Star Trek has always presented an aspirational future, providing a best-case scenario for humanity and showing what we could accomplish if we could put aside our differences and work together to build a science-based, post-scarcity utopia. Star Trek: Lower Decks identifies the disconnect between this idealized future society and our current, extremely flawed situation, and then mines that vein of comedy for all it is worth.
Lower Decks makes its mission statement clear even from the opening credits, which begin as one would expect for a Trek series, with a swelling orchestral score and plenty of majestic shots of the USS Cerritos navigating wondrous astronomical phenomena. However, unlike the Trek theme songs to which we have become accustomed, Lower Decks immediately undercuts the grandeur: in the very first shot, the Cerritos loses power and begins to tumble toward a black hole, only igniting the engines and making an escape just before it crosses the event horizon.
It isn’t just the undercutting of dramatic moments that makes Lower Decks an effective and comedic analysis of Trek’s utopia. A subplot in the first episode, “Second Contact,” sees the recently cybernetically enhanced Ensign Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) go on a date with one of his fellow crew members, Ensign Barnes. During the date, an alien rage virus is released on the Cerritos, but Rutherford and Barnes seem too infatuated with one another to really be bothered, even bonding over their love of classic music (hey hey, it’s The Monkees). However, in spite of the perfect-seeming appearance, the romance flounders when Rutherford finds Barnes doesn’t possess the same passion for starship maintenance that he does.
Part of this thread of shattering appearances continues in the command crew of the Cerritos. In most instances, Trek provides viewers with an idealized troupe of specialists whose leadership and expertise is beyond reproach. Consider how The Next Generation goes to great lengths to explore why Captain Picard chose Riker, Data, and Troi to be his closest advisors on the Enterprise-D, or the interesting inversion of the power dynamics between Commander Sisko and his Chief Science Office, a “reborn” Trill named Jadzia Dax, on Deep Space 9.
Lower Decks immediately turns these expectations on their head. For one, unlike the aforementioned dream teams, the command crew of the Cerritos – including Captain Carol Freeman, played with precisely the right amount of over-this-shit by Dawnn Lewis – is not presented as the apex of the Federation. Just like the put-upon ensigns in the lower decks of the ship, the command crew of the Cerritos is regularly left to deal with the lack of respect given to them by their peers and superiors, and we see how this pressure from higher up the command chain is passed right along to show’s main characters.
And the main character of Lower Decks, Ensign Beckett Mariner (Tandy Newsome), is charismatic and irresistible. The show goes so far as to show us that Mariner’s heart is in the right place – in the very first episode, we see her break regulation in order to ensure some farmers get the equipment they need – and while it probably isn’t necessary in order to make the character likable, it does speak to another one of the show’s concerns about Trek’s future utopia: that reality is too messy to always be covered by pre-existing regulations.
Meanwhile, Ensign Bradward Boimler (Jack Quaid) serves as the goody-two-shoes foil to Mariner’s Chaotic Good. As the show’s straight man, Boimler embodies slavish devotion to rules and procedure. However, rather than leading to personal promotion, this mostly just puts him in a position to see the many flaws of the command crew.
Rounding out the main cast is Ensign D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells), the Orion medic who joins the crew of the Cerritos in the first episode. She has an especially relatable subplot in the third episode in which she must accept that she may not be liked by all of her crewmates, a petty personal concern that might be beneath the notice of the live action Trek but is perfect here.
The main cast is excellent, and the guest stars are fantastic as well: in the fifth episode, “Cupid’s Errant Arrow,” Gillian Jacobs (Community) gets a chance to verbally spar with Newsome, and the fourth episode, “Moist Vessel,” features Haley Joel Osment (who between this and What We Do in the Shadows is making a play for this year’s “best guest star” award in addition to the 2020 award for “panel moderator supreme“).
As for the animation, human and extraterrestrial characters alike are presented in a simple, straightforward style (and I’m sure that with about ten seconds on Twitter you can find a whole high school classroom filled with unimaginative comparisons to Rick and Morty’s character design, which Lower Decks creator and showrunner Mike McMahan also worked on).
But where the animation of Lower Decks excels is in the sets and spacecraft. Whether it’s one of the Federation shuttlecraft, an interior shot of the bowels of the Cerritos, or an exterior shot of the California-class starship, Lower Decks has done a spectacular job of capturing and expanding the distinctive appearance, technology, and texture of Star Trek’s future – plus, we even get a glimpse of some of the more unkempt corners that we haven’t seen before.
One major question remains: what can a Star Trek series accomplish that hasn’t already been done by unassociated animated science fiction shows like Futurama (which even had a whole Trek-based episode, “Where No Fan Has Gone Before”)?
The first answer is, tell a weekly Trek story without the same budgetary constraints. In the first five episodes of Lower Decks, we’ve seen several other Federation starships beyond the Cerritos, the controlled demolition of an imploding moon, and an extremely dramatic ascension to a higher plane of existence. While certain episodes of live-action Trek have certainly featured such impressive set pieces, animation allows the stories to blossom with comparatively little concern about budgetary restraints. As a result, Lower Decks can go to impressive new narrative places each week.
But the more consequential answer is that the Trek universe is deep enough to support a comedic animated analysis. Few fictional worlds have had as much thought put into them – and fewer still have functional philosophies – in the same way that Trek does. This level of depth can support an animated satire that focuses solely on the Trek universe, rather than the genre of science fiction in general.
Plus, while we’ve seen the perspective of those in the Lower Decks before – like in TNG episode “The Lower Decks” – there is more than enough in that concept to explore to justify its expansion to a full series.
Trek enthusiasts of all degrees will find something worthwhile in Lower Decks. For more casual fans, there are plenty of jokes about Spock and the Prime Directive. And for more devoted Trekkers, there are some hilarious deep cuts, in dialogue and in background gags. It’s clear that the creators of Lower Decks adore Trek, and they want to share that passion with viewers of all experiences – even the Trek uninitiated may find something to enjoy here (but will probably be forced to google “jamaharon” by the end of the second episode).
Although Lower Decks has yet to have a single, exceptionally mind-blowing episode like DS9’s “The Visitor” or TNG’s “Cause and Effect,” it seems inevitable that such an episode is just around the corner, especially given that the series has already been picked up through the second season.
Trek has always provided an aspirational vision for the future, but here in 2020 – just four very short years shy of the Bell Riots in September 2024 – that future can seem further away than ever. Lower Decks gives us a rung in the ladder to grab between the perfection of Trek’s future and the messy reality of our present, and at this point in American history, that toehold may just be what we’re all reaching for.
New episodes of Star Trek: Lower Decks are released Thursdays on CBS All Access.