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Monday, October 12, 2020

Lower Decks, Higher Enjoyment

The first season of Star Trek: Lower Decks concluded a few days ago. Despite my initial reservations at the idea of a comedic Trek--let alone a comedic Trek that would be treated as canonical--it turns out that Lower Decks is my favourite Star Trek offering of the 21st century. 

Lower Decks is the story of four low-ranking officers posted to the USS Cerritos, a starship assigned to so-called "second contact" duties--that is, they fill out the paperwork and perform all the other non-glamorous work of establishing formal relations with new civilizations in the wake of more prestigious "first contact" missions like those carried out by the Enterprise

The four officers are rebellious Beckett Mariner, suckup Brad Boimler, obnoxiously cheerful D'Vana Tendi, and engineering nerd Sam Rutherford. They're supported by a stoic bridge crew: Captain Carol Freeman, First Officer Jack Ransom, Security Chief Lieutenant Shaxs, Chief Medical Officer Dr. T'Ana, and Chief Engineer Andy Billups. 

Naturally, each of these characters has their own comedic quirks. Mariner tends to fly off the handle, sometimes violently; Boimler's ambition gets him into embarrassing predicaments; D'Vana has to endure the stereotypes associated with her Orion heritage; and Rutherford has a cybernetic skull implant that sometimes goes haywire. The senior officers have their own foibles: Freeman clearly has a chip on her shoulder with regards to the lack of prestige of their mission; Ransom is a comedic mix of the less savoury traits of Captains Kirk and Riker; Shaxs is even more prone to violence than Worf ever was; and Billups is a bit of a sad sack. My favourite character, Dr. T'Ana, is a Caitian, the humanoid cat species introduced in the first Star Trek animated series; but instead of presenting as a sexy stereotype, the "feline fatale," as it were, T'Ana is a crotchety, potty-mouthed alley cat. She's clearly good at her job, but has no patience for her patients, as it were. 

The show's humour mixes slapstick, self-parody and referential humour, and situational gags. The writers do an excellent job in finding the humour in the franchise's inconsistencies, logical leaps, and absurdities, poking fun without being mean. There's also plenty of fun to be had in the character interactions and the way they navigate the challenges presented by the A and B stories, a structure we haven't seen since the glory days of 90s trek (TNG, DS9, and VOY). 

The show doesn't ignore story in favour of jokes--far from it. To my great surprise and delight, Lower Decks achieves a rare feat: it improves with each episode, thanks in great part to the strength of the stories and the growing confidence and ambition of the writers. It all culminates in one of the best season finales in Star Trek history - a finale with real jeopardy, high stakes, huge changes to the show's status quo, plenty of clever humour, and special guest stars that show up with great fanfare, but organically; their appearance makes perfect sense given the story. 

Best of all, Lower Decks captures the original Star Trek spirit by portraying a future where people care about right and wrong and make decisions based on the greater good for everyone. I find both Star Trek: Picard and and Star Trek: Discovery quite cynical about Star Trek's ideals; their showrunners, to my mind, can't really bring themselves to believe in Gene Roddenberry's original utopian vision, so the Federation we see in Picard and Discovery is corrupt or flawed in some fundamental way. Not so Lower Decks. The animated series isn't naive about the Federation or the difficulties of maintaining utopia, but these showrunners clearly believe that Federation ideals are worth not just examining, but upholding. 

My one complaint - and it does ease off as the season progresses - is that the showrunners lean a little too heavily on references to the old shows. The references are, by and large, clever and appropriate, but they're so numerous that it reminds the audience just a little too much that this is just a show, and so are all the other Star Trek series we love. 

Thanks to this first season, I'm now more excited for more Lower Decks than I am for the next seasons of Picard and Discovery. Not only is the show funny, not only does it feature great characters whose stories I'm invested in following, but it feels like coming home to the grand old days of 90s Trek


Jeff Shyluk said...

The greatest problem I see with Lower Decks is that the first season was too short! After watching the first episodes, I wasn't certain I would enjoy the show, but after watching the season ender I know I will miss seeing new episodes. It's a little like Spiderman: Into The Spider-verse, but for Trek geeks. In other words, fun! But also with some depth and deft art direction. I dread what Picard and Discovery has to offer (unless Tilly dies for keeps), and I reserve judgment for Strange New Worlds.

Susan_rn92 said...

I don't agree, I love the myriad of references. They don't get in the way of the storytelling and it has an added bonus to hard core fans. I did notice that during this first season, the pacing of the episodes became manic every fourth episode. I guess it was because of the rotating directors. Every fourth episode the dialogue would be delivered faster, the action was staccato and the storyline packed to the max. I hope that they even it out next season. But overall, I got a lot of enjoyment out of the series, and looked forward to each new episode.