Lower Decks feels more like Star Trek than anything the franchise has produced since Voyager. It feels that way for a very good reason: Star Trek: Lower Decks creator Mike McMahan is actually a Trekkie. A real Trekkie, not the kind someone pretends to be when they get a job making a Star Trek show and then quickly read a bunch of Wikipedia plot recaps so they can pretend they know something about Vulcans. The kind of Trekkie who has seen every episode, more than once, and can recite dialogue from Wrath of Khan verbatim.
The fact that the people making Star Trek: Lower Decks actually know something about Star Trek is a much bigger deal than it might seem. It’s something Star Trek hasn’t had in decades. In 2009 JJ Abrams took over the franchise and loudly declared he didn’t like Star Trek, but was only using it as a stepping stone to make Star Wars. Later Abrams handed the franchise reins over to his acolyte Alex Kurtzman, a man known for taking beloved franchises and ruining them. Kurtzman wouldn’t know a Tholian from a Gorn if they were standing right in front of him.
So Star Trek: Lower Decks gets everything right that the franchise has been getting wrong for a long time. It actually looks and feels like Star Trek because it’s made by people who actually know and love what Star Trek is. The ships look fantastic, the backdrops are incredible, and it’s all being done with what is fairly low-rent, easy animation.
Star Trek: Lower Decks is set around the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Actually to be more specific it takes place shortly after the events of the movie Star Trek: Nemesis. But unlike Star Trek: The Next Generation this show is set aboard an unimportant, third-rate Starfleet ship called the Cerritos. Their mission isn’t to seek out new life and civilization. Instead they follow behind the ships making first contact to make second contact. After the Enterprise swoops in and introduces itself to new aliens, the Cerritos drops by later to deliver farm equipment and communication devices to the civilizations those other ships have already brought into the Federation.
Star Trek: Lower Decks follows the least important crew members aboard this least important Starfleet ship. Our heroes are a bunch of Ensigns who live and work on the ship’s lower decks. Their jobs involve things like cleaning up spilled coffee, fixing broken replicators which replicate hot bananas, and beaming down to planets to get slurped on by mostly harmless aliens.
The premise, the setting, the Star Trek references; all of that is absolutely perfect in Star Trek: Lower Decks and those things are going to keep Star Trek fans coming back for more episodes. Unfortunately Lower Decks isn’t just an animated Star Trek adventure, it’s also a comedy. And that’s where it runs into trouble.
Here’s the thing: Lower Decks isn’t funny. Not even a little. It tries mightily but you get the sense while watching that McMahan really just wanted to make a straight up, old school Star Trek series but could only get CBS to let him do it if he pitched it as a comedy. The result is Ensign Mariner (voiced by Tawny Newsome), a character so annoying you’ll feel like someone’s scratching fingernails across a chalkboard every time she’s on screen. Mariner is there to create “comedy” by shouting a lot and being rude to everyone around her. She sucks and she’ll get on your nerves immediately.
Outside of Mariner and frequent lame attempts at comedy though, Star Trek: Lower Decks is perfect. It’s so perfect in every other way that matters you’ll endure the “comedy” to get to all the fantastic Star Trek underneath. My hope is that McMahan will tamp down the jokes as Lower Decks goes on and focus more on simply making great Star Trek.
Lower Decks is great at being Star Trek and not so great at being comedy. It’s the best Star Trek since Deep Space Nine. Watch it, support it, and maybe we’ll get more.