I watched Season 1 of Star Trek: Lower Decks. It’s made up of ten 25 minutes episodes and it’s the second animated series of the whole brand following Star Trek: The Animated Series (TAS), whose two seasons came out between 1974 and 1975.
If I had to describe Lower Decks after watching the entire first season, I would call it imperfect, but with its heart in the right place. It is evident that the creators love classic Star Trek, like TOS, TNG, DS9, VOY, and ENT, and the show aesthetically looks like those beloved series. The first few episodes didn’t really convince me, but then I finally understood the spirit of the series and I began to smile at the endless references and reinterpretations of classic Trek (intended as a pre-J.J. Abrams era). That said, and acknowledging that I’m not exactly the target audience of the series, most of the jokes didn’t make me laugh out loud, and I didn’t appreciate various stylistic choices. But let’s go in order: what does this first season offer?
The intro is a gem, with the USS Cerritos going through a series of misadventures with asteroids, frozen mountains and space monsters with the same grace with which the Enterprise D and Voyager go near dangerous phenomena with elegance in the intros of their respective series. The first episode (01. Second Contact) is more or less the model of the entire season: It shows a well-known story, in this case an infection on board caused by the lack of safety standards during a mission on a planet, but not from the point of view of the officers in command of the ship.
The protagonists of the series are in fact four ensigns: the rebellious Mariner (Tawnyy Newsome), the strict and clumsy Boimler (Jack Quaid), the enthusiastic Orion woman D’Vana Tendi (Noel Wells), and the anxious half cyborg Rutherford (Eugene Cordero). An exception to this structure is the second episode (02. Envoy) which aims to develop these characters rather than show a classic Star Trek story from the perspective of the forgotten ensigns. The rest of the season continues along the lines of the first episode, with classic stories seen from the lower decks, as suggested by the title of the series.
So what about this show? I don’t appreciate the fact that everyone talks very fast for no reason whatsoever, but it’s certainly a detail. I tolerate less the series of references thrown at random just to prove that the writers did their homework. It’s just silly name dropping: mentioning names like Spock, Kirk, Janeway… in a meaningless way, without any substance. I could make a thousand examples, such as the beginning of the flashback in 08. Veritas, or the ending of the third episode (03. Temporal Edict) in which Chief O’Brien appears for a second, just because. These references aren’t funny, they aren’t profound, and they seem to be there just to please the most superficial fans.
Going beyond this, luckily, there’s much more. The whole series is based on reviewing classic Star Trek stories with a humorous tone, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work or it doesn’t feel original, far from it. I think that the quality of the episodes grows as the season progresses (also, one becomes more familiar with the characters), and there are some brilliant ideas scattered around the first season. For example, it’s fun to laugh at how everyone on a Starfleet ship always looks very relaxed (04. Moist Vessel): even during the worst of crises, our Starfleet heroes never run!
It was impossible not to have an episode with a trial (08. Veritas, where one of the random references is to The Drumhead, a TNG episode with a memorable trial), or one with the usual holodeck malfunction (06. Terminal Provocations), which among other things also contains references to Alien, Return of the Jedi and Lethal Weapon 2 (“Diplomatic immunity!“). And there’s even a cameo by J. G. Hertzler! There’s another one by John DeLancie in the eighth episode, and two bigger ones in the last episode (10. No Small Parts) but I won’t reveal those to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t seen it.
The episode that probably contains the most references to previous Star Trek series and to a thousand other things is 07. Much Ado About Boimler: I noticed John Carpenter’s The Thing, TOS’s The Menagerie (with the unfortunate character in Captain Pike’s wheelchair), TNG’s The Next Phase (with Boimler slightly out of phase like Geordi and Ro Laren) and VOY’s Threshold (it’s impossible not to recognize that episode’s amphibian). The plot of the episode also takes a lot from Chain of Command, with the Cerritos captain on a secret mission being replaced by another captain. And the final space jellyfish reminded me of TNG’s debut Encounter at Farpoint! This is basically a feast for the most avid trekkie, especially since the episode also offers an interesting story and at the same time it develops the narrative arcs of the four protagonists.
And how not to admire 09. Crisis Points which pays homage to practically all the first six films of the Star Trek saga? And Lower Decks does it very well, that’s why I wonder why the writers felt the need to add that stupid name dropping to such clever references… Personally, I don’t even understand why the characters swear so much, I find it completely off-putting, but I suppose that… someone laughs at that? Well, not me.
Anyway, Lower Decks offers a chance to dive into classic Trek with a new product. The love for the past is noticeable, just think of Kirk’s brief appearance in TAS format, the most appropriate one since Lower Decks is itself an animated series! In short, I recommend it, albeit with some reservations. Ciao!