I was skeptical when I heard the initial pitch for Star Trek: Lower Decks, an animated adult comedy show from Mike McMahan, one of the key writers and producers on Rick & Morty (2013-present). As one of the few certified fans of Star Trek’s only previous animated effort (the imaginatively titled Star Trek: The Animated Series [TAS, 1973-74]), I wasn’t put off by the show’s format; nor am I automatically opposed to comedy in my science fiction. The most comedic Star Trek movie, The Voyage Home (1986), was my introduction to the franchise, and it’s indisputably Star Trek. But I was somewhat concerned about how well the cynicism of most adult animated shows would work with Star Trek, which is sometimes jaded, but never cynical.
I needn’t have worried. When Star Trek: Lower Decks launched last year in the midst of the pandemic, I loved it immediately. Autumn 2020 was a pretty grim time in the United States, and each week the show transported me out of my anxious reality for a half hour filled with hilarity.
Lower Decks follows four crew members on the USS Cerritos, a ship that’s just as good as any other in the fleet but maybe not quite the best of the best. The main characters are Beckett Mariner, whose disrespect for the rules of Starfleet goes hand-in-hand with her deep commitment to its ideals; uptight Brad Boimler, whose love of the rules is part and parcel of his deep hunger for promotion; D’Vana Tendi, an Orion crew member in the science division; and Sam Rutherford, a young engineer with a cybernetic implant. The supporting cast of senior officers are led by Captain Carol Freeman, whose last nerve Mariner is perpetually dancing on; first officer Jack Ransom, the apotheosis of the Riker/Kirk type; Shaxs, the Bajoran security chief; and Dr. T’Ana, a Caitian doctor—yes, she’s a cat person, just like M’Ress in TAS. We find out in the first episode that Mariner is Freeman’s daughter, though no one else on the ship knows.
The show is reliably hilarious throughout every episode. A good part of that is the razor-sharp writing, which manages to pack a lot of pathos and character development in between the jokes, but the rest of it is the stellar voice acting from just about every person in the cast. Tawny Newsome apparently ad libs a good deal of her jokes as Mariner, which is doubly impressive because of the density of Trek references in them. Boimler’s love of rules would probably be annoying in most other forms, but Jack Quaid makes him lovable despite these flaws; and Noël Wells and Eugene Cordero bring the science nerdery and love of Starfleet in their own performances, too. A few TNG actors show up at various points, and they sound in as fine form as they ever did in live action.
The show makes some welcome strides for representation in Trek. Mariner and her mother are Black, making Carol Freeman the first Black woman to captain a starship in a regular role, and Tendi is one of only three Orion women in the franchise who keep all of their clothes on—all of whom have appeared in the twenty-first century, with the most recent, Osyraa, appearing on the third season of Star Trek: Discovery as the antagonist. Cadet Gaila was great in her very tiny role in J.J. Abrams’ theatrical Star Trek (2009), but it’s good to get not only a science nerd but an Orion woman in Tendi’s role of newcomer to the ship and dedicated officer with more than a few tricks up her sleeve.
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about TAS despite its wackiness is how it deepens the characters and setting of TOS by going back to expand on some classic episodes from the original series (TOS). (Despite what internet trolls try to claim, it was not made for children, and though it has some funny lines, particularly in the David Gerrold-penned episodes, it’s not a comedy either.) While Lower Decks doesn’t do any direct sequels to TNG episodes (unlike Discovery, with this season’s standout “Unification Three”), it does revisit settings and species that have been seen before, making the twenty-fourth century feel like that much more of a living, breathing place. At least one TNG species, the Pakleds, returns in a very different role than they played the first time around; the same episode also features an Exocomp, and the crew visit the TOS planet Beta III.
McMahan has described Lower Decks as the last of the ’90s Trek shows, and that’s certainly accurate: the crew of the Cerritos and most other Starfleet personnel they encounter wear a new version of the classic primary color uniform scheme that was abandoned for the later TNG movies and the back half of DS9. It’s also set before Picard, by which time the galaxy and the Federation are clearly in a somewhat darker place, so in this sense, too, the show feels like a brighter, happier Trek. The character designs contribute to that brightness; whereas in TAS all the women looked angry and all the men looked unimpressed, the Lower Decks characters have a pleasing range of expression (except for the perpetually cranky T’Ana), and though they’re somewhat stylized, they’re still recognizably members of the Trek species we’ve come to know and love.
There was a lot of good in the ’90s—it was the decade that made Trek what it is now in many ways—but McMahan and his colleagues are clearly huge fans of Trek in general, not just TNG. The Discovery writers have done a good job of bringing in some deep cuts from TAS and other obscure parts of canon throughout that show thus far; but there is no deeper cut than the Star Trek: Phase II joke that Lower Decks drops in one of its stand-out episodes, “Crisis Point,” an extended riff on, tribute to, and parody of all thirteen Star Trek movies in which Mariner strong-arms the others into playing out a holodeck scenario starring herself as an interstellar villain named Vindicta. (They even alter the aspect ratio between the holodeck and the rest of the ship!) But it’s not just that the writers bust out the in-jokes—it’s that at the same time Mariner undergoes a fairly significant emotional crisis about her attitude toward authority in general and her mother in particular. That pin-sharp mix is Lower Decks in a nutshell.
If you’re familiar with the conflicts and discourse in Trek fandom, however, you’ll probably not be surprised to hear that Mariner and her flagrant disrespect for rules and authority are a point of contention within some segments of the audience. Some of this, to be blunt, is misogynoir and should be ignored; other arguments in better faith are that her attitude is against the spirit of Starfleet and of Trek. Aside from the fact that there are clearly grounds to be skeptical about Starfleet and its sterling intentions at times, to me this stance seems to affect a kind of selective recall about what Star Trek is and how Starfleet officers behave. Mariner is far from the only character we’ve seen disobey the rules, and characters on the Cerritos from the captain down admit, however grudgingly, that her against-the-book mindset is the kind of thing that they often need in order to get a different and vital perspective on otherwise intractable problems. It’s too simplistic to say that Mariner is a Kirk figure, but her unwillingness to respect Starfleet’s authority for its own sake does call him to mind. Moreover, Mariner’s own attitudes evolve over the course of the season, and I’m excited to see how the new mindset she has by season’s end plays out in the future.
None of this is to say that the show doesn’t have points that could stand improvement. After Gene Roddenberry’s death, 1990s Trek was overseen by the notorious sexist homophobe Rick Berman, and Lower Decks is very much a ’90s show in its complete inattention to queerness: DS9 was queerer than this show, and that’s a very unfortunate fact in 2021. Put simply, it’s not realistic that everyone in the Cerritos crew but Mariner would be straight, and Mariner making a throwaway comment about another woman being hot is not sufficient evidence that she’s bisexual, as McMahan and the writers apparently thought it would be. (Spoilers in the interview at the link.) I don’t mean to set up a competition between the current Star Trek shows, but in an era when Discovery has multiple queer characters of various genders, orientations, and races in the cast, and even Picard managed to sneak in some sotto voce queerness with Seven of Nine and Raffi, this is a really unwelcome oversight on the part of Lower Decks.
I could stand to see more of the supporting cast on the Cerritos next time around, too, partly because I love them and partly because Mariner and Boimler too often steal the spotlight and the A plot for most of the episodes, with Tendi and Rutherford usually relegated to the B plot and not interacting as much with the other two. I have no doubt that both of them could anchor an A plot by themselves, and I hope they get the chance to do so. Without spoiling anything, I’ll also be interested to see how Boimler’s career develops, and how his friendship with Mariner holds up. (I also hope we’ll finally get to see Cetacean Ops! And dare I hope for a mirror universe episode?)
After living through the lean years of the post-Enterprise, pre-Discovery era—when Star Trek seemed to be dead on the small screen—it’s beyond wild that Lower Decks is merely the third of five Star Trek shows that are either ongoing or in production, and that it’s not even the only animated show (Star Trek: Prodigy is scheduled to launch later this year). But no matter how many more Trek shows they make, I feel confident that none of them will ever be much like Lower Decks. The B team of Starfleet is unquestionably the funniest crew to ever set foot on a starship, and I can’t wait to see where they go next, boldly or otherwise—no matter whether anyone has gone there before.