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.