Star Trek: Lower Decks
Over the past few years, the Star Trek franchise has experienced a renaissance. The debut of Discovery in 2017 was uneven, mainly due to dueling creative visions for the series, but over the course of the first two seasons, the show found its footing and a loyal audience. Star Trek: Picard, arrived on the scene earlier this year, with Patrick Stewart back in the role that made him a household name. Now, a third show is upon us: Lower Decks.
Discovery and Picard are certainly distinct from each other, set in different time periods and featuring varied kinds of storytelling, but they follow the traditional format of Star Trek shows — that is, they’re hourlong dramas. Lower Decks, on the other hand, feels like something entirely new. Yes, it’s the Star Trek franchise’s first attempt at a half-hour animated show since the short-lived The Animated Series, a Saturday-morning cartoon spinoff of the original series that aired 22 episodes in 1973. But what really sets Lower Decks apart from previous Treks isn’t the fact that it’s animated, nor is it the show’s perspective (though that’s important, and we’ll talk about it in a minute). It’s the fact that it’s a comedy. Star Trek has certainly delivered light-hearted, comedic episodes — any holodeck episode was usually good for a few laughs. But Star Trek shows, at their core, are dramas.
The question, then, is how does this half-hour comedy, in the vein of Family Guy and Adult Swim shows, fit into that sphere? The answer may lie in show creator Mike McMahan, who was a writer and producer on Rick and Morty, but is also a die-hard Star Trek fan, creator of the engaging TNG Season 8 parody Twitter account. Lower Decks feels like the natural outgrowth of these two interests, animated comedy and science fiction, which leads to an interesting, sometimes chaotic and messy, but altogether engaging result.
The focus of the show is clear from the title: Lower Decks takes its inspiration from the excellent The Next Generation episode that briefly allowed us to see the Enterprise from the perspective of four junior officers. This show follows that path, featuring four ensigns aboard the USS Cerritos, which is decidedly not the most important ship in the Federation. We’re introduced to Ensign Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), who often disregards Starfleet’s rules and regulations to follow her own path; Ensign Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid), who dreams of becoming the captain of his own starship one day; Ensign Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), who is adjusting to his new cybernetic implants; and Ensign D’Vana Tendi (Noel Wells), a medical officer who is new to the Cerritos. The episode opens aboard the USS Cerritos, with a captain’s log summarizing recent events. It’s a familiar beat for Star Trek, for sure, but we quickly learn to expect the unexpected: Ensign Mariner stumbles upon Boimler recording a fake log, pretending to be the captain. Also, she’s drunk. (On Romulan whiskey, which is a separate drink from the more well-known Romulan ale. For those who are upset that McMahan made up a new beverage, rather than sticking to the one Trekkies know and love, I’ll just say that it is possible for a culture to have more than one alcoholic beverage.)
If the opening scene, complete with its fake captain’s log, doesn’t set the tone for Lower Decks, the credit sequence certainly does. The font is the exact same as the opening credits of The Next Generation, but the visuals are decidedly less inspirational: the ship turning tail and running from a conflict between the Borg and the Romulans and traveling through space with an alien creature stuck to its nacelles, among other scenes.
“Second Contact” focuses on the USS Cerritos’s mission to the Galerdonian High Council. First contact, or the first time Starfleet encountered this new species, was probably conducted by a ship like the Enterprise. The Cerritos is basically in charge of the follow-up paperwork. Ensign Tendi, an Orion, arrives onboard the Cerritos, and quickly meets Boimler and Mariner. Their banter establishes quite a lot about these three central characters, but Rutherford is still a bit of a mystery. All in all, it’s an impressive amount of character work for a half-hour pilot.
Boimler and Mariner head to the surface on a mission, but not before Boimler is instructed to keep an eye on the wayward ensign by the captain. (We later find out that Mariner is Captain Freeman’s daughter, and the good captain is not thrilled to have her progeny on board.) Boimler is to report any behavior that’s outside of Starfleet regulations, and Mariner pretty much immediately gives him the opportunity when he discovers she’s delivering mysterious crates to the Galerdonians. Except, instead of the weapons he expects, he discovers that Mariner is actually trying to help these people because Starfleet’s procedures will take too long, and they might starve by then. Mariner also reveals that she’s not as green as people think she is, given her rank: She’s served on multiple starships and was actually demoted at one point. When Boimler is under threat from a local giant insect, she knows exactly what to do. Mariner’s sheer competence and decisiveness makes her an incredibly appealing character. She is, by far, the person I most want to know more about over the next few episodes.
While Mariner has the situation on the surface under control, the condition of the Cerritos has deteriorated significantly. What should have been a simple mission is complicated by the fact that the first officer, Commander Ransom, is bitten by a bug on the surface. He quickly devolves into a flesh-eating zombie when he returns to the Cerritos. The virus quickly spreads, and the medical team struggles to contain it. (Tendi’s first day on the job is complicated, to say the least.) In the end, Boimler and Mariner save the day because the saliva of the insect they encountered (somewhat intimately, in Boimler’s case) holds the key to a cure.
And so, another day passes on the USS Cerritos, with Doctor T’Ana (a Caitian, a catlike species from The Animated Series) and other senior officers receiving credit for the cure instead of Boimler and Mariner. “Second Contact” sets the stage for an exciting ten-episode first season of Lower Decks. I’m hoping we learn more about Tendi and Rutherford in the next few episodes, but I’m also curious about Mariner’s past. The writing on this show is incredibly brisk; at times it can feel frenetic, but that’s also a product of the kind of show it is: You can’t expect it to have the same pacing as the hourlong dramas we’re used to. Lower Decks is carving out its own niche within this booming franchise, and I’m very much looking forward to wherever it takes us next.
The Captain’s Log:
• We didn’t spend much time with Rutherford during this episode, but I’m certainly intrigued by what we did learn: He has Vulcan cybernetic implants that impact his ability to process emotion. The first date scenes were adorable, as was his connection to Tendi at the end of the episode.
• Did anyone else catch that Starfleet officer wearing a VISOR like Geordi LaForge’s in the background of one of the episodes?
• The Gary Marshall reference cut DEEP. The writers clearly know their franchise history.
• The fact that Captain Freeman didn’t know Boimler’s name was an absolute cringe moment.
• Commander Ransom is terrible and I love him.