Paris, and there’s no real explanation as to why... at least not yet.
This cliffhanger cameo is deeper than just a weird callback to “The First Duty,” and that’s because the episode reveals that Mariner was best friends with Sito Jaxa back in the day. Sito was part of Locarno and Wesley’s Nova Squadron, the same group that tried to cover up the suspicious demise of a friend in “The First Duty.” Sito appeared again in the seminal TNG episode “Lower Decks,” where she’d been assigned to the USS Enterprise as a junior officer. The episode showed the perspective of Sito and other junior officers as they pined for promotion and worked with their superiors in the main cast.
“Lower Decks” was groundbreaking because it redefined how we thought about Picard, Riker, Worf, Dr. Crusher, and the other leads. Before, those toiling on the lower decks were largely just background characters. Mariner’s retroactive friendship with Ensign Sito formally cements the ethos of Lower Decks with the TNG episode that launched the concept of the whole show.
In “Lower Decks,” Locarno’s arrogance put Sito on a path to a dangerous undercover mission from which she never comes back. Now, decades after that episode aired, Lower Decks is picking up that plot by making it clear that Mariner’s angst comes from watching Sito strive for greatness, only to be beaten down by an uncaring galaxy.
We don’t know what role Nick Locarno will play in all of this right now. But in its penultimate episode of Season 4, Lower Decks has taken a touchingly dramatic (but still hilarious) turn. If the series continues to hit us with these smart, emotional moments that also honor brilliant classic episodes, can we even keep calling it a comedy?