There has been a Star Trek renaissance brewing. From JJ Abrams’ takes on the original Enterprise crew in the mid 2000s to the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery in 2017 and now with Star Trek: Picard and the announcement of Star Trek: Prodigy, there has never been a better time for Star Trek… since possibly that brief time from 1994 to 1996 when we had The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager flowing one into the other like little space waves lapping at the edge of the Dominion’s shapeshifter pool.
And coming in hot off this Star Trek flow is perhaps the most surprising (and for some, potentially controversial) new chapter – the new animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks!
Dropping onto CBS All Access tonight at midnight PST, Lower Decks (from Rick and Morty writer and Solar Opposites co-creator Mike McMahan) tells the stories of the crew of the USS Cerritos – a Starfleet vessel tasked not with exploration, but with maintaining SECOND CONTACT. They are the follow up team to ships like the Enterprise. They do all of the grunt work (and paperwork) but get none of the glory.
And within this ship we don’t stay on the command bridge, instead we follow the ensigns. The lower ranking officers that are the ones who truly keep a massive operation like the Cerritos afloat. In the lower decks (hey!) we find Ensign Mariner (Tawny Newsome), Ensign Boimler (Jack Quaid), Ensign Tendi (Noel Wells) and Ensign Rutherford (Eugene Cordero).
Boimler is the straight-laced newbie (having been enlisted on the Cerritos for only a year). He feels like all of Wesley Crusher and Reginald Barclay’s anxieties rolled up into one. But he forms a close bond with the rowdy and rebellious Mariner, a woman who isn’t afraid to break the rules if it means doing what’s right – or doing what’s fun. They are a refreshing interpretation of the iconic Id versus Superego (ie, Kirk and Spock) duos that we’ve come to know and love as an essential part of the Star Trek dynamic.
Our other pair, Ensigns Tendi and Rutherford represent our Science and Engineering teams. Tendi is training to be a medical officer, (nothing gets her more juiced than doing things like pumping a living heart) while Rutherford is happy to spend his days deep in the Cerritos’ tubes. On the bridge we have Captain Freeman (Dawnn Lewis), who is – surprise! – Ensign Mariner’s mother, Commander Ramson (Jerry O’Connell), and my personal new favorite Star Trek character big Zaddy Shaxs, the Bajoran chief security officer.
Plot wise, the show functions pretty episodically for the first four episodes. It exists much more in the vein of Star Trek TOS or early TNG, where each episode contained its own complete story without worrying about an overarching A-plot. A pivot away from the big mystery driven storylines of current shows like Discovery or Picard. Where the continuity remains, however, is in the evolution of the friendships and relationships of the crew. Because it really is a workplace comedy, even if it is set in space.
The show is also full of homages, deep cuts, and easter eggs for every type of Star Trek fan. From larger classic Star Trek conflicts (like the crew getting infected with a virus, or facing off in gladiator style battles with menacing aliens) to cheeky references to “purple striped tricorders” and “the Janeway Protocol.” Even the *spoiler alert* giant spider in episode one feels like a subtle call back into one of my favorite (and one of the most ridiculous) TNG episodes, “Genesis,” in which poor Barclay devolves into a, you guessed it, giant spider.
And I think that’s what makes this animated comedy Star Trek show work so well. The jokes are funny, sharp, and sometimes crude, but they are deeply informed by the heart of the characters and within the show itself. This show was written by people that clearly love two things: telling jokes and Star Trek. The characters are still hard working, earnest, Starfleet officers, and the comedy stems directly from how they handle the chaotic situations thrown their way. Tendi’s first day in the medical bay involves her having to pump a human heart while fending off a hoard of rage infected crew members – and she loves it because she got to do something new! Rutherford forms a possible romantic connection with a Trill team mate during the battle to regain control, only to lose interest in her because she was more focused on the romance than solving the problems with the ship! This is yet another way it pivots away from our current iteration of gritty, mysterious Trek shows. As much as I enjoy Discovery and Picard, at times they can both veer too far into the dark and the cynical (the curse of spending too much time in the mirror universe). Perhaps they are merely capitalizing on the audience’s own cynicism and despair, reflecting back to us our own feelings about the state of the world, but Lower Decks lets the lightness and the hope back in. If Discovery is a mirror, maybe Lower Decks is a window with brightly colored curtains.
On a personal note, because I know Star Trek is something loved deeply by a lot of us and, let’s be real, tensions are high because of the state of the world right now, but honestly this show was exactly what I needed. The world is terrible and I needed some working class underdogs to cheer for. Some battles to vicariously participate in. And I needed to laugh. (Boy did I need to laugh.) And I needed the familial comfort of Star Trek.
Star Trek: Lower Decks airs Thursdays on CBS All Access.