Will ‘Lower Decks’ Break the Star Trek Animation Curse?

This week, CBSViacom’s All Access streaming service will debut yet another new Star Trek spin-off, the third since 2017. This latest installment, entitled Star Trek: Lower Decks, is born of CBS’s effort to deliver a continuous stream of new Star Trek to keep subscribers hooked to All Access while rotating through a variety of different series to avoid franchise fatigue. It’s the greatest departure yet from the franchise’s time-tested blueprint: an animated sitcom. But while it’s rarely mentioned in web articles, reference books, or even CBS’s own “Every Series, Every Episode” marketing, this isn’t the first time Star Trek has expanded into the realm of animation. In fact, on more than one occasion, creators have attempted to keep an ailing Star Trek alive by retreating to the 2nd Dimension. 

The Other Show Called “Star Trek”

Star Trek — the show we now call Star Trek: The Original Series — came to an unceremonious end in June 1969 after a lackluster third season, but the show’s fanatical viewership only grew as the series moved from prime-time to reruns in syndication. Noticing the strong syndication ratings, original network NBC even considered reviving Star Trek after they reviewed its analysis of Star Trek’s first-run viewership and realized that they’d accidentally canceled a hit show, but with the sets struck and the cast disbanded, it was now too expensive to resume production. In January 1972, two and a half years after the final episode aired, over 3000 fans descended upon the Stratler Hilton Hotel in Manhattan for what is considered the first Star Trek convention, surpassing all expectations and demonstrating that the demand for more Star Trek was more than hypothetical.

At the same time, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was being courted by Lou Scheimer, founder of Filmation, the studio behind a string of Saturday morning cartoons based upon DC and Archie Comics characters. Scheimer wanted to create a Star Trek animated series for kids, featuring either pint-sized versions of the original cast, or a mix of the original cast and kid sidekicks. Roddenberry refused to alter the formula of his creation, and would only agree to collaborate on a Star Trek cartoon if it was essentially the same show, with the same cast and format.

Eventually, Roddenberry and Scheimer agreed upon terms, and a new show called Star Trek — which has since been retitled Star Trek: The Animated Series — debuted on September 8, 1973, the seventh anniversary of the first Star Trek broadcast. This new Star Trek was intended as a direct continuation of its predecessor, taking advantage of the perks of its new medium while sacrificing as little as possible from the original recipe. The entire core cast of the live-action series returned (minus Walter Koenig, who played Chekov, who got to write an episode as consolation), as did many of the original writers, who were instructed not to write down to a presumably younger audience but to let their imaginations run wild since anything was possible in animation.

The result remains the most bizarre entry in the Star Trek canon (though how “canon” it is depends on who you ask). On the one hand, The Animated Series expanded the scope and diversity of the Star Trek universe in a way that no production since has approached. Settings and space phenomena, unlimited by set construction resources or optical effects, became massive and imaginative. New species and creatures no longer had to resemble humans with prosthetics attached to their heads. Animation permitted visually challenging story ideas, such as a visit to an underwater civilization, or the crew slowly shrinking into nothing, that would be unachievable on live-action television for decades.

The new medium also came with drawbacks. While the designs for sets and characters are interesting, the show’s low budget shows through in the actual animation. Most episodes consist of about 30% recycled animation. Character acting is awkward as the animators had to limit movement as much as possible. The cast also struggled to adapt to voice acting — while so much of the charm of The Original Series is in the endearingly hammy performances and the camaraderie between the main characters, this part of the fun translates poorly to The Animated Series. The 22-minute format also meant that the writers, when forced to trim and simplify their scripts, tended to prioritize the complex high-concept sci-fi ideas over character subplots, and many episodes lack personal stakes for our beloved leads.

The Animated Series as a whole has fallen in and out of favor with the franchise’s creative directors — Gene Roddenberry asked for it to be struck from canon in 1988, once The Next Generation was in full swing, but references to it are littered throughout Enterprise, Discovery, and Picard. One episode in particular has always been held up as an example of TAS living up to its full potential: “Yesteryear,” written by showrunner and Original Series veteran Dorothy “D.C.” Fontana, in which a time-traveling Spock assists his preadolescent self through a difficult personal trial. In “Yesteryear,” Fontana expands the backstory she created for Spock in the classic “Journey to Babel” using simple, character-defined stakes, an otherworldly setting, and fantastic creatures, perfectly suited for a half-hour cartoon.

Star Trek: The Animated Series ran for 22 episodes between 1973 and 1975, taking home a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Entertainment Children’s Series. While often left out of larger discussions of the franchise, TAS kept the torch lit for the franchise until Paramount finally ordered the first live-action Star Trek revival in 1977, which would lead to the feature film series, and eventually a continuous 18-year return to television beginning in 1987. Might Star Trek have survived to become the multi-headed monster of a franchise it is today without The Animated Series? Unless someone hauls the Guardian of Forever out of mothballs, we’ll never know.

More Trek:

Star Trek: The Animated Series
Star Trek: The Animated Series

Lost Frontier

The fifth live-action Star Trek spin-off, Star Trek: Enterprise, aired its final episode in May 2005, bringing the franchise’s longest, most fruitful renaissance to an end. CBS Television executive and infamous creep Leslie Moonves was personally responsible for giving Enterprise the axe, but dwindling ratings and fan interest seemed to reinforce the idea that Trek was out of gas. With no new projects on the horizon, a team of creators looked to once again revive the ailing IP in animated form.

Inspired by Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars animated shorts, a pair of fans who had risen up the production ranks to make Star Trek their living pitched CBS on a way to keep the Star Trek story alive as an animated web series on StarTrek.com, which would require a relatively low investment compared to television. Dave Rossi began his career as a production assistant on the set of The Next Generation and eventually rose to Associate Producer on Enterprise. Doug Mirabello had been a PA on Enterprise, as well as one of Activision’s resident Trek experts during their time with the video game license. With Prequel Fever still very much holding sway over Hollywood, they initially pitched a spin-off from The Original Series following the new crew that would take over the USS Excalibur after its previous crew is killed during the episode “The Ultimate Computer.” But when this concept fell apart, friend and freelance editor Jose Munoz came aboard and the trio refocused on the idea of moving Star Trek forward into the future.

“[Star Trek] seemed to have lost its hopeful optimism and sense of exploration,” Rossi told me in a recent interview. “We felt it was time to recapture that sense of being on the frontier again.” In their pilot script for Star Trek: Final Frontier, a disaster of galactic proportions reshapes the Federation as we know it, causing them to turn their backs on diplomacy and exploration and instead commit their increasingly militarized Starfleet to defending their borders. But Captain Alexander Chase of the latest USS Enterprise isn’t having it, and boldly defies this doctrine in order to come to the aid of an alien species who’s being harvested for food by another. Together, Chase and his crew reignite the spirit of discovery and friendship that Starfleet symbolized during better times, and are dispatched on a new mission of exploration.

“One of the strengths of our concept was that it allowed us to revisit cultures and planets that everyone knows, but turn them on their ear a bit because of the historical events of our story,” says Rossi. “We felt that was a fresh approach and opened up the potential for great Star Trek stories.”

Unfortunately, despite enthusiasm from CBS Interactive, the project was shelved when Paramount — who, after Viacom split up in 2006, owned the feature film rights and operated independently from CBS — gave J.J. Abrams’ studio Bad Robot the nod to reboot the franchise. (There had also been some question as to whether or not CBS had the right to produce a webseries, as their arrangement with Paramount hadn’t explicitly covered “new media.”) The script, designs, and storyboards for Final Frontier’s pilot — as well as a second episode conceived years later — have been assembled online by the original creative team for posterity, allowing fans to enjoy and speculate on what would have been a very different future for Star Trek both as a production and as a fictional universe.

These are the Voyages of the Starship Synergize

Today, the Star Trek franchise is not only off life support, it’s arguably never been a higher priority for its IP holders, as CBSViacom is counting on a continuous stream of new Star Trek content to keep fans paying for their All Access streaming every month. On top of four concurrent live-action series (two on the air, two in pre-production), there are also two animated series on the way, and unlike the 1973 Animated Series, this time shaking up the format is the point. One of the upcoming series is a 2D adult animated sitcom tailor-made for longtime fans, while the other is a 3D computer-animated adventure aimed at capturing a new, younger audience.

Star Trek: Lower Decks is created by Mike McMahan, a writer for Rick & Morty and co-creator (with Justin Roiland) of Solar Opposites, Hulu’s new American Dad to R&M’s Family Guy. McMahan is also the author of a popular parody Twitter account that posited an eighth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which the series devolved into an absurd workplace sitcom. Lower Decks is essentially an extension of this premise — a show about the misadventures of junior Starfleet officers who do the jobs that are too trivial or mundane for your typical Star Trek heroes. Mahan and company have a difficult tightrope to walk, as they attempt to do broad comedy in the Star Trek universe without making Star Trek itself the butt of the joke. (To see this feat accomplished with aplomb, see: Harley Quinn’s take on DC Comics.) The first series trailer has recently dropped, with the premiere date locked for August 6th, 2020.

The other upcoming series, Star Trek: Prodigy, is being developed by Dan & Kevin Hageman, who share an Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program Emmy for their work on Guillermo del Toro’s Trollhunters. The scant details revealed so far describe the series as “[following] a group of lawless teens who discover a derelict Starfleet ship and use it to search for adventure, meaning and salvation.” Nearly five decades after Lou Scheimer’s initial pitch, a kid-centered Star Trek cartoon is finally in the works, but as in 1973, fans are being assured that they’re “not writing ‘Muppet Babies.’” Unlike the rest of the Star Trek Universe lineup, all of which are exclusive to CBS All Access in the United States, this series will air first on Nickelodeon in the hopes of hooking uninitiated young viewers onto the franchise. Prodigy is set to debut in 2021.

The Girl Who Made the Stars
“The Girl Who Made the Stars”

But during the long wait since these new series were announced, fans got a small taste of what modern animated Star Trek might be like. Short Treks, a series of short subjects produced for CBS All Access during the production cycles of other Trek series, has become a laboratory where the Alex Kurtzman-led Star Trek Universe team can perform story and form experiments in a relatively low-stakes environment. In November 2019, two Short Treks were released on the same day, both computer-animated, but otherwise totally unrelated. The two shorts, “Ephraim & Dot” and “The Girl Who Made the Stars,” are each radically different from any other Star Trek production to date, but reflect, in a way, how the franchise hopes to use animation to simultaneously cater to old and new fans.

“Ephraim & Dot” is a heavily stylized cat & mouse cartoon patterned after Tom & Jerry and Tex Avery classics, and the debut of Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino as an animation director. It follows a giant space tardigrade as she attempts to protect the eggs that she’s laid in the engine room of the classic USS Enterprise from a single-minded maintenance robot. This chase spans almost 20 years, intersecting with some Greatest Hits moments from The Original Series and its early film spin-offs. “Ephraim & Dot” doesn’t quite reach its aims, as the humor mostly amounts to “remember this?” gags imported from famous episodes, and apart from some cool glamour shots of a cell-shaded Enterprise model, it’s not much to look at, either. A viewer who lacks nostalgic interest in classic Star Trek would get little out of watching it.

“The Girl Who Made the Stars” is on the other side of the spectrum, a beautifully-rendered short with only a tenuous connection to existing Star Trek. “The Girl Who Made the Stars” is a bedtime story told to a young Michael Burnham by her father about a young girl in ancient Africa who discovers a crashed alien spacecraft and learns to conquer her fear. It has a cool conceit — How might fairy tales have changed in an era when real life already includes the fantastic? — and it’s brought to life by Discovery director Olatunde Osunsanmi and the celebrated VFX team Pixomondo using some very impressive technology. It suffers a bit from being a kids’ story with little to offer adults beyond admiration for its visuals, and from having only the framing device to tie it to existing Star Trek mythology.

For decades, animation was Star Trek’s escape pod, a vessel in which to preserve itself in its most desperate hours. Today, it’s a part of the expeditionary fleet, seeking out new story possibilities during what is, for better or worse, the most ambitious expansion in its history. Will Lower Decks and Prodigy expand fans’ definitions of what counts as “real Star Trek?” Or are these efforts, too, destined to be forgotten in the annals of Star Trek history, swept into the corner of “quasi-canonical” with their 1973 predecessor? We’ll get our first answers on August 6th.