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Star Trek: Lower Decks [Season 1] (2020)

 

The Star Wars franchise is well known for having numerous animated incarnations, from 80's Saturday Morning Cartoons Droids and Ewoks to the upcoming Disney Plus series The Bad Batch. Fellow sci-fi juggernaut Star Trek is not. Despite dabbling in the medium way back in 1973's Star Trek: The Animated Series, the franchise has remained stubbornly live-action ever since. Until that is CBS All Access's new series Star Trek: Lower Decks, which goes where no Trek has gone before: an adult animated comedy.

Star Trek: Lower Decks is created by Mike McMahan, staff writer on Rick and Morty and co-creator of Solar Opposites. The initial 10 episode season started streaming on CBS All Access in the US, Canada and Brazil in August of 2020 and launched on Amazon Prime in the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and select other territories. The series has already been recommissioned for a second season, due to air sometime this year. The animation production was by Titmouse.

The announcement of the series- and McMahon's involvement- was a cause for concern for many Trekkies who were concerned that their beloved universe was going to be mocked. They needn't have worried though, as Lower Decks is not a parody of Trek at all. It's just a comedy that happens to be set in that already existing fictional universe. McMahon's credentials as a Trek fan are bone fide too, he gained notoriety creating a Twitter account that featured fictional plots for a never-aired eighth season of The Next Generation (which in reality ended after its seventh).




This is a series that is clearly made by people with a strong love for all things Trek. The atmosphere that is uniquely classic Star Trek is lovingly recreated, with all the elements that make it up, from the uniform, the layout of the ships to all the familiar sound effects. Even down to the font used in the credits, Lower Decks convinces as the real thing.

It's much more than skin deep too: the writers are clearly having a blast playing in the sandbox that is over fifty years of franchise history. We encounter familiar alien races (as well as a few new ones) and ships and locations that are either taken from existing Trek or original creations that feel in keeping with what has gone before. Hardcore Trekkies will no doubt spot many subtle references and Easter eggs that are hidden within, but as an occasional casual Trek watcher, I'll have to take their word for it (check out our podcast episode on the series for the opinions of real Trek fans). One episode even has fun at the expense of JJ Abrams' 2009 reboot, complete with an abundance of lens flare and a bombastic tone. Still, you don't have to be a big-time fan to enjoy this, as there's plenty here besides all this fan service. 


The humour of the series mostly comes out of the characters. The series focusses not on the Enterprise or the Discovery but one of Star Fleet's "least important ships". And on that ship, it centres on some of the lowest ranking members of the crew- four Ensigns serving on the... (you guessed it)... Lower Decks. So while the ship's top-ranking crew members (including Captain Carol Freeman, the first black female Captain in the franchise) take care of Star Fleet business, our heroes take care of the less glamorous jobs.

The series doesn't concentrate on these mundane elements for the most part, as the Lower Deckers find plenty of time for adventures of their own. Sometimes they're caught up with a threat that involves the whole ship (in the first episode, for example, an alien virus begins making people act like fast zombies), other times they are occupied with something less life-or-death, like personal rivalries or crises in confidence. 


The characters are an entertaining bunch too. Brad Broimler (voiced by Jack Quaid of The Boys) is a nerdy, nervous would-be Captain's Pet who worships Star Fleet, which contrasts nicely with Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome) a rule-breaker and risk-taker who has been demoted several times. Fellow lower deckers alien new recruit D'Vana Tendi and newly augmented cyborg Sam Rutherford are more like Broimler and similarly enamoured with everything Star Fleet.  They are essentially just like the fans- they are the Trek universe's equivalent of Trekkies.

Beckett is definitely the stand out character. Not only is she a secret bad-ass but she also represents a character archetype we rarely see in female lead characters (another recent exception being Disenchantment's Bean). She's got the most interesting backstory too, by far. She obviously has the ability to excel in Star Fleet if she put her mind to it, so why is she the way she is? We start to get some hints but this is something we'll hopefully get more answers for in future seasons.

There are memorable characters throughout the show, too. Captain Freeman is a classic Trek Captain on the surface, but we get to see a more human (and often flawed ) side too. The ship's first officer Jack Ransom (Jerry O'Connell) is a womanising action man in the Kirk mould, without any of the redeeming qualities.

 


Quite a lot of the show's humour comes from seeing characters doing distinctly non Star Trek things. The contrast between the straight-faced, squeaky clean Trekiverse and seeing characters who binge-drink, swear, cheat, try to get out of work and other very human things that remind you that you're watching an adult cartoon makes for entertaining viewing. There's also confirmation that (as most people would have anticipated)  crewmembers do use the Holodeck for porn.

It should be pointed out though that Lower Decks doesn't push things too far in this direction. If Mahon's background on Rick and Morty had you concerned, this is nowhere near that extreme. In comparison, it's way more restrained. There is the occasional bit of gore you don't normally see in Trek and the very occasional (but bleeped out) f-bomb, but this is nowhere near the level of Rick and Morty (or even Solar Opposites) in that regard.

The show has a solid if not particularly inspiring visual style. The characters have a fairly classically cartoony look to them, looking much cleaner than the earlier shows Mahon has worked on. The quality of the animation is good, although nothing too flashy. The show's animation style doesn't draw attention to itself, but that may well be by design- it allows the writing to shine through. 

 

On the audio side, everything is excellent. As previously mentioned, the use of classic sound effects is spot on and key to the creation of that classic Trek atmosphere. Full marks for the music too, which feels like it would fit any series in the Trek canon, especially the opening theme.

Kudos too, to the voice cast, which is a mix of actors who are better known for live-action work and voice-acting regulars. Anchored by Tawny Newsome's fantastic turn as Beckett, there's no weak link in this ensemble. Casting on the guest stars is also on point.

By all rights, Lower Decks probably shouldn't work, but somehow the crew have pulled it off. It's a show that has fun in the Trek universe but never makes fun of it. It's a true sci-fi comedy, where there's as much effort put into the sci-fi as the comedy. This opening season is a very strong maiden voyage, and hopefully will be the first of many.


 FORMAT: SERIES AVAILABLE ON: STREAMING;FROM:PARAMOUNT TVRATING: TV-14 [US] 15[UK]RUNNING TIME : 10 episodes

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IN A NUTSHELL: Set phasers to Fun. Lower Decks Goes Boldly where no Trek has gone before, making a series that's as much fun for newbies as die-hard Trekkies.


★★★★

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