Star Trek is currently in a renaissance era, with five ongoing TV series. This is a far cry from the Seventies, when the only Star Trek available was the syndicated reruns of the original series, before Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with a brief surge in 1973 with Star Trek: The Animated Series. Even that was a candle in the darkness, but it did show that there was an appetite for Trek.

The drought ended with Star Trek: The Next Generation, first airing in first-run syndication in 1987, starting a seventeen year run where there was at least one ongoing Trek series. The franchise then lay fallow until 2017 with the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery. Unlike the early drought, there were a few cinematic releases during the time of fallow. Discovery led to other series, including Star Trek: Picard, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, and the animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks.

Lower Decks is the first Trek animated series since ST:TAS ended in 1974, the first TNG-era animated series, and the first Trek comedy series. Sure, there have been lighter, comedic episodes in the older series, including “The Trouble with Tribbles”, “A Fistful of Datas”, “Bride of Chaotica!”, and “Our Man Bashir”, but the focus of the series was on morality plays.

The idea of characters from the lower decks of a starship has been around for some time, through fanfiction and through the TNG episode, “Lower Decks”. All of the preceding series focused on the senior staff. ST:DS9 added some non-Starfleet characters to the ensemble; the series was also the most serious of the lot. Featuring a recurring cast of ensigns starting their Starfleet careers on the USS Cerritos makes for a new look at Trek.

The cast of Lower Decks is split between the ensigns and the senior officers, who do have an effect on the lives of the main characters. Heading up the ensigns is Beckett Mariner, voiced by Tawny Newsome, who has been promoted and demoted multiple times. Mariner is good at her job and likes being in Starfleet, but she doesn’t want the responsibilities of higher ranks. Joining her, sometimes under duress, is Bradward Boimler (Jack Quaid), who is ambitious and rules-bound. Boimler is the book, though the book doesn’t cover every contingency, such as being assigned to work with Mariner. Samanthan Rutherford (Eugene Codero) is in Engineering, good with machines and systems, and has a Vulcan-designed cybernetic implant to assist in his duties, though the implant at times works against him. D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells), is an Orion assigned to Medical and is in constant awe of being on the Cerritos and seeing all the wonders she comes across, no matter how mundane they are to others.

The senior officers and the entire crew of the Cerritos are led by Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis), a capable captain who is relegated to Second Contact duties. She also harbours a secret, that she is Mariner’s mother, though neither want any special attention from that fact. The First Officer is Commander Jack Ransom (Jerry O’Connell), who is more in Kirk’s mould, complete with fighting with double-handed fists. The Chief of Security is a Bajoran called Shaxs (Fred Tatasciore), a veteran of the Bajoran resistance and sees no problem that can’t be solved by phaser fire. The Ship’s Surgeon is Dr. T’Ana (Gillian Vigman), a Caitian doctor who is more like Grumpy Cat than M’Ress from ST:TAS. The senior staff represent what the main characters could become over time.

The mission of the USS Cerritos is Second Contact and support. Second Contact is the follow up Starfleet does with new civilizations met with First Contact. The goal is to assist the new world get used to the idea of being part of a greater community with the Federation, filling in gaps the civilization might have and learning about breakthroughs they have that the Federation is still discovering. As a support vessel, the Cerritos doesn’t get the glamourous assignments ships like the Enterprise receive, but she is still an important part of Starfleet. With the inherent dangers of space, even a boring assignment could suddenly get exciting.

The goal set out by creator Mike McMahan was to keep the feel of ST:TNG, with all of its Nineties production values. The opening credits set the expectations, keeping to the format set by ST:TNG, ST:DS9, and ST:VOY showing the Cerritos at work in space. The difference is in what happens to the Cerritos, minor mishaps that the ship still gets through. The music begins with Alexander Courage’s hunting horns from the original series before the series’ own music begins.

With the expectations set, does Lower Decks live up to them? With the previous series, Starfleet officers may disagree but are still professional and friendly with each other. Even with ST:DS9, the Starfleet characters got along with some friction with the non-Starfleet characters like Odo and Quark. With Lower Decks, there is conflict between the main characters, but they, except Mariner, are at the beginning of their careers, still learning how to deal with each other. Mariner, in particular, is in conflict with both the ensigns and the senior staff, with reason. Boimler is another source of conflict, especially with Mariner, with his lack of experience and dependency on rules and regulations. In contrast, Tendi and Rutherford are already working well with the others. The senior staff work together and are friendly, with Shaxs and T’Ana going beyond just friendly. The only person Captain Freeman has a conflict with is Mariner. Even there, Mariner’s arc in the first season is one of growth, to learn why she’s in conflict with everyone, why she doesn’t want to leave the lower decks when classmates are commanding starships.

Lower Decks does have the trappings of Trek. The Cerritos has a saucer section similar to the Enterprise-D‘s, though smaller, and warp drive arrangement like the USS Reliant‘s in The Wrath of Khan. While having similarities to existing Trek ships, the Cerritos is her own vessel. She does have the expected sets – the bridge, engineering and the warp core, Sick Bay, and the Holodeck. There is a new set, the barracks used by the lower decks crew as living spaces, similar to what was seen in The Undiscovered Country. As wtih every ST:TNG-era series, there is an appearance by Q, voiced by John de Lancie, who first played Q in the ST:TNG pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint”. Familiar aliens appear in the series, Andorians, Bajorans, Tellarites, Pakleds, even an Edosian like Lt. Arex from ST:TAS.

The trappings are there. Next, do the stories fit in with Trek? The focus is on the younger officers, so they won’t be in positions where they have to make difficult decisions, such as whether the Prime Directive should be followed, who should be ordered to perform an act that risks their lives, or even what should be programmed into the replicators. All of that is left to senior officers. However, in the lower decks, it’s how one carries out their duty that counts. They may not have authority, but they do have discretion on how to carry out orders. The ensigns need to show strength of character, and the first season gives them plenty of opportunity to demonstrate theirs. Even Boimler can break away from the rules and regulations to do what is needed.

As a comedy, beyond the foibles and tribulations of the main characters, Lower Decks pokes gentle fun at Trek. “Crisis Point” has fun with the later Trek movies and the Holodeck, with Mariner trying to work out issues without the help of the Ship’s Councellor. At the core of the episode is a serious issue, much like “The Trouble with Tribbles”, one that Mariner needs to work on for herself. The following episode, “No Small Parts” takes the same tropes and plays them straight, showing that a comedy can still have drama when it needs. Several of the episodes take familiar situations in Trek and twist them, using the twist as part of the comedy. Yet, Trek stories have that twist, where the obvious problem turns out to be something different. The original series episode, “The Devil in the Dark”, is a good example; the Horta was presented as a murderous creature attacking miners, but after an investigation, it turned out that the Horta was defending her eggs from the miners who didn’t understand what the silicon globules they were breaking were. The real problem in a Trek story isn’t good or evil; it’s ignorance, and the only way to fight ignorance is knowledge.

One major change with Lower Docks is that it is within continuity. ST:TAS was once considered non-canon, but elements, starting with “Yesteryear”, are creeping back in because they expand the setting. Thus, Dr. T’ana the Edosian from “Much Ado About Boimler” are part of the setting. Trek actors from other series make appearances. There are references to other series, some oblique, like Ransom mentioning that the first Enterprise was the end of “a long road“. Boimler at one point hums the ST:TNG opening/Star Trek: The Motion Picture theme.

Star Trek: Lower Decks is Star Trek. The series takes a new look at the franchise, one through a comedic lens. While comedy is the prime approach, it still has depths and it still explores what it means to serve in Starfleet and remain true to oneself.

This article was originally published at THE REMAKE ZONE.

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