Coming into Star Trek: Lower Decks, there was a lot of uncertainty about the franchise boldly going into a comedic frontier. Star Trek has always been open to humor in the past, but would it still feel like Star Trek if one of its own shows was more about laughs than interstellar exploration? Thankfully, we don’t need to wonder: Lower Decks does both, and it’s a blast.
We’ve seen the first four episodes of Star Trek: Lower Decks, the first of which will be made available later today on CBS All Access. The new animated series introduces us to the U.S.S. Cerritos, its crew of seasoned Starfleet veterans, and the scrappy newbies that serve under them. Those newbies—Ensigns Mariner (voiced by Tawny Newsome), Boimler (Jack Quaid), Tendi (Noël Wells), and Rutherford (Eugene Cordero)—all get moments to shine in the first few episodes. They navigate the absurdities that are living aboard a Starfleet vessel, even one that doesn’t get the choice missions like the Enterprise would, as well as their relationships to the rest of the crew.
It’s in those absurdities that Lower Decks mines its best humor and does so at an incredible pace in every episode. Jokes are thick and fast, from ones that needle at Star Trek tropes to knowing nods to the franchise’s long past. You don’t have to be a Trek diehard to enjoy the gags Lower Decks has to offer but if you love Trek, it becomes immediately clear, even when poking fun at it—especially when poking fun at it—that Lower Decks is with you every step of the way. It’s essentially a sci-fi take on an office sitcom, just with more scenes where alien viruses that turn people into rage zombies attack the cast.
From blink-and-you’ll-miss-them sight gags and references to prior adventures, even to episodes that just build themselves around those sort of silly, geeky questions you’ve always wondered about the humdrum living or working on a Star Trek ship, Lower Decks constantly wears its passion for what Star Trek is on its sleeves. Even Mariner’s constantly rolled-up sleeves, much to the chagrin of her commanding officers.
Part of makes the humor work so well is Lower Decks’ performances. The main cast is razor sharp and quick off the mark, giving the show a zippy pace that leaves not just plenty of space for gags across an episode but for its characters to breathe and reflect between the bursts of outlandish comedy and wacky goings-on (like the aforementioned rage virus, or away missions gone wrong, or, because it’s Star Trek, occasional battles to the death in alien combat arenas). But while the cast in general displays an excellent chemistry and sense of comedic timing bouncing off each other, special note has to go to Newsome’s Mariner, who feels like the crux making Lower Decks’ comedy work.
Unlike her fellow Ensigns, who are all mostly by-the-books Starfleet do-gooders, Mariner is that but also someone who’s been around the interstellar block more than a few times. Her history as an officer who’s served on other ships before the Cerritos (and been promoted and demoted for her at-times-chaotic personality) gives Mariner an experience that lets her contrast against the earnest sincerity of the rest of her friends on the Cerritos. But most crucially to the series, her experience lets her break the conceit of the show in unique ways—she’s like having a Star Trek fan, albeit a snarky one, transplanted within the Star Trek universe. She’s allowed to question and poke fun at the tropes of Trek as we would, because she’s been in this fictional universe at large in the way her fresh-out-of-the-academy fellows haven’t, and it makes for frequently hilarious antics.
It might have been enough that Lower Decks was an energetic comedy, a weekly 20-odd minute riff on Star Trek tropes that we’ve all joked about for years. Like a show you watch, chuckle along at, and then promptly forget until the next episode. But what makes the series really shine—and perhaps most importantly, feel at home with its Star Trek siblings—is that beneath the zany view on Star Trek’s wild world of aliens and high tech exploration, through the characters beats a heart just as strong as any Trek that came before it.
Boimler, Mariner, Tendi, Rutherford, and the rest of the Cerritos crew are more than just vessels for laughs, and early on have clear character arcs and interesting relationships. This is especially the case for Boimler and Mariner, who have not just dynamic relationships with those around them but are especially excellent together in the few episodes we’ve seen, quickly building a straight man/funny woman dynamic that the show milks for all its worth (and anchored by Newsome and Quaid’s exemplary chemistry).
The one gripe so far with Lower Decks’s first few episodes is that in leaning so heavily on that team-up, the show’s primary cast begins to feel like two duos instead of a true quartet: while Tendi and Rutherford get moments, especially in their relationship together, they are mostly relegated to being the earnest new officers aboard the Cerritos in comparison to Boimler and Mariner’s meatier plot involvement.
All of these relationships, however, absolutely put the ensigns front and center of the show as its stars, an interesting contrast to The Next Generation namesake the series is inspired by. But importantly, it does not mean that the Cerritos’ command staff—Captain Freeman (Dawnn Lewis), Commander Ransom (Jerry O’Connell), Lieutenant Shax (Fred Tatasciore), and Doctor T’Ana (Gillian Vigman)—are empty characters. They too all get moments to shine in their interactions with our ensign heroes, filling in as the “boss” figures, to continue the office comedy analogy. As in “Lower Decks” the episode, they specifically exist to examine the power dynamics between what we would usually consider the typical Star Trek heroes and the people that serve under them in some interesting, and often comical ways.
But despite all the jabs and the japes, what makes Lower Decks stand out is that these characters are all proper Starfleet characters, even if they’re a little bit sillier than what we’ve come to expect out of those who don the uniform. They’re cut from the same cloth that made us love the crews that came before them and are, mostly, incredibly good at their jobs, sometimes to a fault. They’re also incredibly passionate people who care about each other, and their existence in Starfleet in the first place, even if they’re not doing the flashy jobs.
Even when the series is being cynical about some of Star Trek’s most beloved tropes (especially through Mariner, the closest the show has to a “jaded” character), these relatable ensigns are full-on nerds in the best way, geeking out over being on a spaceship and seeing the coolest things the galaxy has to offer. If you thought a Star Trek comedy might end up being too cynical for its own good, Lower Decks is anything but; its loves of Star Trek and its ideals are as sincere as its characters are, and it absolutely makes those characters the priority.
Lower Decks is worth checking out for its earnest, if often playfully ribbed, love of Star Trek as an idea. But it’s worth sticking around for because of the same heart that drives all Trek shows that came before it: lovable, interesting characters who, like us, just really think flying around space doing science and saving the day is something worth braving strange new worlds and civilizations for.
Star Trek: Lower Decks begins airing today, August 6, on CBS All Access in the U.S., and on Sci-Fi TV and Crave in Canada.
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