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You tend to define your favorite Star Trek character by their job. Captain Picard is cool because he’s the Captain. Security Chief Tuvok is cool because he’s the security chief. But, while you’ve barely been noticing, some Star Trek characters have had massive career changes seemingly for no reason. And in the latest episode of Star Trek: Lower Decks, the funniest running joke highlights the weird job-shuffling throughout Star Trek and reminds us that Starfleet is the easiest place to be a total wishy-washy slacker.
**Spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 1, Episode 2, "Envoys."**
Although the primary plot of "Envoys" is all about Boimler and Mariner escorting a Klingon envoy to a Federation embassy, the funnier subplot is all about Ensign Rutherford randomly career-hopping throughout the ship, seemingly on a whim. At the start of the episode, Rutherford realizes that sticking to his engineering duties means he’ll miss his date with Ensign Tendi, and so, he decides to quit his job and find a whole new career. The rest of the episode then sees him leaving engineering, joining the command division, quitting that, joining the security division, quitting that, joining the medical division, and then finding himself right back where he started in engineering. And each time, the running joke is the same. You think Rutherford’s boss and colleagues are all going to feel betrayed that he’s leaving them to find a different job elsewhere, but instead, everyone is super upbeat and happy about the switch.
After telling Rutherford that he’s his favorite person, Lt. Commander Andy Billups (Paul Scheer) has to deal with the news that Rutherford is transferring out of Engineering. After looking like he’s furious for a microsecond, the Chief Engineer glowers and says, “Consider your request... granted!” And then bursting with a huge smile adds, “Wherever you end up, they’ll be lucky to have you.”
This joke is great for a lot of reasons. First of all, each time Rutherford decides he’s going to make the switch, it feels as though he’s gotten himself in even deeper than before and that there’s no way anyone is going to be cool with him skipping out on them. But the absurd, upbeat, almost pathological positivity is a little bit of a lampoon about how nice everyone is in Starfleet in general.
Somewhat infamously, the writers on Star Trek: The Next Generation were discouraged from having conflict happen between Starfleet crewmembers because the crew was supposed to model a more enlightened sense of humanity in the future. This, of course, made writing stories with conflict difficult. But in Lower Deck, this simply becomes a hilarious joke. You kind of want there to be some kind of consequences for Rutherford quitting all these jobs, but the joke is, that in the Star Trek future, you can quit your job and switch your career as much as you want and nobody is going to judge you. If anything, they’ll cheer you on!
Which brings us to the other reason why this joke is funny. Even though being an engineer on a Starship is nothing like being a medical officer, there are precedents for characters making massive career shifts while you weren’t looking. In the first season of TNG, Geordi LaForge was the helmsman of the Enterprise-D, sporting a red command uniform. But by Season 2, Geordi was wearing yellow and had suddenly become the Chief Engineer. To put it in perspective, this would be like if Sulu had replaced Scotty in Season 2 of TOS.
Speaking of Sulu, in the TOS pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” Sulu straight-up works in the science department of the ship as an astrophysicist, but by “The Man Trap,” he’s wearing Command gold and flying the ship. Chekov, a navigator, becomes the de facto security chief of the Enterprise during the films and nobody ever really explains why. And then there’s Chief O’Brien, a guy who started as a relief helm officer in TNG’s first episode “Encounter at Farpoint,” then became the transporter expert, and by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was running the operations of an entire space station. Granted, all of that sounds techy, but still, O’Brien went from flying the ship to beaming people to fixing power relays on a space station in less than seven years. That’s a lot of different career paths!
One of the strengths of Lower Decks is that, in general, it’s poking fun at the idea of careerism in a future where there’s no money and no real need for status. Our hero, Ensign Mariner, thinks that trying to move up in rank is for suckers, and there’s more fun to be had by just staying where she is. Boimler doesn’t agree, but his careerism comes across as annoying and self-serving. Meanwhile, the joke of Rutherford switching careers — only to end up back where he started — is heartwarming, and honest.
In Lower Decks, there’s no shame in staying in your lane and deciding you’re happy with less. But, by that same token, it’s also a show that says it’s OK just to stop doing what you’re doing on a whim. In the hopeful future of Star Trek, even indecisive slackers can be heroes.