Animated science fiction has come a long way since “Star Trek: The Animated Series” in the ‘70s, with shows like “Futurama” and “Rick & Morty” using the budgetary freedom allowed by the form to truly go where no man has gone before. With the branding of CBS All Access as the place to go for all things “Star Trek” with acclaimed shows “Star Trek: Picard,” it makes sense that they would bring animation back to this franchise, this one under the producer’s gaze of Alex Kurtzman, showrunner of the hit “Star Trek: Discovery.” Why not expand on Gene Roddenberry’s world with an adult-driven action comedy with the boundless creativity allowed by the form of animation? This brings Trekkies to “Star Trek: Lower Decks,” an original new animated comedy that promises to take fans below the power players on a starship, revealing the workers on floors lower than the bridge who really hold things together when the space shit hits the fan. Sadly, “Lower Decks” is a relatively predictable, flat workplace comedy that’s likely to end up little more than another footnote in the legacy of one of the most beloved sci-fi franchises of all time.
Created by Mike McMahan, who shot to fame with his work on “Rick & Morty” and recently co-created the very funny “Solar Opposites” on Hulu, “Star Trek: Lower Decks” centers on the crew of the U.S.S. Cerritos on adventures that takes place after the action of “Star Trek: Nemesis” (but before “Picard”). It takes its name from a seventh season episode of “The Next Generation,” one that focused on non-main characters and reportedly served as Kurtzman’s template for this spin-off
Taking place this deep into the timeline allows for references to beloved ‘Trek’ characters and plot points from the history of the series, which the writers rely on in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge kind of way that’s designed primarily to remind fans why they’re still watching. So references to Klingon tempers and ‘The Janeway Protocol’ are dropped into conversation relatively quickly, but the actual ties to Roddenberry’s universe feel strangely superficial. Anyone can write a mediocre sci-fi comedy and make one of the characters a Romulan just because they have the licensing to do so, but “Lower Decks” feels surprisingly removed from the best of ‘Trek,’ which was often much funnier and smarter than the plotting here.
Ensign Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome) and Ensign Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid of “The Boys”) are the oil-and-water duo that drives this animated comedy ship. Beckett and Brad have a classic comedy dynamic in that she’s the outgoing one and he’s the by-the-book company man. Beckett has been around the universe; Brad has read all of the manuals on the ship. Anyone can see where this is going. Naturally, they butt heads before they come together and need each other time and time again, but never in a way that feels fresh or original. The writers and Newsome seem to mistake hyperactivity for ingenuity while Brad is reduced to a generic protagonist that we’ve seen too many times before—just picture the character that Thomas Middleditch would play in a sci-fi comedy and you’re halfway there. How many times can the rule-following cadet learn that sometimes a few space policies need to be broken to save the day?
Mariner and Boimler are joined on this journey across the stars by a newcomer named D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells) and an ensign who recently received a cyborg implant named Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero). Speeding across the galaxy, the quartet of underlings have to deal with an aggressive captain named Freeman (Dawnn Lewis), an attention-grabbing first officer named Ransom (Jerry O’Connell), and a weekly dilemma from which the people below the bridge will once again be the ones to truly to save the day…and get none of the credit.
It probably doesn’t help “Star Trek: Lower Decks” that so much animation has already toured the galaxy in the years since the last animated series, and often parodied franchises like ‘Trek’ along the way. Shows like “Futurama” and “Solar Opposites” display their adoration for the sci-fi genre while also gleefully dismantling many of their tropes, turning their philosophies into something fresh and new. “Lower Decks” loves the tropes a bit too much, lacking any edge or commentary that might cut into the familiarity of this project overall.
The tragedy is in the wasted potential. Not only is Roddenberry’s world a fun one in which to play in with the budgetary freedom allowed by animation but consider how progressive this franchise has been in the past in terms of sex, morality, and philosophy. So why take all of that and reduce it to an oil-and-water buddy comedy with an antiquated sitcom set-up in which everything that goes wrong in an episode will be patched up by the end of it? Audiences who embrace sci-fi, especially in animated form, need to be challenged a bit more than “Lower Decks” is willing to even consider, making it feel more like an old-fashioned CBS sitcom than a streaming service offering willing to push any sort of envelope at all. It wouldn’t be that out of place on network TV in the era in which the original “Star Trek: The Animated Series” aired.
Which leads to an unanswered question after the four episodes sent for press: Who is this show for? While CBS All Access has pushed the envelope in terms of what they can do on streaming vs. network, this feels way more like a mediocre CBS Saturday morning show than a streaming one. So is this just a kid’s show for Trekkie families looking for a gateway to the franchise? Maybe it could serve that purpose for the children that parents are hoping will follow the philosophies of Roddenberry, but kids may wonder why mom and dad ever liked “Star Trek” in the first place. [C-]
“Star Trek: Lower Decks” debuts on CBS All Access on August 6.