Star Trek has been many things in the past 54 years: eight television series, 13 films, the better part of a thousand total novels, and the beating heart that arguably created modern fandom as it now stands. But for all the humor—both intentional and not—scattered throughout its storied history, there is one frontier it has not yet explored: the half-hour comedy.
The ninth and newest Star Trek series aims to change all that. Lower Decks is a half-hour animated series set in the timeline two years after the conclusion of Star Trek: Voyager. The half-hour comedy cartoon format is a definite change of pace from ViacomCBS’ other recent Star Trek offerings, the heavily serialized dramas Picard and Discovery. The question any fan might have then, is simple: does it hold up?
And the answer is yes, mostly—but don’t set your expectations to “stunned.”
A labor of love
I previewed the first two episodes of Lower Decks at an online premiere “event” Tuesday, ahead of the series’ public debut on Thursday. The content was exactly as you might expect from the trailer, which was heavily (though not exclusively) composed of shots and scenes taken from the first episode.
Lower Decks takes place on the USS Cerritos, a “second contact” ship, in the year 2380. The main characters are a motley quartet of ensigns serving in the medical, engineering, and command divisions. Our heroes are the usually unnamed and unsung crew members with but a single lone pip on their collars who show up when senior officers have delegated out their tasks and moved on to the next interesting thing. The Cerritos‘ missions are not new explorations and important diplomatic functions but instead the nine-to-five work of bureaucrats and grunts who have to hold it all together somehow.
Producer Alex Kurtzman earlier this year described Lower Decks as a “love letter” to the franchise from series creator, producer, and writer Mike McMahan (creator of Rick and Morty), who is an enormous Star Trek fan, and that description is apt.
McMahan’s love shines through from literally the first note of the Lower Decks theme. The entire opening credits sequence is done in the style of Star Trek: The Next Generation, using the same iconic blue font to lay out the names of the cast. The way episodes are directed, with a more static camera and just-so use of ship-against-planet exterior shots, is inspired more by the 1990s than by the kinetic, frantic framing and editing of the 2010s.
The name of the series itself is taken from an episode of Next Generation‘s seventh and final season, which relegated the senior staff and bridge crew to background activity and instead focused on four lower-ranking officers among the Enterprise crew. Nearly every scene drips with Easter eggs and overt references to the tricks that came before, from Gary Mitchell and Sulu as swordsman to the “Janeway protocol.” the Cerritos crew is populated with Benzite, Bajoran, and Trill officers alongside the more common complement of Human, Vulcan, and Orion crew.
I don’t get to make TV shows, but I, too, have been a Star Trek fan since I was six years old, and TNG is my show. It’s the one I was raised on, it’s the one I watched reruns of at 5 and 6 pm every weekday once it hit its 100th episode and went into broad syndication, and it’s the one I can still recite disturbingly large portions of in my sleep. I am, in short, McMahan’s audience, and when he seeks to reference my longstanding comfort food, well—I am indeed comforted.
Such a labor of love, however, treads a dangerous line. Winks, nods, and references are fine up to a certain point; they tell the audience that they and the creator are in on a joke together and can respect each other’s knowledge. Too many, though, are alienating: a viewer can start to feel that the creator understands the form, but not the function, of what they are supposed to be accomplishing.
In the first two episodes, at least, Lower Decks manages to fall on the correct side of that line. I felt as though I were in a room with a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable fan just brimming over with things he wanted to say, rather than trapped in a “how do you do, fellow kids” hellscape. That said, once the show has proven its bona fides—it’s OK! I’m a real Star Trek show, I promise!—it could do well to lay off a little bit on the deep cuts that don’t add anything.
Despite its pushing to be considered a proper member of the canon in its own right, Lower Decks feels most like an amuse bouche: a fun little treat to keep you fed and happy until your real food arrives.
Art, a wise friend recently reminded me, is always part of a conversation—with other art, with the broader culture, and with its audience. Star Trek in particular has always deliberately planted its stakes and stood its ground in our culture, and countless other pieces of media have taken their inspiration from it.
Lower Decks, however, may be the clearest example to date of Star Trek in its own turn taking hefty cues from the art its fans created over the years. It owes a nod to Galaxy Quest, to The Orville, and to John Scalzi’s novel Redshirts, among others. Likewise, as a half-hour “adult” comedy, it owes nods to every 30-minute animated comedy that came before it, starting with The Simpsons and going straight through its most obvious predecessor, Rick and Morty.
Star Trek, writ large, has always made a point of using its position to say something worth hearing: to urge us to be our best selves, to explore the universe with wonder, to accept and cherish that the world around us is full of infinite diversity in infinite combination. Across hundreds of cumulative episodes, there remain soaring, searing investigations asking us to challenge what it means to be alive… right up alongside absolute duds of pure silliness (and not the good kind of silliness).
That attempt to impart meaning, even when handled clumsily, is a large part of what has given the venerable franchise such extraordinary sticking power. Star Trek‘s last attempt at a half-hour animated series—the aptly named Star Trek: The Animated Series—has not entered the Trek canon with nearly the adoration and staying power of all four live-action series that aired in the 20th century.
Recent entrants Discovery and Picard, for all their flaws and controversies, both leaned in hard to their perceived obligation to Say Something right from the start. One could reasonably argue that both shows took that principle a little too seriously, in fact—and the heroes of Lower Decks would agree. In a universe of lofty goals and monologued moral exhortations, Lower Decks primarily begs us to check ourselves before (and after) we wreck ourselves and to take the opportunities to screw around, have fun, and enjoy the absurdities of space when they are presented.
The first season of Star Trek: Lower Decks will premiere on CBS All Access on Thursday, August 6 with the remaining nine episodes in the season airing weekly on Thursdays thereafter.