This animated series would mark the first Star Trek television show that we’ve watched since Deep Space Nine as I have chosen to skip all of the intervening ones due to their reputation for not being very good. I probably will get around to watching Picard at some point however. I wanted to watch this as I liked the idea of a lighter-hearted Star Trek show and I loved its premise of featuring characters lower down the totem pole. In the event, it doesn’t exactly succeed at being a show about non-command officers as the stories have them taking on major roles anyway and it does get off to a rocky start, but it does find its footing towards the end.
Set in 2380, this places the series firmly in the post-TNG era. The main characters are the younger officers on board the USS Cerritos, a small and relatively unimportant support ship. They include Brad Boimler, a by-the-book stickler for the rules officer who is eager to be promoted; Beckett Mariner, who has been promoted and demoted many times because while extremely competent, she is also insubordinate; D’Vana Tendi, an optimistic and friendly Orion who ends up in the medical division; and Sam Rutherford, an engineer who really loves engineering and has a cybernetic brain implant that affects his mood. Mariner’s big secret is that she is actually the daughter of the ship’s captain, Carol Freeman and her father is a StarFleet admiral. Together they undertake a variety of missions, typically those of a less glamorous nature, such as Second Contact as a follow-up to a newly discovered civilization or assisting larger ships with their tasks.
The showrunner here is Mike McMahan, who previously worked as a producer and writer for Rick and Morty. Even beyond the science-fiction theme, the parallels between the two shows are obvious. They have a similar art style and Lower Decks also copies the manic energy and pace of the much more popular Rick and Morty, especially in the earlier episodes, as they frantically jump from one gag to the next gag with zero down-time in between, as if terrified that the audience would get bored. I hated this and so I appreciated it very much when the show later slowed things down a bit, particularly in one slow shot that shows off the USS Cerritos itself, in conscious imitation of the similar shot from the very first Star Trek film. The later episodes also feature far better writing. The whole series is full of references from all across the franchise but all the often they are used shallowly for cheap jokes. Yet the fanservice of the series finale proves what magic they can achieve when they dig deeper into the rich lore of Star Trek. Overall this would be a weak series if it had continued the pattern of the earlier episodes but its much improved showing towards the end proves that it’s worth paying attention to.
But I really want to take the opportunity here to talk a bit about Rick and Morty, as I’ve never written anything about it here before. There’s no question that based on artistic merit Rick and Morty is by far the better show. Whether in terms of creativity, art, dynamism or boldness, it wins out in every way. Yet after watching it for a while, I found myself being bothered by the profound cynicism and nihilism that is the show’s core philosophy. Rick is a toxic masculine archetype who proves, time and again, that he is smarter than everyone else just as he says he is. It is a show that embraces the fact that in a universe devoid of meaning, just having mad, anarchic fun is enough. However this celebration of meaninglessness also means that the characters can experience no true development and there is no coherent overall plot. It’s just one explosion of pure, unbridled creativity after another while you laugh at joke that the universe is inherently absurd. While this show is amazing in how it parodies so many other genres and tropes of fiction, it does so in a very mean and cruel manner.
Star Trek on the other hand has always stood for something and while many stories have explored how Starfleet are sometimes hypocrites, you actually do need to have moral values in the first place in order to be hypocritical about them and these stories always show the characters being torn about the dilemma of having to violate their principles for the sake of survival. Lower Decks pokes fun at Star Trek, highlighting its many inconsistencies and how ridiculous it is that they keep running into so many weird aliens and so forth. But it does so in a manner that affirms the show’s core values. While it is refreshing to come across a show like Rick and Morty because it is so unique, I find it difficult to actually like it because I know that it happily stands for nothing at all. I can’t root for someone like Rick at all and I hate that he keeps being proven right while it’s horrifying to see Morty being increasingly traumatized by their adventures. But I can root for the characters of Lower Decks and I can get to like them and that’s why even though, strictly speaking, it’s not as good, I find that I like watching it more.
Anyway we will certainly be looking at this again when the next season arrives and I hope that they will be able to maintain the quality of last few episodes.