Four Seasons In, Star Trek: Lower Decks Remains a Great Trek Series and an Even Better Workplace ComedyPhoto courtesy of Paramount+ TV Reviews paramount plus
When I initially heard the premise for Star Trek: Lower Decks, the adult animated comedy from former Rick and Morty writer Mike McMahan, I was a bit skeptical. It’s not the first cartoon rendition of the franchise (that privilege goes to 1973’s Star Trek: The Animated Series), but it is a significant departure from what came before because it’s the only installment not styled as a drama. While I was partially concerned that its focus on humor would lead to grating lampshading of the series’ sci-fi musings, my biggest worry was that Rick and Morty’s nihilistic outlook would find its way here, directly contradicting the hopefulness that Trek is known for.
Thankfully, these concerns were unfounded, and although Lower Decks isn’t afraid to poke fun at franchise conventions, at its core, it still embodies the kind of optimistic ethos, curiosity toward the unknown, and belief in people that’s always made the franchise so refreshing. In its fourth season, the show continues to embody these core principles while also focusing on workplace comedy that successfully explores the foibles of its charmingly disastrous up-and-coming crew.
We still follow Boimler (Jack Quaid), Mariner (Tawny Newsome), Tendi (Noël Wells), and Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), four low-ranking officers on Starfleet’s USS Cerritos during the late 24th century (a few years after The Next Generation takes place). It’s a support ship mostly dedicated to “second contact” missions that involve reconvening with alien species that the Federation previously parlayed with. Although their vessel is far from the flagship, they still encounter the same manner of strange phenomena, diplomatic envoys, and peacetime-threatening standoffs that pushed the Enterprise to the brink countless times. This season focuses on the crew of the Cerritos grappling with new responsibilities while a mysterious sequence of unexplained attacks comes into focus.
As a comedy that highlights the less decorated “lower deckers” of Starfleet, the show is frequently more dedicated to the foibles of its characters than grand adventures. Thankfully, this works out fine because it’s a blast to watch these formerly fresh-faced ensigns quip, bumble, and generally act like chaotic twenty-somethings. Boimler’s strait-laced, social-climbing antics are a natural foil for Mariner’s rule-breaking and deep-seated fear of responsibility. Similarly, Tendi and Rutherford’s infectious positivity, intense nerdiness about their ship, and wholesome platonic relationship make them a perfect counterbalance against their messier friends (even if they also have problems). Their banter is consistently hilarious, and a genuine sense of camaraderie emerges as they spend their days trapped in a dangerous metal tin floating through the void of space.
The latest run continues to build on its greatest point of improvement from the early days of Season 1, which is that unlike the static characters of many long-running comedies, it feels like these four genuinely grow as people. We witness how new responsibilities affect the group, emphasizing how far they’ve come. This doesn’t mean they’re unrecognizable from where they started, as their entertaining dynamics and underlying issues remain, but it’s been rewarding to see how they’ve changed. The secondary cast, the bridge crew who would normally be the focal point of a regular Trek show, have also come a long way from their initial insufferable demeanors and continue getting enough small, interesting moments to avoid feeling like caricatures. While the series is never afraid to highlight the absurdity of these people, they’re more than just the butt of jokes, which is indicative of the general approach to the comedy here.
Because even as Lower Decks consistently pokes fun at franchise tropes, its humor doesn’t come across as mean-spirited. Instead, it feels like some friendly ribbing, as it points out the surface-level silliness that’s been around since Kirk and Spock faced off against giant spectral hands or confronted evil mirror-world versions of themselves. This series has always had plenty of goofy moments, and although I appreciate that the mainline entries play this straight, it does mean there is a wealth of unremarked-upon ridiculousness to address.
Longtime Trekkies will enjoy all the deep-cut gags, and if you’re in on the joke, the specificity of these bits makes them that much funnier. This season has some great segments around “evil” machine life and the realities of a particularly capitalism-obsessed society that cleverly leverages this existing material. When combined with the previously described hot-mess characterizations of these Starfleet officers, these last few episodes (of eight provided for review) consistently got me to crack up, and stand among the show’s best material. Not every gag lands, and it can sometimes rely a bit too much on shock humor, but as a whole, it is a genuinely funny time.
And more than just being referential, one of the best elements that comes from essentially parodying a long-running work is that it allows a certain degree of self-reflection. This framing is used here to critique some of the weirdness around Starfleet regulation, like how the Prime Directive can frequently have brutal consequences or how each starship is a somewhat contradictory mashup of science vessel and navy war machine. In addition to its staccatos of jokes, the show meaningfully grapples with the series’ ideas rather than just making fun of them.
It also addresses the chaotic nature of these missions, pushing its comedic take on being Starfleet to the forefront. Its entire premise is almost certainly inspired by an episode from The Next Generation, “Lower Decks,” in which the perspective shifts from the captain’s chair to the ensigns and other entry-level members of the Enterprise who are thoroughly out of the loop and intimidated by their superiors. Although this setup is presented through a comedic lens in this case, it similarly recasts the story as less a spacefaring adventure and more a deeply trying office where low-level employees are subject to the whims of their out-of-reach higher-ups. The series is very much about the experience of being a low-level employee at a tough job, and this latest run of episodes deals with the anxieties of impressing your boss and imposter syndrome in a way that toes the line between relatable and farcical. The fourth season, like the last few, has also continued to do a much better at evening out its representation of these characters, reaffirming that while Starfleet has problems and its members aren’t perfect, they’re still part of an organization born from a post-capitalist utopia that is fundamentally trying to help people.
In some ways, I think the setup for Lower Decks makes it inherently a little niche. It’s set in a long-running world, constantly references previous installments, and relies on this familiarity for many of its best jokes. However, it also differs enough in presentation from the rest of the series that it will alienate some longtime fans. I think these differences were even harder to accept when it initially came out, as many were unhappy with the general state of the franchise at the time (something Strange New Worlds has since helped rectify), and because its cast was at its most abrasively unlikable at the beginning of the first season. Additionally, I’ll admit that even though this latest run is great, this show’s comedic focus does make it lack some of the heft of more self-serious series installments.
Still, if Trekkies remain open-minded, they’ll be happy to find a delightful workplace comedy that not only pokes fun at some of the franchise’s absurdities, but also meaningfully engages with its core precepts. Its characters have come a long way since their debut, growing into the type of loveable but flawed crew at the heart of its best installments. The latest season further embodies this, exploring its casts’ shortcomings and anxieties in a way that complements its humor, as its weekly adventures both lampoon and deliver the optimistic turns we’ve come to expect. The result is a run on track to be among this show’s most hilarious and heartfelt. Star Trek: Lower Decks may not outwardly be what one would expect from the series, but much like its scrappy crew, at its core, it’s Starfleet through and through.
The first two episodes of Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 4 premiere Thursday, September 7th on Paramount+.
Elijah Gonzalez is an assistant TV editor for Paste Magazine. In addition to watching the latest anime, he also loves videogames, movies, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.
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