Star Trek: Lower Decks Is a Clever, Fun Take on the Franchise
For the most part, Star Trek takes itself very seriously. There are moments of humor across the franchise’s various TV series and films, but the general tone is one of steely determination, whether the characters are exploring deep philosophical issues or saving the universe. Trek fans tend to take the franchise pretty seriously, too, which makes the new animated comedy series Star Trek: Lower Decks a big risk and a tough balancing act. Creator Mike McMahan has to be respectful enough that the series doesn’t come off like he’s mocking Star Trek and Trek fans, but he needs to be irreverent enough for the show’s jokes not to feel bland and toothless. Lower Decks doesn’t always successfully walk that line, but it’s a pleasant diversion in between installments of the more "important" Trek series, and open-minded fans should have fun with it.
As the title implies, Lower Decks focuses on the least glamorous members of Starfleet, the low-ranking officers who perform menial tasks on starships while the characters who are typically the focus of Trek stories (captains, commanders, lieutenants) are busy doing all the serious, universe-saving stuff. The main characters here are four ensigns on the U.S.S. Cerritos: Brad Boimler (voiced by Jack Quaid) is the uptight rule-follower, who dreams of one day captaining his own ship and reveres Starfleet and the Federation. Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome) is Boimler’s opposite, a slacker with no respect for Starfleet or her superior officers, but has served on so many other ships and missions that she’s secretly ultra-competent when she wants to be. Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) is an engineering nerd dealing with a not entirely reliable cybernetic implant. And D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells) is an Orion who’s new to the ship, working in sick bay.
Although they spend much of their time doing things like cleaning out replicators, realigning sensors and fetching coffee, the four ensigns are surprisingly integral to the ship’s missions, in a way that sometimes goes against the concept of the show. There are major, life-or-death catastrophes in each of the four episodes available for review, and Boimler and Mariner are often responsible for saving the ship and the lives of their superior officers, even though they rarely get any credit for it. The show is funniest in its quieter moments, though, when the characters are just goofing off as they perform basic grunt work, trading insults and anecdotes. Quaid and Newsome in particular have great chemistry as the bickering colleagues who ultimately respect each other.
Boimler, Rutherford and Tendi are all mostly wide-eyed and awed by space travel, and they’re not too different from other Trek characters portrayed as new to Starfleet (even if they’re a bit more sarcastic). But Mariner is the kind of character rarely seen on a Trek show: someone openly cynical about the Federation and its lofty goals, and she provides a refreshing perspective on the typical Trek grandiosity. At the same time, the show never feels like it’s deriding Trek, and it’s full of references and background elements that demonstrate McMahan’s deep love for and knowledge of Trek canon. The show is set immediately after the era of Star Trek: The Next Generation and its spin-off movies. As such, Lower Decks is presented like a show from that era, too, using the same title font for the opening credits and a theme song that incorporates elements of previous Trek music.
Boimler can jokingly call space “the funnest frontier,” but there are also knowing references to characters from nearly every previous Trek series, and McMahon digs deep for alien races including the cat-like Caitians from the 1970s Star Trek: The Animated Series (the ship’s doctor, voiced by Gillian Vigman, is a cranky Caitian). McMahan worked as the head writer on Rick and Morty and co-created the recent Hulu animated comedy Solar Opposites, but there’s none of the nasty nihilism that can be prevalent on those shows, and even the snarky Mariner is a good person at heart, always doing the right thing when she’s in a tough situation.
The visual style of Lower Decks is bright and clean, recognizable from the other shows McMahan has worked on. McMahan uses the freedom of animation to stage some elaborate alien encounters that would be impractical to depict in live action, and sometimes the show goes a little too far with its extreme chaos on board the Cerritos. The entire ship doesn’t need to be overrun by an alien zombie virus or a terraforming formula gone awry for the characters to find funny ways to interact. It’s just as amusing to watch Mariner argue with the ship’s insecure Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) -- who also happens to be Mariner’s mother -- as it is to see Boimler thrown around by some sort of alien spider-cow.
With its reverence for Next Generation-era Trek, Lower Decks will undoubtedly be compared to Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, but it doesn’t have that show’s need to add dramatic weight to its stories. A better comparison would be Paul Feig’s cult sci-fi comedy Other Space (which also featured Cordero in a major role), another show about bickering but well-meaning oddballs exploring the galaxy. Neither of those shows had the advantage of taking place in the official Trek universe, though, and McMahan knows how to draw on the franchise’s rich history to enhance the comedy, rather than distract from it.
For Trek purists, Lower Decks may sometimes feel like it’s poking too many holes in their beloved canon. But part of becoming a rich fictional universe means allowing for stories that point out the ridiculousness of genre conventions. Just as the Marvel and DC universes are better off for the existence of characters like Deadpool and Harley Quinn, Lower Decks will only enhance the world of Star Trek.
Star Trek: Lower Decks stars Tawny Newsome as Ensign Beckett Mariner, Eugene Cordero as Ensign Rutherford, Jack Quaid as Ensign Brad Boimler, Noël Wells as Ensign Tendi, Dawnn Lewis as Captain Carol Freeman, Jerry O'Connell as Commander Jack Ransom, Gillian Vigman as Doctor T'Ana and Fred Tatasciore as Lieutenant Shaxs. The show premiered on CBS All Access on Aug. 6.