The first episode of the new animated
comedy series Star Trek: Lower Decks has
now been released for streaming on CBS Access, beginning a run of new
Star Trek episodes
that will last twenty-three weeks (the full first season of Lower
Decks and the third season of
Star Trek: Discovery).
Lower Decks is,
remarkably, the ninth full Star Trek series
(tenth if you count the companion series Short Treks).
The return of Star Trek to
an animated format is a pretty big deal. Short Treks had
a couple of very good animated episodes which experimented with
different styles, but when most people think of a Trek
cartoon, they'll think of the
1970s Star Trek: The
Animated Series. This is definitely worth a look if you're a Trek
fan, but it conjured up images
of cheap, jerky animation and simplistic morals for kids.
Lower Decks is
something else entirely. While there's also an animated adventure
series in the works (the recently named Star Trek:
Prodigy), Lower Decks
is an adult comedy series.
That's not to say it's entirely unsuitable for a family audience, at
least based on the first episode, but it's clearly aimed at older
teens to adults, and specifically at established Trek fans.
and run by Mike McMahan, who also wrote the excellent Short
Trek “The Escape Artist,”but
is best known for working on Rick and Morty
(plus earlier on South Park and
other animated comedies). Based on early descriptions and the series
trailer, I expected Lower Decks to
be a lot more Rick and Morty-esque
than it's turned out to be. Admittedly, there's a lot of episodes to
come yet and we might get an episode based on horny dragons or a
breast-enlargement ray, but I think it's unlikely. The first episode
of Lower Decks is, if
not a laugh-a-minute, a pretty solid barrage of gags, but it's pretty
much on the right side of the grown-up/puerile divide. The smuttiest
joke is the All-Nude Olympic Training holodeck program, and that's
and foremost, though, this is a Star Trek series,
and McMahan is clearly a huge Trek fan.
Everything in the episode screams “Star Trek!”
from the design of the USS Cerritos to
the obscure-as-hell references to Klingon culture. There are
recognisable alien races throughout – Ensign Tendi is an Orion, Lt.
Shaxs is a big, burly Bajoran, Dr. T'Ana is a Caitian, and there are
Trill, Benzites and more on the ship. There are references to a ton
of classic Trek stories
– in fact, Ensign Mariner dumps a ton of them at the end of the
episode, just to make sure we know this is made by bona
concept of the series is brilliant. The USS Cerritos –
a new kind of starship, the California-class
which looks like a TNG-era
kitbash – specialises in “Second Contact,” the slightly less
important follow-up mission after first contact. Which, when you
think about it, is actually very important. It's joked away as
getting the spelling of the alien planets right, but doing the
serious diplomatic and logistic stuff is pretty essential. Still,
it's not as glamorous as missions of discovery on the USS Enterprise.
main characters aren't the bridge crew, the characters we'd normally
follow, but the derisively-termed “lower decks,” the bottom-rank
newbies and jobbing maintenance people. And while you might sneer at
them, if they're not working, your replicator doesn't get fixed and
is stuck on the “Hot Banana” setting forever. Following the
lower-ranked characters who just want to do their jobs with the
minimum hassle is such a different spin on a Trek series
that it makes it seem fresh, even though this isn't far off the 800th
episode in the franchise.
main characters are all likeable. Ensign Beckett Mariner (Tawny
Newsome) is pretty much the hero of the episode, a busted-down
officer who resents the higher ranks and mostly wants to enjoy her
shore leave. She's insanely overexcitable and would quickly become
unbearable in real life but she's magnetic for a half hour episode,
and she's secretly a moral and inventive officer with an exhaustive
knowledge and experience. She just doesn't like having to justify
herself to anyone.
Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid) is the jobsworth, career-minded one,
serious about doing things by the book and advancing up the ranks,
but he's there for Mariner even when he should be reporting her for
breaching regulations (usually for all the right reasons). He
develops a fair bit even in this episode, so I suspect we'll see a
lot more progression for his character (a tenner says he gets a
promotion to lieutenant by the end of the season, which will change
the dynamic totally).
D'Vana Tendi (Noel Wells) is the fresh-faced, bright-eyed new recruit
on her first assignment. We don't get to see so much of her in this
episode, but her enthusiasm for her posting as a medical officer is
infectious, even as she's fighting off goop-spewing zombies. Ensign
Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) rounds off the main four. He's an
engineer and a cyborg, which makes for an interesting sort of
addition to the series, and he's struggling with his new
Vulcan-implant which keeps trying to suppress his emotions. He's
romantic but way to into his work for his own good.
not to say we don't see much of the bridge crew, just that they're
not the focus and they're generally seen through the eyes of the
ensigns. Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) is a by-the-book sort
who seems to have a vendetta against Mariner, and well, I won't spoil
it but you'll guess why easily enough. Commander Jack Ransom
(Jerry O'Connell) is the first officer and as arrogant as someone
with the name Jack Ransom has to be, while Lt. Shaxs (Fred
Tatasciore) is the trigger-happy tactical officer. Dr. T'Ana (Gillian
Rigsom) is basically a fuzzy Bones.
There's a lot going on in this
episode, almost too much, and it belts from introducing the
characters to events on the planet Galar (home to the purple, piggy
Galadornians) to a zombie plague caused by an insect bite raging
through the ship, with the subplots for Rutherford's date and Tendi's
first day in sickbay getting sidetracked by the zombies. There's a
fair bit of gross-out humour – the most Rick and
Morty-like part of it – with a
weirdly long scene involving Boimler being “suckled” by a giant
spider-cow. Most of the comedy, though, comes from the character
interactions and their clashing personalities, and a gentle poking
fun at Star Trek's
tropes. It never comes across as mocking Trek,
though; it's all well-observed humour of the sort that fans have been
making for years. It's really refreshing to see it on the screen
(outside of Futurama).
Whether someone new to Trek
would enjoy it is another
question. A lot of the in-jokes will be lost on them, of course, but
the basics of the episode are pretty straightforward and I think
anyone with at least a passing experience of sci-fi adventures would
get it. There are bound to be die-hard Trekkies who hate it simply
for being a comedy, and plenty more who just don't enjoy the style of
humour it has to offer. Personally, I loved it, and I can only see it
getting funnier as we get to know the characters more. And the
Monkees joke was perfect.
The episode ends with a swift
“coming up” trailer for the season as a whole, which promises
some exciting adventures and some recognisable alien races. Did I spy
an 8472 there?
We only visit one planet in the episode, Galar, but we also see a recreation of Orion on the holodeck - the first time we've ever seen the Orion homeword onscreen (the planet recreated in "The Cage" was described as an Orion colony).
While we've seen several Orions in Starfleet in the Kelvin Timeline, Tendi is the first we've seen in the Prime Timeline, and makes for a rare appearance by an Orion in the TNG-era.
Lower Decks is set in 2380, a year after Star Trek Nemesis, although the design looks a lot more like TNG-era proper. I've stopped trying to make sense of the uniforms in Trek, and the Cerritos crew wear a different uniform to either the late 2370s version seen from First Contact to Nemesis and in late DS9, and the early 2380s one seen in flashback scenes in Picard. We have seen different ships using different uniform variants concurrently in Trek a few times though.
Captain Freeman is the first black female captain to head the main ship in a Star Trek series.
The voice cast has some solid genre experience: Tawny Newsome is Captain Ali in Space Force; Jack Quaid is Hughie in The Boys and Marvel in The Hunger Games; Noel Wells voiced Jibralta in Kipo; Eugene Cordero is in Kong: Skull Island and The Mandalorian. Fred Tatasciore has done a ton of genre voice work, too numerous to list. Jerry O'Connell is immediately recognisable to 90s sf fans; he was Quinn Mallory on Sliders, and he happens to be married to Rebecca Romijn, who plays the new Number One in Discovery and Strange New Worlds, which I think is the first time two first officers from Trek have been married in real life. Phil Lamarr, who voices the Admiral, was Hermes Conrad on Futurama, Rag Doll on The Flash and Malefic J'onzz on Supergirl, plus has plenty of voice credits including Rick and Morty.