Episode Review – Star Trek: Lower Decks S1: E1 – “Second Contact”

Now that Lower Decks has premiered, it’s time to take a stock of where we are. Are we drawn into the mission of the Cerritos? Do our featured ensigns command the screen? How does Lower Decks compare to other animated Trek? Our review of the premiere episode, “Second Contact” answers those questions and more.

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW

When the crew of the U.S.S. Cerritos visit the planet Galar as a part of a second contact mission, situations aboard ship and on the surface present challenges, forge relationships and set the tone for the first season of this new animated series.

In the episode, we get to know Ensigns Mariner and Boimler quite well, with some unique dynamics playing out between the two on account of one’s career ambitions and the other’s checkered past. Ensign Tendi is given quite the first day on the job in sickbay, while Ensign Rutherford, a newly enhanced cyborg, finds himself struggling against more than just his new implants.

The action of the episode is relatively fast-paced, which is necessary given the shorter running time (26:12) of the episode. With the amount of material packed into “Second Contact”, development of the storylines takes a backseat to development of the characters, which, while understandable, is also unfortunate. Previous pilot episodes of Star Trek have taken varied approaches to this problem, but Lower Decks chooses to focus on the substance of Mariner, Boimler, Tendi, and Rutherford while allowing most of the remaining action to serve as mere window dressing.

The episode provides a surprisingly TNG feeling, which (at least with this reviewer) earns a lot of goodwill and benefit of the doubt… but the episode’s baseline story was wholly unengaging in spite of the interesting series premise.

Still, this is an initial episode and a lot of heavy lifting needed to be accomplished. It will take a good three or four episodes to see if they find their space-legs. If they do find them, be warned, we will probably have to stop and count how many there are.

(CBS) Ensign Mariner (Tawny Newsome) and Ensign Boimler (Jack Quaid)
FROM THIS POINT FORWARD, THERE ARE MILD SPOILERS

You have been warned!

THE GOOD

I cannot dive deeper into my analysis of the episode without first spending a few moments expressing my absolute glee over the return of TNG era Trek in a highly recognizable form. While there are some oddities (like the ship’s registry position on the saucer), I was stunned by the beauty and period-perfect nature of the show. The different uniforms don’t bother me, the ship has grown on me since first seeing it last month, and the subtle changes to styling on things like shuttlecraft and phasers are par for the course with Trek. From the moment the opening credits hit the screen, even though they are played for a gag, you get the feeling of the TNG era all over again. Add to that the use of the blue episode credit font, the “starbow” warp drive effect, the ship graphics, and the sound design, and one feels very comfortably at home in the era.

The quality of the animation is outstanding. While the motif is a bit different than previous Star Trek animation (and here I refer to both The Animated Series as well as the two recent animated Short Treks), the work is crisp, clear, and watchable. I’d almost compare the quality of animation to Futurama and Family Guy.

The voicework of the main cast, as well as Captain Freeman, lend genuine character to their animated avatars. Tawny Newsome (Mariner) and Jack Quaid (Boimler) really connect with one another and their situations, while Eugene Cordero (Rutherford) nails several rapid-fire changes in expression in the episode like he’s turning corners on a dime. Noel Wells rounds out the main cast with a joyfully uncertain take on Tendi’s arrival aboard the Cerritos and life in the sickbay. While we didn’t get significant exposure to the upper decks staff, Dawnn Lewis earns high marks for her take on Captain Freeman. She manages to nail a voice that sounds commanding, while mildly humorous… going over the top without really giving away that she’s doing so.

Finally, I appreciated the musical score, which called back to many classic Trek soundtracks, while putting a unique spin on the genre. Some measure of whimsy and humor is included in the music, even when, for example, it feels like Gerald Fried’s “Amok Time” fight music or Sol Kaplan’s classic “Doomsday Machine” incidental music. Composer Chris Westlake’s score helps to sell the episode as a part of Star Trek.

(CBS) Dr. T’Ana (Gillian Vigman)

THE NEUTRAL

I have one significant neutral… Star Trek: Lower Decks arrives best when it isn’t taken seriously. This is a bit of a challenge as, aside from the animated Short Trek “Ephraim and DOT”, Trek in its previous animated journeys, has managed to remain relatively close in content and tone to its live-action counterpart, while stripping episodes down to fit a half-length timeframe. Don’t expect this with Lower Decks. The moment you take the show even a kellicam more seriously than it intends, it stops working. Don’t try figuring out where it fits in canon, don’t try to determine if any of these people have been on TNG, DS9, or Voyager. Don’t hold to the expectation of anything besides an adult comedy… because that is precisely, and all, that you get.

THE BAD

While our four focal-point ensigns are well introduced, we still have a lot of learning to do about the ship and her mission. Though we get a basic introduction on the role of second contact, we are thrown right into the action as if we have a full historical gasp of the context in which the Cerritos and her mission play out. Each previous pilot in the TNG and beyond era have more than adequately explained the setting and mission being explored while being a vehicle for character establishment. Lower Decks largely fails in this area, and mostly due to the lack of time. The writing team clearly filled every available moment with character-based development, which left little time to explore the overall mission of the ship and her crew. While that may be intentional (i.e., it doesn’t matter because we just care about the young pups on the lower decks), it is unsatisfying, to say the least.

THE CHALLENGE

Ultimately, the biggest challenge facing Lower Decks is, I believe, engagement. I am most definitely one of those who is happy that we have Trek on the small screen. I think that’s the best environment for Trek, and I think the idea of exploring an animated Trek is great. “Second Contact”, however, does a very limited job of exciting me for the remainder of the series. As someone who really appreciated the TNG episode of the same name, I totally get the appeal of following these ensigns on their journey. The idea truly excites me.

Unfortunately, I don’t really see a ton of repeat viewing potential in the episode. This isn’t because animation, and adult animated comedy in particular, don’t allow for such a passionate reception. I have watched the original run of Futurama through three times, and I would love to do so again. Perhaps watching Lower Decks evolve throughout the season will change my viewpoint. Don’t get me wrong, I will be on my couch every Thursday tuning in… if for no other reason than to be able to say that I have seen every episode of Star Trek since 2001 on the day it first aired in my market. But will I be going back to rewatch these episodes later? I am not sure that I will.

For the premier of Lower Decks, I chose to head to a friend’s house. After the episode we discussed that much of current TV Trek seems to be fine for an episode, and then largely unexciting when the potential to watch the episode surfaces again. For example, we both agreed that it was hard to get into a second watch-through of Discovery, with the exception of the Pike-heavy episodes. To extrapolate, if you offered me the opportunity to take half an hour and watch either “Second Contact” or “The Magicks of Megas-Tu” (arguably the worst episode of the original Animated Series), I’d probably choose the latter. I just don’t walk away from this pilot with any real sense of investment in Lower Decks… but I will continue to give it a shot.

Star Trek: Lower Decks – Premiere Special – The Ready Room

Star Trek: Lower Decks returns every Thursday on CBS All Access, CTV Sci-Fi, and Crave, so far there is still no information regarding an international distributor once we know more we will update you.