By Dominic Messier, Founder, Editor and Ten Forward Regular
Fifty-four years ago, an inventive sci-fi series about Starfleet explorers aboard an iconic starship launched an enduring franchise that would see seven spin-offs (with a few more planned), thirteen movies and countless books, graphic novels and memorabilia.
Indeed, Star Trek has been to the final frontier and back, but has it successfully gone into the animation foray with any measurable success?
Well, that depends on who you ask; a limited series produced by Filmation and Paramount in 1974, featured most of the original cast members doing voice works so to reprise their memorable roles, in a series f episodes designed to bank on the popularity of the show, which had been cancelled in 1969 after 79 episodes. The animated format, though crude by today’s standards, allowed for more flexibility in terms of alien lifeforms, special effects (simply drawn into the narrative) and a broader reach in terms of storytelling.
So, why create another animated series at all, given the success of live-action properties like Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard and their planned spin-offs?
Well, in essence, the answer is an elegant and simple one: comedy.
Rather than aim for a weekly dose of military intrigue, diplomatic drama or scientific conundrums with galactic repercussions, show creator Mike McMahan, a former writer for Rick and Morty, opts for a more lighthearted approach to the Trek universe, while still maximizing on its vast catalogue of aliens and tech for comedic effect.
Whereas most franchise series focus on a flagship or crew known for their historic first contacts or heroic saves at the eleventh hour, the crew of the U.S.S. Cerritos is mostly assigned to menial aspects of the Starfleet routine, such as handling planetary logistics or continuing second contact, taking care of the lesser duties left behind by other, more famous crews.
Set in the same period as Star Trek: The Next Generation, Lower Decks shifts the focus towards the support crew of a starship, or if you prefer, “those no-name folks you often see in the corridor when Picard and Riker are walking somewhere else on the ship.” While this series has yet to reveal whether any cameos of the sort would occur, the premise indicates that the bulk of the action will reside with the Cerritos’ crew, as young ensigns mess up on the regular, while trying to save face with their stern senior officers.
The main four characters are as diverse as they are neurotic, overzealous, excited and ambitious: There’s Ensign Beckett Mariner (voiced by Tawny Newsome), a reckless, impulsive, oblivious girl who’s been demoted and transferred countless times due to her difficult personality and disregard for rules; ambitious and eager-to-please Brad Boimler (voiced by Jack Quaid), a neurotic and proud young ensign who dreams of command, if he weren’t so busy abiding by every single rule to the point of eccentricity; D’Vana Tendi (voiced by Noel Wells), an extremely excited and inexperienced Orion newbie who finds the new experience of serving on a starship the best thing ever. Finally, there’s Sam Rutherford (voiced by Eugene Cordero), an ensign with engineering gifts, whose recent Vulcan-made cyborg implants cause him no end of problems, both while on duty and when trying to impress the ladies onboard.
At first glance, the show evokes shades of Futurama, Archer, Family Guy and the aforementioned Rick and Morty, what with this series’ unapologetic use of bodily fluids, goo, carnage and blunt language, though the latter is sparse, and mostly originates from the ship’s acerbic doctor, T’Ana, a Caitian (think anthropomorphic feline) with a low tolerance for nonsense.
Of course, the series couldn’t solely focus on the lower decks, so we often get a glimpse of the bridge crew, which include Captain Freeman (Dawnn Lewis), an authoritative but frustrated leader; Commander Jack Ransom (Jerry O’Connell), a typical Kirk/Riker alpha male, and Lt. Shaxs (Fred Tatasciore), a hulking Bajoran with a constant urge to kill or blow up something.
Though it’s too early to call it, Lower Decks shows promise in keeping Trek fans busy and entertained with much lighter fare than its usually more dramatic TV and film cousins. The physical gags, constant references to Trek lore (several names and major events of Starfleet history pop up in the pilot) and rat-tat-tat dialogue, most of it by the energetic Tawny Newsome, make this new series a welcome addition to the franchise.
Granted, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but the same was said of the bizarre spy show Archer, yet most of us are still watching its umpteenth iteration a decade later.
The final frontier just got funnier, and I’m onboard.
(STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS airs episodes every Thursday on CBS All-Access and also on the CTV Sci-Fi Channel in Canada, with episodes airing on Crave thereafter.)