Ever since the end of The Animated Series in 1974, Star Trek’s only previous foray into the sphere of animation, the franchise has toyed with another ‘cartoon’ version of the series, but has perhaps steered clear by dint of being defined as such. Star Trek: Lower Decks is not easily characterised, simply, as a cartoon.
Lower Decks, created by Mike McMahan, exists thanks to the proliferation over the last twenty-five years or more of adult-centred animated television series. McMahan himself wrote a chunk of Rick & Morty, the good natured, wacky Netflix animated series—Back to the Future on acid, basically—and that itself arrives in the slipstream of the even more renowned series—South Park, Family Guy etc—that took the nominal concept of animation as kids territory, cartoons established decades past with Tom & Jerry through to Wacky Races and The Flintstones, and deliberately tailored them for older audiences. Cinema has proven adults respond just as well, if not even better, to intelligent animation as children do, with the Pixar stable lighting up the box office while cementing themselves in the minds of ages the world over, as have to a lesser degree Japan’s Studio Ghibli.
McMahan’s series—certainly on the evidence of the pilot episode Second Contact—lacks the whimsy of Ghibli, and certainly the cosiness of Pixar, but rather contains the self-effacing, self-knowing confidence of a Bojack Horseman. Lower Decks seems to understand the position it holds in relation to the broader Star Trek universe and the world of animation itself and, consequently, does not try and reinvent the wheel. It is, in many ways, exactly the kind of show you probably thought it would be, based on McMahan’s previous work, based on the promotional material and trailers, and based on what those involved have been talking up for a solid year. The only surprise in Second Contact is how unsurprising it actually is.
This isn’t meant as a slight, either. Lower Decks is huge fun. It just isn’t, at least yet, anything more.
One suspects fans will be divided on Lower Decks from the start. Some I have seen claim they won’t even bother (but if you care enough to declare this on Twitter, it means you almost certainly will), based on the concept alone, which dares to lampoon Star Trek as a concept. To some, an almost heretic endeavour.
Lower Decks is not backwards in coming forwards about this either. From the moment we meet nervy command officer Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid) in a cupboard doing his own version of the classic ‘Captain’s Log’, only to have bolshy, domineering, reckless fellow Ensign, Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome) smoke him out and mock him for spending his spare time pretending to be a bridge officer, you know Lower Decks is going to take direct aim at all of the conceptual building blocks Star Trek has erected over the years. What becomes apparent quite quickly, however, is that McMahan’s principal aim is not the era that most spoofs take a shot at, The Original Series—see how Seth MacFarlane lampoons Kirk and the Enterprise bridge in Family Guy for instance—but rather The Next Generation specifically. That’s his target.
This makes sense. McMahan has spoken about how The Next Generation is the Star Trek-era he identifies with the most. He ran the parody Twitter account TNG Season 8, inventing comedic plots that could well crop up on Lower Decks in some form. He is of the age where he grew up—much like myself—discovering Star Trek on television in the 80’s and 90’s. The Kirk & Spock era had passed. This was the age of Picard, Riker, Data, Worf et al… and it remains an era which is just now entering a phase of pronounced nostalgia for those of us who discovered Star Trek at that time. The 90’s was experiencing this over TOS - just look at how TNG incorporates TOS characters such as Sarek and Spock, or how DS9 and Voyager—for the 30th anniversary of the franchise—developed episodes based around revisiting past adventures for Kirk’s crew. One of them, Trials and Tribble-ations, was an out and out comedy.
Enough time has now passed for us to be wistful about Picard and his crew in the same way. Picard’s return in Star Trek: Picard confronts such nostalgia head-on, even if it works (only partially successfully) to chart a new and defiantly alternative frontier in doing so. It may see itself as fresh material but its first season brings back three TNG characters, one from VOY, and the entire narrative plays off key TNG-era ideas and storylines. Picard exists in the present but lives in the past. Lower Decks, by contrast, exists and lives in the past wholeheartedly. It has a more traditional credit sequence. It uses the TNG-era font. It reintroduces naming the episode on screen, something sadly lost in many shows on TV in the modern age. McMahan frames Lower Decks, essentially, as TNG Season 8. It just doesn’t happen to be the Enterprise itself, rather the U.S.S. Cerritos.
Yet there is a relatable iconography and visual understanding about Lower Decks which sets it apart from the other modern-era Star Trek shows. Star Trek: Discovery is intensely nostalgic for TOS but only in setting and character. In no way does the style of the storytelling match what happened in the 1960’s (this may yet come to bear in Strange New Worlds), and its incoming third season is moving away (seemingly) from the show’s origins as it metamorphoses potentially into the Star Trek series fans are clamouring for, or believe they are - new, different, fresh. Lower Decks, however, runs contrary to that. Lower Decks believes what fans want is the 90’s back, and that’s what it gives them. The style may be fast-paced and intentionally comedic, but it reflects many of the stylistic touches of 90’s era Star Trek.
McMahan was heavily inspired by the Next Generation episode Lower Decks from Season 7, from which of course he borrows his title, and he merely adopts the concept of crewmen on the lower rung of a starship which, itself, follows in the slipstream of pioneers like the Enterprise and initiates ‘second contact’, doing the granular work with newly discovered species, and dials everything up to eleven - but you need to be a Star Trek fan, and understand the core concepts TNG took seriously, to understand why the jokes are funny. The character of wide-eyed, optimistic new recruit Ensign D’Vana Tendi (Noel Wells) is a well-worn entry device for the audience into the workings of a Federation ship, but this isn’t a new world we’re discovering. This is a very well-established universe with rules and systems that Lower Decks has been constructed, entirely, to analyse from a comedic angle.
This does work. Star Trek’s philosophical propensity for moral seriousness is ripe for mockery, and Lower Decks never laughs at Star Trek during this opening episode. It is made by a fan for fans, and that shines out from the very beginning. But it speaks to how the modern-era seems to be jaded by the traditional idea of Star Trek’s concept. Mariner, it turns out, is a play on Discovery’s Michael Burnham - washed out and demoted from other crews, the daughter of successful Starfleet parents. Mariner is, of course, louder and more gregarious, and has been designed to represent a troublesome, incendiary Cerritos character who will drag the anxious Boimler, sweet Tendi, and nerdy, newly-minted part-cyborg Ensign Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) into all kinds of bother, most likely, but she again represents how modern Star Trek seems unable to engage with the straightforward nature of the franchise’s fairly hopeful, perhaps even fantastic, noble central concept.
Strange New Worlds could change this eventually, but for now Lower Decks feels like a show that could only have come to bear in an age where traditional Star Trek, one filled with bold voyagers striding toward a better future, seems trite and ridiculous. The Cerritos bridge officers are, thus far at least, egotistical, controlling or grumpy, and keen to steal the glory from those who do the grunt work. Lower Decks wants us to root for the underdog again, as does Discovery, and indeed as does Picard. Three very different shows with a common theme - our heroes are different now. They’re not the powerful, but the powerless. Discovery charts a course of redemption. Picard seeks to find hope. Lower Decks… maybe that ventures to frame Starfleet as more of a realistic hierarchy than a fantastical meritocracy of the future where everyone gets the lives they deserve. Once again, Star Trek’s utopia is being reimagined.
Lower Decks will, no doubt, settle into a rhythm. Second Contact looks to impress, throwing everything but the kitchen sink to grab your attention, but it will be interesting returning to examine the show at the end of the first ten episode run to see how it matures, and whether the stylistic framework alerts, changes or deepens as we get to know the characters and experience their adventures. Right now, while thematically in step with the rest of the modern Star Trek universe and filled with incidental details which prove how well the show understands its place and setting, it is a series that isn’t saying anything you didn’t already know.
It does, at least, have me animated enough to see what comes next.
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