Lower Decks came to a spectacular season close last week, and truthfully, I hadn’t felt that deep emptiness since Voyager left the air in 2002. I had a lot of reservations about what this show was going to be at first, especially when it involved Rick and Morty talent, animation studio Titmouse, and it existing in the current wreck of Nu-Trek shows. But over the last ten weeks, it wound up being the most Trek show made in the last twenty years, even with the humor, the non-sequiturs, everything. It was an absolute blast, and that season finale “No Small Parts” was a season finale on par with TNG “The Best of Both Worlds”, DS9 “Call to Arms”, and VOY “Basics” or “Scorpion”. It was obvious show creator Mike McMahan paid reverence to the TNG era, especially pulling TNG talent in for the finale, but he also was coy enough to pull some lore in from the extended book universe, Star Trek Online, and some other works to begin fleshing out Trek’s first serious attempt at exploring the Federation after the last TNG-era movie, Nemesis, a timeline barely touched because previous writers and showrunners have been obsessed with trying to rewrite Trek’s early history from being super racist.Context: Politics in MY Star Trek???!?!
Now when I say that, some progressive neo-liberal is going to do a spit-take like the nerd from Robot Chicken and insist Trek has always been progressive, this that and the other thing. You’re correct. Trek is progressive, and has tackled numerous political themes over its long history. Much of Deep Space Nine tackled themes related to occupation and religious intolerance years before 9/11. What I like about Nu-Trek is that they’re doing what book writers have been doing for the last twelve years, and that is updating the Federation to the principles and ideas that it was purported to stand for. Ships are no longer 95% humans, they have more aliens of Federation member-worlds. More women and aliens have captain and command ranks. Lower Decks continues in this vain having a black family of Admiral-Captain-Ensign in the lead roles, an Orion ensign, more cybernetically-enhanced humans (clearly before the android ban in Picard) and more. As I alluded to in a link to the Delta Flyers podcast last post, both Robert McNeil and Garrett Wang have mentioned that even though the show was progressive, much of the scripts, dialogue, and other pieces done by the staff were not. They still had to play to a backwards-facing audience.
The problem I have with today’s showrunners and writers is that what they create always seems to come off as this embarrassingly obvious apology tour to the sins of the father. As with Star Wars, Nu-Trek really tried to go to transwarp with Trek’s progressiveness in a way that actually did appear preachy at times, rather than lean into it organically. They had a real disdain for older Trek fans, always pearl-clutching to their original shows and original canon, whom they felt were gatekeeping the fandom. They weren’t. They simply wanted a Trek show that emulated the format of what they grew up watching, a fifty-minute space drama with interesting, dynamic characters solving problems while living and working together on a starship. They largely had no issue with anything else put into it, hell, most of us who read any of the Titan books really wanted to see the Titan ethos come to life on-screen. I get that Jonathan Frakes is getting pretty up there, and it would have been a stretch, but as I wrote on Twitter, imagine if you leveraged animation ten years earlier? Or gone with a show based on Riker and Troi’s kid commanding the Titan or another ship set 25 years after Nemesis in a sort-of TNG 2? Nah man, Discovery, yo. We really needed to write a quasi-Mary Sue fanfiction story about Spock’s adopted sister saving the universe in a starship far too advanced for its time. Make sure there is a homosexual relationship in it, we need to tick all the boxes for fan support.
Again, I have no problem with anything I just poked fun at above. I just want to see at least one show among these pile of shows play out in the classic format. Pile in all the extras, politics, identities, whatever you like. Just give it the classic bake. It’s a fair compromise I feel for fans of the Trek experience and writers who want to see Trek’s universe expanded to include everyone as it should have. It doesn’t even have to involve Trek alumni. I know it seems like that is what I want, but Lower Decks ran great on an entire new ship and crew so much that the cameos were just icing on the cake. I’m just throwing out suggestions on how writers can create new characters in the universe and work with some of the universe’s most interesting major and minor characters. McMahan clearly has a knack for doing so, that Kurtzman does not, and I suspect that, is on purpose.
The back-half of Lower Decks brought some amazing character work to the Trek universe, a universe I might add that has not been explored in television canon yet. It’s been covered extensively in books, games, and other material, but not touched by any new show work other than Picard, which takes place further in the future. Although the show does not really dive as deep as they could given the time format and looser premise, they subtlety set up the entire show’s premise at the end in being that there are numerous Federation member-worlds that the Federation hasn’t really bothered with in so long that they’ve either become derelict, or defiant against others. It’s a sort of tongue-in-cheek nod towards Trek’s history of being an episodic, syndicated series that featured a lot of alien worlds and one-off scenarios, to be discarded and never seen again in favor of reoccurring races like the Klingons, Romulans, Cardiassians, and Borg and their problems.
The main plot between the captain and her daughter, Freeman and Mariner, got especially covered in the penultimate episode where Mariner creates a holodeck movie-drama from Boimler’s perfect character recreations, and winds up fighting herself, who turns out to be someone who really cares about her mother and Starfleet ideals, but just doesn’t care to express them in the way Starfleet officers were depicted in the older shows. Much of Lower Decks is like this, and although it’s played up for comedic effect in a cartoon, it may also express how Trek fans, even the old ones, want Trek to be less formal, less rigid.
That sans-formality culminated in the finale entrance of the USS Titan, with TNG fan-favorite William T. Riker in the captain’s seat, alongside another TNG fan-favorite and Riker’s wife (married in Nemesis) Counselor Deanna Troi. Both Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis reprised their roles for the finale and had an especially good time playing looser versions of themselves as the Titan bailed out the Cerritos from three omega-Pakled ships. The vibe seems to be that McMahan’s direction with both series cast and guest stars, especially veterans, is to “go nuts”, and they do, and it’s great. My hope is that this entices other veterans to possibly appear in future seasons, because what animation is uniquely capable of doing is preserving the look and feel of Trek’s universe using only a voice.
As for the critical section of the show, much of my original checklist remains. Ship variety, why are they mixing both uniform styles? Not a lot of cross-character between Boimler and Mariner, and Rutherford and Tendi. I’m what you would call a set-piece stickler. Part of why I enjoy Trek is the look and feel. So this show initially rubbed me the wrong way on how weird the California-class starship looked, why we had to see so many of them in this show when they clearly knew how to illustrate others, why they needed to introduce a new uniform style when they were still using the old ones AND there were going to be at least two more upcoming in Picard. I also wanted to see my boy Rutherford and my girl Tendi maybe hit it off more serious, but I was satisfied with the ending because that makes it more likely without him having a “just cybernetic things” issue.
What I would like to see in a season two and beyond is McMahan keep bringing over more Trek lore from the extended book universe, and maybe the STO universe. I’d especially like to see if he’d be interested in getting Nicole de Boer to reprise Ezri Dax, and give her the USS Aventine from the Destiny book series, where she became captain of the ship after an accident killed both the captain and first officer. If they wanted to make the book universe’s big Borg invasion canon in Lower Decks, it would be worth pulling in both the Titan and Aventine for that, and maybe even the Enterprise if Patrick Stewert wants in on the action. He’s already spent much of the last decade and change voicing the CIA Director in American Dad so he is used to loose-fitting dialogue, and who wouldn’t want to see a less-serious Jean-Luc Picard rip up space?
But old-Trek aside, I am still eager to see Titan Boimler, more Mariner hijinks, and more Rutherford and Tendi. Maybe even a new fourth ensign on the Cerritos. If the goal of this show is to revisit some of the aliens and dilemmas of the old shows, I’m very interested to see how they do so in the spirit of animated comedy. I’d like for my son to be able to share my love of Trek, but I am also not going to force him. I do think a show like this is a great ice-breaker though for new fans, and it gets them interested in going back and watching the old stuff. So hat-tip to McMahan for keeping the dream alive. Lord knows we needed it.