The Cool, Scrappy Underdogs: STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS (Season 1 – Review)

Conventional wisdom, ever since the very first Star Trek series in the 1960s, suggests that new shows take three seasons to find themselves. Lower Decks is now the first new Star Trek show to bust that myth.

The Next Generation only stopped trying to be The Original Series, and levered itself into the 1990s under Michael Piller while balancing a measured tone with space bound escapism, after two profoundly awkward seasons that have dated far more readily than the 1960s show. Deep Space Nine emerged from a staid chrysalis two seasons in once Ira Steven Behr engaged serialised storytelling alongside pulp adventure. Voyager, by its third year, tried to combine ongoing story arcs with recurring villains and a more consistent balance of episodes. Enterprise galvanised itself under Manny Coto after two lacklustre seasons, even if it was too little too late despite widespread and exciting changes. We will soon know if Discovery, under Michelle Paradise, has pulled the same trick – but the omens look good.

What do all of these examples have in common? By and large, a strong creative force at the helm at the point these shows found their feet. Voyager’s best years were arguably when Brannon Braga was heavily trying to shape the series, even if it lacks the same powerful creative as DS9 or ENT. Mike McMahan is that force but, and here’s the difference, he’s been around since day one. Lower Decks is very much his baby, to a degree previously unheard of in Star Trek. We might need to track back to Lower Decks’ chief inspiration, The Next Generation, to find a show which was so deeply tethered from the beginning to series creator Gene Roddenberry, and even then its success is attributable to many different cooks stirring the broth. Lower Decks is McMahan’s vision and you feel that from the very beginning.

There is little doubt the resulting show is an acquired taste but this sojourn into sweet-natured comedy is hugely faithful to Star Trek lore, imbued with a love of the subject matter, and hits the ground running without the identity crisis every Star Trek series that has preceded it faced.

Here’s why this is the case: McMahan has actually made a Star Trek show here for Star Trek fans.

Now, just to put this in context, as this is not meant as a slight against the other newer Trek series. Discovery’s first season is, particularly in retrospect, as strong as it is fractured, while Picard’s debut year had solid constituent elements to build on. But neither, despite working as paeans to nostalgia, were entirely shows designed to give Star Trek fans precisely what they wanted which, in large numbers, was a post-Star Trek Nemesis series in the vein of earlier shows. Discovery might have been set as a prequel to The Original Series but in how pervasively it toyed with, and plain broke, canon and continuity, it had one eye on being an original property – which the imminent third season has freed it up to finally become. Picard might have been set after Nemesis but it upended Roddenberry’s conceptual utopia to reflect a pre-Covid sleepwalk into a dystopian 25th century far from the tone of The Next Generation.

Lower Decks, conversely, is exactly the series most Star Trek fans have wished for since 2005. Set on a Starfleet ship, with a Starfleet crew, exploring the frontier, new worlds and having adventures with new civilisations. The only difference is that McMahan turns these precepts into outright comedy.

It speaks perhaps to how television, not just Star Trek, has evolved in that the only recourse for what would have been a ‘traditional’ Star Trek series up to this point comes through genteel mockery. This is likely to be remedied with Strange New Worlds, the Pike & Spock-led Enterprise-based series, once it arrives, but no other show we know to be in the pipeline holds to any traditional Star Trek formula. Though it might seem as if Lower Decks, by appealing to fans who wanted a canonically-loyal 24th century-set sequel show to the TNG-era in a manner Picard eschewed, fits neatly into that box, by definition it does not. Lower Decks holds true to the sanctity of Star Trek’s many idiosyncrasies while subversively challenging them in one vein or lampooning them on the other, all from a place of love given McMahan is a die-hard, TNG-era Star Trek adherent.

The concept, for one thing, is directly related—even so far as the title—to TNG’s Season 7 episode Lower Decks, which McMahan uses as his basis. That episode features crewmen living on the Enterprise who interact with the senior staff but see things from the lower rung. It was a gimmick episode on TNG—albeit a very good one—but McMahan understood the comedy inherent in characters with zero main responsibility or respect on a starship, and parlayed that into creations such as Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), an older Starfleet officer formerly of higher rank demoted due to her abject rejection of authority, rules and systems, revelling in a snark which thanks to smart writing and a strong performance never strays into sanctimony. Mariner is a firebrand and cuts to the heart of Lower Decks as a protagonist; she could never work on live-action Star Trek as the key protagonist, because the comedy is heavily constructed upon Mariner’s outward rejection of Starfleet’s prim, proper and often bizarre rules and regulations.

Naturally, contrasting her with an uptight martinet such as Brad (or Bradward) Boimler (Jack Quaid), a Starfleet geek desperate to impress but constantly thwarted by his own nervous ineptitude, makes for a boon of comic proportions as Mariner frequently drags him into her schemes and Boimler becomes exasperated at her ability to coast through life with the luck of the gods. These are not just comic cyphers, however. Both have clear, well-constructed arcs in which friendship is born and both learn from each other’s mistakes and positive aspects. Mariner comes to realise much of her angst stems from her relationship with Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis), captain of their ship the U.S.S. Cerritos and also her mother, while Boimler realises being the square, holding to the rule book, is not always the best way to succeed.

Surely this has been a key precept to every Star Trek series since time immemorial? Almost every show has counterweights of logical, restrained officers who stick to the rules Starfleet lives by, yet the sense of adventure and often message of many episodes is that, now and then, a little flexibility is what makes us human, and doesn’t hurt. Spock learns that, Data learns that, Odo learns that, and on and on and on. Lower Decks understands that push pull is a core aspect of Star Trek and grounds it in Mariner & Boimler particularly, while flanking them with characters like D’Vana Tendi (Noel Wells), a green-skinned Orion enthusiastic about everything (again while never becoming irritating) or Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), a nerdy engineer with bionic implants who, in some sense, is a Geordi/Data hybrid playing on Star Trek’s penchant of integrating alien and human.

McMahan’s first season plays out a range of narratives around this quartet, although Lower Decks does in many ways have to accede to the reality of these characters being more important than they otherwise would be for narrative purposes. Take Veritas, for example, in which the group are called before a race called the Primes, who have captured the bridge crew and put them on trial, forcing our lowly crewmen into a Rashomon-style story of multiple perspectives recounting a secret mission. On many occasions, our primary characters end up alongside the bridge crew, regular characters but never for the most part the focus as they would be in a traditional Star Trek show, helping to save the Cerritos etc… The show is conceptually at its best when these characters are embroiled in more trivial minute.

If Lower Decks initial success in this first season stems from a well thought out collection of characters, all with their own realistic foibles and natural arcs of development (which pushes back against the traditional maxim of comedy in which characters are never supposed to truly learn), then McMahan really sells the season in terms of inventiveness. Lower Decks is a cornucopia of ideas which take comedic aim at all kinds of established Star Trek ideas and twist them into new variations. Terminal Provocations sees the creation of Badgey, a cute Starfleet insignia character who, in a classic holodeck ran amok tale, morphs into a psychotic murderer stalking Tendi & Rutherford through all kinds of holographic worlds. Crisis Point builds an entire episode around a holodeck program, allowing for a lampoon of Star Trek movie tropes such as Khan-like villains, or the ‘starship porn’ of The Motion Picture.

This brings me back to Star Trek for Star Trek fans, and how Lower Decks ticks that box. These are jokes that casual watchers and especially non-fans will utterly miss the resonance of, and it speaks to how McMahan wants this to be a love letter to primarily the TNG-era, but also in places The Original Series era too. Look at how No Small Parts brings back Landru (not to mention introduces the U.S.S. Titan, only ever enjoyed after Nemesis in tie-in, non-canon book form), or Veritas allows for a fun cameo from Q (not seen on screen for two decades), or Cupid’s Errant Arrow is built on the idea of the seductive alien female corrupting one of our Starfleet characters. Lower Decks is a world in which the characters themselves even know the tropes and classical references to the Star Trek we grew up loving, and while at times it perhaps overloads on lore, animation is the only mechanism that could get away with it, as Lower Decks tends to.

It is, of course, light years better than The Animated Series, Star Trek’s early 1970’s ancestor, but comparing the two is unfair, given how animated comedy has evolved to the extent audiences now accept characters rendered digitally and drawn can be as rounded or developed as a live-action performer. The cast of Lower Decks deserve a huge amount of praise for imbuing these characters with such zest and allowing the scripts from McMahan and his team, alongside some pretty terrific animation that visually brings to life the Star Trek universe we know and love beautifully, to largely hold up, even when the plots cut corners as they have to given the shorter running time and, admittedly, not all of the jokes land. But come on, how many shows get every joke in the back of the net?

Considering it was born from a franchise often noted for earnestness, Lower Decks’ first season does a very good job of making Star Trek not just funny, but fun again. It has been a long time since any fan felt that and if the live-action shows are likely to continue counter-balancing that with a reflective look at the dark world around us, Lower Decks’ strength could be in how willing it is to lighten up.

Man, do we need that right now.

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Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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