Star Trek: Lower Decks - Season One Review
Robert Turnbull reviews the first series of Star Trek: Lower Decks, the new animated Star Trek TV series, which finally made its debut on Amazon Prime last Friday. A warning of spoilers within...
There's a lot to like about Star Trek: Lower Decks, though I have to be honest and say it was kind of fighting me a lot of the way. It didn’t start well; the first couple of episodes were a bit of a strain and I don’t feel like the show really found itself fully until the end of its run. But its heart seems to be in the right place, and while it does have a lot of the same issues as modern Star Trek it is far closer to classic Star Trek (specifically Star Trek: The Next Generation) than anything else out there.
Though that in itself does come with a slightly concerning caveat, that I’ll get to in a bit…
At 10 episodes of around 25minutes a piece, it actually clocks in at a little over 4 hours in total and I’d suggest trying to binge the whole thing in one go as it’s a far more satisfying experience. The earlier couple of episodes in particular are trying a bit too hard to be funny and clever and really force in a lot of frankly unnecessary Star Trek references. With the characters being nowhere near as charming as the program makers imagine they are, these first two episodes could put you off sticking with the rest of the series. But by the end of the season I was far more on board with the settings and characters and interested to see where it goes next.
The premise is a good one. We follow the (mis)adventures of the lower decks crew on a successful starship, the Cerritos, a ship charged with making second contact and generally doing the grunt work of Starfleet. The franchise has played with these ideas before, particularly in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where this show gets its name, as well as the Star Trek: Voyager episode The Good Shepherd (though maybe that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode where O’Brien takes a bunch of lower decks engineers to a Cardassian derelict and they all get killed is a less good example). Here the concept is taken to a comedic extreme, with our main stories each episode focusing on four Lower Decks crew; Mariner, Boimler, Rutherford and Tendi. The bridge crew, while prominent, take second fiddle to our junior officers.
I’ll tackle the issues had with the show first; my biggest grumble is that it istrying way too hard! Series Creator Mike McMahan has a strong CV in adult animated comedy (as well as one of the earlier Short Treks), having worked on shows like South Park and Rick & Morty. On paper he is a great choice for a project like this (though to be upfront, I dislike most of his previous work!) but this show is oddly a little old fashioned. There are so many fantastic animated adult shows around at the moment, you’re not just competing with The Simpsons or King of the Hill anymore. This is a saturated market and if you’re entering it, you need to be good. Lower Decks unfortunately looks a bit like what you would worry a Seth MacFarlane produced Star Trek show would be like, as opposed to what a Seth MacFarlane Star Trek show (The Orville) is actually like. There is nothing wrong with the style of this show but it feels a bit Family Guy circa 2010.
I have to say I didn’t find the show all that funny. That’s not necessarily a huge criticism and as the show and characters evolve this becomes less of an issue because the story telling become richer but particularly in the earlier episodes, I didn’t find the gags especially strong. The non-Trek based jokes are all a little basic and too often the writers seemed to supplement references for actual jokes. It’s a bombardment of nods and references and too often they’re not really jokes or Easter eggs, they’re just saying the thing from the previous thing. Very quickly you stop laughing and you just sit there like Captain America on a good day, understanding references. There are plenty of good Trek based gags in the mix and some good comedy along the way, but the whole show just needed to calm down a bit (which it did by the end).
The comedy is sometimes snarky or a little smug and it’s hard to get through a whole episode without some joke that feels like a bit of a swipe at the franchise. This comes back to the caveat I mentioned; the show walks a very fine line between affectionate and mocking and I found myself wondering if this was to help snag a more cynical audience, to entice the people who think Star Trek is a corny? Modern Star Trek often has a sense of being embarrassed of its roots but this show embraces the aesthetic of the franchise beautifully and perhaps that’s because they’re being corny. Being a comedy, they don’t have to worry about being embarrassed because we’re all having a good laugh at it all anyway? Its hard to really know if that’s a factor without getting paranoid but the Alex Kurtzman era has had a disingenuous edge at times and you do wonder if, ironically, the willingness to mock Star Trek is what has allowed Lower Decks to be more sincere.
There was a lot to like. The production design is excellent. It really looks beautiful and to see TNG era Trek after the past decade of flashy, dingy Star Trek variations is warm and refreshing. The animation is really nice and although on the surface it has that sub-Family Guy look (everything in half profile, block colours etc) its actually very immersive and the characters have a lot of physical depth and diverse movement. The space sequences and ship designs are great and do most of the heavy lifting in terms of tethering this to the live action world of Star Trek and the music is excellent. I've been waiting 30 years for a dynamic, exciting Star Trek theme (I love Voyager but post TNG all the Trek shows have had pretty low beat themes and Lower Decks is a breath of fresh air.
The cast is very good. I’m not entirely won over by the characters themselves as I kind of find most of them pretty irritating and some of the character choices just don’t work for me, but I feel like that’s down to the writing and directing of the show, not the actors who all give great performance. The characters also all look like their actors and while I don’t think it was necessarily as deliberate as a show like Archer, who pretty much draw their guest stars as they appear, you could very easily do a live action crossover of this series with the entire cast playing their characters in a live action Star Trek show… in fact, now I really want to see that!
This first episode, Second Contact, was a bit of slog. It does commit one of my pet peeves, namely a new character arriving into an already established environment. It could be argued that all the Star Trek shows did this to a degree, but they tended to be a whole crew being assembled for the first time on a ship/station. Here we meet Tendi a she arrives on the Cerritos and gets shown around by Boimler and Mariner. It’s a perfectly serviceable narrative trick, especially in a short run time, but it’s a little lazy to have characters just telling an audience cipher what and who everything is. The rest of the show gives us some insight into the key characters in a far more natural way, with Boimler being assigned to watch Mariner by the captain and Rutherford going on a date with another crew member. These storylines, which weave into the larger plotline of the bridge crew bringing an alien pathogen on board, actually work pretty well to establish elements for the status quo.
My issue with this first episode was that I didn't really like these characters - I actually find them really irritating. Boimler is the least so. His desire to be a good Starfleet office makes him the most recognisable Star Trek character - we’ve seen people in Star Trek before worry if they’re not Starfleet material and trying too hard to fit in, Nog in Star Trek: Deep Space 9, the characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation's Lower Decks, Lt. Barclay - this is an identifiable Star Trek character, all be it one played for more laughs. Mariner, however, is sooooo far the other way, she’s just irritating. The jokes do walk a fine line between affectionate and taking the piss and Mariner is the manifestation of this; she dislikes Starfleet (or at least the rules and dogma) in a way that almost feels like a Twitter troll making fun of fans. This, and the fact the Bridge Crew seem to be dicks in this first episode but never again, does settle as the show moves forward.
Envoys is fun, involving Boimler and Mariner losing a drunken Klingon ambassador on a planet and having to run through various districts (Little Risa, Little Qo’Nos). There is some good comedy and the references feel a little less in your face. Mariner is too irreverent and speaks in a sing-song way that gets old very quickly; I just couldn’t tell at this point if we’re meant to think she’s awful or cool? I think it’s the latter but we get more insight into the fact that she has been and can be a great Starfleet officer.
Rutherford has a side story about changing departments on the ship and I really liked how every time he quit one, his HoD was supportive and encouraged him to be true to himself. That’s very Starfleet. My Trek Nerd alert went off with the Ferengi though; Boimler doesn’t trust the Ferengi he meets and shouts about how untrustworthy and sneaky they are. But I don’t feel like he’d be quite that racist at this point in history. Quark’s mother has already changed up Ferengi society by this point and Boimler was probably classmates with Nog, so attitudes should have changed! Even though the final gag is that the Ferengi is a polite, friendly actor I didn’t like Boimler’s reaction to him (maybe I’m just a nerd).
In episode 3, Temporal Edict, things really calms down with the snark and on the nose references and we get a much more Star Trek feel to things. Mariner and Commander Ransom go on an away mission that shows how the bridge crew of the Cerritos are actually good Starfleet officers and jokes all feel a lot more measured. The show has relaxed a bit!
The main story is focused on the ship falling apart because the Captain finds out about Buffer Time – the extra time you say you need to do a job so you look like a miracle worker when you do it in half that time. I’m on board with jokes about buffer time; it’s a Star Trek tradition, originated of course by Scotty but I felt it kind of spoiled it a bit to put a lampshade on it. To draw so much attention to the concept and make out like every crew member on every ship did this, spoiled the magic (and the original joke) a little for me. That aside, this was a strong episode and where I started to liked the show. It also has the best closing gag, based around O'Brien. I love O'Brien.
By episode 4, Moist Vessel, the show is starting to get the story balance much better. The Star Trek plot is a good one, the sci fi and action elements really gel and it feels nicely Treky. Mariner’s main plot is being promoted as punishment. She is especially heinous in this episode, but it’s the first time I felt like she’s meant to be irritating and we’re definitely seeing more depth to her personality. A side plot about a crew member faking a spiritual ascension to be interesting, is fun, though with the focus on Tendi there is just too much screaming. Stop screaming, Tendi its just not cute! The pace feels a lot better this episode. The sensORS gag at the end spoiled it a little for me. Maybe it’s the Star Trek nerd in me, but pronouncing sensors sensORS has a long tradition, that originated with Leonard Nimoy and Spock. Don’t snark at the greats, guys!
Cupid's Errant Arrow is another great Star Trek plot; an exploding moon and alien species reluctant to relocated. Our focus is on Mariner, who becomes convinced that Boimler’s girlfriend (a nice subtle gag being no one believes she exists as she’s stationed adored the USS Vancouver) is some kind of parasitic alien is a fun play on the Trek trope. But this episode cranks back up with in you face references (like Mariner’s conspiracy wall of pics) and its all a bit it too on the nose. Even a teddy bear is dressed as Geordi... why? Why would they have Geordi Le Forge teddies? It also falls prey to a creepy and rather American trope; I’m not a fan of with Boimler’s perceived love rival, but that’s a subject for another time!
Tendi and Rutherford have a side plot which was pretty dull. I find them largely uninteresting and while their plot had a good punch line, I find the “geeking out over boring tech” thing as personality, isn’t especially funny. The episode also has an unnecessarily graphic flashback!
Terminal Provocations calms things down again and the show is definitely finding itself more. The Mariner/Boimler story is quite a nice one; a chilled out lower decker who projects an air of being full Starfleet, turns out to be a useless coaster who accidentally creates a semi-sentient computer blob that tries to take over the ship. There are essences of very Star Trek idea, a touch of Lt. Barclay, perhaps. They actually put a bit more emphasis on the importance of being Starfleet and this, along with the previous episode, really cements the fact that Boimler and Mariner have an actual strong friendship. It’s still heavy with references and the characters are yelling and talking to quickly, but it’s stronger than several of the previous episodes.
Tendi and Rutherford have anther side story together and it’s just awful: Rutherford has developed a holodeck training program in the form of sentient Starfleet insignia called Badgey. It’s a really unimaginative “holodeck gone bad” story and the Badgey character isn’t funny (I mean, a reference to the Microsoft Word Paperclip? Really?). A chase through changing holo-environments is fun though and something I’dve liked to see a lot more of in Star Trek in general but the whole Badgey element is a little lame and there’s a lot of extreme violence.
I really like a scavenger ship attacking the Cerritos by using a tractor beam to launch space debris at the ship. This is a cool idea and there is a great line from the Captain who is trying not to retaliate “these guys are lucky I’m so ethical and considerate”.
Much Ado About Boimler is kind of a hot mess but it does give us some good character work on Mariner. When her old Academy friend, Captain Ramsey, takes temporary command of the ship, she gets promoted but keeps dropping the ball. Ramsey, is wild and irreverent and cool but also a good captain and in control of herself. It’s a nice reflection of what Mariner could be, with Ramsey eventually calling Mariner out for deliberately dropping the ball to avoid promotion. It all helps flesh out our still pretty annoying lead.
The Star Trek stuff is pretty good with a very Star Trek: The Next Generation ending. Boimler’s transporter accident, resulting in him being on a medical ship full of people who have suffered crazy accidents on starships is great fun – as is the inclusion of an Edosian from the original Star Trek: The Animated Series. However, the dog plotline with Tendi is pointless and could have been completely cut, it wasn’t funny and didn’t progress anything.
Veritas was a much stronger episode and the point at which the show started a strong back quarter. The story focuses on the lower deckers being brought to, what they believe to be, an alien trial resulting in each of them telling a short story of how they ended up there. It actually works really nicely because each mission/adventure they went on is, in isolation, fairly innocuous but when put together creates the whole story adventure that the bridge crew were having. It ends with Boimler giving a speech about how the bridge crew are often winging it and the lower decks never really know what’s going on – which is a fun way to perceive things, especially in the context of this show. The punch line of the episode is really good and I enjoyed things not being so focused on Mariner.
There is a flashback to a Q encounter which is really funny, though a second Q cameo at the end of the episode is less effective, especially as it bolsters this odd idea that Mariner is on first name basis with, literally, everyone in Star Trek. Also, two gags referencing (quite obviously Picard’s affinity with) wine was a bit much in one 25 minute episode.
And so we get to Crisis Point, possibly my favourite episode in this first season. The cold open gag is a bit naff; this show relies far to heavily on aliens simply being humanoids with animal heads. We see a whole planet with Lizard people and Rat people - we even meet a therapist with a bird head! It’s really uninteresting. I find the ship’s Doctor (a humanoid cat, which is, granted, probably a nod to Star Trek: The Animated Series) the least interesting crew member, especially since a lot of the cat gags the show uses would actually be considered pretty racist.
The episode proper is great - it actually feels like it gets the balance right in terms of lampooning and homaging the franchise. Mariner is especially egregious in this episode (deliberately) and highjacks Boimler’s holodeck training simulation and creates a ‘movie’. Cue an elaborate parody of a William Shatner era Star Trek movie.
The visual style is great, shot in wide screen with realistic lighting and lens flair. The dirt and scratches on the print look great, though are maybe overkill. The music is exceptional, using the shows own excellent themes but adding a proper James Horner feel. Used in the ship reveal sequence, it’s perfect – the gag of the sequence lasting a bit too long works perfectly and the show allows that to simply happen. It doesn’t draw attention to the gag, as the jokes have done in previous episodes.
A side note: I watched this in VR, emulating a full size cinema screen and this episode absolutely popped in that format.
Mariner being called out on getting too focused on killing and torturing her shipmates is nice and maybe redeems some of her behaviour from earlier in the series. She’s clearly meant to be a bit of a dick and the show properly addressing this is nice. This is also a good holodeck episode. It’s probably the most satisfying episode narratively in terms of the characters; we actually get a little insight into Tendi, who gets offended when Mariner suggests Orion’s are all savages and pirates.
Because the episode takes the form of a straight up parody of a movie, we actually have the full cast involved in one story and it’s quite nice to see a more focused narrative. There are some great gags, like Boimler commenting that if this was really happening they’d send the Enterprise. While the entire series couldn’t be a TOS Movie parody, I’d like to see the show going forward with this care, depth and control in its story telling. Though the jury is out in terms of the signature titles at the end. The episode worked really well for me, but I can’t decide if they’d quite earned that? Even as a gag?
The finale episode, No Small Parts, is one of the show’s best. It does revert back to cramming too many references just dropped in, but they’re a little sharper in a much tighter episode over all (I did like the brief inclusion of the Spock Star Trek Space Helmet toy in amongst some contraband). I especially enjoyed the historical denier who thinks Wolf 359 was an inside job! I also quite like the idea of an Exocomp as a Starfleet officer and the punch line of her being a bit of a dick is fun.
The show feels a lot less snarky in the back three or four episodes. If I was going to over think it, then maybe the first few episodes were a bit more mocking to help entice the audience who think Star Trek is silly? Or perhaps it’s simply that as the show gets more confident in focusing on its sci fi stories, it stops going for low hanging fruit gags? The episode really shows a lot of development for Mariner and even ends with Boimler getting his act together and requesting a transfer and promotion to a more prestigious ship.
The core story is based around a Pakled ship (docile, intellectually inferior but space faring aliens originally from Star Trek: The Next Generation) attacking federations ships and taking the Cerritos captive. The Pakled have, since we last saw them in Star Trek, developed far superior ships by scavenging bits of other vessels. I quite like the idea of revisiting previous aliens, or as the show does in its opening, previous planets that’s have maybe fallen back into bad habits. The episode is well paced, has great action and does a lot more genuine character work. It opens with a fairly harrowing destruction of another Starfleet vessel, which is not only dramatic but quite a significant body count for a sitcom. We even get the death of a bridge crew officer – though it lacks a big emotional punch as we hadn’t really got know them that well. Pretty much all the characters are involved in the plot and attempted escape and it’s another episode that feels like it knows what it’s trying to do.
The episode ends, as it seems all Star Trek shows must, with Captain Riker saving the day. And I’m here for it. I loved seeing animated Riker and Troi and I felt the show had earned their appearance. It was awesome to see the Titan, under Riker’s command, swoop in with the Star Trek: The Next Generation theme playing and save the day. I also felt it was good to highlight the fact that the Cerritos is a secondary ship; its not the best of the fleet and it can’t always get out of trouble. Riker is the tar Trek: The Next Generation character who works best in comedy and I do feel like actually the whole show might have worked better had it been lower deckers on his ship. But maybe we’ll get to see some of that in season two? The episode ends with some reshuffling of who and where the characters are that opens things up for an interesting second season.
It’s a little odd that the season finishes with basically the same conclusion as both Star Trek: Picard and Star Trek: Discovery, with Riker saving the day (Picard) and Mariner being told her breaking the rules attitude is needed to help do what Starfleet captains can’t - kind of like Michael in Discovery. In fact, I found quite a few similarities between Michael and Mariner… I probably like Mariner better though and I don’t even like her that much!
This is probably the best of the current crop of Star Trek shows out there. The bar maybe isn’t that high and season two of Star Trek: Picard and the Captain Pike-lead Strange New Worlds might change that. This show has a far more optimistic start and its heart is in the right place. While it needs to calm down a bit, it does offer a good dose of familiar while pushing forward. If the future of Star Trek goes in this general direction, we could be in for a new wave of proper Star Trek shows.
Over all, Lower Decks really won me over buy the end, but I still feel like there is a lot of room for growth - most importantly, I felt that it was capable of that growth, unlike a certain other Star Trek series that I keep giving a second chance again and again and again. I look forward to boldly going again with these characters in season two…