‘Star Trek’ Explores its First New Genre in 50 Years with ‘Lower Decks’

The cartoon has the best chance yet for bringing new fans into the franchise.
Star Trek Lower Decks

This article is part of our ongoing Star Trek Explained series, featuring the insights of our resident Starfleet officer Brad Gullickson. In this edition, we’re going boldly where no Star Trek has gone before: comedy, via Star Trek: Lower Decks.

We can’t talk about Star Trek without discussing how Gene Roddenberry designed it to speak to the now. The 1960s television series was not about phaser battles and Kirk Fu. It offered a glimpse of an impossibly bright future in which the people of Earth united under one banner and sought the cosmos in an effort to understand the nature of existence.

As budgets increased, so did the stakes. On the big screen, Earth was always in danger of destruction, but Star Trek worked best when it grounded its catastrophe with equally powerful internal conflict. When the various spinoff shows shrank the stakes, the messaging became clearer. We’re all in this together, and we’re all trying to do the best we can. We shall fail, but we shall not stop trying to improve on that failure.

The animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks steals its title and core concept from a classic episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. While the bridge crew gains the fortune and glory, the grunts far below are the ones who actually get the heroes to their acclaimed destination. Without the nameless redshirts, the USS Enterprise would be dead in the water — or space, as the case may be.

Star Trek: Lower Decks is the brainchild of Rick & Morty writer and Solar Opposites creator Mike McMahan. Star Trek has dipped into comedy in the past, but this will be its first proper foray into the genre. A jump that will certainly make some nervous, and it will take more than a single trailer to prove its worth. However, to fulfill Roddenberry’s human adventure and capture the whole experience offered by life, we must open ourselves to laughter as much as a furrowed brow.

Any opportunity to explore the ordinary Federation citizen is an appealing one.

Whoa. Yeah, okay. That does not look like your daddy’s or granddaddy’s Star Trek.

CBS All Access seems determined to make old school viewers nervous. First, they jumbled and jangled the canon with their dark spin through the mycelial network of Star Trek: Discovery, then they dragged our most beloved captain through the mud in Star Trek: Picard before rekindling his sense of duty and honor along with a Federation that had lost its way. If you’re the kind of fan who wants every Star Trek beholden to what came before, the new streaming service appears as antagonistic as a Horta melting colonists on Janus VI.

“No Kill I.”

We’re Trekkies; we have to let go of preconceived notions and recognize the Horta as the terrified mother merely defending her eggs from our ignorantly aggressive takeover of her planet. Even the Star Trek we love is peppered with an occasional “Spock’s Brain” or two (or three or four or five), and we’ve found ways to appreciate the dreck as much as “The City on the Edge of Forever.” Honestly, how many of you are already humming the tune from the “Move Along Home” episode of Deep Space Nine?

“Allamaraine, count to four,
Allamaraine, then three more,
Allamaraine, if you can see,
Allamaraine, you’ll come with me…”

Our minds are set to receive. What was initially viewed as a blotch on the franchise now elicits nostalgic giggles. We love our comfort zones, but we need CBS All Access to shove us out of them.

Especially if we want Star Trek to survive for another fifty years, the franchise needs new viewers, and Star Trek: Lower Decks has a better chance of collecting them than any other recent offering.

Besides, there are plenty of nerdy nuggets in the trailer to satisfy our Easter egg scouring vision. The Stardate 57436.2 roots the series to 2380, placing it about one year after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis and eighteen years before Star Trek: Picard (which means this Federation hasn’t been Trumped yet — phew). Stationed aboard the USS Cerritos, named after a community college in Southern California, are the motley ensigns Mariner (Tawny Newsome), Boimler (Jack Quaid), Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), and Tendi (Noël Wells).

The Starship contains a typically badass crew behind the velvet ropes of the bridge complete with a first officer (Jerry O’Connell) ever ready to rip off his shirt, giving Captain Kirk and Commander Riker a run at their beefcake title. You can’t have an animated Star Trek series without the presence of a feline Caitian, although Star Trek: Lower Decks‘ Doctor T’Ana (Gillian Vigman) sounds far more vicious than M’Ress could ever imagine. Black belching zombies and Borgs better behave under her care.

The main mission of the Cerritos seems to be establishing Second Contacts, the diplomatic phase of onboarding new civilizations into the Federation. Think of vessels like the Enterprise and Voyager placing their names in the history books for making initial contact while leaving these second-class heroes to the arduous task of maintaining relationships. Meaning, Picard gets the handshake, and Cerritos Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) gets the spear.

With its black bars blocking Ensign weiners and noxious holodeck poop jokes, Lower Decks aligns itself with the adolescent Cartoon Network sensibilities of its creator. Jean-Luc might face-palm at the sight, but James T. (of both the William Shatner and Chris Pine variety) would gain some deep yucks out of its juvenalia. Comedy is a bold genre for Star Trek.

Let’s lean into bold adventure. Star Trek: Lower Decks certainly is.

Brad Gullickson: 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)