Lower Decks, CBS All Access’s animated comedy set in the Star Trek universe, has been described as Rick and Morty for Trek. Understandable: It’s a sci-fi cartoon for adults, and it shares some of the same writing staff. But that description is reductive, because Lower Decks plays in a bigger universe…and Rick and Morty is a better show.
After seven episodes, I have to say that I agree with most of the criticisms of Lower Decks. It’s creatively shallow, it doesn’t fit the tone of Star Trek, and it uses the long-running franchise as little more than set dressing for its sitcom shenanigans. As someone who considers himself a pretty picky TV watcher, I should probably drop this show like it’s a latter season of Family Guy.
But I can’t. I’m enjoying it, even if I wish I wasn’t. Maybe that says more about the state of the Star Trek franchise, or indeed, some of my own bad habits of media consumption, than it says about Lower Decks itself.
Reversing the Plot Polarity
Lower Decks takes its name and its concept from a much-loved episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It follows the “adventures” of four ensigns: The straight-laced Boimler and world-weary sarcastic Mariner are the natural comedy duo, while green-skinned Orion Tendi and cybernetically-enhanced Rutherford are pretty much the same wide-eyed ball of positivity. Each week the show spends a lot more time on their interpersonal conflicts than whatever weird sci-fi stuff has befallen the USS Cerritos as of late.
It’s a deliberate reversal of Star Trek’s primary setup: The stories that would be the B plot in a normal episode of TNG, Deep Space Nine, or Voyager are the main focus here, and the invariably splashy and eye-catching weirdness going on in the background is what the command group is dealing with. The four ensigns typically have a direct hand in resolving this week’s sci-fi craziness, but often on accident or as an incidental aside to their more sitcom-sized problems.
This shift in plot polarity extends to the structure of the show itself: 20-minute comedy instead of 40-minute sci-fi adventure. It’s a first for Star Trek. While a few individual episodes have been comedic and occasionally brilliant (The Trouble With Tribbles is the classic example), Star Trek has usually been straight-laced, even during the almost entirely forgotten Animated Series from the 1970s. In contrast, Mariner shows off her holodeck program full of hunky naked dudes in the first few minutes of episode one.
A typical episode of Lower Decks sees Ensign Boimler stressing out about his duties and bucking for promotion, Mariner encouraging him to blow them off while she intentionally antagonizes the command crew, and Tendi and Rutherford dealing with some mostly-unrelated bit of Star Trek‘s deep lore. And on that note…
Hey, Remember That Thing?
If there’s one thing Lower Decks loves, it’s reminding you that it’s a Star Trek show. This sometimes gets difficult, as its short runtime and deliberate appeal to adults can be a jarring tonal shift if you’re expecting TNG-era antics. But don’t worry: Almost every frame on animation includes some kind of callback that you can find on the pages of the various Star Trek wikis.
The Trek fan in me loves that, like seeing Pike and Number One in season two of Discovery or the Picard Day banner in, well, Picard. But the writer and TV watcher in me has to admit: There’s very little that these callbacks to 50 years of Trek episodes actually accomplish. They’re set dressing, or at least they would be if this show had sets.
YouTube movie and TV commentator Ryan George points this kind of thing out in his criticism of the latest Harry Potter and Star Wars films. These little Easter eggs are merely there for the sake of being spotted and recognized. It’s the comfort food of pop culture, offering nothing stimulating or even particularly interesting, just showing fans a flash of something they’ve seen before in a slightly different context.
For those who care: Ostensibly Lower Decks is canon, though I suspect it’s being treated as such in a very Star Trek V: The Final Frontier sort of way. (That means even the most devoted fans won’t be bothered if you ignore it.)
Not Exactly The Final Frontier
Judged as a comedy on its own merits, Lower Decks doesn’t really stand up on its own two warp nacelles. Though the lightning-fast dialogue and frequent non-sequiturs are clearly emulating the style of something like Rick and Morty or Archer, the setup and relationships are more akin to The Office. This is a situation comedy that just happens to take place on a starship—Seinfeld in Space.
There are no stakes for these characters or their relationships. Tendi’s the only alien of the main cast, but unlike traditional Star Trek outsiders, she never asks the humans to reconsider their assumptions or biases. Ditto Rutherford’s status as a cyborg, an easy and unexplored connection to differently abled people.
Mariner briefly gets promoted to lieutenant, a ploy by her mother (the captain) to get her transferred to another ship and out of her hair. By the end of the episode, we’re treated to an extremely predictable bit of mother-daughter conflict, and Mariner is an ensign again, having allegedly learned a lot…but not so much that her character has to actually change by next week.
It might be unfair of me to judge Lower Decks for that. After all, it’s not like Bart Simpson has changed in decades.
But consider in contrast Harley Quinn, another adult-focused animated comedy, on a premium streaming network, set in a very well-known universe. Despite sometimes being a bit cloying and relying on a lot of topical comedy, Harley and her crew learn from their mistakes, and the status quo of Gotham changes drastically from one week to the next. That show also deliberately avoids stock characterizations, even as it’s working with some characters that are old enough to have outlived their creators.
Lower Decks seems much more complacent. It’s putting familiar characters in familiar situations—situations for an office comedy—not Star Trek. It’s embarrassing that shows like Red Dwarf and Futurama have shown more science fiction creativity than this official Star Trek entry.
A Welcome Phase Adjustment
That’s a lot of negativity up there, huh? Having spent a thousand words ragging on Lower Decks, you might wonder why I’m even bothering to tell you about it. And the answer is this: I’m still looking forward to a new episode every week.
Maybe it’s my obsessive need to watch every bit of Star Trek media. But I suspect two other factors: the general malaise of six months of COVID quarantine, and being intensely underwhelmed by Star Trek Discovery and Star Trek Picard, CBS All Access’s more conventional Trek shows.
Discovery and Picard are trying to bring Star Trek into the era of prestige TV, while still firmly connecting them to the show’s decades of history. But the presentation and style of those shows are so radically intentionally different from the ’80s and ’90s shows that I loved, that I find them extremely jarring.
Watching Spock and Captain Picard drop F-bombs across Marvel-style transparent screens would be strange enough, even without the oddly disjointed fan fiction feel of the season arcs in those shows. How strange that this odd little cartoon would make me feel more connected to my favorite franchise than two shows that have such intentional connections to Enterprises old and new.
So I suspect that I’m a hypocrite, and I’m watching Lower Decks because it’s more firmly rooted in the time of Next Gen, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. I’m enjoying dropping back into that world, even through the lens of short and toothless comedy. It’s an almost shameful thing to realize, as a critic who casually threw shade on The Simpsons a few paragraphs ago.
But you know what? I’m finding it very hard to care. Star Trek is my sci-fi comfort food, and Lower Decks is a more palatable helping than Discovery or Picard. I’m fully aware of the criticisms against it and would agree with pretty much all of them—see above. But I keep watching anyway.
Sorry, not sorry.