When Enterprise was canceled after four seasons in 2005, it ended an 18-year streak of various Star Trek TV series. But it would be a dozen years before Starfleet’s exploration of the final frontier would return to the small screen where it began. CBS All Access revived it with a trio of very different shows, the prequel Discovery; the follow-up to Next Generation, Picard; and now the animated comedy Lower Decks.
All three shows take great liberties with the optimistic vision of the future Gene Rodenberry revealed in 1966. Discovery hints at a more brutal beginning to humanity’s first attempts at interstellar travel. And Picard reveals that the ideals of Starfleet aren’t immune to a terror attack. But it’s Lower Decks, set just a few years after Next Generation that—for better or worse—most directly unmasks the idealized world seen through the eyes of the senior staff on the jewel of Starfleet’s fleet by focusing instead on the misfits whose jobs include cleaning out the holodeck filters. It’s hard to feel hopeful about the future right now, and that’s even reflected in how we approach our speculative fiction.
CBS tapped Rick and Morty writer Mike McMahon to create the series, and the Adult Swim show’s sensibilities and humor come through, mostly without the meanness. The staff of the U.S.S. Cerritos is certainly more flawed than your average Star Trek crew, but there’s still a lot more heart here than in McMahon’s previous work on Rick and Morty or Hulu’s Solar Opposites. Most of the characters love their jobs, and even slacker protagonist Ensign Becket Mariner (Tawny Newsome) is talented and capable if frustrated by the rigid militaristic structure of Starfleet.
Animation allows for McMahon to embrace the full spectrum of space exploration and alien encounters, all of which mostly provide B-plots to the interpersonal connections back on the ship that the show cares most about—and mainly that between the Mariner and her tightly wound mother, the Cerritos’ Captain Freeman (Dawn Lewis). The comedy is secondary to the plots, a disappointment to those expecting to see the man who won an Emmy for “Pickle Rick” packing the jokes in. But Star Trek fans will find a lot to enjoy about this light-hearted new entry into the franchise’s canon.
Lower Decks finds a lot about the long-running sci-fi franchise worthy of lampooning, but mostly it’s a fun, imaginative and clever look at this beloved universe from a very different perspective. One of the main characters, Ensign D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells), arrives on the Cerritos excited to be a part of the legendary Starfleet, and many of us can relate. Ultimately it’s great to have a new Star Trek series, even one that can feel a little slight.
Lower Decks premieres Thursday, August 6th on CBS All Access.
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