Review of Star Trek: Lower Decks, season 1 (2020, TV)
McMahan, Mike, creator. Star Trek: Lower Decks, Season 1, CBS Television, 2020.
The opening to each episode of Lower Decks has a familiar ring to viewers of Star Trek. The grand views of deep space and a mighty starship, the U.S.S. Cerritos, set to swelling music until asteroids start thudding off the ship’s hull, or until the ship arrives in the middle of a pitched battle with the Borg and immediately turns around and retreats, or until the Cerritos is seen zipping through space at warp speed with a giant bug-eyed parasite suctioned to the engine nacelles. Ideally, the audience smiles as they realize that this is not typical Star Trek nor is the Cerritos the U.S.S. Enterprise or Voyager or Discovery.
But the Cerritos is a more typical Starfleet vessel, and therein lies the beauty of this intentionally goofy show. The Cerritos is no flagship devoted to Enterprise-like missions of deep exploration; it takes on the less glamorous assignments, most notably “second contact”. As Ensign Bradward Boimler (voiced by Jack Quaid) notes in his practice ‘Captain’s Log’ in the pilot episode:
First contact is a delicate, high-stakes operation of diplomacy. One must be ready for anything when Humanity is interacting with an alien race for the first time. But we don’t do that. Our specialty is second contact. Still pretty important. We get all the paperwork signed, make sure we’re spelling the name of the planet right, get to know all the good places to eat.
The Cerritos and its crew don’t live on the final frontier; they live behind, and maybe slightly to the left, where the scutwork gets done that gives the heroes the freedom to do what they do best. It’s an inspired concept that makes Lower Decks a show of immense humor and surprising emotional depth.
For decades, audiences have watched Star Trek almost entirely through the eyes and experiences of high-level Starfleet officers: Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, Archer, Burnham, and their command crews. In most cases, members of the lower ranks appear as extras and disappear as rapidly as they came (represented most visibly in popular culture by the concept of the ‘redshirt’—the utterly expendable crewmember who dies early, unheralded, and often nameless). But Starfleet is a massive and sprawling organization, which in order to function as peacekeeper and exploration arm of the Federation must rely on countless underlings to make everything run: namely, the ensigns. Lower Decks centers around four of these lowly officers who live and work far from the Cerritos’ bridge, taking part in missions that waver between routine and fatally hazardous, sometimes with a healthy dollop of grinding dullness.
Crammed into bunks that line the corridors at the bottom of the ship’s saucer section, the ensigns deal with their lots in life in various ways: Boimler is an anxious rule-follower who dreams of captainhood and idolizes his superiors; Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome) is an excited, excitable, impulsive devil-may-care junior officer who ignores Starfleet regulations and the chain of command (including her mother, Cerritos’ Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis)). Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) is an engineer with a cybernetic implant and boundless enthusiasm for constant repairs and inspections of the ship’s machinery. The last in this quartet is Deltan D’Vana Tendi (Noel Wells), new to the Cerritos and bringing comedic levels of excitement to her sick bay duties. Over the course of the season, the four grow close, forming tight bonds equaling any in Trek’s long series of shipboard friendships forged from shared loyalties, senses of duty, and curiosity about the wider universe. Much of the dramatic (and comic) tension in Lower Decks comes from the disconnect between the ensigns and their superiors, as each ensign comes up hard against the perilous realities inherent to Starfleet missions.
Lower Decks isn’t for everyone. The animation and vocal stylings are fast and frenetic, like Rick & Morty. There is much more violence than is typical of Trek, and far more sexual references. Some may find it just too silly. Arguably, however, Lower Decks adds a welcome note of hilarity to the sometimes-too-solemn-for-its-own-good Trek franchise, poking fun at some of its traditions and cliches but doing so with a sense of real love and respect for its predecessors. Not the least part of this comes from the constant shower of references to incidents and characters from previous Treks. Yes, these kinds of references are Easter eggs for Trek fans, but they give Lower Decks a lived-in sort of feel—that the show is not just a parody but part of a shared canonical universe.
One of Lower Decks’ direct inspirations is a 1994 TNG episode (also titled “Lower Decks”) in which four Enterprise-D junior officers are shown to have lives of their own, with the ship itself a setting for the lives and struggles of non-main cast members. Lower Decks follows in this narrative tradition, showing how the “regular” people—the ones that work behind the scenes undramatically and with perseverance, or whose unseen lives are lived in the wake of decisions made by major characters—have their own moments of heroism and centrality to the moment. That is certainly an inspiring notion for the legions of Trek fans who have imagined themselves as members of Starfleet and through fanfiction or cosplay written themselves into the narrative.
Some may quibble over whether Lower Decks should be considered Trek canon. Lower Decks, in fact, can be a source of fruitful discussions about what constitutes true “canon”—is there room in a media universe for a production that so differs in tone and pace from the keystone shows? Where does an animated production fit into a family of non-animated productions? This last question has been asked in Trek history before, of course, with the 1973-1974 Star Trek: The Animated Series. Is canonicity even necessary—does a particular media universe require a single accepted narrative for audiences to enjoy individual productions within it?
Lower Decks is also an example of what many in the Trek community see as a retrograde obsession with revisiting and recrafting the historical timeline. In recent years, the mainstay of filmed Trek has involved prequel material such as Discovery or the upcoming Strange New Worlds, or the Kelvin Universe of J.J. Abrams’ film trilogy. Furthermore, productions like Star Trek: Picard or the upcoming animated Star Trek: Prodigy are centered on major cast members that have been explored in previous installments. These all suggest a question: how imaginatively rich is a media enterprise that at times seems entrapped by its past, endlessly retreading the same time periods and settings and relying on appeals to viewer nostalgia through in-the-know references or memes? None of this makes Lower Decks any less enjoyable to watch, but it does raise questions about the franchise’s overall commitment to the original themes of Trek that have inspired several generations of viewers—the ever-forward progress of science and technology, the movement towards an increasingly utopian future, and a growing consciousness that humanity can and must unite for the collective good. Indeed, similar questions can be posed of other recycled franchises at this time. As time passes, expect much fruitful scholarship to be mined from Lower Decks and its relation to Trek’s classic vision of the human future, as well as to the dramatic and narrative malleability of media franchises.
The Cerritos’ ensigns, in their imperfect personhood, are appropriate representatives of that vision: in their own quirky ways, they are always evolving into their better selves. That character development and purposeful optimism contrast with more recent Trek productions (such as Picard) that eschew confident 1960s SF for a grimmer, more cynical, and more pessimistic Federation populated by ruthless Section 31 agents and corrupt Starfleet officers. That attitude may well reflect our weary and traumatized present. Lower Decks, though, for all its irreverence and animated lunacy, is an interesting throwback extension of the Trek utopian tradition that demands a humanity moving ever forward towards a societal and technological ideal.
Jeremy Brett is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M University, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice.