Warning: Review contains mild spoilers
Our favorite California class starship is back! That’s right, Star Trek: Lower Decks has returned to us with the premier of its second season on Paramount+. Temba his arms wide! When we last saw our Lower Decks crew, Mariner (Tawny Newsome) had conquered some of her inner demons (Vindicta) and agreed to work with her mother, Captain Freeman, instead of against her. Tendi (Noel Wells) and Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) were rebuilding their friendship after Rutherford lost his memory (and his old implant) saving the Cerritos from the Pakleds. And finally, Boimler (Jack Quaid) accepted a promotion (much to Mariner’s ire) on the USS Titan and is now a helmsman serving under Riker.
Now, in season 2, we see the Cerritos crew struggling to adapt to these changes. Mariner and Captain Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) are trying their hardest to work together but both are clearly unhappy, much to consternation of Commander Ransom (Jerry O’Connell), Tendi is concerned about changes in Rutherford’s personality and is afraid about what it might mean for their friendship, and Boimler is realizing that working on the Titan is a perhaps a bit more dangerous than the Cerritos.
In fact, if there is a theme to the first half of season 2, it’s about how hard it can be to accept change at all. Mariner has to work on both her relationship with her mother and also forgiving Boimler for abandoning her without saying goodbye. Tendi has to figure out why she is so terrified of possibly losing Rutherford’s friendship. Rutherford has to relearn everything and process the guilt he feels about Shaxs sacrificing his life to save him. Boimler has to decide where he truly belongs and if he can mend the friendships he left behind.
Much like season 1, the second season of Lower Decks is absolutely packed full of references, cameos, jokes, Easter eggs, and even gentle roasts of the rest of the Star Trek franchise. There are nods to classic episodes of TNG — at one point we hear Boimler being tortured by a Cardassian interrogator much like Picard was in “Chain of Command Pt 1” — but there are also deep cuts galore, especially from the original and animated series (seriously, there is one gag pulled from the animated series that had me screaming). It even pokes some light hearted fun at its current Star Trek compatriots — Discovery and Picard. When it comes to Star Trek, nothing is off limits on Lower Decks.
Which means that it is also unafraid to take some stabs at fan culture. Boimler has his commemorative Tom Paris plate that he carries around for an episode trying to get it autographed when Paris visits the Cerritos, and eventually, high on fumes from a jefferies tube malfunction, has a conversation with it. There’s also an episode that functions as a near perfect metaphor for Comic Con and it’s many exclusive after-parties. There’s an episode where we see the return of the Collector’s Guild, which even when we first met them in TNG, can’t help but feel like a bit of a roast of our sometimes obsessive (but human) tendency to selfishly collect and hoard our priceless fandom treasures. If you have walls of Funko pops, you know what I mean. The Collector’s Guild just takes that impulse to its darkest possible conclusion.
And while the jokes are relentless and sometimes bring a bit of crudeness and vulgarity to the Star Trek universe, Lower Decks season 2 continues to balance it out with a solid dose of good natured sweetness and heart. Yes, you might watch two crewmates get trapped underneath fornicating alien beasts, or go on a mission to help a horny officer, but the main focus is always on how the crew is trying to be the best friends, co-workers, and Starfleet officers they can be… even if they don’t always succeed.
The ensemble of voice actors also helps create one of the strongest Trek casts to date. The chemistry that Newsome, Quaid, Wells, Cordero, O’Connell, and Lewis have with each other (not to mention the many guest stars) is so palpable it’s hard to believe that they aren’t on a set with each other, and in fact, had to record the second season solo because of COVID. The chemistry between Wells’ Tendi and Cordero’s Rutherford is so strong that despite the characters’ claims that they are just friends, fans immediately shipped the science and engineering BFFs and created their own fan art to tide them over. Finding the right ensemble — and telling a multitude of stories — is one of the key components to a successful Trek show (and one of my big issues with Discovery, or should I say “The Michael Burnham and Some Other Folks Who Hang Out Sometimes Too, Show”) and luckily for us, Lower Decks has given us a banger of a cast.
And that balancing act of humor, heart, and underdogs struggling to do their best together is why, for me at least, Lower Decks remains the superior new Star Trek installment.
Star Trek: Lower Decks streams Thursday on Paramount+.