“You know nothing. Shut your mouth!”
Remember the “Lower Decks” installment from Star Trek: The Next Generation’s seventh season? In that episode, emphasis is placed on the lesser-known subordinates who walk on eggshells around the senior officers and wait for news of impending promotions or covert suicide missions. It wasn’t one of my favorite episodes because the senior officers displayed character traits that seemed alien to me in an effort to create tension among previously lauded crewmembers.
For six seasons, the show had gone out of its way to treat these characters with respect and admiration only to give us an anti-climactic ending and the death of a young ensign who only wanted Picard’s approval. So if we copy that episode, animate it, and add “humorous” dialogue and wacky situations, we have Star Trek: Lower Decks, created by Rick and Morty writer Mike McMahan.
It’s baffling to me that the heir-apparent Keepers of the Star Trek Kingdom had never considered doing another animated series after the Filmation 1973/74 Star Trek: The Animated Series, particularly as we moved into the late 1980s when The Simpsons exploded all over the place and became a massive hit. At that point, the success of the franchise had already been established.
The popularity of The Original Series in syndication led to the first Animated Series, and that led to the movies starting in 1979, leading series creator Gene Roddenberry to become almost completely insufferable on the college lecture circuit, taking full credit for the show and marginalizing his collaborators important contributions. The success of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home led to Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the new era began, launching three spin-off shows and four theatrical movies.
2005 marked the end of that era with the final episode of Enterprise. Four years later, the franchise was re-booted with Star Trek, a new take on the Original Series, but still clinging (in an odd way) to the past with Leonard Nimoy playing a much older, alternate timeline version of his Spock character. One of the movie’s writers, Alex Kurtzman, was given (with the good grace and blessing of his friend, J.J. Abrams) the keys to the Star Trek Kingdom, and he put together a bunch of new Star Trek television series to launch the streaming-only CBS All Access channel.
The first of these was Discovery, which premiered in 2017. Discovery was followed by Picard, bringing back Patrick Stewart in his signature role. Lower Decks was being developed during Discovery’s first season. Strange New Worlds (chronicling the early history of the U.S.S. Enterprise as commanded by Captain Christopher Pike) was green-lit by CBS All Access in May of 2020.
The central characters of Lower Decks are Ensigns Beckett Mariner (the most instantly annoying and unlikeable character ever created in the history of Star Trek*), dorky beta-male Brad Boimler (of course his name is Brad), Orion (not a slave) girl D’Vana Tendi, and part-cybernetic Sam Rutherford. The show begins, ostensibly, when Tendi arrives on the U.S.S. Cerritos**, joins the crew and meets this committee-approved selection of eccentric characters, but oddly she’s not the focus of this first episode, “Second Contact.”
Rather, Boimler meets with the infuriatingly smug Captain Freeman (A Different World’s Dawnn Lewis) and she gives him the job of spying on Mariner who, she is convinced, is violating various Federation laws and codes of conduct. The trouble is she’s right, and even more dangerously, Mariner provides justification to Boimler for her criminal activities. The greater good, you see? I must admit it is an interesting choice for an animated comedy, but unfortunately the “humor” gets in the way of any actual storytelling.
We’re trying to be “goofy” within the context of Star Trek, and I surmise the idea is to set up dangerous situations without directly confronting those situations. The show comments on Star Trek, “riffing” on previous stories, races, idiosyncrasies, and concepts, but because the dialogue is rapid-fire, it’s hard to keep up with the ADHD mentality. There is no room for comfortable silence. What Lower Decks needs is comic timing.
This is the same problem I had with the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Netflix revival. Oh, there were plenty of jokes, but there wasn’t enough time to process them and react to them. Lower Decks makes fun of Star Trek, and not in an Orville way. Because it is authorized and “official,” the show can make references to Spock and Khan and Deanna Troi. In the first episode, a virus is unleashed (because of the careless First Officer) on the ship causing those infected to turn into murderous zombies that spew black bile from their mouths.
Mariner passes out replicated shovels and farming equipment to the indigenous race on the planet. While Boimler chastises Mariner for her irreverent (and unethical) conduct, a giant spider monster is unleashed. Boimler is swallowed by the creature and then regurgitated. His body is covered with a pink mucus. Upon returning to the U.S.S. Cerritos, they discover that the zombified crew is attacking one another.
The female “cat-lady” (although she looks nothing like the sexy, purr-box M’Ress from the original Animated Series) doctor, T’Ana scans the mucus on Boimler’s body and determines that it is an effective counteracting agent to the space zombie madness currently infecting the crew. So basically Boimler saves the day, but nobody cares. To her credit, Mariner tries to tell everybody Boimler is their hero, but she is ignored. In the end, it’s revealed (not a terribly shocking revelation) that Mariner is the captain’s daughter, given Mariner’s privilege and inflated sense of self. Lower Decks is going to be a tough one.
*Easily beating out Tig Notaro’s insufferable Jett Reno.
**Why the Cerritos? Starships are given unusual, distinctive names; perhaps famous names, places, and concepts in different classes. There was a U.S.S. Lexington and a U.S.S. Farragut. Essex, Carolina, and Archon. Danube class runabouts were named after rivers like the Ganges and the Rio Grande. There were starships named after regular words that sounded bad-ass: the Intrepid, the Defiant, the Dauntless, the Valiant, the Voyager, the Enterprise. You get the idea that thought was put into naming these mighty vessels. In Lower Decks, we’re given the U.S.S. Cerritos. Huh? Cerritos is a Spanish word, meaning “little hills.” Maybe there’s some significance related to the subject matter of the show*.
Okay, that doesn’t help much. Cerritos is a small-ish town — can you even call it a town? — in California. I lived in Dayton, Ohio for a time when I was a kid, so now I have to wonder if there is a U.S.S. Dayton out there; a really, really horribly boring starship called the U.S.S. Dayton. Cerritos is an unusual, distinctive name, but why that name? How about the U.S.S. Tongva or the U.S.S. Gabrieleños? Would those names be considered imperialist (a quirky kind of Mexican Imperialism)? This is where I get the indication even the most basic ideas in Lower Decks were bandied about back-and-forth in a committee-style brainstorming session, right down to the name of the ship. These things have to be approved, you know?
“Cerritos was originally inhabited by Native Americans belonging to the Tongva (or “People of the Earth”). Later, the Tongva would be renamed the “Gabrieleños” by the Spanish settlers after the nearby Mission San Gabriel Arcangel. The Gabrieleños were the largest group of Southern California Indians as well as the most developed in the region. The Gabrieleños lived off the land, deriving food from the animals or plants that could be gathered, snared or hunted, and grinding acorns as a staple.”(Wikipedia)