I still listen to Matt Mira and Andy Secunda’s podcast, Star Trek: The Next Conversation. At least, I listen to whatever’s on this side of the paywall; my entertainment funds are stretched a little too thin for me to be a huge Patreon contributor. I first heard about Star Trek: Lower Decks on this podcast.
Matt and Andy are both comedy writers in Hollywood. And, according to the conceit of their podcast, Matt is the huge Trekkie nerd while Andy is the relative neophyte. Both were wondering aloud, on the podcast, why they weren’t tapped to be involved in the development of this animated Trek series. I agree that it sounds like something squarely in their wheelhouse. Especially Matt’s.
At the time, I wasn’t sure how I felt about this new Trek project. Don’t get me wrong: like any self-respecting Trekkie, I welcome any new addition to this franchise. I even came around to embracing the J.J. Abrams reboot movies. (Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are good, as Kirk and Spock, but Karl Urban smashes it out of the park as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy.) I’ve watched Star Trek: Discovery from the beginning. I thought the second season was excellent (a review of Season 3 is under construction). The first season of Star Trek: Picard was a horse of a different color, but still recognizably Trek. But, how did I feel about a half-hour (which translates to 24 minutes in television-speak) animated sitcom set in this milieu?
Star Trek wasn’t a stranger to animation. The original series was continued in animated form by Filmation in 1973, in Star Trek: The Animated Series, for two seasons and twenty-two episodes. Like the original series, it had a few comedic episodes but was mostly a straight continuation of the series, with the voices of most of the original crew and many of the original writers for the show, including D. C. Fontana.
This was a Saturday morning cartoon. Back in those days, kids, Saturday was a big cartoon day for children. While still wearing our pajamas, we’d eat our sugar-fortified breakfast cereal (Cap’n Crunch Peanut Butter Crunch was my personal favorite) while watching cartoons, many of which were made decades before we were born, like all the good ol’ Warner Bros. stuff. The newer the cartoon, the crappier the animation, usually. Case in point: Star Trek: The Animated Series.
There were also animated interludes during Short Treks that were well done, I thought.
The franchise has never shied away from comedy either. Popular rumor holds that Gene Roddenberry didn’t care much for those episodes with a comedic tone, but he still listed “The Trouble with Tribbles” as one of his favorite episodes. Even when the episodes weren’t meant to be humorous, as a whole, there were still light-hearted, funny moments through all of the series and the movies.
I try to withhold judgment until I actually experience something firsthand. That seems to be the rational, adult way to approach new things. Oh, I still make premature judgments—that’s just human nature. But, I try not to.
So, with sufficiently lowered expectations, I watched the first season of Star Trek: Lower Decks.
Unlike the Disco generation of Trek shows, this CBS All Access series sticks with the aesthetic of the TNG era. That was immediately a point in its favor. The uniforms, the ships, even the basic story beats. The animated series even uses the designs of Michael Okuda, the graphic designer responsible for a highly-visible portion of the TNG-era props and sets, including that of the Enterprise‘s computer displays and interfaces.
During the seventh (and final) season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, there was an episode titled “Lower Decks” that focused on a group of junior officers on board the USS Enterprise-D. This is the basic premise for Star Trek: Lower Decks, except that this time the ship is not the flagship of the Federation, but the less-important USS Cerritos, which is responsible for such exciting duties as “second contact” missions.
Cerritos is actually a city in Los Angeles County, California, by the way. Dusty Stowe, of Screenrant.com, referred to it as “a perfectly nice, blandly unimportant city in the Greater Los Angeles area.” An inside joke, in other words, perhaps an example of the humor that series-creator Mike McMahan brought with him from Rick and Morty, another adult-oriented animated series where he was head writer.
During the ten episodes of Season 1, we get to know our main characters well. There’s Ensign Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), who is secretly the daughter of Captain Freeman (Dawnn Lewis). Mariner is headstrong and rebellious, but is very good at all things Starfleet. Ensign Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid) is straight-laced and dutiful, and wants to be as good as Mariner, although he isn’t. I have to point out that Quaid is the same actor who plays Hughie on The Boys. Ensign D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells) is an Orion who works in the medical bay. Tendi is overwhelmingly positive and thrilled to be working on a starship. Ensign Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) is a human adjusting to a new cyborg implant.
Part of the attraction of the series is the focus on characters who are not responsible for command decisions on the ship, who often aren’t completely sure what is going on outside of their areas of responsibility. On the previous series in the franchise, we were used to being with the main bridge crew, each of whom had their own private quarters. On the lower decks of the starship, the ensigns sleep in more typical military fashion, essentially bunks in a hallway. I didn’t know that I wanted to see how the “other half” of Starfleet lived until this series. In many ways, it’s refreshing to know that everything’s not as perfect as it is for Riker or even Data, who got his own private quarters and didn’t even need to sleep. Rank has its privileges.
We do get the occasional glimpse of our bridge officers. I’ve mentioned Mariner’s mother, Captain Carol Freeman. There’s also First Officer Jack Ransom (Jerry O’Connell), whom McMahan himself compared to TNG‘s Will Riker, if he was on speed and had less shame. Hard to imagine Riker with less shame, but O’Connell does a bang-up job. Lt. Shaxs (Fred Tatasciore) is perhaps the most humorous character on board; he’s a Bajoran tactical officer. Think of a male Ensign Ro crossed with a surly Worf. As a nod to Star Trek: The Animated Series, this show’s animated predecessor, we also get Chief Medical Officer T’Ana (Gillian Vigman), who is a member of that cat-like race, the Caitians, like M’Ress.
I’ve opted to go with a mostly spoiler-free review of this season. It is a cartoon—I’ve probably driven that point home adequately. It is also a comedy, and genuinely funny, for the most part. But . . . and this is the important part, it is also recognizably a part of the Star Trek franchise. In many ways, it shows more respect and faithfulness to the shows that came before it than either Star Trek: Discovery or Star Trek: Picard. This wasn’t meant as a backhanded dig at either of these other CBS All Access programs, but remains true nonetheless. In some ways, this series gives me hope for future additions to the franchise.
There is a second season coming this year. I am looking forward to it.
Firewater’s I-Need-a-Dangerous-Half-Baked-Solution-that-Breaks-Starfleet-Codes-and-Totally-Pisses-Me-Off-That’s-an-Order Report Card: A-
There were some expected first-season growing pains, but Lower Decks came out all right. Stop boycotting it if you’re part of the anti-cartoon contingent.