tv review

Star Trek: Lower Decks Is an Entertaining Entry in a Franchise Suffering an Identity Crisis

Photo: CBS

Star Trek: Lower Decks, the first animated series in the franchise since the 1970s show focused on the original cast, begins with an act of subversion. We hear the voice of what we assume to be the captain recording a log as the screen fills with gleaming images of the USS Cerritos. But this isn’t a captain, and Cerritos is far from a storied ship. Instead, it’s the voice of an ensign, specifically the straitlaced Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid). He’s jokingly interrupted by another peer, the worldly and confident Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), drunk on Romulan whiskey, who swerves from cackling at his earnestness in recording a captain’s log (how hopeful!) to wielding a Klingon bat’leth that slices through his inner thigh due to her sloppy handling. This is the perennial pose of the new CBS All Access series: to subvert Star Trek more than celebrate it, to visually and vocally name-drop more than carefully interweave the soul of the franchise into this new entry.

On its face, Lower Decks is intriguing as an animated, adult-oriented series that focuses on the kind of characters who are only seen in passing or intermittently — the grunt workers, the neophytes, the troublemakers, all far from the gleaming expanse of the bridge and its crew, including Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis), a graying Black woman determined for her ship to be seen as something more than the dregs of Starfleet, and first officer Jack Ransom (Jerry O’Connell), who feels akin to The Next Generation’s Riker (the great Jonathan Frakes), except more full of himself with less of a reason to be. These characters figure into the plot, but the leads are the younger, less-established, lower-deck-dwelling ensigns, including Boimler, Mariner, the Orion science officer D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells), and a cybernetically enhanced engineer, Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero). These characters comprise the heart of the series, with Boimler and Mariner edging the others out as leads. They curse, they flirt, they drink, they get turned on and beat down, they mess up with abandon. There’s a lot of potential there to be both curious and heartfelt, as Star Trek has always been, but push it into some new directions narratively and visually, with the animated format allowing the franchise to reach beyond what has come before. But Lower Decks, for all its raucous pleasures, doesn’t quite rise to that occasion.

I admit my expectations when it comes to new Star Trek are quite tangled. As a lifelong fan, I yearn for the franchise to flex its muscles, to move beyond its present atrophied state of picking from the bones of the original series while ignoring when Star Trek was at its best. No, not The Next Generation, which Lower Decks treats as a playground. (The animated show takes place a year after the events of the last Star Trek: The Next Generation film, the regrettable Nemesis, which holds very little value unless you’re a die-hard Tom Hardy fan. Even then there is so much better to do with your time.) But Deep Space Nine, which ran from 1993 to 1999 and created rich psychological profiles for its characters, pushed the limits of Star Trek by questioning and interrogating its inherent optimism, and evoking an earned darkness without ever forgetting the light. I don’t need every new entry into Star Trek lore to be as lofty or as intricate as Deep Space Nine, but it’s curious how it seems all but forgotten within these new Star Trek shows — it gets nary a mention in Lower Decks, at least from what I’ve seen in its first four episodes — despite laying the groundwork the franchise has walked upon since.

For all its glossy new aesthetics and adult content, Star Trek currently feels intellectually and emotionally juvenile in ways that frustrate. Even at its best, Lower Decks reflects the identity crisis that the franchise has been mired in since at least J.J. Abrams’s 2009 film reboot, grafting its iconography onto different styles instead of being boldly its own thing. At worst, you get Star Wars playing Star Trek dress up, like Abrams’s films in particular. But even other recent forays like Discovery feel almost embarrassed to be Star Trek in the first place, pulling from so many other science-fiction shows while treating Trek itself as a source of Easter eggs and recognizable characters to reference. (Spock, again?)

Look, I don’t need this show to repeat the triumphs of the franchise’s 1990s past, but when I watch Star Trek I always hope for awe. Awe at the intricacies of the human condition. Awe at the imaginings of worlds both far-flung and intensely human. Awe at its cerebral qualities. Awe at its hard-won optimism. Star Trek: Lower Decks is a lot of things: fun, raucous, adult in language but not in emotional landscape. But it’s also too cool to aim for awe.

Don’t get me wrong. Lower Decks actually makes a good entry point for new or casual fans with only a passing understanding of the franchise. It’s fun and sometimes even surprising. But it fosters an ironic distance between what it wants to be and Star Trek as a whole. Even before I realized Mike McMahan, who served as a writer-producer on Rick and Morty, was the creative force behind the show, I could feel its influence on Lower Decks. The new Star Trek show in many ways is a visually smoother, narratively less weird echo of Rick and Morty with a Star Trek gloss applied. And to a certain extent that works. Lower Decks is tonally nimble, jumping from the sincere to the gross to the shocking at a clip. It’s bright and eye-catching, albeit not all that visually unique. The characters feel immediately distinctive, with the potential for some intriguing bramble. The writers clearly know Star Trek, or at least they mention trivia or name-drop things related to The Next Generation, The Original Series, and Voyager, in that order (which makes sense given McMahan’s presence behind a popular Twitter account imagining an eighth season of TNG). I even like that the show is steeped in The Next Generation, which feels like progress from obsessing over the original series. And the voice actors are clearly game for the ride, particularly Newsome.

But in watching Newsome’s Mariner — whose arc and emotional life are the most clearly defined — that strange ironic distance once again comes into view. Mariner isn’t the typical ensign. She doesn’t suck up to the bridge crew. She’s not interested in promotions; in fact, she was previously demoted and sent to Cerritos as punishment. She openly and willfully undermines the captain from the jump (a tell for an emotional/character revelation at the end of the premiere, which is pretty apparent and unevenly handled in the first few episodes). It’s her too-cool-for-Starfleet posture that defines the tone and perspective of the show, almost as if Lower Decks is embarrassed to lean into what makes Star Trek what it is: heartfelt, cerebral, and endlessly curious about humanity.

Easily digestible and overall a pleasure to watch, Lower Decks holds the potential to become more dynamic and narratively sound in the future, perhaps further untangling the dynamics of what it means to be a part of Starfleet when you’re not glorified, or not interested in glory in the first place. But that would necessitate a comfort with earnestness that the show currently does not exhibit. It too often undercuts its attempts to aim for the heart, following up any sincere moment with a joke or silly retort. Yes, Lower Decks is fun. But sometimes base pleasure isn’t enough. I need emotion. I need sharper wit. I need a more curious narrative. I need a unique point of view.

It’s this last point that pulls into sharp relief the questions about the future of Star Trek. Will Star Trek continue to try and play catch-up to every other major franchise, or will it finally embrace what makes it unique within the realm of pop culture? Lower Decks, even with its fulsome pleasures, unfortunately seems to spell a future in which Star Trek continues to shirk its own identity and forget what has drawn people to it for decades.

Star Trek Is in the Midst of an Identity Crisis