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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.

Lower Decks doesn't act like it's ashamed of its Star Trek heritage the way that Enterprise, Discovery, and Picard have. In fact, it leans very heavily into its Star Trek namesake for its jokes, and makes constant (sometimes incessant) references to the Original Series and Next Generation. It doesn't just take advantage of its name for cheap jokes either. It embraces the visual aesthetic and story-telling formula of golden age Trek much more wholeheartedly and tells stories that are (so far) much closer in substance and tone to the stories of Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager -- albeit with that fast-paced, slapstick comedy overtone, and quite a bit more violence. Lower Decks basically feels like comedic Star Trek with most of the techno-babble cut out, and the rest of the dialogue is super fast-paced in order to cram the stories into the 24-ish minute runtime. That being said, there is still techno-babble to appease the nerds; it's just really quick and shallow.

Star Trek: Lower Decks - Tendi looking out window
- ST: Lower Decks "Second Contact", season 1, episode 1
The characters are infused with a sense of wonder and enthusiasm for exploration and discovery.

Most important, Lower Decks leans heavily on the spirit of exploration and creative problem-solving that was the jumping-off point for most golden age Star Trek stories. The characters are excited and enthusiastic about their jobs and about the opportunity that they have to explore strange new worlds and meet new civilizations. They aren't begrudgingly doing their jobs while sulking and being all moody all the time, like the characters from the first season of Discovery, or Zack Snyder's DC superheroes. Some of them might even be a bit too excited about their jobs. It's basically like the writers took the character of Tilly who (along with Saru), was the highlight of Discovery's first season, and the writers infused her spark, enthusiasm, and sense of awe and wonder into every character of Lower Decks. The end result is a depiction of the future that looks much closer to that idealistic, optimistic vision of the future that I loved from The Next Generation.

At one point, midway through the season, Captain Freeman says something that is representative not only of Lower Decks, but also of Star Trek as a whole:

"We're Starfleet. Figuring out impossible problems is what we do."
Star Trek: Lower Decks - impossible problems
- ST: Lower Decks "Cupid's Errant Arrow", season 1, episode 5
The show's drama is largely built around creative problem solving, rather than direct conflict.

Furthermore, the "impossible problem" that Freeman and crew are trying to figure out is a scientific and diplomatic one. It's a localized problem. The stakes are high for the alien culture undergoing the catastrophe, but the stakes are relatively low on a galactic or universal scale. They aren't trying to stop a super villain from using a doomsday device to threaten the entire Federation, or saving the entire universe from inter-dimensional robot tentacle monsters. They're trying to stabilize the orbit of a planet's moon in a manner that appeases various conflicting factions who all lay claim to that moon. It's a classic Trek problem that would feel right at home in any episode of TNG or DS9.

Are early red flags indicative of core story-telling philosophy?

I still resist calling the show "good" because there is still the uncomfortable juxtaposition with the Rick and Morty-style of humor and pacing. The humor is often crass and immature. The same problem existed in the the first few episodes of The Orville, but that show started to course-correct and improved dramatically a few episodes in. Lower Decks sticks with the violent, fast-paced action and often-juvenile absurdist humor throughout the entire 10-episode season.

This is due, in part, to the show's fundamental premise as being about the lower decks crew. These are the grunts doing the work, not the high-level, executive decision-makers. The sci-fi problems that act as a catalyst for most stories, thus, play second-fiddle to the wacky antics of our blue-collar protagonists.

Star Trek: Lower Decks - fist-bump
- ST: Lower Decks "Second Contact", season 1, episode 1
Everybody is an over-the-top wacky caricature.

This gives plenty of room to tell more personal, intimate stories with these characters, but it's hard to take them seriously when they're such over-the-top caricatures. What's worse is that even the command staff is over-the-top wacky, which means there is no level-headed "normal" character to contrast the extreme nature of the rest of the cast. Even Rick and Morty has characters like Jerry to fill that role. Lower Decks has no such character.

I tend to stop watching comedy shows when they start to feel like they've become self-parodies of themselves. This usually goes hand-in-hand with more absurdist stories and less heart. It happened with The Simpsons, with Married With Children, with Family Guy, with The Big Bang Theory, with South Park, and it almost happened to Futurama and How I Met Your Mother. Lower Decks kind of feels like it's already at that tipping point in season 1.

The worst, most disgusting episode, by far

Case in point, there is also one episode that I really dislike, and which I hope is not a red flag of things to come. That episode is the ninth episode, "Crisis Point". The episode starts off well enough with some fun lampooning of Star Trek movies, before it degrades to Ensign Mariner violently (and graphically) massacring holograms of the entire Cerritos crew as a form of "therapy", while forcing Tendi and Rutherford to play along, even though they are both almost as disgusted by her actions as I was. The holograms were created by Boimler based on log entries from the entire crew, so each person's behavior and personality supposedly represents an amalgamations of what the computer could gleam from their own logs, but also would be based on what other people think of their crewmates.

I went through most of the episode thinking that evil Mariner would turn out to be a holographic character based on what other people think of Mariner, and the real Marinerwould have to confront other's perception of herself, defeat it, and prove to the others that she isn't as cold and callous as she might seem. This wasn't the case. It turned out to be the exact opposite. Marinertook pleasure in brutally gunning down or murdering holographic representations of her friends and shipmates. She reveled in it. That's pretty disturbing. Probably even more disturbing than Reg Barclay being implied to be raping holograms of Troi and Crusher. Sexual fantasies about friends and colleagues is one thing; fantasizing about brutally gunning them down and bathing in their blood is like a whole other level of problematic. And even Barclay knew that what he was doing on the holodeck was wrong, and he felt shame and regret for it.

Star Trek: Lower Decks - Mariner massacring crew
- ST: Lower Decks "Crisis Point", season 1, episode 9
I was pretty disgusted by the episode in which Mariner massacres holograms of her friends, family, and colleagues.

This episode of Lower Decks was a bridge too far, and really damages my perception of Mariner as a character. She isn't Rick in Rick and Morty. Rick and Morty does not at all hedge on the fact that Rick is a sociopath who is not supposed to be relatable. The audience is not supposed to identify with Rick. If you do identify with Rick, you probably need therapy or medication. We are supposed to identify with Morty and the rest of the family, but not with Rick. Rick is often portrayed as the villain of many stories, as his actions and disregard for others often leads directly to the problem or conflict of many episodes.

Star Trek: TNG - Barclay's holodeck sex fantasy
- ST: TNG "Hollow Pursuits", season 3, episode 21
Rick and Morty - Morty massacring friends
- Rick and Morty "Total Rickall", season 2, episode 4
Mariner's fantasy is far more despicable than Barclay's holodeck sex fantasies in TNG,
and she's supposed to be a relatable character, unlike the sociopathic Rick of Rick and Morty.

Ensign Becket Mariner is not Rick Sanchez -- or at least, she's not supposed to be. She is supposed to be a relatable audience surrogate. She is supposed to be the experienced, "street wise" mentor for the green rookies she works with. She should not be fantasizing about murdering the entire crew in cold blood, let alone acting it out on the holodeck. I hope that the writers realize this, and that this episode becomes a black sheep anomaly in the series and goes the way of Voyager's "Threshold". If episodes keep going to dark places like this with the characters, I will sour on this show very quickly. Case in point, The Orville had an analogous situation to this with a character in a second season cliffhanger. Orville didn't even have the excuse of the situation being "role play". I actually haven't watched an episode of The Orville since. I'll get around to catching up on that show on Hulu eventually, but I needed a break from the show after that two-parter.

Futurama was an animated comedy that found time to
sit around the conference table for some exposition.

Lower Decks also seems to be paced for kids with ADD. It's frantic all the time, with characters running around and talking over each other constantly. I think it could stand to slow down its pace and cut back on the graphic violence a little bit. Maybe be a little more Futurama, and a little less Rick and Morty, please? Futurama found time in most episodes to have the characters gather around the conference table and let the Professor spew some techno-babble, I think Lower Decks can too.

That being said, Lower Decks is not about the command staff making the high-level executive decisions. It's about the lower decks crew who actually have to execute those decisions. This is by design. So it makes sense that this show's protagonists aren't the ones sitting around the conference table, debating solutions to the problem-of-the-week. In fact, at least one episode pokes fun at the idea that these characters aren't "conference room material". Even so, I think the show could slow itself down a bit. It doesn't have to be running ahead at warp 9 all the time.

I [tentatively] want more

Moving on from my disgust with the penultimate episode, the season finale is fantastic. Almost everything about it worked for me. The humor was spot-on. The incessant fan-servicey call-backs to previous Trek installments were all converted into meaningful and welcome story-telling devices that were relevant to the plot and themes, instead of just being incidental throw-away gags. Both the internal and external conflicts landed solidly, with a resolution that was genuinely heartbreaking. And the whole thing was delightfully subversive and deconstructionist regarding some of the tropes of the franchise.

It also worked well as a book-end to the season premiere. The premiere was all about the Cerritos' mission of "second contact". They basically visit and check up on newly-encountered alien cultures after the deep space exploratory starships (like the Enterprise) have already made first contact. In the final episode, the story reminds the audience of why that job is important. Making first contact, and then washing your hands of the situation and assuming it will all work out can likely lead to more problems that spiral out of control, and the Cerritos is forced to confront those problems that came about because of neglect. This episode validates both the moral and pragmatic necessity of the Cerritos' second contact mission. This episode is not only the best episode of Lower Decks' first season; it's also a genuinely good episode of Trek in general.

Star Trek: Lower Decks - Kirk and Spock
- ST: Lower Decks "No Small Parts", season 1, episode 10
The season finale validates the moral and practical necessity of follow-up contact.

I also appreciated that this episode used a still from the original Animated Series to depict Kirk and Spock. Nice touch!

These last two episodes of Lower Decks' first season combine to offer a perfect demonstration of the value of episodic story-telling. I can dislike the story or gimmick of one episode, without having to dislike the entire series. Unlike Discovery and Picard, which spend the entire season telling a single story, in which the story-telling gimmicks of each episode are part of that entire story, and no one episode can be written off. I can, for example, dislike the two holodeck episodes of Lower Decks, while still enjoying the remaining episodes perfectly well. And only in a more episodic format like this, with relatively limited stakes, can the Pakleds be made into a threatening adversary!

Anyway, this final episode left the season on such a high note that I genuinely want to see more, but CBS only gave us 10 episodes that were only a half-hour each. That's not a lot of content, especially considering that it would have cost $30 to subscribe to CBS All-Access (now Paramount+) just to watch the episodes as they premiered. Discovery's first season was 13 episodes, and Picard got 10 episodes. Both shows' episodes were an hour long each, which is much more content for the money. I wasn't expecting Lower Decks to provide a full 26-episode schedule like a syndicated TV show, but I at least thought that the shorter runtime and [presumably] lower production cost would allow for at least 15-20 episodes in a season. Perhaps the best compliment that I can give to the show is that, despite my misgivings, I was actually disappointed when that 10th episode was over and there wasn't any more to watch.

Also, the more light-hearted and optimistic attitude of the show means that it's more appealing to my daughter. My partner and I are watching Star Trek with our kid, and she's enjoying it.

Star Trek: Lower Decks has given me a tiny shred of hope that maybe ... just maybe ... CBS has learned some lessons from the divisive fan reactions to Discovery and Picard and that they can pull off this episodic "Strange New Worlds" show that is in production. But then again, if you're throwing as many darts at a board as CBS has been (3 Star Trek shows already in parallel production, 2 more announced, and rumors of several more floating around), you're bound to score some points -- even if accidentally.

Star Trek: Lower Decks - Riker
- ST: Lower Decks "No Small Parts", season 1, episode 10
Star Trek: Discovery - Pike
- ST: Discovery "Suck Sweet Sorrow, pt 2", season 2, episode 14
Maybe CBS is getting close to figuring this whole Star Trek thing out...

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