*****STARSHIP-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!******
A new Star Trek animated series (the first since 1974) has debuted on CBS-All Access this week. Created by Mike McMahan (“Rick and Morty”), “Star Trek: Lower Decks” is a look at the crew members who work at the less glamorous jobs within Star Trek’s fictional Starfleet; the ones who fix replicators, clean alien slime off of conduits, and other jobs the heralded senior bridge officers of other Star Treks often relegated to their previously unseen subordinates.
The premise was explored in an episode of The Next Generation’s last season (“The Lower Decks”), and the result was a mildly diverting look at some of the rising stars among the ship’s junior officers. Deep Space Nine also had a lively cast of secondary characters, some of whom became very popular in their own right. “Star Trek: Lower Decks” spotlights a few new unsung characters who occupy their own ship’s innards..
S1.1: “Second Contact.”
Written by series’ creator Mike McMahan and directed by Barry J. Kelly, “Second Contact” opens with a shot of a California-class Federation starship, the USS Cerritos (named after a relatively inconspicuous suburb of Los Angeles) as it majestically approaches a large Spacedock to take on new crew members and prepare for a followup ‘second contact’ mission with an alien species. We hear what sounds like the customary ‘captain’s log’ narration and we see a shot of the bridge crew; macho Commander Ransom (Jerry O’Connell), grizzled Bajoran security chief Lt. Shax (Fred Tatasciore) and heroic Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis). We then realize that none of those bridge officers are recording this log; it is the work of meek Ensign Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid), who secretly records these logs for future command practice in a secluded cargo bay…
Boimler’s recording session is interrupted by the mischievous, somewhat obnoxious Ensign Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome, of “Space Force”), who embarrasses Boimler and drags him out of his secluded cargo bay, drunkenly challenging him to a Klingon sword fight, and lacerating his thigh in the process.
Boimler’s wound is instantly healed by Starfleet’s magical medical tech, administered by the ship’s Caitian doctor Dr. T’Ana (Gillian Vigman), and the two are sent to welcome aboard a new Orion crew member, D’Vana Tendi (Noel Wells), who is green both in her native skin color and level of experience.
Note: Dr. T’Ana is a nod to the 1973 animated series’ Caitian relief comm officer, the felinoid Lt. M’Ress (voiced by the late Majel Roddenberry). The spacedock complex seen in the intro harkens back to the Spacedock miniature first seen in “Star Trek III” (1984), which was later reused as various orbiting starbases throughout Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Boimler is assigned as Tendi’s buddy-officer, but Mariner decides to take the nervous young ensign for an impromptu tour of the starship, which is laid out very much in the tradition of TNG’s USS Enterprise-D, complete with a yellow-grid holodeck chamber…
Inside the holodeck, they conjure holographic settings of a Hawaiian beach as well as visions of Tendi’s home planet, which she regrets not visiting before leaving on her current assignment.
Upon exiting the holodeck, the trio runs into Ensign Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) a young man outfitted with a Geordi La Forge/Seven-of-Nine style cybernetic prosthesis over the left side of his head, which occasionally malfunctions, giving the young man uncontrolled & unwelcome bouts of emotional suppression (the prosthetic was built by the ever-logical Vulcans, of course). The implant is tweaked and Sam suddenly feels nervous over his pending date with a half-Trill officer, Ensign Barnes (Jessica McKenna), later that evening…
On the planet below, Commander Ransom is finalizing the agreement between the Federation and the short-statured, purple natives of the planet Galar. Meanwhile, a pesky mosquito-like insect bites Ransom on the neck just before he and his away team beam back to the Cerritos (a classic rookie mistake in Star Trek...). Meanwhile, Capt. Freeman requests Boimler to meet her in her ready room. There, she tasks him with keeping an eye on Ensign Mariner, whom she doesn’t seem to trust (gee…hard to imagine why, given her boisterous drunken behavior). Boimler nervously and reluctantly accepts the assignment of spying on his friend and meets her down on the planet, where he finds she is secretly supplying advanced Federation aid to some Galarian farmers, who are struggling through a difficult harvest. No harm, no foul… until Boimler is attacked by a giant spider-like creature which wants to suckle him for moisture. Slathered in the creature’s purple saliva, Boimler is spat out, and both he and Mariner return to the Cerritos to find a ship-wide, rage virus outbreak has taken place…
By accident, of course, Boimler discovers that the purple saliva covering his body is a natural antidote to the zombie-like rage virus. In sickbay, an overrun Dr. T’Ana gives her new assistant Tendi some gruesome chores, such as manually pumping an officer’s heart outside of his body (mind you, this is played for laughs), while she quickly creates an aerosol version of the purple saliva, which is quickly released though the ship’s air ducts, instantly reverting everyone back to normal… leaving Ransom wondering if he ate human flesh. Once again, body horror is always good for a laugh or two, right? I’m really not sure which demographic this new series is aiming for, to be honest…
Note: this zombie subplot is a clear sendup of the TNG episode, “Genesis”, which saw the Enterprise-D crew infected by a retrovirus which reverted them into earlier de-evolved versions of themselves. The crew were magically cured when Commander Data administered an airborne antidote throughout the ship’s air vents.
The senior officers, led by Capt. Freeman, then swoop in and take charge of the recovery effort, giving only themselves all the credit in their ‘official’ accounts of the incident (of course). We later see Capt. Freeman in her ready room, in a subspace communique with her Starfleet admiral husband. The two senior Starfleet officers are very worried about the unorthodox behavior of their daughter, Ensign Mariner (!). Not exactly a big surprise, but an interesting development; turning the relationship between untrusting captain and mischievous subordinate into one of mother and rebellious daughter. Once again, this seems to be the kind of message one might find in a family-targeted series, not one with sex and body horror jokes (?).
The last scene features our core characters, ensigns Mariner, Rutherford, Tendi and Boimler bonding together in the ship’s Ten-Forward like lounge, doing a “Lower Decks” cheer for themselves, as Mariner rattles off a list of StarTrek references for all those longtime Trek fans who are watching…
First Impressions of Second Contact.
This first episode of “Lower Decks” is filled with prior Star Trek references and in-jokes, as well as a feverish attempt to milk humor from every possible Star Trek trope. The result is, essentially, an animated version of Fox/Hulu’s own Star Trek sendup, “The Orville,” but armed with license to use ‘official’ Star Trek names for everything. The result feels, at times, like Star Trek shadowboxing its own premise. While the notion of a secondary crew of a ship taking center stage is an interesting one, I feel it was done more successfully with Deep Space Nine’s own compelling cast of secondary characters (Garak, Dukat, Nog, Rom, Leeta, etc), all of whom integrated well with their show’s primary cast.
Too often, “Second Contact” is more frantic than funny; desperately stuffing so many gags into its first half hour that none of it really breathes. In 26 minutes, we’re introduced to a new ship and a gaggle of new characters, as well as subplots involving Ensign Mariner’s off-the-books aid to Galarian farmers, and two crew members attempting to make a love connection during a ship-wide zombie apocalypse (!). It’s a collection of Star Trek gags rather than a legitimate continuation of the greater Star Trek mythos. Granted, this was only the pilot, and the series might get better as it goes, but this ‘first contact’ didn’t quite open my hailing frequencies…
What hurts me most is the lost opportunity here. What could’ve been Star Trek’s answer to Star Wars’ “Clone Wars” or “Rebels” cartoon series settles instead for gross-out humor, shallow characterizations and in-jokes from which only faithful Trek fans may get a chuckle or two (sadly, I didn’t, but your mileage may vary). “Lower Decks” goes for frenetic laughs over substance and depth. The Star Wars cartoon series are successful largely because they don’t mock their premises; they simply use their animated format to tell legitimate Star Wars stories that might’ve been too costly to tell in live-action (though “The Mandalorian” has arguably changed that). There are also a few risqué sex and body horror jokes that make “Lower Decks” a no-no for very young fans, putting its target demographic into an ever-shrinking corner. Maybe “Lower Decks” will appeal to a newer generation of Star Trek fans (or non-Star Trek fans who enjoy the humor). If so, then I’m delighted. Bringing new fans into the greater Star Trek universe is a good thing. Perhaps they will be curious about where Star Trek began, and rediscover the earlier Star Trek series (and movies) for themselves. After all, the 1973 Star Trek Animated Series (TAS), which many fans decried as ‘non-canon’ back in the day, was one of my earliest gateway drugs into Star Trek…
I was, and still am a fan of Star Trek TAS, mainly because it was an earnest and honest continuation of Star Trek, despite a few misfires here and there (hey, even the original series had the Space Hippies…). TAS employed several of the original series’ writers, including Dorothy Fontana, David Gerrold and Samuel Peeples. The older cartoon wasn’t played for laughs or just for little children (“Practical Joker” aside); it told authentic Star Trek stories, not silly send-ups of Star Trek tropes. Trying to reconcile “Lower Decks” with its more mature older siblings is like trying to imagine a universe where Archie Bunker lives right next door to Homer Simpson.
After viewing this first episode of “Lower Decks”, I’m not entirely sure I want to sign aboard this ship just yet. Maybe if and when it matures a little, I’ll give it another try. But the pilot was a bit too “Cat in the Hat” for my taste…
Star Trek: Lower Decks is available for streaming on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Crave in Canada. No word just yet on an overseas release streaming platform.
To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic as well. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States is over 160, 000 as of this writing (that number is increasing daily). So, for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing wherever possible, wear masks in public, and avoid crowded outings as much as possible.
Live long and prosper!
13 Comments Add yours
I’ve wanted to watch this since Matt and Andy began talking about it on their Star Trek: The Next Conversation podcast. I’ve got a few too many irons in the fire at the moment, but the moment some space opens up on my schedule, I’m watching it—
I wasn’t planning on watching this series, but then during quarantine, I binge-watched Star Trek:TAS and the dated gem grew on me. So I’ll give this new animated series a try but won’t have a chance to watch the first episode until the weekend.
You and I are on the same page with this one! It just doesn’t hit the target.
It seems like some trekkies will just never be pleased because they have this idealized Star Trek in their heads that can’t actually be recreated. Just have fun with it, man. Give the show a chance to develop. Can you imagine if TNG had been judged on the entire first season, even? Loosen up.
It’s not a matter of loosening up.
I’m fine with Trek having a sense of humor (see: Voyage Home, Trials & Tribble-ations), but Lower Decks’ “Rick & Morty” brand of humor just isn’t my brand (and I’m a fan of “Beavis & Butthead” so I’m not against raunchy humor, either).
I’ve given Lower Decks five chances, and it just doesn’t work for me.
Respect my tastes, as I respect yours.