I can’t believe I almost wrote off Star Trek Lower Decks.

I’m sure there are people out there who think the idea of a “comedic take on the staid and serious Star Trek” is a personal affront and will want nothing to do with Star Trek Lower Decks. I am not one of those people, but for me the first few episodes seemed a bit familiar, when I had been hoping for something a little more groundbreaking. The series comes from Mike McMahan, who worked on Rick & Morty which is…an acquired taste (it took me a while to come around to R&M, personally). Both shows feature rapid-fire scenes intended to offer as many “blink and you missed it” opportunities as they can so viewers feel like they’ve accomplished something that other people might not, because we live in terrible times when these situations are parlayed as “intelligence”. In fact, since Lower Decks debuted, reviews have focused heavily on what they stupidly[1] call “Easter Eggs” that refer to earlier points in Star Trek lore. It was mainly this exhaustive meta-focus and not the IP’s self-parody that turned me off, but I gave it my required “three episode trial”, and whether it was a case of the episodes getting better, or the fact that the show just started to grow on me, I am now incredibly sad that the first season is over.

The Good, The Bad, and the Animated.

As with every Star Trek series before it, Lower Decks focuses on the crew of a totally new starship, the USS Cerritos, “one of Starfleet’s least important ships”, except this time around the main characters are four members of the functional crew and not the bridge crew. The concept is to focus on what goes on aboard a starship (the “lower decks” is where the rank-and-file crew are bunked), and how the “unsung heroes” keep Starfleet operational. Still, how interesting can a show be if the writers only focused on “cleaning the holodeck” and “swapping out isolinear chips”? So in this case, the unsung heroes become…sung?…because how can they not when the show is supposed to be about them?

Come on…you KNOW this kind of thing happens on starships!

The character archetypes aren’t anything new when it comes to animated fare, but instead are caricatures of what might be an otherwise low-key trait in a normal episode of Star Trek. The main character is Beckett Mariner, first-class troublemaker who only instigates about 1/3 of the show’s hijinks. Bradward “Brad” Boimler takes care of another 1/3 by virtue of being the Starfleet suck-up who has dreams of joining the bridge crew by keeping his performance records squeaky clean. As you can imagine, the friction between Mariner and Boimler is the ignition point for a good portion of the series plotlines. Rounding out the main characters is D’Vana Tendi, an Orion medical ensign who’s overly enthusiastic about everything Starfleet, and engineering ensign Samanthan “Sam” Rutherford who shares Tendi’s love of all things technical, and has a Vulcan-designed cybernetic implant attached to his skull (it plays a part in several episodes). Beyond that, the bridge crew of the Cerritos features heavily into the series which makes sense, as the ship needs to go places for the Lower Decks crew to get into trouble, and the show can’t really push that narrative without explaining why the ship has to go where it goes. The bridge crew has some personality build-out that includes Captain Carol Freeman, a no-nonsense leader who takes pride in her ship despite it being a back-bencher, Command Jack Ransom who is played as his name suggests: all machismo, but with a side of actual effectiveness, Shaxs, a Bajorian tactical officer who is always angry as befitting someone in charge of the Cerrito’s weapons, and T’Ana, a Caitian doctor channeling the spirit of Deforest Kelly before his morning coffee.

The best — or worst — thing about a series like Lower Decks is that they are allowed (or expected, considering the show’s pedigree) to break the fourth wall. They do this by referring to events of Star Trek Past either as non-sequiturs or through direct inclusion of items, ships, and personalities. Characters regularly name-drop other characters or events from Trek cannon, sometimes so incongruously and without context that you immediately know they only did so to remind viewers that this show is also cannon despite it’s slapstick premise. Often these references are pretty obtuse, available only to the hardest of the hardcore fans, and later to everyone else as various websites kindly offer to deconstruct these callbacks for the uninitiated. There end up being a few cameos from more easily recognizable characters in Star Trek lore which I will not spoil — specifically in the season finale, which caused me to laugh out loud — but each one takes the original character and dials their more absurd traits up to 11 with a wink and a nod at how off-the-wall these characteristics are being, almost as if they’re finally getting to uncork their real selves after having been restrained in previous Star Trek outings.

The series’ comedic meta game is strong.

The show isn’t always absurd humor, though. You’ll probably appreciate the show more if you A) are a fan of Star Trek who B) doesn’t have a bat’leth up your ass about the way the property is being treated in the 21st century. In fact, there are some seriously fantastic episodes in this bunch, which I think is kind of odd for a debut season. The last two of the season, in fact — “Crisis Point” and “No Small Parts” — kind of blew me away in not just how good they were for merging the usual comedic tones with some serious drama, but how good they were as Star Trek episodes. “Crisis Point” in particular kind of sneaked up on me by hiding behind the show’s usual staccato Trek -ephemera delivery and it wasn’t until after everything calmed down that I understood how seriously psychological the episode was.

Unfortunately I think that being a Star Trek series puts the show behind a veritable 8-ball because as Discovery and Picard have shown, many people are keen to gatekeep what they think Star Trek should be. In their mind Star Trek is supposed to be serious, it’s supposed to always be optimistic, and although it’s guaranteed that the going will get tough, we’ll get a comfortable resolution heavily disguised as Starfleet ingenuity and a lot of “Treknobabble”. Discovery went dark, Picard went obsolescent, and Lower Decks goes absurd, which means that it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. While at first I kept watching only because it was bridging the end of Picard and the new season of Discovery, the show seemed to settle into both it’s delivery and it’s Trek-ness until it delivered a pretty serious one-two punch at the end. With this trial run under it’s belt, I’m hoping that a season two will build on the successes of the first season and ditch the stuff that hasn’t worked. I am glad I stuck through the first round of episodes, though, because Lower Decks is — in my opinion and despite how off the beaten path it is for Star Trek — a worthy addition to the Star Trek Universe.

[1] OK, so I know this is pedantic, but each time I saw a post ore recap of a Lower Decks episode talk about “Easter Eggs”, the implied giggling got more and more pronounced. To me — and hopefully to you — an Easter Egg is something that is not in plain sight. Easter eggs are hidden away for kids to find, and they are rewarded for doing so. When it comes to including an Easter egg in a show or movie, for example, it’s a poster or a background cameo by a character that isn’t focused on. What Lower Decks does, however, is blatently call out things. The show literally wants you to see them, so they slap you in the face with them…usually in burst of rapid-fire dialog, or as a quick “Family Guy” style aside. Instead, I’d call these inclusions “callbacks”, because they are — wait for it — calling back to previous Star Trek content.

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