Features and Columns · TV

‘Star Trek: Lower Decks’ May Be a Cartoon Comedy, But it is 100% ‘Trek’

The cartoon series happily lampoons your favorite franchise but never betrays the soul of Gene Roddenberry.
Star Trek Lower Decks Cartoon
CBS All Access
By  · Published on October 3rd, 2020

Welcome to Saturday Morning Cartoons, our weekly column where we continue the animated boob tube ritual of yesteryear. Our lives may no longer be scheduled around small screen programming, but that doesn’t mean we should forget the necessary sanctuary of Saturday ‘toons. In this entry, we boldly go where Star Trek has only gone once before, but not really, with their latest effort, the Star Trek: Lower Decks cartoon.

Since its launch, CBS All Access (soon to be Paramount Plus) has sought to acquire new Star Trek viewers while also maintaining the base of diehards they’ve built over the last fifty years. The balance is tricky, requiring Star Trek: Discovery to ease back on its pessimism and canonical heresy by propelling its concept three-thousand years into a future far, far away from the original series. Star Trek: Picard brought back an icon and several of his shipmates to stir the Trekkie juices, but when the once idealized Federation revealed itself as a stand-in for our current state of fearful provincialism, many scoffed at the perversion.

At first glance, Star Trek: Lower Decks appears like another series designed to ruffle feathers and poke fanboy bears only now adjusting to the radicalized Star Trek: Deep Space Nine of twenty years ago. While the animated format is nothing new to Star Trek, the undiscovered country of comedy most definitely is. Show creator Mike McMahan hails from the antagonistically weird frontiers of Rick and Morty, and early glances at Star Trek: Lower Decks implied an abrasive, yet dull blade of mockery at work.

We Trekkies are a proud people. We don’t appreciate those who lampoon us, and we’ve never let the sneer of the cool kids halt our good times. Jeer my Starfleet jumpsuit at the grocery store all you want, but I’ve never felt more united to humanity’s greater potential than when I’ve taken Command Gold out to the market.

Watching Star Trek: Lower Decks, however, it’s clear that McMahan is one of us. Whatever derision is to be found is rooted in a deep love for the mythology, and Gene Roddenberry‘s dream of the human species merged under one purpose. We can do better. We will do better. And when we do “do better,” we can still do better.

Star Trek: Lower Decks opens up the hood of the starship. What’s actually under this bridge? A bunch of sentient lifeforms, inherently struggling to contribute to the idea of the Federation, bumbling through their day and failing as much as they’re succeeding. So, you know, business as usual.

Loosely based on the Star Trek: The Next Generation seventh season episode of the same name, Star Trek: Lower Decks follows the plebian plights of certain USS Cerritos crewmembers as they meet the drab realities of making extraterrestrial second contact in the wake of glory hound Enterprise celebrities making first contact. Ensign Brad Boimler (voiced by Jack Quaid) fantasizes of one day being bold enough to fetch the captain coffee. At the same time, Ensign Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome) fights valiantly to antagonize the captain, a.k.a. her mother.

As this odd couple bashes against each other, becoming closer and closer friends in the process, they serve as a solidifying agent for the other blundering Cerritos try-hards. We watch Star Trek to imagine our better selves, but how many of us truly believe we’re capable of leading the charge a la James T. Kirk, Jean-Luc Picard, or Kathryn Janeway? No, perpetual foot-in-mouth-man Reginald Barclay is our avatar.

Star Trek: Lower Decks provides a glimpse of where we, the wannabes, would fall within Starfleet. We’re not bridge crew; we’re on galactic toilet duty. Consider the routine of your day, appreciate your fantasies, but recognize that your Trekkie aspirations would start and stop with the drudgery of rotating Isolinear chips. Whistle while you work to keep the monotony from crushing your soul.

And yet…

Star Trek: Lower Decks features plenty of moments where the woefully clumsy and happily complacent are given a chance to reject contentment and meet their aspirations. In “Much Ado About Boimler,” our intrepid go-getter is accidentally phased out of reality during a teleportation malfunction. He is ordered to join a cargo ship of Federation biological accidents and comes face to face with his fears, prejudices, and blind Starfleet fanaticism.

Like all episodes of Star Trek: Lower Decks, “Much Ado About Boimler” is jammed with Star Trek references. The Trekkie delights in the Where’s Waldo nature of spotting Christopher Pike’s wheelchair or the “Threshold” salamander creature from Star Trek: Voyager. Every nudge and wink sends shivers of affirmation; your time exhaustively devouring this franchise is very much welcome aboard the Cerritos. You belong here.

The episode takes you right up to the edge of distrusting Starfleet but never goes full-Star Trek: Picard. The scientific mishaps Boimler finds himself amongst are not coldly eradicated on “The Farm” as feared. Instead, as originally suspected, these poor unfortunates receive the care they need on a sunny spa, not too unlike the pleasure planet of Risa. Boimler is rewarded for his untrusting nature with a cure to his condition and a rejection from the warm embrace of willing, loving nurses.

At every opportunity, Star Trek: Lower Decks ratifies the core values of Star Trek. Even in the most absurd premises, the show never betrays the final frontier, forever upholding the mission to seek the horizon and the unknown behind it. In “Terminal Provocations,” Ensign Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) and D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells) are attacked by a holodeck program gone awry.

Badgy (Jack McBrayer), in the shape of a delta shield, but taking on a purpose similar to the Microsoft Office Assistant Clippy, turns on his master. Trapped in the program with security measures disengaged, Rutherford and Badgy enter brutal, bloody combat. When Rutherford outthinks the program, switching weather functions to extreme cold, effectively freezing his holo-child to death, Star Trek: Lower Decks slows down to acknowledge the loss of new life.

The image is hilarious, but the agony of Rutherford is legit. He knows what he’s done better than anyone else around him. He created life where there was none before, and he snuffed it out. Like the Horta before him, Badgy required an acknowledged eye. All creation demands respect.

Star Trek: Lower Decks tumbles gleefully into the preposterous, but at no point do you or your favorite franchise feel ridiculed. The series is a true blue Star Trek; it just sits on the shelf next to other genre-satirizing comedies like Galaxy Quest or Airplane! or Blazing Saddles. It’s in on the joke, but more appreciably, it’s in on the franchise love affair. It’s a friend.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)