I watched Star Trek – Lower Decks

At the risk of becoming some kind of Star Trek completist, I watched the animated series Star Trek – Lower Decks which recently made its way onto Amazon Prime in locations beyond the USA. Initially confined to CBS All Access, the show wasn’t available for some time internationally (unlike Discovery or Picard which could be accessed on Netflix and Amazon respectively in locales without CBS).

Pitched as humorous, adult-orientated animated series in the Star Trek universe, the series creator is Mike McMahan, a lead writer from Rick and Morty. However, the show’s humour is both less crude and less imaginative than that show, indeed overall it pitches itself at ‘amusing’ rather than ‘funny’. The obvious comparison is with The Orville, rather than Galaxy Quest or John Scalzi’s Redshirts. Parodies can themselves be love letters to what they parody but there is a point where there is a degree of respectfulness to the source material where parody is no longer viable. Instead, the show is at the edge the range of humour that already exists within Star Trek’s variety of tone. It is not an attempt to pull at the loose threads of Star Trek’s concept to see what unravels and more an attempt to provide a more sustained hit of that Trouble With Tribbles energy or the ensemble warmth of DS9.

Put aside any expectations of Rick & Morty But Star Trek or a Star Trek sitcom or Red Dwarf but Trek but also put aside any expectations of a kind of Becky Chamber’s style look at ordinary people in space examination of Trek. There are bits of elements of that but judged against those criteria, the show is a failure. Treat as a different variation on mainstream Star Trek but with a bit of army-humour and the show works.

What it does well is provide relatively short Trek-like episodes with an ensemble cast of engaging characters. Indeed, given how much Discovery struggles to give its supporting cast any attention, it is notable how much better Lower Decks is at letting multiple characters be engaging. True, most episodes focus on the main two leads, Ensigns Beckett Mariner and Brad Boimler (Tawny Newsome and Jack Quaid) but nearly equal time is given to their two friends/co-workers Ensigns D’Vana Tendi and Sam Rutherford (Noël Wells and Eugene Cordero). All four of them are to varying degrees hyper-competent (because the show accepts that everybody in Starfleet is the best-of-the-best as a baseline) but to varying degrees flawed. However, the extent to which they are varyingly insubordinate, accident prone or magnets for misfortune is implied to be things that they may/might/will grow out of.

Overall that set-up works. The ship (the USS Cerritos) is a designated “second contact” ship whose job it is to run follow-up missions but just as low-key missions have a tendency to spiral out of control in The Next Generation, so they do for the Cerritos. The paradox that Starfleet ships are essentially university research departments run according to the rules of the navy is just as apparent here as with the rest of Trek but less annoying given the comedy setting [yes, everybody really should have been court-martialled already but then we can make the same point about Discovery].

The only stand-out episode for me was Episode 9:Crisis Point where Mariner co-opts Boimler’s holodeck simulation of the crew (designed to help him succeed at promotion interviews) into her own cinematic version of Lower Decks. The holodeck lets the show finally shift gear into proper parody but late enough into the series that we have gained some affection for the characters. There are some funny and wry moments balanced with some character growth.

So overall, as an amusing hit of Star Trek energy, the show works so longs as you aren’t expecting anything either deep or funny or insightful. It leans towards being overly respectful of the source material but is sufficiently engaging to be enjoyable.

16 thoughts on “I watched Star Trek – Lower Decks

  1. My wife and I enjoyed Lower Decks a lot, but I recognize its not for everyone. I thought the season finale had some surprisingly emotional bits given the show’s nature.

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  2. If you would like an annoying copyedit (and who wouldn’t): the sentence that starts with “Pitched as…” seems to be stating that McMahan himself was pitched as a series, which I’m guessing was probably not the case.

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  3. I found it quite grating at first but some of the characters (mostly Tendi) grew on me after a while. I particularly loved the episode in which she makes a dog.

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  4. I liked it. It didn’t fill any hitherto unfelt gaps in my life, but it was reasonably amusing and I was entertained, and often that’s all I ask. (Favourite moment: the grouchy Caitian medic’s description of Mariner’s much-prized battle scars.)

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  5. I loved Lower Decks. One of the things I liked about it particularly is that it uses parody but is not done simply for parody’s sake but instead fits into the Star Trek universe and the ST:NG era. It actually connects little bits of lore to each other from the Trek canon as a contribution to the franchise as well as sometimes commentary. It isn’t trying to be ironically detached, nihilistic, satirically scathing or any of the things often declared cool and edgy. It’s also not focused on adolescent white guy jokes like The Orville either. Instead, it is (gently, affectionately) making fun of the Star Trek audience, for what we love about the franchise and what ridiculous things we thereby put up with in it (and often love as well,) using the advantages of animation to exaggerate all that Trek lore and do callbacks to stuff in the franchise in a mostly non-groaning way. And in that way, it’s also poking fun at the original Star Trek animated series.

    All that puts it more in the Galaxy Quest area, for me. But unlike Galaxy Quest, the show isn’t coming out into the “real world” and laughing about it as a bitter t.v. illusion that can be chosen anyway because of its ideals (despite the occasional meta line of dialogue.) It’s staying within the story universe, celebrating both ends of Trek — the noble idealistic and the ridiculous oddities — as Trek, not simply a parody of Trek. That’s a trickier balance than it looks and I think Lower Decks pulled it off. It is part of Trek, not a side gig.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. A good evaluation. Yes, not a side gig.

      I do kind of wish they had done a kids show though of the ‘but adults will like it’ kind. Aside from the swears and sex references, it was fairly family friendly.

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      1. I think they’re definitely including teens in the audience but it’s not an all out family show. It’s certainly a show for Trekkers who know a fair amount of lore, but people who are new to the franchise can still enjoy it, I think.

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      2. True but I think how well Star Wars: Rebels worked as a kid’s SF show with depth. But I guess Star Wars has always cultivated a kid audience more as a franchise.

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