After exploring wartime ethics in Discovery and seeking out equal rights in Picard, Star Trek: Lower Decks boldly goes below the bridge in an animated workplace comedy. It’s ridiculous and hilarious and still absolutely Star Trek.
On the surface, animated Trek for adults carries obvious potential to crash and burn. It could be too in-jokey. It could fall into parody, puncturing the series’ high ideals for a laugh. So let’s get this out of the way: As fans from elementary and middle school, respectively, we might not be the ones to tell you how this plays for Trek newbies (though we’d imagine it would still be a lot of fun), but it absolutely nails the balance between optimism and comedy. It’s clear from every single episode, not to mention the extras on the Blu-ray and DVD release, that creator Mike McMahan (co-creator of Solar Opposites and writer for Rick and Morty) and every member of the cast and crew love what Trek stands for. The Cerritos and her crew may be a little rougher around the edges than the Enterprise or Voyager, but they uphold the same humanist beliefs that have made Star Trek, in all its forms, a vital lifeline for so many of us through the pandemic.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the second episode, when Ensign Rutherford (voiced by Eugene Cordero, aka The Good Place’s Pillboi) is allowed to try out roles in different departments throughout the ship. In the future imagined by Trek, no one is forced to stick with a job they don’t love, not even one they excel at, in order to have a good life. In the DVD extras, the writers talk about their pride in finding a storyline that could only work in a Star Trek comedy, and rightly so.
Samanthan Rutherford is one of a quartet of junior officers at the center of the show. His best science bud, medical officer D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells), is more or less the living embodiment of squee! Her heritage as an Orion — one of Trek’s more questionable alien species — is a complete non-issue until the episode when it’s addressed head-on, calling out implicit bias and microaggressions in a context that lets us walk away with our love for the characters intact.
Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid) is the lawful-good rule follower who really wants to be living in one of those other Trek shows. His ambition to climb the ranks highlights the contentment of the other ensigns, who are genuinely happy sharing bunk beds in the bowels of the ship. And then there’s Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), an experienced ensign who is seemingly great at everything except giving a shit. Except it’s not that simple. The high concept of Beckett Mariner, even more than the workplace comedy thing, is where Lower Decks takes its place alongside the other new Trek series as a perfect blend of timeless idealism and contemporary relevance.
(Spoilers for the end of the first episode.)
Beckett Mariner isn’t just a classic comedy slacker stuck in Star Trek’s hyper-professional future. By the end of “Second Contact,” we find out that not only is her dad a Starfleet Admiral, Beckett’s mom is the Cerritos’ own Captain Freeman. Beckett is a very specific comedy slacker, in the mold of Shawn Spencer on Psych. She wants to help people and solve problems, but she has little patience for bureaucracy and less interest in taking on greater responsibility. She also struggles with a parent who has a very different idea of what a successful adult life looks like.
She’s the kind of person that Boomers write op-eds about when they blame “Millennials” for ruining the world with their apathy. And like most Millennials — a term that seems usually to mean Gen X and younger — Beckett Mariner cares very deeply for her friends, her work and the rest of the galaxy, but she shows it in a way that seems alien to older generations. It’s a familiar tension today, when the kind of economic success our parents enjoyed is impossible and our tolerance for political and corporate asshattery is nonexistent.
In Star Trek’s future, economic security is guaranteed for all citizens, corporations are largely relics of the past and politicians (and starship captains) really are doing their best to take care of everyone (mostly). Still, no system is perfect, and Beckett lives to find people who could be served better and break the rules on their behalf. She finds fulfillment in places her parents wouldn’t, and that’s OK. Better than that, it says this isn’t a problem unique to Millennials. Lower Decks says that even in Trek’s enlightened future, parents and kids won’t always see eye to eye. That’s normal. We’ll keep working on that.
Lower Decks is a dramatic action-comedy firing on all nacelles. It’s a show that will help you make new friends, revolutionize your workplace and improve your relationship with your mom, or your money back.
Or it’ll just make you laugh. These days, who doesn’t need that?
The Special Features
As with other recent Star Trek releases, a number of extras are located on the individual episode screens rather than in a separate menu, easily missed if you hit “Play All” to watch the show. Under the heading “Lower Decktionaries,” they’re mostly short but sweet featurettes on various aspects of production. It’s great to see some of the faces behind the cartoon faces of the characters and behind the show as a whole, including writers, animators, directors, composers and even the lighting people.
For anyone interested in working in animation, or just how it all works, the feature “The Animation Process” is especially cool. In eight minutes, it walks through the creation of a single episode, a process that takes about a year to complete. We even get to see what a real Captain’s Chair looks like, as Dawnn Lewis (who voices Captain Freeman) shows off her socially distanced home-recording setup.
There are also a couple of rough animatics for deleted scenes, as well as the full-length animatic used to block out the series’ first episode, and two longer featurettes. “Faces of the Fleet” introduces eight of the main characters and their actors while “Hiding in Plain Sight” points out a representative sample of the many, many Easter eggs from other Trek shows.
Rachael and John Derrick both grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation but have very different opinions on Data. Under the name John Clifford, John wrote and directed a one-act play, “The Dream in Question,” as well as several short plays for sci-fi conventions. He grew a Riker beard during lockdown and Rachael insisted he keep it. Rachael worked in journalism and international education before becoming a therapist, a choice that had almost nothing to do with her infatuation with Deanna Troi. They live with their son and two cats in Indianapolis. Their first novel, Bounceback, about an adult woman reliving her teenage life with brand new superpowers, is available now on Amazon.