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The 'Lower Decks' season two finale is Star Trek at its best

This post contains spoilers for season two, episode 10 of 'Star Trek: Lower Decks.'

Last week I posited that seasons one and two of Lower Decks together would make up one story arc of the show. Given this week’s finale, it looks like we’ll be dealing with the consequences of the Pakled threat for just a bit longer. But when an episode is this good, I’m perfectly fine with being wrong.

Especially when this installment just encompasses so many of my favorite things about Star Trek. It’s not just the delightful appearance by Captain Sonya Gomez — you might remember her as the ensign who spilled hot chocolate on Captain Picard way back in season two of The Next Generation. And it’s not because of the first on-screen appearance of cetacean ops, a concept hinted at in various blueprints but never actually mentioned with any real seriousness.


It’s the general plot of the episode, where the entire crew must work together to save the day. I’m a real sucker for teamwork scenes, like the final battle in The Undiscovered Country or, more recently, when the crew of the USS Discovery had to disguise themselves as their mirror universe counterpart. Star Trek has been described as “competence porn” by many online, in how it depicts people who are insanely good at their jobs and work together well.

The first two seasons haven’t always showcased the crew at their finest. We’ve seen Boimler and Mariner lose the Klingon diplomat they were supposed to be escorting, Freeman get into a pissing match with the captain of another Starfleet vessel, and the crew fail its (rigged) assessment test spectacularly. At times the show is very much like The Office, more interested in the personal lives and antics of its employees than the actual business at hand.


However, even The Office would occasionally remind you that the staff of Dunder Mifflin were good at their jobs, particularly Michael Scott. Michael was a terrible manager, but one hell of a salesman. And this episode of Lower Decks put the spotlight on Carol Freeman, whose fine work over the past two years is being rewarded with a promotion to a better ship. The USS Cerritos is a California-class ship, a real workhorse of a vessel that doesn’t get a lot of respect. That the Cerritos even became important at all is completely due to circumstance in encountering and surviving the newly empowered Pakleds. But it’s given Freeman a lot of time in the spotlight, with her tasked a few episodes ago with negotiating a cease-fire with the Pakled government. (It was a ruse, but that’s not her fault.)

Last week I thought this episode would wrap up that storyline, given that we now know the Pakleds were getting help from a Klingon captain, one who is no longer alive thanks to the actions of a lower-decker. Instead, this episode focuses on Freeman’s possible promotion, her senior staff’s reaction to it, and the futures of our lower decks ensigns.


This is all happening against the backdrop of a first contact mission. The USS Cerritos mostly specializes in second contact missions — we’re told this in the very first episode. That means they come in and handle all the annoying administrative stuff after flagships like the Enterprise come in and establish initial relations. Now, the Cerritos gets to take part in the more important first impression, but only as backup to the USS Archimedes.

Sitting on the bench ends up serving the Cerritos well when a solar flare plus an unstable planetoid ends up disabling the Archimedes and putting it on a crash course with the planet below. Freeman is ready to sacrifice herself in order to save the other ship, but Rutherford and company have a better plan, one that can prevent fatalities on both vessels. But they’ve only got 20 hours, so the whole crew has to chip in. That means Ransom piloting, Billups supervising the hull removal, and Tendi giving Mariner a much-needed pep talk. The latter might not be necessary to the functioning of the ship, but it is important to the show because it pushes the two women toward the emotional resolution they need.


We also get to meet the crew of cetacean ops, two beluga whale lieutenants named Kimolu and Matt. But it’s Boimler who has to save the day, because the clamp they need to release isn’t made to be turned by flippers. (I really appreciate the accessibility joke here, because Starfleet has often been cited over the decades as an OSHA nightmare.) Needless to say, the crew succeeds (this isn’t a movie, after all, so we’re not losing the ship). After the bravery shown by the entire crew of the Cerritos, particularly Boimler and Rutherford, it’s hard to imagine that season three won’t start off with a few promotions.

But first, there’s the matter of Freeman’s transfer, which she has decided to decline in favor of staying with a crew that has proven itself capable of being truly excellent. Unfortunately, that Pakled storyline comes to bite us all one more time, leading us into the show’s very first cliffhanger, and the very first season-ending cliffhanger in the new Kurtzman-era of Trek programs.


Star Trek: Lower Decks had a lot to prove when it debuted last year: It was the first animated show since the ‘70s, and the franchise’s first attempt at a primarily comedic series. It also had to overcome the initial impressions of it as being akin to Rick and Morty or Family Guy. The quality of the first season started a bit rough but improved as time went on, ending on the fantastic action-packed episode, “No Small Parts.” Season two’s “First First Contact” ups the game in several ways, not just in its element of danger but also in how the show is willing to use big storylines to push the characters forward as the seasons progress.

'Prodigy' is a kid-friendly Star Trek show taking the right lessons from Star Wars

This post keeps spoilers to the bare minimum since the show will not air until October 28th.

While Star Trek certainly has its share of young fans, it’s never been specifically for the kids. Sure, there was the animated show back in the ‘70s, but that was basically a continuation of the original 1966 series. The newest program, Prodigy, is designed with kids in mind — especially those who might know nothing about Star Trek.

Though the show won’t show up on Paramount+ until the end of the month, fans got a sneak peek at the first episode, “Lost & Found,” during this past weekend's New York Comic Con. It introduces to our core cast of characters, a diverse group of aliens trapped on a distant mining colony and forced to dig in search of a mysterious prize. It’s a pretty grim scenario for a kid’s show, but one that won’t stick for long — this is Star Trek, after all, and part of the franchise’s ethos is exploration.

To keep the series as newbie-friendly as possible, the connections to the wider Trek universe are kept to a minimum. We don’t even know what species our protagonist, Dal, is. The rest of the cast is filled out by aliens that are either new to us or haven’t gotten a lot of screen time in the past. And the Federation is largely unknown here. Not that it isn’t mentioned a few times, but that our group of former prisoners have no idea what that means. Long-time fans will be excited to watch them learn all about it, while new fans will get to take that journey of discovery with them.

It’s that sense of wonder that will keep the show firmly in tone with the franchise, even as its new setting and animation style evoke prior science fiction programs like Star Wars: Rebels and Farscape. Star Wars: Rebels was also intended as a kid’s show, but its role in filling in details about the rise of the Rebel Alliance and sense of pathos also made it an enjoyable watch for adults. While older Trekkies will probably want to keep up with Prodigy for those ties to the greater continuity, the action sequences are solid and the initial plot line is serious enough to keep newcomer adults engaged. It’s a good introduction to the franchise for both kids and grownups alike, something sorely needed when there’s over 800 episodes to trawl through.


Prodigy is computer-animated by Eye Animation Productions, part of CBS Television Studios. According to Nickelodeon and Paramount Animation president Ramsey Naito, CG was chosen for being the “most immersive approach,” and that director Ben Hibon’s vision for it had a lot of soul. The show adopts a blocky angular style similar to Rebels but the edges are smoother and the color palette is more expansive. Even when things are grim, it’s still a visual treat in terms of how things are shaded. The planet is a full spectrum of browns and reds, while space isn’t just black and white; it’s purple and blue and pink with an array of glittering stars. It’s a cinematic place you want to explore.


And, of course, our tool for exploration is the USS Protostar, a lost Starfleet vessel that the characters unearth in their digging. What exactly is the ship, and how did it end up on this depressing mining colony? Those are questions for the long haul. Some may however be answered by the vessel’s “help desk,” a hologram of Kathryn Janeway. She doesn’t have a huge part to play in the series premiere, which is good because it means she can’t draw attention away from the introduction of the main cast. Paramount+ did, at least, release a short clip starring Janeway to quench your thirst for the coffee-swilling captain.

During the New York Comic Con panel executive producers Dan and Kevin Hageman did share a few casting announcements. Voyager fans will be pleased to hear that Robert Beltran will be reprising Chakotay. It’s unknown if he’ll appear in the flesh or as another hologram, but we do know that he’s been promoted to captain in the time since his last appearance. Kids will probably be more excited by some of the other guest voices, like Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs as Tysess and The Good Place’s Jameela Jamil as Ascensia. These additional announcements also feel like a tip of the hat to Voyager fans, a show that saw its share of guest stars like The Rock. Prodigy will even bring back Jason Alexander, an actor who also appeared on Voyager, but will now appear in the new role of Doctor Noum.


There’s a lot about the show to be excited about, and what’s been revealed about Prodigy thus far is extremely promising. But as a middle-aged and long-time Star Trek fan, what got me the most in this premiere was when you get to see the Protostar finally fly. Its ascent from the planet was thrilling, but watching the characters react to seeing the stars for the first time… I might have shed a few tears. Star Trek is about exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations. Now we get to watch a whole new cast, one that had previously been abused and downtrodden, live out that dream. Even if we’ve left the confines of the Federation, the show’s heart is still firmly in place with its past.

‘Star Trek: Lower Decks’ is ready to let its ensign heroes rank up

The following contains minor spoilers for season two, episode nine of ‘Star Trek: Lower Decks.’

Throughout the history of Star Trek, it’s generally accepted that a member of Starfleet will spend about three years as an ensign, the lowest officer rank in the fleet. It’s the position given to new Starfleet Academy graduates, and the status of the four protagonists on Lower Decks. However, as the show wraps up its second season and prepares for a third, it does bring the character’s status as “lowly ensigns” into doubt. This week’s episode touches on, though doesn’t solve, the problem by exploring the universal concept of a “lower decker.”

In “wej Duj” (the first full Klingon language episode title in the entire franchise), the USS Cerritos is in transit between missions, giving the crew some much-needed downtime. Mariner, Rutherford and Tendi use their day off to spend some personal time with senior officers, which sends the bridge-crew-friendless Boimler into a panic since he notes that this will give them an edge when it comes to getting promoted. He spends most of the episode trying and failing to get buddy-buddy with various officers. If this all feels like C-plot level shenanigans, well, it is. But as a result the show takes its biggest leap yet to fill out its narrative in this episode.


“wej Duj” is Klingon for “three ships,” and we get to see the crew of the Klingon vessel Che’Ta, where a very ambitious Boimler-esque Klingon is trying to get in good with the current captain of his ship. Old school fans will remember that authority on Klingon ships is assigned by force, with an officer assuming command by killing the previous captain. This young Klingon isn’t quite that ambitious, but he’s perfectly happy to walk the captain’s pet targ if it helps him become first officer.

The episode also shows us the happenings on a nearby Vulcan craft called Sh’Vhal, where a lower decker named T’Lin there has been messing with the sensors and as a result, notices some strange readings in the area that she takes to the captain to investigate. The captain agrees to the search, but he also reprimands her for undertaking such unnecessary adjustments to the ship.


The entire episode could have been played as a “slice of life,” with the three plot lines never intersecting and it still would have been a fairly successful installment of the series. This isn’t our first look at the internal life of a Klingon ship, but it is our first look at a Vulcan crew, and playing those distinct societies against Starfleet culture is a great bit of world building. Star Trek has never been good about showing life outside Starfleet, only lightly touching on the grander world in more recent shows like Picard and Prodigy. And even those still have tenuous Starfleet connections. Lower Decks has relished showing us the larger universe that the characters exist in, and here we now get that same sense of expansion without the Starfleet worldview intruding.

That doesn’t mean the storylines stand apart, far from it. All three ships and their plot lines come together in the end, not only pulling the episode into one cohesive narrative, but also continuing — and starting to resolve — a plot line that has lingered since the end of season one, namely the Pakleds. We finally find out why they suddenly became a huge threat in the Alpha Quadrant, thanks to a series of machinations reminiscent of storylines on The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Not everything is revolved by the end, presumably leading into a big finale next week. It’s fair to say that seasons one and two basically comprise one full story arc, with season three possibly presenting a fresh slate.


And it’s just in time, too. Each season has represented a year on the Cerritos. Next season will mark three years on the Cerritos for Boimler, Tendi and Rutherford, placing them in line for a promotion. And unlike Mariner’s purposeful self-sabotage, her friends have all shown themselves to be competent, trustworthy officers. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be promoted — and technically Brad Boimler already was at the end of last season, having only been demoted and sent back to the Cerritos because of a transporter accident on the USS Titan.

While it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that the characters will get promoted in the season finale, it will have to happen some time next year for the show to maintain its verisimilitude in Star Trek canon. The Cerritos doesn’t have the luxury of being trapped in the Delta Quadrant as an excuse to keep its ensign an ensign (poor Harry Kim). But there’s hope, given what happens to our Klingon and Vulcan lower deckers by the end of “wej Duj.” Those outcomes, alongside the episode wrapping on Brad giving sage advice to a young crewman, seem to hint that the show is comfortable with letting our protagonists move on when it’s time.

What kind of show was Marvel's ‘What If…?’ meant to be?

This post contains spoilers for the season finale of Marvel's 'What If…?'

All season there were hints that What If…? was going to be more than just an anthology show. The fact that it debuted week to week, instead of dropping all at once like Star Wars Visions. The Watcher’s repeated insistence that he must not interfere, an assertion begging to be tested. Stephen Strange noticed the Watcher’s presence. And then Ultron becomes aware of not just the Watcher, but of the entire multiverse, setting the stage for this week’s finale. It’s like a “greatest hits” of the series so far, with room for future adventures.

After last episode’s altercation, the Watcher knows he cannot handle Infinity Ultron by himself, instead enlisting the help of the heroes we’ve met over the entire season, including Captain Carter, T’Challa Starlord and Party Thor. The one exception is a Gamora who appears to have been working with Tony Stark, pulled into the group with little explanation, making me wonder if I had missed an episode. (Though the Watcher’s dismissal of Tony was pretty funny.)

Where other episodes have had to rush through their premises, showing us how those particular realities differed from the main Marvel Cinematic Universe, the finale has eight prior episodes to lean on for background so it got straight to the action. What we got was a tight, zippy episode that’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser, with lots of fun banter between the characters. And it certainly helped that a few were played by their original live-action actors, most notably Benedict Cumberbatch and Hayley Atwell.

However, even this episode left some loose ends and a lot of doors open, with Arnim Zola and Killmonger locked in eternal battle, Black Widow finding a new team and Captain Carter discovering her lost-long love still alive. These all feel ripe for sequels that this show appears more than willing to deliver.

Marvel Studios

It raises the question of what What If…? actually is. The show was originally presented as an anthology — which is still one of the tags it’s given on Disney+. Traditionally an anthology is a collection of stories or essays by different authors, but as early as The Twilight Zone television has defined an anthology as a program with new characters and scenarios every episode, regardless of whether the writers are the same. Even now, while every episode of Black Mirror is written by Charlie Brooker, you’ll still see it described as a science fiction anthology.

The episodes of What If…? are written by a variety of people including showrunner A.C. Bradley, but that’s par for the course with any television program, even the serialized ones. But its anthology nature was due to the fact that even if they were similar to characters we already knew and loved from the live-action productions, the characters were still different people. This is actually alluded to in the finale, when Gamora’s machine fails to destroy the Infinity Stones because it was only built to crush the gems in her universe, not in all realities.

Marvel Studios

But ultimately, even if it’s different universes, it’s one multiverse and thus, one continuity. To watch this finale you would have needed to see every episode of the series this season, instead of cherry-picking only the episodes you were interested in. I know a few people who were only watching the concepts that intrigued them, but in the end they’ll have to watch every episode in order to make sense of certain plot points. While the show has been careful not to intrude into the main MCU and becoming “required” viewing in that expanding behemoth, it’s still building an essential canon of its own.

It’s still rather up in the air over what part What If…? is meant to play. Having many of the actors reprise their roles from the films was a way to tie it into the larger universe, while the change in medium from live-action to animation set it apart from not just the films, but series like WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Being billed as an anthology gave it license to do a lot less long-term character building than those two programs as well. 

Marvel Studios

However, in practice it feels a lot like Loki, which completely changed how we saw the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe — it even downplayed the Infinity Stones at several points! Taking major threats of the MCU and greeting them with a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ says that even What If….? isn’t all that interested in retreading old stories and is ready to move on with the rest of the Marvel properties. It may be inessential canon, but it still wants to keep up with the main event. And that’s not how an anthology is supposed to work.

Nintendo Switch OLED review: Beautiful, but not a must-have

Though they don’t come out with the annual frequency of an iPhone, video game consoles can always be counted on to have a few mid-cycle refreshes (think: the PlayStation 4 Pro or Xbox One X). This week it’s Nintendo giving the OG Switch a makeover, adding an OLED screen and a few other exterior tweaks. But it’s basically the same system on the inside, so don’t call it the Switch Pro. It’s officially dubbed the Nintendo Switch OLED, because calling it the “slightly nicer Switch” doesn’t really move units from the shelves. If you’ve already invested in a Switch or Switch Lite you won’t need the upgrade, but if you’re still Switch-less this is the model to buy.

It’s $50 more than the original, which is not being pulled from shelves just yet. For $350, the new Switch has a full 7-inch OLED screen, a step up from the older model’s 6.2-inch display. The larger screen size is appreciated, though after six hours of playing it in handheld mode I didn’t notice the difference as much.

Kris Naudus / Engadget

What did catch my attention when I switched back to the original were the chunky bezels around the 6.2-inch display. I’ve never liked them and found them to be one of the least attractive things about the system. Now they make me recoil in disgust when I compare them to the OLED model’s slim lines, which have been whittled to a third of the size. The matte plastic frame around the screen has also shrunk and changed to a glossy plastic, making it even less obtrusive.

As for the display itself: yes, it is noticeably brighter. There’s enough of a difference that in my initial hands-on I was dismayed when I returned to my personal Switch at home hours later. When placed side by side, the difference is undeniable. The colors pop just a bit more, the blacks are deeper and the whites are… more white, with the original having a slight lavender tint in contrast to the purer white of the OLED screen.

Kris Naudus / Engadget

While not every game will benefit from better colors, Nintendo is also releasing Metroid Dread the same day. Like all titles in the series, the game traffics in a lot of dark spaces, with the bright pop of Samus’ red and yellow (or blue) armor contrasting nicely alongside backgrounds of brown and gray. It’s a good showcase for the OLED’s improved color fidelity and just a nice-looking game in general, which distracts from the fact that the new Switch doesn’t bring any actual improvements under the hood.

The CPU and GPU go unaltered, which ensures that all future Switch titles remain compatible with existing Switch and Switch Lite systems. This is pretty much in keeping with the Game Boy Advance and 3DS lines of products, which saw some radical redesigns like the Game Boy micro and 2DS over their lifespans. Sure, there were handhelds like the DSi and New 3DS that came with improved internal specs, but those never saw widespread adoption. The Switch OLED is a lot more like the Game Boy Advance SP: significant improvements to the display and form factor, but the same old library of games.

Alongside that new display are a bunch of minor tweaks that don’t seem like much when considered individually, but as a whole really improve the experience. The most notable is the new stand on the back. The one on the original Switch is small and roughly a finger’s width, with only two positions: open and closed. The one on my original launch unit no longer locks in the “closed” position and has a tendency to flop out when I’m playing in handheld mode. It also detaches completely if you look at it funny.

The Switch OLED’s stand is an entirely different beast. Instead of a skinny little strip, it’s now a Microsoft Surface-style panel that stretches across the back of the entire unit, with real hinges that can be left in a number of positions so you can now put your unit at whatever angle you prefer. I wouldn’t try to pull this thing off; the hinges are actually molded into the plastic, so if you do break it, it’ll have to go off to the Nintendo repair shop to get fixed up.

Kris Naudus / Engadget

To accommodate the new stand a bunch of stuff has been moved around on the back of the Switch unit. The logo is now printed on the stand itself, so it’s been moved to the lower half of the rear. The manufacturing info, like the parts number and voltage, is now printed in black on the black plastic, underneath the stand. So it’s doubly hidden — a subtle but welcome improvement. The rear speakers have been moved to the bottom edge of the unit, where they also serve as a way to pull the stand out. It’s actually very thoughtful, while providing clear game audio and minimizing system noise. And, while the microSD hasn’t been completely relocated, it’s now placed parallel to the bottom edge. I assume this small change is to keep users from accidentally pulling out the card when they’re trying to adjust the stand. The one thing that hasn’t been relocated is the USB-C port on the bottom, so you still can’t recharge it in tabletop mode.

Kris Naudus / Engadget

There are fewer changes to the device’s top edge, with the most notable being a button redesign resulting in longer, thinner power and volume switches. The new buttons aren’t easier to hit, but they do look sleeker and feel better under my fingers thanks to the textured plastic of the Switch OLED. The system is actually just nicer to hold now, like when it kept the sweat from pooling under my clammy hands during a particularly stressful boss fight in Metroid Dread.

Kris Naudus / Engadget

Because the Switch OLED has to be compatible with all existing accessories, that means the unit is the same height and width as the original model. The Joy-Cons haven’t gotten a redesign, but hopefully the infamous “Joy-Con drift” has been eradicated by now. The new black and white color scheme is very nice, a step up from my all-gray launch unit in terms of style. If you like a more playful color palette, the Switch OLED can also be bought with red and blue Joy-Cons, or you can swap any other Joy-Cons you want. But the white ones don’t show scratches as easily as the other shades, so they’ll look spiffy for longer.

The one change in the system’s dimensions is the weight, thanks to the OLED screen. When handling the original and new Switch side by side, the difference is undeniable. But it’s not a big enough divide to make the Switch OLED less portable in any way. Subjectively, it might actually seem a bit lighter, possibly because the weight is well-distributed. The one thing about the build that feels like a step down is that the OLED model has a tiny bit of flex in the middle of the rear panel that’s not present in the original. However, it doesn’t make much of a difference to the build quality unless you’re planning to take a hammer to the back of the unit.

Kris Naudus / Engadget

Because the system keeps the same internals, that means the battery has gone unchanged as well. It’s the same as the refreshed 2019 battery, which offers between four and nine hours of battery life compared to the launch unit’s cap of six hours. However, the new OLED should be more power-efficient than the LCD, and in use it appears to be. I got almost seven hours of Metroid Dread before I got the “low battery” warning at 15 percent, and that’s a game that makes frequent use of vibration. Compare that to the four or five hours I tend to get out of my OG Switch, even when playing something fairly tame like Animal Crossing or Untitled Goose Game.

If you already have an existing Switch, you can drop the OLED model into your current dock and it will work just fine. But the system does come with its own, redesigned dock that you might want to set up. It looks a lot nicer thanks to its rounded corners and glossy black plastic on the inside (which admittedly will probably scratch up over time). The back panel isn’t great, as it feels flimsy and can come off completely (so you may lose it). But all of these are outweighed by the important addition of an ethernet port.

Prior to this, the Switch has always been intended as a wireless system, and it hasn’t been stellar. Early models had a tendency to “forget” how to connect to your WiFi, forcing you to restart the system. And even now, downloading from the Nintendo eShop can be pokey; even with the OLED model I had to leave my system sitting for an hour or two while it downloaded games wirelessly. But now you can just plug in a cable for a faster, more reliable connection. If you have one in your living room, that is. Many people don’t, which makes this a feature for the more technical-minded fans. It’s the one new feature of the Switch OLED that I would consider “pro” level, and if you have a place to plug in it’s certainly worth the $50 premium.

Kris Naudus / Engadget

Overall, the Switch OLED is a nice system coming out at an odd time, as it’s been over four years since the release of the original Switch. Based on Nintendo’s past release history, that would indicate a new console some time around 2023. So it’s a big ask of people to buy a $350 system if something better is just around the corner. (Nintendo has categorically denied that it has plans for a new Switch as recently as last week, but that doesn’t preclude that one will come out eventually.)

There’s also the specter of the Steam Deck in December, just two short months from now (assuming no delays). It's far more powerful than the Switch, and is also much larger, but promises access to almost the entire Steam library, which happens to overlap with the current Nintendo eShop quite a bit. The biggest selling point for the Switch OLED is access to storied franchises like Mario and Zelda, as well as the incredible bargain that is Switch Online. But you don’t need an OLED screen or wired ethernet to enjoy old NES, SNES, N64 and Genesis titles.

Kris Naudus / Engadget

If you’re not going to be able to plug it into ethernet, or don’t need better speeds because you play offline all the time, the choice to upgrade to a Switch OLED is tricky. If you always play on the TV, there’s absolutely no point in buying this one, as there’s no difference in the dock’s output quality. It’s going to look the same as it always has, as this is most definitely not the rumored upgrade to 4K. But even if you’re a handheld player it’s not a must-have, unless you’ve given up on your original Switch because you just really, really hate LCD displays, or absolutely need more than five hours of battery life.

‘Lower Decks’ mines the weirder corners of the Star Trek universe

The following contains minor spoilers for season two, episode eight of 'Star Trek: Lower Decks.'

The subject of “canon” has come up a lot recently. Marvel’s What If…? is a show that plays around but still mostly adheres to it, while Star Wars Visions disregards it almost completely. Meanwhile, Star Trek: Lower Decks is a humorous show that wasn’t expected to follow canon and yet, the writers seem to have made it their mission to fill out the gaps in Star Trek continuity. And this might be the cartoon’s greatest strength.


The show’s willingness to reference past adventures is on full display this week, as the USS Cerritos is tasked with running drills to test crew efficiency. Seeing a Starfleet crew put through its paces is something we’ve seen many times before, though this time around it’s for a particularly non-Starfleet-like reason: Captain Freeman accidentally leaves our core four cast members behind when jetting off on a rescue mission. To be fair, the quartet of ensigns did forget to sign their magnet boots out, which would have let their senior officers know they weren’t on the ship. But still, it’s a screw-up we don’t often see on Star Trek.

In response, the entire crew is gathered in a cargo bay to be tested by a Pandronian instructor — a species never seen in any live-action Star Trek productions, but familiar to anyone who’s watched the 1973 animated series. Pandronians are colony creatures that can split into three pieces, something that was harder to create when special effects were far less sophisticated. Animation has fewer limitations, and Lower Decks has taken advantage of that plenty in its two seasons to showcase species like the Caitians, Ariolo and Kzinti.


Though it utilized many of the cast and crew of the original series, the canonized status of the animated Star Trek was always a nebulous thing, with some writers saying that episodes like “Yesteryear” were in continuity, but no real on-screen confirmation of the show’s place in the timeline. One of show creator Mike McMahan’s stipulations for Lower Decks was that it take place in-canon, and he’s used that status to cement the 1973 cartoon in as well.

However, Lower Decks also has plenty to offer live-action fans, and this week’s episode is heavy on the references, with the Cerritos crew taking on simulations with names like “Natural Selection,” “Chain of Command'' and “Naked Time.” These aren’t just generic descriptions but also the names of episodes, and long-time fans will delight in seeing Mariner take on the Mirror Universe or Boimler face off against the Borg. We might be familiar with the scenarios, but seeing how these particular characters handle them adds a new twist.


While the whole drill plot might seem like a cheap way to pander to old-school fans, it’s also similar to how the military works in real life, with students often asked to study historical tactics and run tests based on real events. We’ve seen the holosuites used to recreate battles at the Alamo, Thermopylae and the Battle of Britain on Deep Space Nine, while Riker even used the holodeck to observe the Enterprise NX-01’s final mission. (And let’s not forget the time Troi had to kill Geordi to earn a promotion to commander.) From the beginning, Lower Decks has been a show that embraces Starfleet’s naval trappings more fully than we’ve ever seen, and putting the crew to the test here seems to be the logical endpoint of that.

But where Lower Decks shines brightest of all is when it chooses to glue the disparate parts of the Star Trek franchise together. The Star Trek universe is extremely weird and complex but, instead of rebooting the entire franchise (DC Comics) or throwing out huge swathes of past story (Star Wars), Star Trek has embraced the mess. The universe is weird, so it’s okay if everything doesn’t neatly fit together. It’s just funnier this way.

The Watcher takes center stage on this week’s 'What If…?'

This post contains spoilers for episode eight of Marvel's 'What If…?'

In physics there’s what’s known as the “observer effect,” wherein an object or system is changed merely by observing it. On Marvel’s What If…? each episode has been witnessed by an apparently omniscient narrator known as The Watcher, who seemingly believes himself to be above this simple rule. He’s seen the Avengers murdered, zombies overrun the galaxy and Steven Strange completely destroying his own universe, but the Watcher has always refrained from doing anything that would change the outcome — until now.

The twist in this episode is that in Age of Ultron, the titular villain managed to get control of the Vision body before it awakened as the hero we all know and love, taking it over and then, the world and even gaining the Infinity Stones. Somewhere in all this the Avengers are killed, with the exception of Natasha and Clint, finally giving us that Black Widow and Hawkeye adventure we should have had years ago. I haven’t been the biggest fan of either character, but here they’re a lot of fun despite the grim circumstances.

Marvel Studios

The real star here, however, is Jeffrey Wright’s Watcher character. We still know little about him, or the faction he serves. The Watchers, as a group, have only appeared in live-action during a brief scene in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. What If…? has been our first proper introduction to the concept and, after eight episodes, we’re still mostly in the dark about them.

But this week’s installment did shed some light, at least. We know that our Watcher has taken an oath to never interfere with the things he sees, though to whom we still don’t know, nor are we made aware of possible consequences of breaking that vow. And we now know he’s emotionally invested in the universes he observes, if only based on his reaction to Clint not finding the folder they need in the KGB archives (luckily, Natasha is there to save the day).

Marvel Studios

However, that observer effect comes into play regardless of the Watcher’s intentions, as his omniscient narration is overheard by the powered-up Ultron, who seeks him out and attacks. In the process Ultron becomes aware of the multiverse, which explains his sudden appearance at the end of last week’s episode. Previews for the finale hint at some sort of multiversal team-up, one involving Captain Carter, Party Thor and the other altered characters we’ve met over the first eight episodes.

While it’s certainly a fun concept — there’s an entire comic series called Exiles about a multi-reality team such as this — it raises questions about what, exactly, season two will be about. It’s already been confirmed, but Marvel has shown it’s not really interested in running What If…? as an anthology series like the comic it’s based on. The instance on making it part of the larger canon has led to the show having its own internal continuity, though it’s unlikely it will be needed to understand the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Marvel Studios

At least we hope it remains a side-story of the MCU: the power levels in the battle between The Watcher and Infinity Ultron puts even the massive conflicts shown in the last two Avengers films to shame. (Especially after Thanos is offed rather unceremoniously.) It’s a weird escalation in scale given that the teased villain of Phase IV, Kang the Conqueror, hasn’t even made a proper appearance yet.

Marvel Comics has a deep, expansive mythology and it’s nice to see the MCU finally explore some of those outer reaches. But right now the current approach to continuity feels a little cramped, and in danger of getting in its own way. Hopefully, next week’s finale will see the Watcher fully break free of his oath, and maybe help What If…? shed its remaining ties to its live-action counterparts to do something truly new.

‘Metroid Dread’ had me screaming my head off

Thanks to my parents, I was introduced to Monty Python pretty young. And the family that watches absurdist British comedy together… has a lot of in-jokes. For example, Any time we’re, say, outside when it starts raining and we all scurry for shelter, someone in my family is bound to scream in a silly voice, “Run away! Run away!” That person was me while playing Metroid Dread, not just because it’s a fun thing to say: it’s the only way to survive that game for the first hour or so.

Metroid Dread is the fifth of the 2D adventures (not counting remakes) and the first new 2D installment in 19 years, since Metroid Fusion in 2002. And yet, I probably haven’t played a Metroid game since the ‘80s or ‘90s, so I was happy to see that the basic formula hasn’t changed. It’s still an exploration game where you’re trapped in a series of underground facilities and must find your way out by destroying enemies, blowing up walls, and squeezing through tight passages. That last one has been upgraded at least; while you’ll still eventually gain Samus’ famous morph ball technique, at the start of the game you can instead do a crouch-slide through tunnels by hitting L1. It’s kind of fun, except that there’s a bit of a learning curve in figuring out which passages are for sliding and which are for rolling. As you unlock new abilities, you can, of course, revisit old locations to attain items you couldn’t reach the first time around.


The story kicks off a little while after the end of Metroid Fusion, with Samus Aran once more being called upon to track down and destroy the parasitic creatures known as “X.” Familiarity with the previous game isn’t vital to understanding Dread, except that Samus can still absorb X nuclei to recharge her energy, and she remains susceptible to cold. Both of these traits come into play rather early in the game. Early on Samus is attacked by what appears to be a super-strong Chozo, losing her old equipment and abilities in the process (as is tradition). This puts her and the player back to square one, which certainly draws out the story but may frustrate long-time players. I understand why the game does this, but I still get annoyed because it’s a huge cliché at this point. I can only hope the payoff to the mystery of who this huge, unstoppable enemy is ends up being worth it.

In fairness it doesn’t seem any of those old tools would help with the new stealth elements of the game. You see, the facility is guarded by gangly giant robots called EMMI (“Extraplanetary Multiform Mobile Identifier”) that will stab you in the neck if they catch you. It’s a pretty visceral bit of animation, even if it cuts out before anything particularly gory. You can attempt a melee attack to knock them off, but in my dozen close encounters with the robots I never got that tactic to work once.


Instead, the game debuts a few new tools as you play that will help, like a spider magnet that lets you cling to ceilings and other high surfaces. The most valuable ability we’ve seen in previews so far is a cloaking field that will hide you from an EMMI while draining your energy (and eventually, life) bar. But both of these, along with more powerful weaponry, have to be picked up later in the game.

When you’ve just arrived on the planet, however, the biggest survival tactic in your arsenal will be running. Lots and lots of running and jumping and getting the hell out of there. The game will sort of warn you when one of the robots is nearby, and you can attempt to stay just out of range. A blue field means it’s just sort of around, yellow means it’s aware of your presence, and on red you better run like hell. Your best bet is to stay unnoticed, a task somewhat made somewhat trickier by the fact that this stealth game lacks a lot of stealth game mechanics. Crouching behind boxes does nothing, and you can’t slide up against the wall to go unnoticed. Nor do the EMMI subscribe to the “out of sight, out of mind” philosophy: They will follow you into another room and, if you slip into an area where they cannot follow, they will try to find a way in.


The EMMI are quite fast, which makes the game itself quite ruthless. A few of my untimely deaths were due to being chased by one of the robots and not knowing where to go next. This game can be very unforgiving when you’ve just started exploring.

Still, despite being a Metroid newbie I found it engaging. Even as I got stabbed in the neck repeatedly I was always scanning the environment before the game blacked out, looking for the point where I screwed up and could do better. I only had 90 or so minutes with the game, so I didn’t have the luxury of slamming my head up against the wall to figure it all out. But when Metroid Dread comes out on October 8th, I am looking forward to having all the time to scream my head off and… run, run, run.

The Switch OLED is a strong contender for most gorgeous handheld ever

Nintendo makes good hardware, but I don’t know if I’d ever personally describe any of it as “beautiful.” The GameCube was cute, I loved the clamshell design of the Game Boy Advance SP and I still have fond memories of the SNES’s dogbone controller. But the Switch… I’m just sort of “okay” with it. It’s never been a piece of a hardware that screamed “touch me” until now, with the upcoming OLED model.

Kris Naudus / Engadget

Set to come out October 8th, the big marquee feature of the new Switch is its larger, sharper screen. It’s been bumped up to a 7-inch OLED from the 6.2-inch LCD of the original. I got to spend about an hour and a half with it and, though I couldn’t compare the two systems side-by-side, I certainly noticed the difference when I got home. I fumbled for the brightness settings on my OG Switch only to sadly realize they were at max. The OLED is bright, crisp and gosh darn beautiful. The original Switch display still looks good, but the new screen is genuinely great.

Kris Naudus / Engadget

The game on offer was the upcoming Metroid Dread, which comes out the same day as basically a “launch title” for the refreshed system. It’s a good choice given the dark, sometimes claustrophobic settings of the Metroid series. It’s easy enough to see every passage and to distinguish the impassable bricks from the ones you’re supposed to blow up. The game will still be playable on a regular Switch or Switch Lite, but it feels like the game was meant to be seen on the new hardware.

Kris Naudus / Engadget

And it’s more than just that larger display. It’s still the same basic shape and size but somehow feels more svelte, despite being heavier than the original. The volume and power buttons along the top are narrower, a design choice I’m not crazy about even though I didn’t find them particularly hard to press. (I think I just prefer the feel of a circular button over an oval-shaped one.)

Kris Naudus / Engadget

The new kickstand is pretty great, stretching all the way across the back of the system instead of the original’s flimsy vertical strip that fell off if you looked at it funny. Sure, the new one takes a little more effort to pull it out but it’s worth it for the extra sturdiness and reliability. And be still my heart, it’s actually adjustable, though I didn’t make use of this much since I preferred to play the system in handheld mode. It just felt… good. And the new black and white color scheme looks great in person. I’ve always been a sucker for the panda look, and would have preferred this to the all-gray system I started with back in 2017.

All that said, I didn’t have enough time to test the battery life with the new screen, or see how many games I can cram onto the 64 GB of storage. Until I know how long it’ll last in the wild I’m not sure if this is a must-upgrade, but just looking at a Switch OLED in person, I found it hard to resist.

‘Star Wars: Visions’ breaks from canon while Marvel’s ‘What If…?’ refuses to

The following contains spoilers for episode three of 'Star Wars: Visions' and episode seven of 'What If...?'

Back in the days when DVD was king, I remember there was a trend of making animated tie-ins for live-action franchises. There were direct-to-video features for Chronicles of Riddick, Van Helsing and, the most famous project of them all, The Animatrix. Nearly 20 years later, streaming reigns supreme and services like Disney+ seem to be returning to the idea, but bigger and grander with shows like Marvel’s What If…? and Star Wars: Visions.

Visions, premiering this week, is probably the more ambitious of the two, enlisting talent from various Japanese anime studios to create short films about different aspects of the Star Wars universe. The list includes juggernauts like Trigger (Kill la Kill, Promare) Production I.G (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Haikyu!!) and Science SARU (Devilman Crybaby, Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!). Unlike The Animatrix, Lucasfilm was content to mostly hand over the reins to these studios, creating shorts that differ in tone, style and, most notably, continuity.

Robot Jedi? Sith twins? Intergalactic rock band whose members include a Hutt and a former Jedi padawan? It’s an intriguing array of concepts, but as a long-time Star Wars fan I couldn’t tell you how they fit into the timeline. If they fit in, at all. Visions is more about taking some base concepts — the Force, the Jedi, the Sith — and playing around with them in each studio’s unique style. It reminds me the most of Batman: Gotham Knight from 2008, a collection of shorts also by various anime studios, including Production I.G. The one thing that DC Entertainment has always had going for it is the variety of TV and movie adaptations it’s had going on independently of each other, where audiences just understood that these weren’t meant to be connected in any way.


However, even for DC things have been changing in that regard, especially after last year’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover. For years now, the TV “Berlanti-verse” has been flirting with continuity, not just in how The Flash was a spinoff of Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow was a spinoff of both, but even having the Flash and Supergirl meet up even though they were on different networks and in different universes.


“Crisis” upped the ante by merging these separate worlds in the end, while also confirming almost every other DC-based TV show as part of the bigger multiverse. It was great for fans who obsessively watch every comic book program they can, but less so for people who would rather keep their viewing limited and compartmentalized.

On the other side, Marvel didn’t have the same deep catalog as DC did, with its live-action MCU franchise only taking off 13 years ago. Marvel Studios was perfectly happy to wipe the slate clean of everything that had come before, from the 1989 Punisher film to 2007’s Ghost Rider with Nicolas Cage. Since then everything live-action has tied into the universe somehow, including Netflix shows like Daredevil, Hulu shows like Runaways and the Freeform show Cloak & Dagger. This was great for someone committed to the franchise, but could be daunting to casual viewers.

It also presented some creative constraints. Everything Marvel now had to fit in with the larger MCU somehow, so once a character appeared another movie or show couldn’t present its own take on the same person (alas, poor Inhumans). They couldn’t have world-shaking events outside of, say, the Avengers films — at least, not without making some kind of excuse why Captain America or Thor couldn’t just come charging in. Everything had to be carefully planned out as the universe expanded and connected internally.

That’s partly why the show What If…? exists. Sure, it’s based on a pre-existing comic series, but what both show and comic do is allow creators free rein with the characters and events of the Marvel Universe, experimenting to see what would happen if you change one or two things. Though this week’s is hardly a “slight” difference.

Marvel Studios

The point of divergence here is that Odin doesn’t adopt Loki as his son, leaving Thor to become an arrogant, spoiled child who prefers to party rather than take his duties as the would-be king of Asgard seriously. How is he still worthy of Mjolnir? We have no idea and the episode isn’t interested in telling us. Instead we’re shown how Thor likes to take the Warriors Three on long benders across the galaxy, with his next destination being the “backwater” of Earth. And everyone’s invited — Drax, Rocket, Howard the Duck, the Grandmaster and even Loki and the other ice giants who somehow, are friends with Thor anyway in this reality. When you consider why and how these characters got involved in the “main” timeline in the first place, it really doesn’t add up.

Marvel Studios

You could just try to enjoy it at face value, as just a silly story with no larger bearing on continuity. However, the point has been made repeatedly that this show is technically, in continuity, and not just in the sense that the Marvel Universe consists of many realities and everything is valid somewhere. While other comics and shows can be given an official universe “number” like 616 or 1,999,999 and just written off as a huge divergence from what we know, the concept of What If…? is that it shows us incremental changes from the MCU in particular. But the divergences shown in this week’s episode are far more than incremental, with an offbeat, cartoonish tone to match. It’s the least What If-like What If…? installment so far.

Unfortunately, like most of the episodes so far, it still ends on a downbeat, one that’s sort of rushed in and not explained. I can’t even imagine how we ended up with a Vision-Ultron hybrid in possession of the Infinity Stones and, unless this episode gets a sequel, it doesn’t really matter. The ending is just a non sequitur to affirm, as every episode does, that the regular MCU sequence of events is the “correct one.” It’s tacked on, and makes what was already a messy adventure even worse.


This is where the strength of Star Wars: Visions lies. There’s no attempt to tie the episodes to each other or the larger Star Wars universe. It lets each installment stand on its own as an homage to the larger “ideas” of Star Wars, while also showcasing the idiosyncrasies of each studio. The third episode, “The Twins,” is a great example of this in action. There’s a lightsaber fight on the hull of a Star Destroyer! No one is wearing environmental suits! They’re yelling at each other despite a lack of air! People’s clothes explode off their bodies! It doesn’t make a damn lick of sense, but it doesn’t have to, because it’s not meant to be more than a bit of fun.