When I first heard about Star Trek: Lower Decks, I was newly disenfranchised with “Nu-Trek” as a whole, thanks to the abysmally dark and decidedly non-Star Trek-like Discovery and Picard. Then I saw that they were making some Family Guy-style cartoon in Star Trek’s universe, and I was like, sure, might as well finish the job of killing Trek that Alex Kurtzman and his cronies have been doing so well.
So color me every shade of the Starfleet uniform rainbow to find out that Lower Decks turned out to be the best modern Star Trek show on TV. Like The Orville, Lower Deck’s creators clearly have a genuine love and understanding of the franchise and wanted to create an optimistic and fun series that would honor it instead of dragging it down into some grimdark pit.
Rick and Morty’s Mike McMahan created Lower Decks using his knowledge and love of Trek, making it as much of a real series as a good-natured parody that poked fun of Trek’s many foibles and weird adventures. It’s a fine line to walk between parody and sincerity, and Lower Decks threaded it very well indeed. Within an episode or two of the first season, I could instantly tell that this was a series that genuinely wanted to uphold what made Star Trek special while also being as self-deprecating as possible.
It’s a hoot.
The setting of the show is really inspired, too. Instead of being placed on Starfleet’s latest flagship, the series takes us on board the U.S.S. Cerritos, which is a kind of lower-tier starship that specializes in “second contact” and other jobs that the best-of-the-best don’t usually handle. And if that’s not climbing down the ladder enough, our four main antagonists are all “lower decks” ensigns who sleep in corridors and act as forgettable support characters to the heroic bridge crew (who are equally fleshed out and hilarious).
Our main character is Beckett Mariner, a secretly amazing adventurer who deliberately messes up so that nobody promotes her. Oh, and she’s the captain’s daughter. She’s best friends with Brad Boimler, an over-ambitious Wesley Crusher-type who’s obsessed with rules. They both hang out with Orion medic D’Vana Tendi and engineer cyborg Sam Rutherford, both of whom are as nerdy as they are optimistic. It’s a fun group.
As I said, the upstairs group is pretty great as well, although the scene-stealer there has to be T’Ana, a Caitian (cat) doctor who’s super-grumpy in a way that makes me miss McCoy.
With a shorter running time than the non-animated Star Trek series, a faster pace, and a penchant for tossing in as many Star Trek easter eggs and silly jokes as possible without completely ruining canon, Lower Decks’ episodes are a quick and enjoyable watch. I binged the entire first season in three days, lamenting that we only got 10 episodes with this run. Happily, there wasn’t a dud in the bunch.
You don’t have to be a die-hard Trekkie to enjoy Lower Decks, but you are going to get about 50% more of the jokes if you do. I never stopped being amazed at the absolutely obscure references that Lower Decks made, some of which zinged back to the original series in 1960. When someone references “salt vampires” or the “Janeway protocol” and you connect those with famous episodes from the past, it goes a long way to enhancing the humor value. And they finally admitted what the holodeck would be used for in reality! Again, I think it would still be funny if you didn’t get all of it, but it helps if you do.
Another pleasant surprise was seeing how the animated series is able to make callbacks and connections that expanded the franchise. We got Riker and Troi on the U.S.S. Titan, new starship designs, a specialized medical division in Starfleet that deals with weird disasters during missions, and a few continuations of long-forgotten episode plotlines and races. Again, total hoot.
The pacing and the seeming irreverence for super-serious Star Trek may throw off some people, and I would totally see how it’d be a deal-breaker for some. But if you wrote this off as a dumb joke at Star Trek’s expense, I’d urge you to actually judge it at face value. It might warp itself right into your heart.