star trek: lower decks

Is Animation Star Trek’s Next Frontier?

Photo: CBS

When viewers get their first glimpse of the USS Cerritos, the Federation Starship at the center of CBS All Access’s new Star Trek: Lower Decks, the moment feels pretty familiar — apart from a few key details. As the camera lingers first on the exterior of a gleaming starship then on the faces of its command crew, show composer Chris Westlake’s music echoes the classic Jerry Goldsmith score that accompanied similar moments in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s a variation on how Star Trek fans usually get to know the setting and cast of characters with whom they’ll be exploring the unknown (or in the case of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, mostly staying put while the unknown comes to them, if that distinction matters). Lower Decks keeps the tradition going, with two notable differences: (1) the series quickly reveals itself as a gleefully silly twist on Star Trek, albeit one deeply rooted in the Trek mythos, and (2) it’s animated.

It’s the second difference that allows the first to work so well, opening up visual and comedic avenues unavailable to a live-action Trek show. At the moment, that makes Lower Decks an outlier within the newly active, otherwise live-action Trek universe, which currently includes CBS All Access’s Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard, with plans to add the Discovery spinoffs Section 31 and Brave New Worlds well underway (and other series rumored to be in development). But in 2021, Nickelodeon will debut Star Trek: Prodigy, an animated series aimed at younger viewers. It’s another indication that animation — a medium that could open Trek up to new viewers and different creative possibilities — will be the next frontier that Trek explores.

It’s not exactly undiscovered territory, however. In fact, Star Trek’s first return to television came in 1973 via Star Trek: The Animated Series, a Saturday-morning cartoon that ran for 22 episodes before succumbing to the same fate as the original series. Though it was short-lived, The Animated Series would prove to be an instrumental development in fans’ calls to revive Star Trek, a movement that culminated with the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. It also proved how well Star Trek could work in animated form — even if it didn’t set a technological bar so high that subsequent shows wouldn’t have trouble clearing them.

Star Trek: The Animated Series looked great — for a Filmation product. The budget-conscious animation house first found success in the ’60s with cartoon series that made Hanna-Barbera productions look lush by comparison, shows like The Batman/Superman Hour and Archie’s Funhouse that barely offered more motion than the comic books that inspired them. In some respects, Star Trek: The Animated Series made those limitations work in its favor via stories that emphasized dialogue and ideas over action. It played much like its inspiration, just minus the occasional fight scene. The simple backgrounds and monologue-prone characters felt like part of an overall plan to stay true to what had come before.

Trek creator Gene Roddenberry saw the animated series less as an attempt to reinvent Trek for a new medium than a fourth season of the original show, only shorter and in cartoon form. To that end, he brought in original series veteran Dorothy Fontana to serve as a producer and story editor and original writers like Paul Schneider and David Gerrold to supply the scripts. Deepening the connection: with the exception of Walter Koenig (who penned a script for the series), the original cast returned at the insistence of Leonard Nimoy, who refused to reprise his role as Spock if only he and William Shatner were onboard, as originally planned.

The series also frequently drew on past episodes of Trek, by then a hit in syndication that had already inspired a fervent following. Episodes like “Mudd’s Passion” and “More Tribbles, More Troubles” served as sequels to some of the original’s most popular installments. So, loosely speaking, did The Animated Series’ finest moment. In “Yesteryear,” written by Fontana, the crew of the Enterprise revisit the Guardian of Forever, the time portal used by Spock and Kirk in the heartbreaking “The City on the Edge of Forever.” Only this time the portal serves as a way for Spock to revisit his childhood in order to avoid being erased from history. In the process, he has to relive the death of a beloved pet, a trauma the episode deals with intelligently and with great sensitivity in ways appropriate for young viewers who didn’t mind shedding a tear or two into their Frosted Flakes.

“Yesteryear” and other series highlights proved that, with a little adaptation, Trek couldn’t just survive but thrive in animated form. It’s a little surprising, then, that it’s taken almost 50 years for another animated project to materialize even as Trek novels, comics, and other offshoots have flooded the market. Looking to Trek’s past and animated comedy’s present, Lower Decks attempts a similar sort of fusion. Creator Mike McMahan’s past credits include Rick and Morty and Solar Opposites, the latter a series he co-created with Rick and Morty’s Justin Roiland. Both mix heady ideas with barrages of gags. Both also seem like series made by creators who grew up breathing Star Trek lore (and virtually everything else related to science fiction).

Based on the first four episodes provided to critics, Lower Decks plays like an attempt to teleport the sensibility of McMahan’s past gigs into the Trek universe to see what happens. So far, it’s a successful experiment, one that mines laughs from the misadventures of low-ranking Starfleet officers serving on a less-than-glorious starship specializing in following up after ships like the Enterprise have done the fun stuff. (The Cerritos boldly goes where others have recently gone before.) It features irreverent gags and offbeat ideas — the first episode features a character getting suckled for moisture by a giant spider while his crewmate watches in amusement — but it also remains firmly within the bounds of the Star Trek universe and finds considerable common ground between the Trek we already know and the comedic sensibilities of McMahan and his team, particularly in Lower DecksRick and Morty–like investment in its characters’ emotional lives.

It’s a funny, viable hybrid, but the shape of Trek’s future could be determined by whether other hybrids can take root. We know little about Star Trek: Prodigy beyond its creative team — brothers Kevin and Dan Hageman, whose past work includes Netflix’s Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia and a story credit on The LEGO Movie — and a premise that involves teens exploring the stars after taking over a neglected ship. It sounds like a fun set-up for a show aimed at younger viewers. It also sounds like the first show designed to bring in new Star Trek fans since the launch of Star Trek: Discovery in 2017.

Fans aren’t a self-renewing resource, and confining new Star Trek series to the subscription-only CBS All Access has placed a cap on viewership they would not have had via network television or on basic cable. The most recent series pre-Discovery, Enterprise, played to dwindling ratings across four seasons on the now-defunct UPN between 2001 and 2005, but casual viewers could still stumble across it. And though everything from the original series to Enterprise to The Animated Series can now be found on various streaming services, only the three Star Trek movies released between 2009 and 2016 have made a serious attempt to expand Trek’s reach. There’s been no equivalent of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a project that stirred the interest of older fans and invited new enthusiasts into the fold.

Franchises with sprawling mythologies need easy points of entry, and an animated show on a network aimed at kids sounds like it could be just that. It could provide Trek the equivalent of Star Wars series like The Clone Wars or Rebels, animated efforts made with younger viewers in mind that play on channels kids already watch. But it also provides an example of how animation could allow Star Trek to slip into spaces it hasn’t reached before — and ways it might push TV animation. Lower Decks marries the look and feel of classic Star Trek to grown-up comedy rich in gags and thick with references. Other series could look elsewhere for inspiration. Imagine an anime-inspired series. Or one with an extended narrative, à la Avatar: The Last Airbender. Or why not one with funny animals aimed at even younger viewers, the Star Trek equivalent of Paw Patrol? (Okay, maybe not that.) Or maybe this: What if the next great Star Trek series looked back to the original Star Trek: The Animated Series for inspiration and tried to see what could happen when smart science-fiction writing combined with cutting-edge animation, rather than the sort of animation that treated changing facial expressions as a special effect? The Vulcans believe in infinite diversity in infinite combinations. Animation’s combinations may not be infinite, but they’re certainly rich, and just waiting to be explored.

Is Animation Star Trek’s Next Frontier?