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Are you a passionate Star Trek fan who likes references to things from the Star Trek universe?
Chances are good that if the answer to the first part of that question is affirmative, the answer to the second part is as well.
Do you find the mere idea of those references being delivered by animated characters almost inherently funny?
If that’s a third “Yes,” then CBS All Access’ new comedy Star Trek: Lower Decks is probably made for you, as the streaming service adds to its ever-growing library of original Star Trek content.
For anyone else, though, Lower Decks is a largely joke-free missed opportunity to capitalize on a corner of the Federation workforce that has long enticed writers, but continues to await the sort of franchise treatment it deserves. There’s still room for Star Trek: Lower Decks to evolve into something with a stand-alone sense of humor, but for now it’s best suited as a good-natured time-waster between installments of Discovery, Picard and whatever comes down the pipeline next.
Created by Rick & Morty veteran and Solar Opposites co-creator Mike McMahan, Star Trek: Lower Decks looks at the lives of the the support staff on a Starfleet vehicle. Star Trek stories tend to focus on the officers and primary crew, the people with regular bridge privileges, who get to lead the expeditions to alien planets and the interactions with similarly ranked figures on other ships. This is not them. These are the variably skilled, questionably motivated employees who keep the ship running, but only get to the bridge to clear away garbage and only join landing parties in a menial service capacity. They’re the guys who don’t get credit when the day is saved and generally get devoured first when a creature breaches the ship or the alien civilization on the unmapped planet turns out to be hostile. Adding to the inferiority complex, these are the unglamorous lackeys on a secondary Starfleet ship, the U.S.S. Cerritos, generally utilized for “second contact” encounters or station-to-station transport responsibilities.
The Cerritos is captained by Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis), with Jack Ransom (Jerry O’Connell) as her first mate, but our heroes are the good-natured ensigns, packed like sardines into bunk-crowded dormitories. There’s dedicated rule-breaker Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), promotion-hungry rule-follower Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid), new medical trainee D’Vana Tendi (Noel Wells) and freshly cybernetically enhanced engineer Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero).
The idea of doing a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-esque Star Trek comedy adjacent to more iconic main characters is hardly revolutionary, especially recently. Leaving decades of fan-fic out of the equation, or even a one-off like the New Generation “Lower Decks” episode, this was the premise of a proposed (and never produced) series from the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia team; it informed some of the funniest parts of Galaxy Quest; and it was at least part of what Seth McFarlane has wanted to do on The Orville. The combination of animation and the extremely talented and sufficiently geeky McMahan felt nearly perfect.
What stands out early on in Lower Decks, and never ceases to be the case in the four episodes made available to critics, is how few actual punchlines there are in the series. Instead, Lower Decks places references where gags ought to be and assumes that you’ll find it uproarious that the characters here like talking about Captain Kirk or making the Vulcan salute.
The references are unquestionably tiered. Everybody can get a Captain Kirk reference. Any dedicated Star Trek fan will get a Captain Janeway or Miles O’Brien reference. And, again, they’re just references. We’re not talking deep-dive punchlines related to a thing Captain Janeway did in that one episode of Voyager. But maybe you actually need a certain obsessiveness to know different types of Klingon cuisine or to laugh at a hastily delivered line about the Khitomer Accords, an opportunity that you have to take advantage of quickly because most references, once dropped, are never picked up again. I promise you that I don’t get all the references in Star Trek: Lower Decks, so there’s at least the chance that I’m missing all the best bits.
Take away the references and you’re left with little by way of narrative, since the episodic incidents are, because of the very nature of the series’ focus, largely disposable. It takes a lot to render a zombie virus or a giant man-sucking spider forgettable or secondary, but Lower Decks does just that, somewhat by design I’m guessing. What’s missing are the big intellectual or formal swings McMahan has taken in his past efforts in the science fiction space, or anything resembling the timeliness and allegory that the original Star Trek and the best of its offshoots have exhibited. Such aims are lost in Brad and Beckett’s simplistic weekly back-and-forth bickering about the importance of following rules or breaking them, which is just not entertaining.
It’s all packaged in bland-but-amiable fashion with colorful, detail-lite animation from Titmouse and energetic voice work across the board. It’s hard to latch onto any of the characters, though Wells gives D’Vana a contagious enthusiasm and there’s light amusement in Gillian Vigman’s T’Ana, a Caitian doctor meant as a mangy contrast to the feline heroine of the same species in the short-lived Star Trek: The Animated Series.
It should be noted that neither Rick & Morty nor Solar Opposites came close to reaching their respective peaks within their first four episodes, but I don’t think either was as conspicuously forgettable at this stage. Even with the intention of peeking into its most mundane corner, a universe this boundless shouldn’t feel so comically limited.
Creator: Mike McMahan
Voices: Tawny Newsome, Jack Quaid, Noël Wells, Eugene Cordero, Dawnn Lewis, Jerry O’Connell, Fred Tatasciore and Gillian Vigman
Premieres Thursday, August 6, on CBS All Access.
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