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The most parodied, discussed, and referenced Star Trek movie is without a doubt Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. One can debate about the most well-known episode of any given Trek series, but among the 13 feature films, Khan is easily the one that is the most praised, and the one people tend to talk about when they talk about over-the-top Trek stuff. In Star Trek: Lower Decks, references to The Wrath of Khan have cropped up twice before the latest episode. During her epic rant at the ending of the “Second Contact,” Mariner referenced both Spock’s death and the battle with Khan. And in the second episode, “Envoys,” Mariner is having a dream in which she is paraphrasing one of Khan’s famous speeches from the same film.
But those Khan Easter eggs were nothing compared to what the fourth episode of Lower Decks did. The best joke in "Moist Vessel" is essentially one long reference to The Wrath of Khan, and it all clicks together with the utterance of one word.
**Spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 1, Episode 4, "Moist Vessel."**
Most of the plot of “Moist Vessel,” revolves around Captain Freeman, Mariner, and the crew having to deal with ancient terraforming emulsion that has leaked out from an ancient generational ship and is now randomly creating different environments on the USS Cerritos. Although the technology of the terraforming emulsion is somewhat new for the Trek canon, the idea of instant terraforming is not.
The most famous terraforming tech in the Trek canon is the Genesis Device, which was introduced in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The science behind the Genesis Device was iffy; somehow a transparent cylinder about the size of two trombone cases could totally reconstitute the ecosystem of an entire planet simply by being detonated on said planet. At the end of The Wrath of Khan, the Genesis Device is detonated in a nebula, which apparently creates a planet from scratch, appropriately named the Genesis Planet. In Star Trek: The Search for Spock, we learn that the Genesis Planet has all sorts of radically different biomes, all within walking distance of each other. (i.e., there’s a fierce tundra right next to a jungle.) This is never really explained, but visually, we see the terraforming emulsion create a similar effect when it gets let loose on the USS Cerritos. Suddenly there’s a bunch of water in engineering, while other parts of the ship seem to be sprouting crystalline structures. Basically, the visual Easter egg is that the entire Cerritos becomes a miniature version of the Genesis Planet.
Which brings us to the word that makes all of this 10 times better. When Mariner and Captain Freeman are climbing their way to safety, working as a mother-daughter Starfleet team, Mariner mocks her mom by using her first name. This is the first episode that Mariner says “mom,” but having her also say her mom’s first name is fantastic. We’ve all teased our parents by using their first names, and if you have kids, you know it’s absurdly funny when your own child calls you by your first name.
But that’s not the thing that’s so great. The hilarious thing is that Freeman’s first name is “Carol.” Mariner also says it twice, for effect. And, if you think about all the Genesis Device visual references, you should already be thinking about the name “Carol.” And that’s because the person who created the Genesis Device was... Dr. Carol Marcus!
Played by the late Bibi Besch, Carol Marcus was the mother of David Marcus, who was the son of James T. Kirk. Like Mariner and Freeman in this episode, Carol Marcus teamed up with her adult kid to deal with terraforming tech. But, more importantly, Carol Marcus is basically the mother of all terraforming within the Trek canon. Captain Janeway even referenced the work of Carol Marcus in the Voyager episode “The Omega Directive.” In Star Trek Into Darkness, a younger version of Carol Marcus was played by Alice Eve, and, ironically, that version of Carol Marcus was a Starfleet Officer who had issues with her father, who was a Starfleet Admiral named Alexander Marcus.
So, the moment that Mariner makes a big deal that Captain Freeman’s name is “Carol,” Lower Decks is joking about the fact that terraforming almost never works in Star Trek, and also, that there’s almost no pairing of a parent and an adult child in Trek that ever works out well. Beckett Mariner’s relationship with Carol Freeman is certainly better than Kirk’s relationship with David, or Carol Marcus’ relationship with her dad, but it’s still not great. In The Wrath of Khan, bragging about her accomplishments with the terraforming tech, Carol Marcus said, “Can I cook, or I can’t I?” Because the Genesis Planet eventually destroyed itself because her son made a faulty terraforming matrix, the answer to this question is: "Kind of... no, you can’t, but your kid is also sabotaging you." And now, in Lower Decks, it seems like Star Trek’s latest Carol is still dealing with irresponsible kids and terraforming tech going haywire.
If there is ever a third prominent Carol in Trek canon, let’s hope they leave their kid on Earth, and they stay far, far away from terraforming.
Star Trek: Lower Decks airs on Thursdays on CBS All Access.