On the surface, Star Trek: Lower Decks may appear to be a gamble for CBS. It’s by far the biggest departure yet from the classic Star Trek formula, as the newly reunited Viacom attempts to expand their most precious intellectual property. As much as the philosophy of Star Trek preaches the embrace of diversity and change, Trekkies are, in practice, a stubborn bunch, and after the mixed response to recent spin-offs Discovery and Picard, many Trekkies were skeptical of the announcement of Lower Decks — not only the first outright comedic Trek series, but the first animated series in almost 40 years. Could a cartoon set in the world of Trek, led by Rick and Morty writer Mike McMahon, get laughs without mocking or breaking the universe fans hold so dear?
Now midway through the first season, it seems this particular concern was unfounded: not only is it obvious that Lower Decks is made by fans, but it is very much the show the fans would make, and it’s for precisely that reason that it’s not very good.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Lower Decks treasures Star Trek in many of the superficial ways that seem to matter to the loudest segment of Trekkies — pedants. Before the release of the show, Mike McMahan was bombarded with questions about how Lower Decks could fit into the established canon of the Star Trek franchise, and offered assurances that this animated sitcom would remain true to the universe’s internal continuity. This seems to be one of the show’s primary concerns, as the art and design team for Lower Decks has gone to painstaking lengths to exactly reproduce the aesthetic of The Next Generation era, down to the glassware at the ship’s bar. Lower Decks is so accurate to the fake history of the year 2380 that watching the show feels like a visit to a Star Trek museum — on the one hand, it’s a lovingly curated collection of obscure and familiar artifacts, but on the other, you shouldn’t expect to see anything new here.
Likewise, the comedy of Lower Decks relies heavily on references, winks, and nods designed to reward the audience for their encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek and to win points for “really knowing their stuff.” It’s possible that an audience with no prior experience with Star Trek might enjoy this series, but it’s certainly not made with them in mind. The target audience of Lower Decks is the Star Trek fan who visits their favorite fansite after watching each episode to see if they caught all of the references and easter eggs hidden therein. (Admittedly, I have done this.)
Lower Decks delights in poking fun at established Star Trek tropes and plot conventions, and, as promised, does so without being so harsh on the source material as to put off the audience that cherishes it. The best gags in the series so far are at expense of Trek’s simplifying alien cultures to a single identifying characteristic, either subverting or reinforcing the trope depending on what’s funnier in the scenario. This is something that’s already been skewered on animated comedies like Futurama and Invader Zim — in fact you’d be hard pressed to find a Star Trek trope that Futurama hasn’t already mined to exhaustion — but there’s novelty to seeing it acknowledged within Trek itself. It’s just another way in which Lower Decks is familiar rather than daring, and one wonders if and when the new series will set its eye on a less acceptable target.
No Star War but the Star Class War
Lower Decks breaks the Star Trek mold only in service of fitting into another — that of the workplace sitcom. It’s a curious juxtaposition, particularly given that the office farce is inherently built around class struggle, and Star Trek is set in a post-capitalist utopia. But while the rarely-seen Earth of the Star Trek future may be an egalitarian paradise, Starfleet’s military-style hierarchy still allows for a literal Upstairs/Downstairs dynamic (it’s even in the title). Star Trek is usually centered around and enamored with authority, but Lower Decks favors the office sitcom convention of lovable, scrappy workers trying to get by despite the presence of self-important, uninspiring management.
Our heroine, Ensign Beckett Mariner of the USS Cerritos (voice of Tawny Newsome), is hyper-competent but also wildly insubordinate in a way that she could only get away with in a cartoon. “Protocol is for people who need to be told what to do, which I don’t,” says Mariner, which sounds cool, but also like something a sociopath would say. Mariner has a disproportionate amount of field experience for an ensign which, unbeknownst to her shipmates, is due in part to growing up the daughter of their commanding officer, Captain Carol Freeman (voice of Dawnn Lewis). She’s been around the galaxy already once or twice, and more than likely played a Wesley Crusher-type role on a whole unseen Star Trek series.
Mariner’s foil is Ensign Brad Boimler (voice of Jack Quaid), a rank-obsessed bootlicker who is appalled at Mariner’s freewheeling antics and aghast at how often they work. While Mariner goes out of her way to vex Captain Freeman, Boimler’s transparent attempts to curry her favor never win him the outcome he wants. Freeman herself is deeply insecure, inflating the value of her successes and taking her failures out on her crew. It’s a very by-the-numbers approach to the workplace comedy, but atypical for Star Trek, and there’s some fun to be had in the mash-up.
- A Guide to the Rough Early Seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation
- From Star Trek to Superwholock: A Brief History of Fanfiction
- A Star Trek: Discovery Primer to Get You Ready for Season 3
The Key Word is “Medium”
Lower Decks also scores a solid “B-” as a work of animation. The character models are in line with the current trend of “adult animated comedies,” a bit sharper and less bendy than Rick and Morty but still reminiscent of a 2000s webcomic or Flash cartoon. This makes the tone and intended audience of the series clear at a glance, but it’s also unimaginative. Lower Decks could have looked like anything, but keeping in the spirit of every other creative decision on the show, it looks exactly how you’d expect it to look. The animation itself (from Titmouse, Inc.) is smooth and expressive, and there’s an occasional sequence that’s genuinely artful — Tendi’s underwater rescue in “Moist Vessel” is the most memorable so far — but for the most part it looks like it came straight off the assembly line, entirely adequate and workmanlike.
The creators have also limited themselves by marrying the visual canon of Next Gen-era Trek. While the planets visited so far on away missions are more imaginative than you’d see in live-action Trek, most of the action on Lower Decks takes place aboard the Cerritos, where every set is designed with the same constraints as a show building with wood and plaster in 1987. Likewise, the crew of the Cerritos features far more aliens than the Enterprise or Voyager, but it’s still made up only of species the audience has seen before, so apart from the feline Dr. T’Ana, they’d might as well still be actors wearing rubber foreheads. Adherence to canon is more important than taking full advantage of the medium.
Mike McMahan keeps teasing that Lower Decks will finally show us Cetacean Ops, the part of the ship that’s operated by whales and dolphins which is referenced only in a single line of dialog on The Next Generation and appears in the official Enterprise-D blueprints. But if there’s ever a big dolphin tank on the Cerritos, it won’t be because Lower Decks is a cartoon and can do whatever it wants, it’ll be because there’s a big dolphin tank in the blueprints to the Enterprise-D. Lower Decks would never introduce the idea of there being a big dolphin tank on the ship, and that’s the show’s entire problem in a nutshell.
It’s true that no Star Trek series since the original has reached its full potential in its first season. Even The Next Generation needed two full years before it became the show that people love today. This is also a common struggle among sitcoms, as the writers find the characters’ voices and learn to play to the actors’ strengths. At the time of this writing, only a quarter of the show’s 20-episode initial order has aired, and given CBS’s appetite for new Star Trek, it’s likely it’ll run for much longer than that. But in order to live up to the legacy of the television shows they worship, Mike McMahan and company will have to learn the lesson the creators of those series did: Go Boldly, or go nowhere.