A new kind of STAR TREK has arrived, with STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS premiering today on CBS Access. It follows the ensigns who work on the lower decks of the starship U.S.S. Cerritos and do the grunt work of the vessel, not getting the credit and glory the senior staff enjoy. Oh, and it’s a cartoon.
Believe it or not, this is not the first animated Star Trek series. There was a show in the early 1970s called Star Trek: The Animated Series that starred the same cast as the original show, voicing their characters on continuing missions. That series took the liberties of a few big aliens and worlds that the live action budget could never have achieved, but was basically the same type of story the original had already told, albeit shorter. And also, speaking as someone who has seen all twenty-two episodes because I’m that kind of Star Trek fan, it was pretty bad.
STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS doesn’t need to go bigger on aliens, as Star Trek now has the budget and technology to do some pretty incredible stuff. It does, though, because why not? If you can do show races or shots you want, go for it.
My only complaint of this aspect is that it feels just a bit too cartoon-y. I’m not saying it should be as grounded as the its processor because, why even bother to make it animated then? But it’s just a tad too zany for the Star Trek universe, in my opinion. A cross between The Orville and Rick and Morty, I wish it been more of a cross between The Orville and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
TNG is the series that STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS owes the most to. It is set shortly after Star Trek: Nemesis, before disaster rocked the Federation and shook Starfleet to its core, as shown in Star Trek: Picard. This is from those post-Dominion War lighter times, with uniforms and starship design to match. The references are many and varied, and pull plenty of original series in, too, with Spock and Kirk getting shout-outs in the pilot. The visuals are full of Easter eggs, especially in the theme song, so it does feel set in the Trek universe, even if a few things get a little too wild.
The idea of focusing on the non-bridge crew has been around for awhile on Star Trek. It was the plot of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, also called “Lower Decks,” and is the subject of much fan speculation. So it makes sense in a time where we’re getting so much Trek, we’d eventually get around to that idea.
A great cast has been assembled. Tawny Newsome (Space Force) steals the show as Ensign Mariner, a very capable young woman who has problems with authority and a huge chip on her shoulder. She has the most interesting story, to be sure, but even if she didn’t, Newsome would shine. Her sidekick is Ens. Boimler (Jack Quaid, The Boys), who is much more predictable, but hopefully will grow over time. Secondary to the pair are Ens. Tendi (Noel Wells, Saturday Night Live) and Ens. Rutherford (Eugene Cordero, The Good Place), who are obsessed with their work in the most delightful way, and are surely destined to be a romantic couple.
But unfortunately, STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS doesn’t commit to this conceit of just portraying the junior staff. Instead, we see Captain Freeman (Dawnn Lewis, A Different World), Commander Random (Jerry O’Connell, Billions), Dr. T’Ana (Gillian Vigman, Suburgatory), and other senior staff pretty regularly. And of course these characters are great. But they aren’t needed, and I think the show would be far more interesting if we saw them only fleetingly if at all, like the president in the early seasons of Veep. I could excuse the captain, given her role in relation to one of the core group, and even the doctor popping up makes sense when Tendi is on duty. But the others are in the show too much.
In short, I like the show. Quite a lot, actually. But I think it misses the mark in a few areas that would elevate it to something really special. It’s good, but it could be great, and the squandered potential is a bit sad. Even if I still want it to run for years while I obsessively watch every episode. After all, it is easily the best animated Star Trek series ever made.
STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS streams new episodes every Thursday on CBS All Access, beginning today.