Star Trek enters a new frontier with its latest CBS All Access series, Star Trek: Lower Decks. The show, developed by Rick and Morty writer and Solar Opposites co-creator Mike McMahan, is the first animated comedy set in the Star Trek canon. How does Star Trek's wholesome sci-fi brand fare in the transition to animated comedy? Surprisingly well, due in part to McMahan and his team's familiarity and fondness for Star Trek's canon and philosophy. It allows the show to be funny without undercutting what makes Star Trek beloved by fans and introduces a group of colorful and endearing new characters unlike any seen in Star Trek before.
Star Trek: Lower Decks takes place on the USS Cerritos, a ship whose crew specializes in second contact, a distinctly safer and less-celebrated assignment than the first-contact mission. While the ship's bridge crew, traditionally the heroes of Star Trek programs, get screentime as supporting cast, the show's focus is on the ensigns doing the menial grunt work on the ship's less-glamorous levels.
Every episode of the show -- at least the four sent out for review -- has the structure of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode from which it derives its name. There's regular Star Trek "adventure of the week"-style stuff happening with the bridge crew, but instead of following them around, the show follows the ensigns doing the menial tasks below the senior officers' attention.
For example, the first episode is about what happens when strict, by-the-book Ensign Boimler (Jack Quaid) and the cavalier Ensign Mariner (Tawny Newsome) wander off when they're supposed to be setting up a communications array and end up getting gummed on by an overly affectionate alien spider. The second has the same duo playing chauffeur to a Klingon ambassador as they wind up stranded planetside when the ambassador steals their shuttle, forcing them to travel across the city in a series of comical misadventures.
The series often plays against the expectations of established Star Trek tropes. One example is when obsessive engineering prodigy Ensign Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) decides to transfer into a new department. For a moment, the episode leads you to believe that this will result in a typical, sitcom-like story of Rutherford's boss being angry that he's abandoning his post. The tension is diffused with a hairpin turn into the kind of support, respect, and enthusiasm between officers that Star Trek fans have come to expect.
On a larger scale, the entire concept of the series bucks convention by focusing on the regular Starfleet officers. The live-action series almost exclusively focuses on the kinds of Starfleet officers going down in history. The adventures of Kirk and Picard should be required reading for any recruit attending Starfleet Academy, but no one graduates from the Academy as a fully formed hero captain, and if you can't imagine that Kirk would have some outrageous stories to tell about his time as an ensign, then you may have watched a different Star Trek than I did. Lower Decks reveals what those stories may have been like, with characters that are capable and skilled enough to maybe one day become the next officers of legend.
The voices behind these characters go a long way toward selling the premise. The Cerritos is a ship staffed by Star Trek fans, characters who are as excited to be a part of the Star Trek universe as fans are to watch them. Quaid, Newsome, Cordero, and Noel Wells as Ensign Tendi sell that enthusiasm with infectious energy and zealous performances. Watching these characters is like hanging out with your funniest, nerdiest Star Trek friends, except that they actually work on a starship and have the best stories to tell.
McMahan and his team have done a remarkable job of finding the humor in Star Trek without belittling or lessening the core ethos of the franchise. The joke is in the mundanity that Star Trek traditionally overlooks, the run-of-the-mill nature of some of the tasks inherent in a low-ranking officer's day-to-day existence, and how a simple mission can go sideways when handled by relatively green officers. But the show never belittles its characters for their enthusiasm for what they do, or Mariner for her barely concealed lust for adventure, outside of some occasional good-natured ribbing between them. The Cerritos is staffed with characters that are relatable and endearing, and the show's writing treats them with the same care as any member of a live-action Star Trek show's cast.
Star Trek: Lower Decks offers a fun and funny new perspective on the Star Trek Universe without sacrificing what fans loved about the universe in the first place. It's an incredible balancing act that pays off and promises more entertaining misadventures to come.1comments
Rating: 4 out of 5
Star Trek: Lower Decks streams Thursdays on CBS All Access.