SPOILER WARNING for the first episode of STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS!
Last night Sylvia and I watched "Second Contact," the pilot episode of Star Trek: Lower Decks, the first Star Trek show billed as a comedy and the second (barring a couple of Short Treks) to be animated.
"Second Contact" introduces us to the show's premise and its main characters. Lower Decks is set on the starship Cerritos; her primary mission is to perform second contact missions. That is, the crew of the Cerritos goes where others have gone before, following up the more exciting and hazardous first contact missions with alien species by taking care of the mundane work of establishing permanent communications links, cultural exchanges, trade agreements, and so on. The show is set just a few years after the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, so the ship designs, uniforms, and even the typefaces are identical to or clearly evolved from that show's design lineage.
While other Star Trek shows follow the adventures of the bridge officers--the captain and other high-ranking folks--Lower Decks reveals the less glamorous world of the fresh young crew who perform the least desirable or prestigious tasks on the ship. Our protagonists include Beckett Mariner and Brad Boimler, two ensigns on the command track; new Orion recruit D'Vana Tendi, who works in the medical division; and engineer Sam Rutherford, who recently became a cyborg due to an injury in the show's recent past. Each of the four displays the drive, ambition, and desire to do the right thing we've come to expect from Federation characters, but these characters are less polished than Kirk, Picard, Data, Spock, Sisko, Janeway, and so on. Mariner tends to pay less attention to regulations than she should, though always in pursuit of a greater good; as a result, she's been demoted at least a rank or two before the show opens. Boimler tends to be a little too focused on advancement, with perhaps a tendency to suck up to his superiors. Rutherford is still getting used to his Vulcan-designed cybernetic implants, which tend to tamp down his emotions by default, and he's also a bit too in love with his job, to the detriment of his social life. Tendi seems to be the least quirky of the quartet, though she does get a little overexcited when she gets the opportunity to hold a live, beating human heart in her bare hands.
We catch only glimpses of the senior staff; the ship's captain, Carol Freeman, gets the most development in this episode. She comes across as slightly antagonistic in this episode, but it's hard to judge her fairly based on just a few seconds of screentime.
Like most Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, this pilot has an A plot and a B plot. In the A plot, Boimler and Mariner beam down to the planet of the Galardonians to help set up some infrastructure. In the B plot, the ship's first officer infects the crew with a quickly-spreading zombie-like disease. Hilarity ensues in both plots, and Boimler unwittingly saves the day.
When I first heard about Lower Decks, I had one concern: Could the creators respect the Star Trek ethos while at the same time producing something funny?
The good news is the talent takes great pains to stay true to Trek values. While the characters are wacky by the standards of live-action Trek, they remain believable, if somewhat exaggerated. They clearly believe in the Federation and its mission, and act out of a desire to do good.
But is it funny? Well, I laughed, but not uproariously. The gags are a mix of physical pratfalls and gentle digs at some of the sillier aspects of the world of Star Trek. It works for me, but I'm a pretty small audience.
If I had to characterize Lower Decks in just a few words, I would say it's gentle, sincere, and has great potential. I already like the characters, and the premise is promising. It's a good start.