A writer who claimed to be great at talking to people at parties once wrote an essay where he revealed his secret: He asks everyone what they do for a living, listens to their answer and then says, “That sounds really hard.” Was this writer slightly creepy and self-aggrandizing or a genuinely empathetic human? Who knows? But there’s a kernel of truth in his strategy. Everybody works, one way or another. It’s hard, and no matter how much we love our jobs, even if we have a great boss, great partner and great friends, we all have times when we don’t feel appreciated enough for all we do.
It’s the same truth at the heart of Lower Decks, an animated workplace comedy set in the Star Trek universe. It’s right there in the name; this is a show focused not on Trek’s familiar bridge-crew heroes (like the captains, security chiefs and chief engineers, although they’re here, too) but on the rank-and-file ensigns who quite literally clean up after them. Even in Trek’s utopian, post-capitalist future, people still want to know that what they do matters to the people around them.
Season one proved that showrunner Mike McMahan and his team can pull off the delicate balance required of a Star Trek sitcom, mining comedy gold from Trek’s vast history without sacrificing the franchise’s core ideals. Like every Trek, it offers the hope of a kinder, more egalitarian future, but that future is still populated by flawed, striving humans (and non-humans) a lot like any of us. In season two, the show takes the same approach but goes bigger, and despite a misstep or two along the way, it pays off, delivering richer characters and epic action that still remains centered on putting in the work. Sometimes that work involves Starship maintenance. Sometimes it involves navigating relationships — the most important work any of us do and the most difficult.
At the end of season one, Ensign Beckett Mariner (voiced by Tawny Newsome) had been outed to the rest of the U.S.S. Cerritos crew as the daughter of Captain Freeman (Dawnn Lewis). Ensign Samanthan Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) had suffered an injury that caused him to lose a year’s worth of memories. His best friend, medical officer D’Vana Tendi (Noel Wells) was determined to reestablish their bond and help Rutherford regain his footing on the ship. Ensign Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid) had been promoted and transferred to the U.S.S. Titan to serve under the command of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis).
Picking up a few months later, the second season takes these storylines to places you know they have to go but rarely in the manner you expect. Anyone familiar with television knows Boimler has to find his way back to the Cerritos; he does, but in a way that would only happen in Star Trek. Better yet, it never feels like someone hit the reset button. Season two’s Boimler is consistently more competent and confident without losing the awkward, relatable fanboy qualities that make him an endearing audience surrogate.
Mariner, in turn, grapples with how to adapt to her friends’ increased independence and her Captain-mom’s attempts to schedule more bonding time now that their connection is no longer secret. Mariner has always styled herself as a maverick and a loner, and her story this season is about recognizing how much she values her own relationships, and how to actually make those feelings clear to the people around her.
Rutherford has a lot to relearn from season one, but instead of repeating story beats, his journey here is explicitly about the baggage that comes with personal loss, both for Rutherford himself and for his friends. How much of himself and his friendships are at risk if he’s not exactly who he was before? What’s he willing to sacrifice in order to protect himself from a similar loss in the future? Tendi, meanwhile, is a people-pleaser at heart, so her arc this season is about a willingness to share more of herself and her past despite the possibility that others might see her differently. She’s learning to not hold back, and her best moments often involve her real thoughts finally bursting out, shouted at the top of her lungs. It’s delightful.
In the special features, McMahan points out this is a show about Starfleet officers who know how to deal with aliens and first contact and all these larger-than-life situations but not their own emotions. It would be easy for that to simply be a source of embarrassment or cheap laughs. Genre fiction and sitcoms are both littered with characters like that, who can pull off incredible stunts or design rovers that go to Mars but are incapable of expressing themselves to their significant others, parents or children. Lower Decks, on the other hand, just feels like life. Conversations that matter are messy, but we do our best and muddle through it.
Only rarely does Lower Decks stumble over the tension between writing familiar struggles for a 21st-century audience and its own idealized 24th-century setting. An episode about Mariner and Boimler trying to crash a fancy party is jarring, as the whole premise of an exclusive party limited to the crews of higher-profile starships doesn’t feel right in Trek’s usually enlightened society. The show consistently reminds us the people doing the less glamorous jobs are just as important as everybody else, but it can be tricky to convey that message in a Star Trek context, in a setting where we want to believe most people have already figured that out. But to the writers’ credit, the party situation is the exception, not the rule. In nearly every other instance, what appear to be small-minded or exclusionary attitudes quickly unravel when someone calls them out. Petty individuals still exist, but they, too, are exceptions.
So it’s not a perfect show, and even in Trek the people aren’t perfect, either, because they’re people. Even working on a Starship isn’t perfect. As Mariner says at one point, “Every day isn’t going to be some pristine, exploratory adventure. Sometimes it’s work, and it sucks. Get used to it.” Even the people who have those high-profile jobs have their own frustrations and sometimes envy the lower deckers. As Captain Freeman puts it, “Guess the carpet’s always grayer on the other side of the ship.” Everybody’s working. Everybody finds it hard. We all forget that sometimes.
Still, there’s plenty of fun to be had along the way, and we get to know our characters even better in the process. Trek continues to show us that all kinds of people have a place in the future. Mariner is confirmed to have dated all across the gender spectrum, and a charming, over-the-top episode about Chief Engineer Billups gives him specific cultural reasons to avoid intercourse while also making clear that he’s happily ace by nature. We also get guest appearances from Star Trek: Voyager’s Robert Duncan McNeill as Tom Paris (and his commemorative plate).
Just as season one’s penultimate episode broke the series mold with a homage to the particular quirks of Star Trek films, season’s two’s penultimate story, “wej Duj,” gives us a window into the lower decks of starships in other Star Trek cultures, introducing us to hardworking schlubs both radically different from and just like our usual protagonists. And the whole season comes together in a fantastic finale, which combines a great emotional metaphor, called out by the characters, with an incredible action sequence that makes grunt work every damn bit as cool as fighting the Borg or yelling real loud at Ricardo Montalban in a nebula. It’s a perfect summation of the show’s mission statement, illustrating exactly what makes Lower Decks unique among Treks.
And then, after completely wrapping up that story, they turn around and kick you right in the feels with an all-time great Star Trek cliffhanger to set up season three, which premieres Monday, Aug. 25, on Paramount+.
The work is the reward. Treat yo’self.
On Blu-ray and DVD, the Lower Decks Season 2 package includes production animatics, short features on Star Trek easter eggs for each episode and audio commentary from various cast and crew (all located under individual episode menus), as well as two longer videos under the Special Features menu. “A Sound Foundation” is a deep dive into the series’ sound design while the “Lower Decktionary: Season 2” feature runs through the whole season episode by episode, with various members of the cast and crew offering insights and anecdotes about making the show and their own Trek memories.
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 cat in Indianapolis. Their first novel, Bounceback, about an adult woman reliving her teenage life with brand new superpowers, is available now on Amazon.