Saturday, 23 January 2021

Star Trek: Lower Decks - Season 1

2380. The California-class USS Cerritos is a Starfleet vessel specialising in second contact: turning up to fill out the paperwork and pick up the busywork that more prestigious ships don't have time for as they are on their way to their next adventure. A group of "lower decks" ensigns on Beta Shift are assigned to the most tedious jobs on the ship, but find themselves becoming indispensable to the operation of the vessel.

When a new, animated Star Trek series was announced a couple of years back, some serious grimacing took place among the fanbase. Alex Kurtzman's resurrection of the franchise with the live-action series Star Trek: Discovery had been a mixed bag, at best, and the fear that the new show might be Rick & Morty with a Star Trek rebranding was high. Rick & Morty head writer Mike McMahan being put in charge of the project did little to alleviate those fears.

Fortunately, those fears have been proven groundless. Star Trek: Lower Decks is, genuinely, a fresh and enjoyable take on the Star Trek mythos whilst also paying its dues to the shows and movies that have come before it. Whilst Discovery and Picard have served up some solid instalments and had good ideas, they have also more frequently felt like shows whose writers have never watched a single episode of Star Trek in their lives, serving up generic and all-too-often lifeless adventures which are a disservice to their talented casts. Lower Decks avoids these pitfalls.

There is still much here that the Star Trek hardcore purist will recoil from - the very idea of a comedy series taking place in this universe is enough for that - but on almost every level Lower Decks is a winner. The writing is sharp and funny, the storylines benefitting from the shorter, more focused run-times and, despite the gags, the tone and atmosphere is much more in line with The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine (shows which managed to frequently produce, very successfully, comedy episodes like Qpid and In the Cards).

Most episodes feature classic Trek set-ups, such as the crew clashing with an alien race who have claimed salvage rights over Federation technology or a cultural misunderstanding leads to hostility with a race the Federation is trying to diplomatically win over. The twist here is that the adventures are not told from the POV of the pioneering and brave bridge crew of the Federation flagship, but from the perspective of the lowest-ranking four ensigns on a ship dedicated to paperwork and bureaucracy. The USS Cerritos is an old, ill-maintained vessel which has the dirty job of popping along to planets after much more glamorous vessels have already made first contact and headed off to their next adventure. 

The core castmembers are excellent: Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome, Space Force), an experienced officer with good instincts who has been promoted several times, but demoted again due to her irreverent attitude; Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid, The Boys), a stickler for the rules who has excellent book knowledge but is inexperienced in the field; D'Vana Tendi (Noël Wells, Master of None), an enthusiastic fan of Starfleet with an irrepressible appetite for adventure; and Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero, The Good Place) a human engineer adjusted to life with a new cybernetic implant. This foursome is key to most of the adventures, either together or divided into two teams (usually Mariner/Boimler and Tendi/Rutherford). A subplot also usually follows the bridge crew of the Cerritos as they also try to deal with whatever crisis is going on, usually with less success.

The upstairs-downstairs dynamic between the bridge crew and the lower deck officers is entertainingly handled and used as a way to comment on Star Trek tropes. So yes, the show confirms that "most" people use the holodeck for sex, not for playing poker with Stephen Hawking and Isaac Newton, and that whilst some officers might like to do a jazz or classical recital in the bar, some other crewmen want to form a 1970s punk rock band instead. The show also reveals that the adventures of the most powerful and advanced ships sometimes leak out to the rest of the fleet, Starfleet Security be damned, leading to confused crewmen on other ships learning about Lore teaming up with the Borg or Dr. Crusher having a relationship with some kind of space ghost.

There is a tension in Lower Decks between self-referential humour for hardcore Star Trek fans (the sort of people who jump up and cry "WE NEED ENGINES TO MAKE US GO!" when the Pakleds show up) and making the stories and humour work for people who've never seen an episode of Star Trek in thier life. I suspect people in the latter category may occasionally be left behind by rapid-fire references to the the joggers of Rubicun who murder people for walking on the grass, cameo appearances by Q and debates over the racial stereotyping of the Ferengi (a reference to the heated, real-life debate about the Ferengi being racial stereotypes of Jews or not). But the show also does a good job of rooting the conflict of any episode in contemporary issues related to characterisation: Boimler's perfectionism, Mariner's fun-loving hyper-competence being undermined by her lack of confidence in pursuing a Starfleet career and so forth. This allows episodes to stand alone even when they are fair to brimming with references to quasi-obscure episodes of a TV show that aired the better part of forty years ago (or even to the original series more than fifty years ago).

Aside from the self-referential tics, there aren't too many negatives. A few of the episode premises are stronger than others, and a few gags threaten to feel tired: a holodeck version of Microsoft's Clippy feels like a gag unearthed by archaeologists and carefully chiselled free, although it does then result in one of the show's finest, extended comedic sequences, so it's hard to be too down on that. The show also makes the Discovery/Picard mistake of feeling a little too reliant on bringing in characters and events from other Trek shows to save the day rather than letting our heroes stand alone. These minor issues are offset by the entertaining tone of adventure and exploration.

The first season of Star Trek: Lower Decks (****½) is easily the finest slice of Trek to emerge since the 2005 hiatus, and the most enjoyable season of Star Trek to air this century. With breezy writing, fun characters and a comedic tone set over genuine Star Trek ideals, it shades its recent live-action siblings. The season is available to watch now on CBS All Access in the USA and on Amazon Prime in much of the rest of the world. A second season is currently in production and should air later this year.


mffanrodders said...

This has started showing on my Netflix queue. I wasn’t overly interested but after reading your review, I’ll be sure to check it out.

Anonymous said...

Lower Decks is hilarious!!!
After wanting to puke from watching Discovery (I reached dry retching by season 4 and stopped the self inflicted pain of watching it) and being sorely disappointed by Picard, Lower Decks is what Star Trek should be now. As someone who has seen it all except TOS, I got almost all the humour and loved it to bits. Classic Star Trek is just too stuffy for today's audience, and the more real gritty stuff like the Expanse craps all over it in my opinion.
I think LD has quite un-American humour which is great, and America needs to embrace this kind of self-deprecating style more.
If we look at the kinds of really good funny things coming out of America recently, it's stuff that can laugh at itself (or its franchise), like:

LEGO: Batman movie
Spiderman: Into the verse
Harley Quinn (amazing also)
Hell, even American Dad