Review – ‘Star Trek: Lower Decks’ Brings Starfleet Life Crashing Down to Earth

“Star Trek: Lower Decks” Image by CBS All Access

When you hear that a Star Trek animated series is coming from the writer of Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty, you really don’t know what to expect. And, to be honest, that’s kind of the point. Nearly 55 years after Gene Roddenberry’s science fiction “Wagon Train to the stars” premiered, the extensive franchise is probably due for another shake-up.

If Star Trek: Lower Decks accomplishes anything, it definitely does that. After screening the first four episodes, our intelligence can confirm that it is basically what it looks like in the trailer: a Starfleet sitcom. And, like the best sitcoms, it’s about more than laughs. It works because it has a lot of real human heart behind it and also takes enough care to be respectful, not resentful, of the vastness of Trek lore without — and this is key here — taking it all too seriously.

Let recent live-action spinoffs like Discovery and Picard carry the weight of those iconic expectations. Lower Decks’ junior officers can make the astronomical mistakes we have always wondered and joked about, and roll back the gleaming bulkheads to reveal what it really takes to make a galaxy-wide utopia with physical-holographic VR playrooms and food replicators function like magic. As you might expect, it isn’t always pretty! Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise did wonders to show the darker side of Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets’ foundations, even challenging the purported “Paradise” that followed Earth’s post-World War III expansion. But it was all still just a little too perfect, too logical …

Like 1994’s “Lower Decks” Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, the new CBS All Access series explores the less glamorous goings-on far from the bridge of a Federation starship — but this is no Galaxy-class USS Enterprise, where even a lowly ensign can forge a stellar legacy out of nothing.

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This crew’s ensigns include the maverick-slacker Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), neurotic wannabe captain Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid), enthusiastic newcomer and sickbay scientist D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells) and newly minted cyborg engineer Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero). Their upper-deck superior officers include capable but confounded Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis), macho first officer Jack Ransom (Jerry O’Connell), bellicose Bajoran security officer Shaxs (Fred Tatasciore) and grumpy Caitian chief medical officer T’Ana (Gillian Vigman).

The Cerritos also isn’t in the fleet vanguard, making first contact or escorting eminent emissaries to important negotiations — rather, it’s the more expendable ship that comes along later with a C-list crew that gets all the paperwork signed and grunt work done to keep new Federation applicants happy, whatever it takes. Looking at it from that perspective, the stories seem to practically write themselves. Yet they’re less absurd somehow than the Star Trek movies’ Earth-shattering repercussions or the original 1970s animated Trek series’ unbound-from-a-special-effects-budget eccentricities.

Lower Decks may share a writer with Rick and Morty, but this isn’t just a Trek-flavored re-skin of that famously edgy late-night cartoon. Most of the time it feels more down-to-Earth, like the errand-driven Futurama (fans of Planet Express should feel at home on this ship of lovable fools); it’s when the Cerritos crew really screws up and the nacelles come off (and they inevitably do) that Mike McMahan’s R&M pen and “Pickle Rick” Emmy-winning producer prowess is more evident.

Still, while not the raunchiest program in the holodeck database, this fast-moving series definitely isn’t the kind of transmission you can sit younger sci-fi cadets down in front of to watch without the context a responsible adult can provide. Blue Alert: Lower Decks’ stickier situations may prompt some uncomfortable questions from your own junior officers anyway.

Taking place in 2380, Lower Decks is set in the year after Star Trek: Nemesis and about five years before the massive Romulan resettlement effort that sets much of the stage for Picard’s tragic backstory. While the humorous new animated series so far looks and feels like it’s intended to be Trek canon — always a sensitive subject — it remains to be seen whether the Cerritos crew will directly encounter key players and situations from its live-action forbearers. So, keep your sensors on standby and those hailing frequencies open, fans!

Once Lower Decks’ 10-episode first season ends its run, the third season of Discovery will debut on CBS All Access Oct. 15 — meaning that, starting today, there will be 23 consecutive weeks of new Star Trek for subscribers to enjoy. Engage!

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This post was last modified on August 5, 2020 10:31 pm

Jayson Peters

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