The greatest compliment I can give to Star Trek: Lower Decks is that it is bonkers fun.
It’s made by a Star Trek fan having fun with Star Trek and sharing the jokes with other Star Trek fans in a perfect and continuous feedback loop that I hope never ends. Some are already calling this the best Star Trek show (or at least the best first season of a Star Trek show), and while I’m not sure I would call it that yet, it is the most self-assured of any Trek show and the one that has a firm grasp of its identity from the get-go. Many Trek shows take their time to figure out their characters and their stories, but right from the beginning, this show knew the arcs of its characters and where that story would take them. Despite its episodic style, the writers were still able to craft a tight narrative that allowed their characters to learn and grow.
In fact, the amount of fun and character growth that the writers were able to fit into 25 minutes often astounds me. You’d think the half-hour limit would just make the episodes be mindless fun animation, yet it is deliberate and thoughtful. Every episode establishes something important to the characters or to the world of the story at large. They may be short episodes, but they got a lot of meat and substance to them. So many things set up earlier in the season comes back into play in the finale that it’s like watching a puzzle piece fall into place. In 25 minutes, the writers were able to often create more engaging narratives and character development than many other TV shows could barely manage in 45 minutes. The crew of the U.S.S. Cerritos may be described as an unimportant ship doing unimportant work, but they are possibly one of the most efficient and effective Starfleet crews to grace the screen.
Speaking of the crew, let’s meet the four Lower Deckers that make up the main focus of the story.
Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome) is an ensign who really shouldn’t be an ensign. She’s got the experience, she’s got the smarts, she’s got the capabilities. She really should be a captain. But she doesn’t want to be, or at least not for now. She was demoted in fact for having a mind of her own, for not following rules that she sees as bureaucratic red tape. She’s the rebel of the group, constantly pushing against the bounds of authority. And all of that would have made for an engaging character on its own, but the show gives her something extra: her mother, Carol Freeman, is the captain of the Cerritos. We soon realize that her captain mother and her admiral father had placed her on the ship probably hoping she would fit in and fall in line. Of course, that didn’t happen because as typical of mothers and daughters who are alike, they just butt heads. All of this parental drama really reaches a boiling point towards the end of the season where Mariner had to literally exorcise her demons in a holodeck movie scenario in which she ends up fighting herself in order to realize how she stands with her mother. This allowed for them to find common ground and in the end, see each other as individuals as well as family, and that working together would get them both what they want instead of busy fighting each other.
Bradward “Brad” Boimler (Jack Quaid) seems your typical book-smart nerd who wants to be the very best and reach the top. The one who’s often too busy kissing up to authority in the hopes of a promotion. Out of the four main characters, he might be the easiest to hate simply because of the archetype mould he’s placed into. But the writers very smartly give us glimpses of a softer side that isn’t always clouded by his desire to advance up the ranks. He doesn’t report Mariner as the captain ordered him to. He breaks down when he realizes how little experience he has compared to Mariner that leaves him unprepared for field missions. He loves his girlfriend. He stands up for his friends and his crew. When the going gets tough, we as the audience knows that Boimler will always come through. And that kind of balance is not always easy to write for a character, even past Trek shows have had issues riding the balance. But Lower Decks deftly walks the tightrope by always making sure that Boimler, at his core, is committed to the principles of the Federation and Starfleet, even if sometimes he gets a bit too big-headed about being a captain one day. The lesson doesn’t always stick with Boimler at times, but there is room for growth, which is always a good thing, and one that I’m excited to see how they explore in Season 2 with him promoted to a different ship and leaving his friends behind.
Samanthan Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) is the lovable everyman character. He’s fun, friendly, kind, always willing to help, and like every engineer in Star Trek, forever attached to his work and the Jefferies tubes. He’s a recent cyborg with an implant that sometimes becomes the source of great comedy. And you wouldn’t be blamed if you thought that it might become a gimmick, but the writers were clever to ensure that implant would become an important device in the finale where stakes and consequences happen that matter. He tries to change his work to spend time with someone he likes but ultimately realizes that he has to be true to himself. And even amid playing an evil marauder in a holodeck movie scenario attacking his own ship, his greatest time isn’t being evil but telling his boss how much he admires his boss’ work. Rutherford is just so pure of heart, he’s so easy to love, even if he created a holodeck program that keeps trying to kill them all. The season ends with him having lost his memories but who knows what surprises this new Rutherford may have in store for us.
D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells) is my favourite character in the show and perhaps the most like me as a person. Endlessly optimistic and full of enthusiasm, Tendi is dauntless, sometimes to a fault. She’s the new kid on the block when we first meet her, and across the season we see her adapt and grow with this new crew while never losing her indomitable spirit. No matter the situation, Tendi stands firm and never loses hope. Rage zombies spewing black bile on her first day? Oh, she’s just happy she got to hold a heart. Had a Holodeck program gone wrong and trying to murder her? Well, she feels bad for it. Someone ascending in front of her and in pain? Drop and roll back into the physical. A dog that talks and flies? How awesome! Is she so stubborn as to risk death by eels? Yes, that is correct. Her friend lost all his memories and doesn’t remember her? She just gets to be best friends with him all over again! Sometimes her boundless enthusiasm can come on a bit too strong, but her heart is always in the right place. I love her. I resonate with her on a spiritual level. And she’s just full of light that I hope never gets extinguished.
The dynamics between the four characters started out usually with Mariner and Boimler paired together while Tendi and Rutherford did their thing, but as the season went on, we saw more and more of different characters interacting as well as the four of them working together. Tendi and Rutherford seemed to possibly have a romance set up, but even if not, I hope Season 2 still explores more of them because they have been lesser of the focus than Mariner and Boimler. And with Boimler off the Cerritos, we might see a dynamic shift with our quartet, and I’m intrigued to see where it goes.
Beyond our four ensigns are the bridge crew, and though they are the supporting players of this story, what we see of them is still pretty fun and sometimes with a lot more depth than we might realize. Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) seems at first like a captain who seeks glory and fame, but as the story went on, we see her care towards her crew and her ship, we see the way she tries to look out for her rebellious daughter, and we see her realizing issues with Starfleet protocols that she can work together with her daughter to solve. Jack Ransom (Jerry O’Connell) is the first officer of the Cerritos and basically, as if Will Riker and James T. Kirk had a baby with the gusto turned on 150%, yet underneath that devil may care attitude is also a person who holds to good ethics, respects the sovereignty of others, and isn’t also above breaking a few rules to protect his people. He feels like an airhead jock at times, but much like Riker and Kirk, there is a caring beating heart that drives all that he does. Doctor T’Ana (Gillian Vigman) is the Chief Medical Officer aboard the Cerritos and a Caitian, a species we hadn’t seen since The Animated Series. A grumpy cat in all the best ways, she always gets the best one-liners and a lot of sass, but like a true cat, she will fiercely defend and love those she considers her own without hesitation. Shaxs (Fred Tatasciore) is the Bajoran tactical officer of the Cerritos and wants to blow everything up. He’s so into fighting that you might be somewhat put off by his aggressive exterior of being constantly intense and angry. But the story also never fails to remind you that despite his size and temper, he is Starfleet through and through, which means he’s supportive and loving, it’s just so unfortunate that his budding relationship with Doctor T’Ana ended so prematurely because of his death. A death that you didn’t see coming in an animated comedy, a death that sticks and has consequences, and a death that is actually foreshadowed so many times that when I rewatched the season again, I was smacking myself in the head why I hadn’t picked it up the first time.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the brilliant voice cast of the show. Tawny Newsome, Jack Quaid, Eugene Cordero, Noël Wells, Dawnn Lewis, Jerry O’Connell, Gillian Vigman, and Fred Tatasciore all bring their characters to life with such vibrancy and personality. They make me laugh, they make me cry, and they make me cheer and scream in all the right moments. They have such a great grasp of who their characters are and the relationships they have with each other, it’s perfect chemistry that gels together right from the beginning.
Before the show aired, there were concerns about the animation style of the show feeling just like every other animated adult comedy out there. While I’m not an animation expert, I still found the animation to be engaging and dynamic, and most of all, just full of great imagery and super fun. The characters never feel static and stale; they are lively; they move all the time with so many great little details that speak to each character’s personality. The opening credit sequence hilariously pokes fun at past Trek shows’ intros while playing with so many musical cues of old themes that I must give a nod to Chris Westlake’s brilliant score. And as a comedy show, perhaps more important than anything is the comedy and this show had to roll with laughter from the start. Comedy shows are usually not my thing; in fact, I very rarely watch comedy shows because I simply never found that sitcom-style very funny as I know they are trying to make me laugh and I don’t get the jokes. And while Lower Decks has its gags here and there, most of its comedy comes from the situation, and situational comedy mixed with drama makes it the exact kind of dramedy that is my cup of tea. Early in the season, the show does tend to rely on past Trek show references and easter eggs to make me laugh, but as the show gained steam and we got to the back half of the season, it began to rely more on its own inside jokes that it had established and drawn upon its own history and character dynamics.
Speaking of easter eggs, this show is full of them everywhere. Every episode is almost filled to the brim sometimes that I feel like I blink and I could miss 25 different references. It’s clear to anyone that creator Mike McMahan and his writers know the world they operate in and they revel in it. They expertly play with the tropes of Star Trek while also subverting audience expectations to tell more poignant stories that one might not expect from a half-hour animated comedy show, and perhaps that is its greatest achievement. Lower Decks takes the mythos and tropes of Star Trek and constantly finds ways to improve upon the formula and expand the lore in new and interesting ways. From sneaking in the TOS designation as “Those Old Scientists” to showing the daily routines of Starfleet life beyond the excitement of the bridge to pointing out past Trek’s tendency of exploring a planet and leaving it be to never check on it again to species like the Pakleds and Orions getting more dimensions beyond their general stereotype. This show is more than just style, it’s got substance and depth in unexpected ways. And what is really astonishing to me is the way its finale called back to so many things that previous episodes had subtly set up, some without us really even noticing.
Mariner spends episode 1 leaving contraband all over the ship, which ends up coming in handy in the finale to repel the invading Pakleds. Mariner tells Boimler he could be the new sword guy like Sulu in episode 1 and we see Boimler fencing Pakleds in the finale. Badgey, the holodeck program created by Rutherford is activated again to create a virus but not without Badgey still wanting to kill Rutherford. Shaxs dies in an explosion much like how Mariner kills holodeck movie-Shaxs in episode 9. And Shaxs goes out saving Rutherford’s life, keeping to his statement in episode 2 that there’s no greater honour than to die beside Rutherford in battle when Rutherford was a member of his security bear pack. And that was all before they dropped in the cameo from the U.S.S. Titan commanded by Captain Will Riker where we see Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis lending their voices to slightly different versions of Riker and Troi than we last saw them in Star Trek: Picard. This is before they had their children and some of the tragedy to follow, this is them at their prime and having all the fun in the world, complete with Riker’s holodeck viewing of Jonathan Archer and his Enterprise crew’s adventures.
Lower Decks may just be 10 episodes, but it’s a small package that packs a big punch. There wasn’t one episode that I hated or even disliked. In fact, all of them were fun, even the weakest episode had something important to say. And as for its best episodes, they create some iconic moments that will be quoted and talked about and meme’d for decades to come. Badgey is already iconic. Episode 8 where the ensigns were seemingly on trial and told what they knew in fragmented vignettes was genius. Mariner’s holodeck movie therapy session with all its Star Trek movie tropes and lens flare and ship porn may be the best Star Trek movie done in 25 minutes. And the finale was such a perfect culmination of so many things built up over the season that I still find it hard to believe this is done for a half-hour animated comedy show. The scripts are just so tight, with barely a weak link in the group.
Okay, maybe I was wrong when I said that I wasn’t sure if this is the best Star Trek show. It certainly has the most well-executed first season of any Trek show. Shaxs’ death hit me hard and I only knew him for 10 weeks. Not that there are no flaws in the show, the lack of LGBTQ+ representation throughout the season and the problematic portrayal of disabilities in one episode are the most glaring. And there is also the question of how accessible the show can be to new viewers who isn’t as well versed in Trek knowledge as the hardcore fans. But in terms of the writing of narrative, themes, and characters, it’s near perfect. The show combined the best of past Trek shows with the best of modern era Trek shows to form something that is very old school in style but boldly new in character growth and emotional maturity. Something that I hope the upcoming Strange New Worlds show will also be able to do just as well.
Lower Decks Season 2 really can’t come fast enough, and if Season 2 is as well done as Season 1, then I sure hope CBS ordered more seasons. Besides, I need to know if little Exocomp traitor Peanut Hamper is still floating about in space or has she been replaced by an army of OSHAComps that actually will care about people’s health and safety.
Irreverently fun yet emotionally deep, Lower Decks is truly something special. It’s definitely a cake that you should treat yourself to.