Star Trek: Lower Decks - title

It took me a while to get around to watching this one. After having been immensely disappointed and frustrated with both Star Trek: Discovery and Picard, I was not going to give CBS a single penny of my money. I still haven't watched the second season of Discovery (let alone the third), despite having heard that the second season is an improvement. In fact, I've been so bitter at CBS that I didn't even bother activating my account to stream the second season of Twilight Zone, even though the first season was good enough that I was curious to see the second season. I also didn't bother reactivating my CBS account to stream Star Trek: Lower Decks, even though my partner really wanted to watch it.

I was willing to cut a little more slack for Lower Decks, on the grounds that "surely an animated comedy will not be considered 'canon', so I don't have to take Lower Decks as seriously." But then I started seeing events, characters, and ships from Lower Decks showing up in articles on the Memory Alpha Star Trek wiki, and the thought of having to take Lower Decks seriously as canon tanked my interest in watching the show. I wouldn't be able to sit back and enjoy Lower Decks in the manner that I enjoy something like The Orville; I would have to watch it with my critic glasses on, and the baggage of expectations that comes with carrying the Star Trek torch.

I told my partner I didn't want to pay for CBS, so we would wait until all the episodes had aired, do the free trial with a new email address, and binge them all in like a weekend or something. And maybe I'd check out season 2 of Twilight Zone while I was at it. But we didn't keep track of the progress of the show, it fell onto the back-burner, and we just didn't get around to it.

Then, a few weeks ago, a friend offered to let me borrow his downloads of the show, as well as offering pretty high praise. My partner and I still wanted to give Lower Decks a chance, so I accepted, and we watched it.

... And it's ... fine. It's fine. It's OK.

The Best "Trek" that CBS has to offer?

Lower Decks is entertaining enough. It provides a decent laugh here and there. And it's actually telling some high-concept sci-fi stories -- albeit wrapped in a layer of absurdist comedy. As a stand-alone show, without the baggage of the "Star Trek" title, it's perfectly serviceable. It's not quite up to the level of The Orville -- at least not once The Orville had set aside the Family Guy antics and started focusing more on its characters and stories.

Star Trek - freighter
- ST: Animated Series "More Tribbles, More Troubles", episode 5
Star Trek: Lower Decks - NCC-502 freighter
- ST: Lower Decks "Terminal Provocations", season 1, episode 6
Lower Decks remains faithful to the aesthetic of Star Trek, while still establishing its own visual identity.

And you know what, as an official installment of Star Trek, Lower Decks ain't bad either. Lower Decks is certainly the best Star Trek show that CBS has created for its streaming service so far, and definitely [ironically] the most worthy of "canon" status.

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As I said in my reviews of Star Trek: Discovery, the context in which the show is created is important. The fact that Discovery's seasons are heavily-serialized, singular stories means that they must be judged on a different basis than the episodic episodes of previous Trek series. Discovery's stories must be held to a higher standard because its structure means that "bad" episodes cannot be dismissed as easily as a bad episode of any other series of Trek.

The difference in context between the animated comedy series Lower Decks and the more serious, live-action, canon series of Discovery and Picard is the one thing that gives me hope regarding Lower Decks. The trailer for the cartoon's first season was released over the weekend, and I'm honestly not upset with it at all.

Trailer for season 1 of Star Trek: Lower Decks.

Because Lower Decks is an animated comedy, I am assuming that CBS is not going to consider it "canon". And if the show isn't being presented as "canon", then I as a viewer don't have to take it as seriously either. I can much more easily forgive divergences in theme, tone, aesthetics, and [especially] lore because inconsistencies from the original source material don't serve to retroactively pollute the original source material in the way that Discovery and Picard have done.

That being said -- and tone and lack of seriousness aside -- Lower Decks has a lot of elements of its design presented in this trailer that takes more cues from golden age Trek than either of the two live-action series that CBS has produced. The design of the ships, the interiors, the holodeck, the uniforms, and so forth all seem to show more respect to the original source material than Discovery or Picard bothered to show. I'm going to hope that is a good sign that the writers are also taking more of the story and character cues from golden age Trek, albeit with the slapstick cartoon tone.

Besides, Star Trek is old enough, and bloated enough, as an intellectual property that it could probably use a good deconstruction or self-satire. I mean, skits on Family Guy, Robot Chicken, Futurama, and so forth have [arguably, and to varying degrees] worked well over the years. The Orville has been generally well-regarded by audiences and eventually shifted towards telling stories that were more in-line with Trek -- far closer than anything in Discovery or Picard.

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So what the heck happened to Picard's dog?! Number One was my favorite character in the premiere, but then he completely disappeared from the entire rest of the show and hasn't even been mentioned since. Were his inclusions in the premiere nothing more than reshoots that were thrown in at the last minute, after much of the rest of the show had been scripted and filmed?

Picard's home was broken into and Picard physically assaulted. The dog was nowhere to be seen. Guess he's not much of a guard dog, huh? I don't even think Picard bothered to ask if Number One was alive after the attack. For all he knew, the Romulan assassins murdered his dog. There's also no tearful "good bye" when Picard has to leave the planet on a potentially dangerous mission, or talk of who might take care of the dog if Picard doesn't return. On the upside, at least the writers didn't kill the dog as an excuse to turn Picard into "space John Wick", in the same fashion that the TNG movies used Picard as a "space John McClane".

Then again, bringing up an idea or character, only to completely drop it by the end of an episode with no real exploration of the concept or character seems to be the modus operandi of Star Trek: Picard.

I gave a lot of leeway to the premiere. I even said that I want to "delight of having just watched a new piece of Star Trek media that I didn't hate". Well that lack of hatred didn't last long. Each episode of Picard just got progressively worse and worse.

If not for the fact that I intended to write a full season review, I would have stopped watching the show by episode 4.

What happened to Picard's dog, Number One? He just disappears from the show after the first episode!

Just as I feared, Star Trek; Picard isn't about the rights of androids or the moral imperative to provide humanitarian relief to refugees (whether those refugees happen to be Romulans or ex-Borg). These things are dominant themes, but they aren't what the plot or story is actually about, nor does it ever become the ultimate message of the show. I think the overall message was supposed to be to not let your fear and prejudice turn you into a genocidal monster, but even that happens in a lazy, eleventh-hour "twist" that I thought made no sense. The actual plot is about conspiracies to cover up the existence of robot Lovecraft monsters from another dimension, and to stop androids from inevitably summoning them to kill all humans. Yep, that's Star Trek canon now. Go figure...

Picard facepalm

In the meantime, the episode-by-episode (and minute-to-minute) scripting is trying too hard to be like Firefly or any other grungy sci-fi series from the past 20 years. Now, I love Firefly. I also praise The Mandalorian for taking cues from Firefly. But The Mandalorian is set in the Star Wars universe, which was always a grungy universe that contained lovable rogues and scrappy survivors. Star Trek has never been that kind of universe. It's the antithesis of that kind of universe. If I wanted to watch a dark and gritty cowboy / ronin space adventure, then I'll watch The Mandalorian, or I'll go back and watch Firefly or Battlestar Galactica again. Or I'll check out The Expanse or Dark Matter or Altered Carbon or Westworld, or any one of a dozen other sci fi shows that have come and gone in the past 20 years and have borrowed heavily from that same aesthetic. Or I'll play Mass Effect 3, which Picard seems to have blatantly plagerized.

I don't watch Star Trek for that. I watch Star Trek for thought-out, uplifting, cerebral science fiction about an optimistic future that I hope humanity eventually achieves.

...

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Well I'll be damned. This winter, I was pleasantly surprised by The Mandalorian seeming to pull the Star Wars franchise back from the brink of the abyss. And now I'm also pleasantly surprised to see that perhaps Star Trek might be pulled out from circling the toilet bowl as well. The first episode of CBS All Access' new Picard series was surprisingly "not bad".

Now, I do still have some serious reservations about the directions that I think the show might be going later in the season. And I'll get to that later. But first, I want to sit and bask in the delight of having just watched a new piece of Star Trek media that I didn't hate. After slogging through the first season of Discovery (I have yet to watch the second season), I was left with zero faith in CBS's ability to re-capture the spirit and soul of Star Trek.

Picard shows some good faith right from the start by opening with a clip of the Enterprise-D. Not some re-designed Franken-ship monstrosity like the "original" Enterprise in the 2009 Trek reboot, or as seen in Discovery. But the honest-to-goodness Galaxy-class Enterprise-D, pretty much exactly as we remember and love her -- and looking mighty gorgeous, might I add! We then zoom into Ten Forward, where Picard is playing a hand of poker with an unconvincingly digitally de-aged Brent Spiner reprising the role of Data. This scene pays homage to the beautiful final scene of the Next Generation finale "All Good Things...", and Picard laments that he's stalling going all-in against Data's hand because he "doesn't want the game to end".

Picard is a return (and continuation) of Star Trek as fans knew it almost 20 years ago.

We didn't want the game to end either...

The first few scenes of the episode then go on to show Picard giving brief (but impassioned) speeches about the decline of Starfleet ideals, the civil rights of sentient androids, and the moral imperative to provide aid and relief to the Romulan refugees whose home planet was destroyed by the [somehow unexpected?] supernova of the Romulan sun. And he's also trying to do some social justice for pit bull dogs, which (as my choice of pets should suggest) is something that I approve very strongly of. It's respectful and faithful (and reverent) to what came before. "Holy shit", I thought, "this is actually looking and feeling like the Star Trek that I know and love."

For a moment, I thought the soul of Star Trek is there, in those early scenes, even though it is shallow and lacks the idealism that has always underpinned Trek.

...

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My biggest concern going into this new Twilight Zone reboot was with the hour-long format of its premiere. The first episode, "The Comedian" (which was available on YouTube for free as a preview of the show to come), was a bit overlong and dragged considerably in the second half. It had made its point by about halfway through, we could all see where the episode was going, and it insisted on going on for another 20 minutes despite not really having anything left to say.

OK, yeah sure, in the past I've complained about shows like Fox's Cosmos reboot being too short. Commercials cutting Niel DeGrasse Tyson's Cosmos reboot to only 45-ish minutes was simply not enough time for Tyson to give more than an elementary overview of the grandeur of nature or science.

However, The Twilight Zone isn't an educational show about "all that is, or ever was, or ever will be"; it's an anthology of science fiction parables and allegories. Parables and allegories are usually short and simple stories intended to convey a moral or lesson or insight into the human condition. The Twilight Zone doesn't really need a full hour to tell its stories. The twists are easy enough to see coming. This isn't The Sixth Sense, or Fight Club, or American Psycho, or Se7en, or something similar that actually needs a two-hour runtime to build up suspense and intrigue and dot the entire runtime with clues for its twist ending.

The pilot episode "The Comedian" felt over-long.

I was happy to see that episodes later in the first season have variable runtimes. The second episode, "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet" (which is actually a totally different story than the "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" classic that it is homaging with its title), is under 40 minutes, filled out its runtime better, and enjoyed much tighter overall pacing. The following episode, "Replay", clocked in at 45 minutes, and also enjoyed a much tighter script.

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