It’s been quite a long time since Star Trek had an animated series, since, well, The Animated Series in 1973. It’s been long regarded as one of those black sheep sort of things among the Trek fandom. It only ran two seasons, and had a lot of canonical and animation inconsistencies that rival most animated shows produced in the 70s, 80s, and 90s in America, and nearly all of Steven Universe today. It stood at the only attempt at a Trek cartoon, until now.
Star Trek Lower Decks comes from Rick and Morty season four+ executive producer Mike McMahan, making yet another show done by Rick and Morty alumni that imported the good aspects of its predecessor without Dan Harmon’s massive ego and bullshit, the other being Justin Roland’s Solar Opposites. Lower Decks expands upon two episodes of TNG and VOY, “Lower Decks”, and “Good Shepherd” which feature mostly ensign and crewmen-rank Starfleet officers and base the episode around their interactions and story rather than the usual senior officers. So while most episodes feature the USS Cerritos’ senior officers, Captain Freeman, Commander Ransom, Lieutenant Shax, and Doctor T’Ana, the show instead follows Ensigns Mariner, Boimler, Tendi, and Rutherford through their daily transgressions and hijinks, often caused by the senior staff themselves.
Of all the Kurtzman-era Nu-Trek, this is finally the first Trek show I can actually watch and it feels like Trek. Discovery tried very hard and wound up being very convincing fanfiction. Picard brought back some fun nostalgia, but wound up being more like action-Picard most fans walked away from after the TNG-era movies. It seemed to me that Trek’s current stable of writers and producers were more concerned with putting out a social justice-approved space-future show when that’s what Trek has always been about, even if its old writers and producers weren’t. The appeal of Trek is and always will be that it’s a more-cerebral-than-action science fiction show about people working together to overcome challenges. All Nu Trek writers and producers need to do is expand upon the Federation and actually include the different races that are part of the group, which is on full display in this show. Then, keep the original spirit of having many primary characters, a starship, calibrations and warp cores, red alerts and phaser fire. See? That wasn’t so fucking hard, was it, Bryan Fuller?
And five episodes in, Lower Decks satisfies all of those itches I have been having about Trek that only the older shows can cure, and I don’t mind the format. I don’t mind the non sequiturs, immersion-breaking, and suspension of disbelief caused by each week’s left-field dilemmas and scenarios. Often, they end up being resolved in a way where the show understands that you’re trying to suss out how the entire crew was infected by an alien virus and ran around seemingly killing each other, but there were no causalities, or at least none reported. If anything, the animated format allows the show to do things that live-action cannot on a smaller budget. It also may entice veteran actors into reprising their characters on the show in later seasons. I for one would like to see what a number of characters have been up to, especially those from Voyager since they would have returned from the Delta Quadrant not that long ago, as Lower Decks takes place in 2380, after the movie Nemesis, which was set one year prior. That would imply the Enterprise-E is still in service, Worf is probably still rolling around in the Defiant, and Voyager may even still be commissioned even after being out-of-state for seven years.
That being said, the show does have some issues, at least for me. The big two are ship design and uniforms. Part of why I enjoy Trek is the ship and the uniform. I’m not really big on military attire or formal-wear, but I fucking idolized the commbadges and uniforms as a kid, and especially the DS9/VOY era jumpsuit, and the FC/DS9 grey-on-black style. Even the ENT oldschool flight suit variation was pretty good for its time. DISCO was okay, but did way better with their TOS redesign in the second season. Picard and LD on the other hand just felt like someone was trying to slap together a uniform with too many stripes and solids. It’s like Nomura Final Fantasty designs with too many belt buckles and zippers. But more importantly, the constant changing of the commbadge design. I could have maybe rolled with the LD design if they kept the DS9/VOY commbadge.
The ship itself, well, I am a hyper-fucking-alpha-ex-beta-six nerd for Starfleet vessels, so this is going to feel more like a me issue than a you issue, but the Cerritos’ deflector dish placement annoys the fuck out of me. It’s situated between the nacelles, and even though you look at the MSD in this scene you can see access going into the nacelles themselves, it’s just weird design for the era it’s set in. Considering it’s supposed to be a C-team crew and ship in Starfleet, I would have rather seen them in an old Nebula-class ship, or maybe the last Oberth-class ship left in service, truly slumming it. I also don’t particularly care for the bunk-deck-hallway all the ensigns are kept in. In previous series, even though ensigns and crewmen were bunked together two or three to a room, they still had rooms. I’m kind of hoping to get a canonical explanation for that, like “Well we needed to streamline more of the ship so we decided to just cram em in a hallway.” Otherwise it just seems like a comedic framing device to show just how low on the totem pole they are, and that just seems like a punch to the balls. Being an ensign in Starfleet is pretty rough, but it ain’t that rough.
Bringing this back around to good shit, for the characters themselves, they’re an absolute blast. Mariner is a bit of a Mary-Sue in how she seemingly is able to handle every situation, citing her “been everywhere, done that” mantra, but unlike Michael Burnham she departs from the Mary-Sue mold in that she has clear and present flaws, in her own reasoning, as for why she is on a ship with her mother as the captain, and still an ensign. It’s a classic privileged-problem child dynamic, and it works because she butts up against Boimler, who is MISTER STARFLEET, trying to do good, be good, and make a name for himself. He’s the classic TNG Lower Decks character, one who would be taking every chance to suck up to Riker in Ten-Forward. Rutherford is your LaForge archetype fused with Barclay’s penchant for getting wrapped into weird situations and somehow making it out, but always commenting about engineering stuff that no one cares about except Tendi, the medical/science officer who is just enamored by everything and phased by nothing. Her character is represented by the audience, specifically new Trek fans who know enough about what Trek was, but never really delved into it. Her connection to Rutherford is fun to watch because that curiosity and desire to mess with everything exemplifies what Trek is about. It’s why I can enjoy this show. The senior staff are also pretty good, a captain who wants her ship to be the best, but knows it’s full of middling people, a commander who styles himself as a Riker-Kirk cutout, a meathead Bajorian security chief, and a moody female Caitian medical officer, seen only three times before in all of Trek, first in the original animated series, again in The Voyage Home, and lastly in Into Darkness.
I am at a point where I look forward to Thursdays, and unfortunately, there are only five more left for this season. My hope is that this show does extremely well, and so far it seems to be, that they greenlight more seasons and maybe even explore other animated shows. Trek needs a shot of Old Trek, and this show is providing that much-needed boost. It’s quirky, it’s fun, and it has enough eye-catches and references for old shits like me to enjoy.
Just please, keep Dan Harmon away from it. In fact, keep him away from everything. The entertainment world seems to do just fine without him.