This Star Trek: Lower Decks review contains spoilers.
As the opening chapter of a famous sci-fi novel tells us: A beginning is a very delicate time. But then again, who cares? You’ve got to start somewhere, right? The very first episode of Star Trek: Lower Decks, blusters its way into the Final Frontier with quirky charm, and a shuttle bay full of deep-cut references to the entire Trek franchise. It’s not perfect, but that’s also kind of the point. Episode 1 of Lower Decks isn’t so much a pilot episode of a new show, but rather just dropping the viewer into a show in which this just happens to be the first regular episode. This approach works, and by the end of the episode, only those who were permanently turned into space zombies won’t be chanting “Lower Decks, Lower Decks!”
As you probably know by now, Lower Decks focuses on the junior officers — specifically four Starfleet ensigns — aboard the starship USS Cerritos. The opening faux-Captain’s log, recorded by eager-to-please Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid) briefly suggests that this series will be a boldly-going-where-no-one-has-gone-before type of thing, but then there’s the needle drop. As Boimler excitedly describes the process of “First Contact,” he then pauses, and says, “but we don’t really…do…that.” Instead, the USS Cerritos specializes in “Second Contact,” which means they’re the ship that follows-up when a new alien world finds itself invited into the welcoming arms of the magnanimous United Federation of Planets. Boimler’s foil in this episode – and throughout the show — is ensign Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome) who, truly is the star of the series, and steals the show. The gang is completed by Ensign Tendi (Noël Wells) and Ensign Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), who, by the end of the episode connect in way that will certainly inform their relationship in the episodes to come.
But for now, in “Second Contact,” this is mostly Mariner’s show. For longtime fans, the loose background of Mariner may remind you of Ensign Ro. She’s been demoted a few times and shuffled around to different starships. She’s a “problem,” and in the episode’s biggest reveal, the Captain of the Cerritos — Captain Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) is actually her mom. This makes the TNG vibe of Lower Decks somewhat complete. Only, instead of Wesley Crusher’s mom being the Chief Medical Officer of a starship, it’s like if Picard was Wesley’s dad, and Wesley was a hard-drinking badass who knew everything.
Part of the charm of Mariner, is that her character seems to be a fan of other Starfleet officers from the past, even if she thinks some of her contemporaries are uncool. “The bridge is not cool,” Mariner says while giving Tendi a tour of the ship. This joke lands, but it also suggests, on some level, that Mariner sort of wishes she could be on the bridge more. Lower Decks might be the story of “scrappy underdogs” in Starfleet, but they’re not incompetent. This point is important because even though it’s goofy, this Trek is not a spoof.
Throughout the episode, I kept wondering how I would have felt about it if it hadn’t been animated — if the series was a just a single-cam sitcom set in the Trek universe. In some ways, the fact that the show is animated mitigates the risk of Lower Decks. For fans who hate it (and they will be, there always are with any new Trek) the fact that it’s animated makes it seem like it might not “count.” And yet, when the episode was ending, I kind of wished it had been longer, and that perhaps it wasn’t only a comedy. Right now Lower Decks is presenting itself as a comedy, but it seems possible that it might be slightly more. Just like the rest of Star Trek isn’t’ just action-adventure or drama, it feels likely that Lower Decks can’t remain, only comedy. Unlike something like Rick and Morty, there’s deep warmth to Lower Decks, a sense that it won’t betray your trust, even if it is doing something fairly radical.
The first episode of Lower Decks isn’t perfect, and I’m not sure space zombies really make a whole lot of sense in the Trek aesthetic. But, because “Second Contact” has narrowed the focus of Star Trek, it’s actually made the stories less about those space zombies and more about the characters. And these characters feel right. They feel like Starfleet. They’re not heroes, maybe not yet. But they belong in the world of Star Trek for sure. There’s a lot of love written into these people, so now that “Second Contact” is over, it will be exciting to see what they boldly do — or don’t do — next.