Star Trek: Lower Decks Gets Early Premiere, Can They Make Starfleet Funny?
Star Trek fans in the United States are going to get a new series from CBS All Access set in the universe, though international fans will have to wait. Thanks to the COVID-19 lockdown, schedules ended up shifting. Star Trek: Discovery season 3 was supposed to premiere earlier than Star Trek’s first animated series. However, it now debuts on the streaming service on October 15, after this new series ends its first season. Star Trek: Lower Decks gets an early premiere, and fans may not know how to react to it. It’s an adult-animated comedy (though the R-rated curses are bleeped out, as opposed to the other CBS All Access series). Yet, the style and humor feels more aimed at teenagers. There are a lot of meta Star Trek jokes, but the character humor feels, at times, juvenile. That’s not necessarily bad but may not be what fans want.
Typically, with these shows exclusive to US streaming services, they find homes on their competitors abroad. For example, Discovery airs on Netflix in around 188 countries. Star Trek: Lower Decks doesn’t have a deal to air internationally. A small, disgruntled segment of Star Trek fans suggest this means the show is bad, that no other service wants it. This is not the case. Because of the shifting schedules, the international rights deal for Star Trek: Lower Deck is still underway. International fans will get to see it soon enough.
Yet, without getting into spoilers, here is our review of the first episodes of Star Trek: Lower Decks. It’s unlike any Star Trek you’ve seen before, and the show is not without its growing pains.
Star Trek: Lower Decks Premiere Episode Sets the Tone and Sticks to It
Inspired by the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode of the same name, Lower Decks follows four low-ranking crew members on Starfleet’s least important vessel. This is a comedy and a cartoon, and the series leans into both. The Chief Medical Officer is a cat-person, and there is a scene in which one of our young ensigns has to hand-pump a human heart during a shipwide attack. It’s outlandish and is to original Star Trek television shows as the Robot Chicken Star Wars specials are to the films. This show loves Star Trek, but much of the humor makes fun of the conventions in the series. In fact, these are often the best jokes in the show.
Where the show struggles to find its footing is with the emotional connection people feel towards their characters. They are, thus far, mostly one-dimensional and the majority have a default personality of “so awkward they could just die.” While this series is obviously drawing inspiration from Rick and Morty, I feel like the character drama is more similar to Disney’s Star Wars Resistance, a show aimed at seven-year-olds. The exception is Ensign Beckett Mariner, and we’ll talk more about her in a moment.
The two strongest characters are Eugene Cordero’s Sam Rutherford and Noel Wells’ D’Vana Tendi. They are quintessentially lovable Star Trek characters. They are two dorks, who love science and Starfleet and doing the right thing. One particular storyline involving Rutherford makes a great gag out of one of the best things about Starfleet, how supportive they are. Also, every good Star Trek is two parts nerdy and one part horny, and Tendi and Rutherford meet that expectation. Jack Quaid’s Ensign Brad Boimler could be likeable, but some of the choices made for the character feel inconsistent.
Okay, Let’s Talk About Ensign Mariner
It often takes new series some time to really hit their stride, including Star Trek: The Next Generation and other legendary shows. Add to that general pressure, taking an established universe with passionate fans and turning into a comedy. There is far more to celebrate in this series than there is to complain about. However, the character that’s served the least in the show is the one we’re supposed to like best. Tawny Newsome’s Beckett Mariner is the Star Trek hero on this show, per the official description.
From CBS All Access:
“She is kind of a classic Star Trek hero. She is a little bit Kirk, a little bit Riker. She doesn’t really play by the rules necessarily and thinks outside the box a bit, but gets the job done. And she is really, really good at Starfleet stuff. She is the ultimate Star Trek nerd. She knows a little bit about everything.
“But she has been demoted so many times, that is why she is on the lower decks. So despite knowing everything, she is really bad at taking orders. She is kind of like Maverick from Top Gun. She would buzz the tower.”
Mariner lives up to that description. She does get the best moments in the series. Early in the premiere episode of Star Trek: Lower Decks, Mariner gets caught breaking a rule. The reason why she does could have been an interesting chance to satirize how even the “perfect system” of Starfleet has its flaws. (This is a time-honored Star Trek tradition.) Yet, it doesn’t spend nearly enough time with that, instead going for a different joke entirely. It works, but there is a potential with this character that remains unmined.
The problem with Mariner is that, unlike her colleagues, the storytellers seem to be afraid of her “relatable flaw.” Every good character is flawed in some (often many) ways. Boimler is insecure and too focused on rules. Rutherford is too driven by work, even though he finds his work fulfilling. All of the characters, including the bridge crew, have their flaws on display. My guess is that Mariner’s flaw is that despite her capability she fears the responsibility of command. It’s a guess, because we don’t ever get an unguarded moment from her.
We’re Lucky for the Early Premiere of Star Trek: Lower Decks, a Series With a Lot of Potential
Image via CBS All Access
Star Wars and Star Trek are often at odds, and they are so again. When Star Wars came back under the auspices of Disney, it tried to give fans everything they wanted. When Star Trek came back under the auspices of CBS All Access, they chose to go in a different direction. They wanted to tell new stories that challenged our preconceived notions about how perfect the perfect system can be. Discovery showed us what it was like when the heroes got it wrong. Picard showed us what it was like when an institution lost faith in the institution.
And Star Trek: Lower Decks pokes fun at those things fans love and aren’t getting right now. (But surely will with Strange New Worlds.) Yet, it seems clear to me that the people behind this series love it. Like the Robot Chicken Star Wars or DC specials, the jokes come from a place of deep love and obsession with the source material. The real question after the premiere of Star Trek: Lower Decks is if CBS All Access will give the storytellers the time they need to get the hang of the characters? All of them, including Mariner, are likeable and well performed. I want more stories with them. I also want them to feel more like real characters, even in a cartoon context.
Did you check out the premiere of Star Treks: Lower Decks? Tell us what you thought of the series in the comments below.
Featured image via CBS All Access
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.