I will be the first to admit that I was skeptical–like, real skeptical–of an animated comedy show set in the Star Trek universe. I questioned why it was a good idea, on the heels of two great new shows, to suddenly release something that went so far off into left field that I realized I don’t know enough about baseball to continue that metaphor. I thought it was just a weird attempt to appeal to people who might have ignored the franchise over the years, and widen the fanbase.
While it may be exactly that, it is also a fairly solid television show in its own right.
The Lower Decks follows the adventures/misadventures of the crew of the starship Cerritos. More specifically, it follows four crewmembers from the Cerritos’s lower decks. Basically, in any other Star Trek series, they would be the background characters who are not important enough to merit names.
There’s ensign Bradward “Brad” Boimler, the fastidious know-it-all who hopes to be a starship captain one day; ensign Beckett Mariner, a perennial troublemaker who got herself demoted to avoid the tedium of command; ensign Samanthan “Sam” Rutherford, a newly-minted cyborg and engineering fanboy who would rather run diagnostics on an antimatter reactor instead of interacting with people; and ensign D’Vana Tendi, the most recent addition to the Cerritos’s medical team, and a wide-eyed innocent.
Most of the stories in the first season deal with the Cerritos’s prime objective, which is “Second” contact. They basically go and check up on all of the civilizations set to join Starfleet after the initial contact was made by much more important starships, much to the crew’s chagrin.
The Lower Decks is like a fusion of Rick & Morty and Final Space taking place in the Star Trek Universe. Though it can lack the punch of either, it still manages to push the envelope humor wise, especially since Star Trek isn’t exactly known for it’s gut-busting jokes. In fact, the jokes are often funnier because they fly directly in the face of the dignity that the rest of the Star Trek franchise has built itself upon.
Seeing the bridge crew going on about prime directives and honor while the Lower Decks are trying desperately not to get sucked into the void of space or eaten by space zombies, is one of the best decisions this show made. It brings forth a human element that only the most recent shows in the franchise (Discovery and Piccard) have really dabbled in.
It’s also funny to see the crew being genre-savvy in their own way. They often discuss the dangers of inhabiting the Star Trek universe like we would discuss the drive to work. Almost having their ship devoured by a sentient planet wouldn’t even register as a big deal to most of them.
Perhaps the best aspect of the show, for me, is the way the characters interact with and change one another. This is part of the evolution of animation as a serious medium.
A decade ago we probably would have gotten this show as a sitcom at best, and it would have curtailed any character growth or story in favor of hammering out some jokes.
The Lower Decks manages to have its cake and eat it in this very specific regard. While there is no overarching story to the first season, we do get some good character arcs that show the growth of those aboard the Cerritos.
This is most prominent with Beckett Mariner. She wants nothing more than to stay in the lower decks forever and avoid all responsibility, even though she is probably one of the best ensigns that Starfleet has to offer. However, over the course of the first ten episodes, we see some real character growth–or as much as you can get while still being hilarious.
This even extends to the bridge crew. While they largely remain the same throughout the series, they experience some marginal character development that doesn’t seem to impinge upon the premise of the show.
Oh, the references.
I don’t think there is a single episode of The Lower Decks that doesn’t feature some reference to a different Star Trek show. Sometimes, it almost feels like they’re breaking the fourth wall with how directly they reference the original series or The Next Generation. Fortunately, most of what they’re referencing would count as history to them, since The Lower Decks takes place after the end of The Next Generation, but seemingly before the beginning of Picard.
Whether it’s Mariner grilling Boimler on the crew of the Enterprise, or Q showing up to pass judgement on all organic life based on the actions of the Cerritos, the lore of Star Trek shows up constantly, and is always the butt of a joke. It’s actually pretty brilliant, because there are decades of material for The Lower Decks to work with. They can pull from literally any part of the franchise that they want.
The most egregious example of this is the Chief Medical Officer of the Cerritos. Doctor T’Ana is a Cation, basically a giant anthropomorphized cat. While that may seem ridiculous at first, and going against canon, it is actually a reference to Star Trek: The Animated Series from 1973 where the species was first introduced.
While all of the jokes are pretty solid, seeing the constant barrage of references is a delight to any Trekkie, and hopefully an incentive for any newcomers to take a look at what Star Trek has to offer.
The Second Dimension
The fact that The Lower Decks is an animated show only works in its favor. The live action television shows have gotten better over the years in terms of effects. Picard and Discovery are basically movie quality, and it’s amazing, but there are still things that they can struggle to do even with all the CGI and makeup in the world.
One scene that demonstrates the flexibility of the animation is when Boimler is consumed by a giant arachnid in the first episode. Though it turns out that the creature is actually domesticated and just wanted to suckle on him. Boiler then spends an inordinately long time being gummed by the creature.
The scene could have been done in live action, but it would have cost an arm and a leg for a joke that, while funny, would not have been worth the expense. There are other instances of this, such as a dog that turns into a solid metal cube, and an adorable rogue AI that would have been a solid miss if done in live action.
It’s nice to see this particular take on Star Trek taking full advantage of the fact that it is a cartoon, instead of taking the grounded approach of its predecessors.
The Final Frontier
Overall, The Lower Decks does what it sets out to do. It is a funny, sometimes thoughtful, cartoon that shows that even after 50+ years, Star Trek has more to offer. While it might not mesh perfectly with the canon that the live action shows have developed, it definitely manages to use the franchises staples in interesting new ways.
I’m giving the lower decks a solid 8/10. I’m mostly giving it this because it was a pretty big risk for the franchise to take, and I think it paid off in unexpected ways.