One would think the biggest shadow Star Trek: Lower Decks would have to escape is Star Trek itself. An animated comedy set in the Trek universe already has a lot of baggage, not least of which shifting the franchise from drama to adult comedy. It certainly does deal with that but even more so it has to escape the shadow of one of the biggest adult comedies in recent memory: Rick and Morty.
Star Trek: Lower Decks owes a huge debt to Rick and Morty, not least of which because its creator, Mike McMahan, was a writer on that show first. Even the visuals of Lower Decks take inspiration from Rick and Morty. At first, Lower Decks seemed to really be playing into this, featuring gross out humor, body horror, and even a Rick and Morty like dynamic between Lower Decks leads Mariner and Boimler. And it was not great.
Confession time. When Star Trek: Lower Decks first premiered in 2020, I watched the premiere and quickly gave up on it. It really did feel like a wannabe Rick and Morty with added “we said the Trek thing you know” humor and that’s not what I wanted from Star Trek. I held onto that view until just recently when I saw a clip from a later episode that featured a joke that was not only a reference to TNG and DS9 but also just a funny joke about conspiracy theories.
This, plus a friends undying love for the show, got me to dip my toe back in. I rewatched the first episode and it still didn’t work for me… but as I kept watching it slowly got better and better. By the end of first season, I was really digging it and, by the middle season two, I was in love with the show. What changed? Well, it stopped trying to be Rick and Morty and it just leaned into all the potential that comes with doing a comedy in the Trek universe. And it’s so much better for it.
That first episode is the least successful of all the shows outings. It relies on elements that, while they usually work in at least early Rick and Morty, don’t work here. Chief among them was the dynamic between Mariner and Boimler. Mariner, the hot shot does whatever she wants lead was contrasted with Boimler, the neurotic over achiever who never wants to get into anything too dangerous. It was just Rick and Morty but in the Trek universe. The key thing that didn’t work was how it treated Mariner.
In Rick and Morty, much of the humor of the Rick character comes from the fact he’s a hollow shell of a person who ends up being the cause of his own problems. He may act like he’s perfect and smarter than anyone in the room but he’s his own greatest enemy. Mariner in Lower Decks, at least in the first episode, is just a kick butt action lead who’s seemingly perfect aside from disobeying orders for the right reason. It’s like if in Rick and Morty, Rick was actually shown to be perfect all the time and never had flaws. It’d make him annoying and all his horrible actions would be perfectly justified, losing their dark comedic edge.
Lower Decks quickly realized this wasn’t the way to go and throughout the first season filled in Mariner’s back story, making her a major screw up that wasn’t always right. Boimler could one-up her at times and she could go too far, like in “Cupid’s Errant Arrow” where her insistence that Boimler’s new girlfriend must be an imposter is proved wrong.
The show also took the time to flesh our her back story, giving her genuine trauma that’s mostly played for comedy but still fills in why she acts the way she does. We also get a softening of her friendship with Boimler. While in early episodes the relationship felt incredibly mean spirited on Mariner’s part, later on the two genuinely grow to like each other but still have an edge that provides some fantastic comedy.
The gross out humor of the first episode, in particular an extended sequence where Boimler is suckled on by an alien, is mostly gone from later episodes. They still do “gross” gags but they aren’t as overplayed and tend to come more from the characters. In “We’ll Always Have Tom Paris,” medical officer Tendi has to travel with Mariner in order to find a libido post for T’ana, the ship’s chief medical officer (who’s basically a cat person.) After a series of madcap adventures the two accidentally break the post but T’ana doesn’t care. All she wanted was the box to play in, just like a real cat. The subversion is just perfect.
Lower Decks could still be accused of relying too much on the “we said a Trek thing you know” and the first episode is guilty of it. In its closing moments Mariner just lists off characters from other Trek shows and the joke is mostly that she’s just listing them off. Later episodes also rely on Trek references but, like the Wolf 359 joke, it’s done in a way that uses the Trek universe the same way a regular comedy might use a pop culture reference.
Season 2 introduces a Tamarian crewmember (remember the race from the TNG episode ‘Darmok’?), Kayshon, who speaks in metaphors. The way the show plays these jokes, like when Kayshon is tracking down a spy and says, “you getting ‘Bazinti when he pulled back the veil’ vibes from this guy?” is a perfect callback to “Darmok” and also hilarious because he says it like it’s something everyone else knows. This isn’t just name checking Spock for a joke, this is the kinda humor that plays on deep cut references but is funny in its own right.
And of course there’s Badgey, the maniacal hologram who’s clearly based on Microsoft’s Clippy who wants to kill engineer Rutherford, his “father.” If you’re unsure about Lower Decks, check out clips of Badgey from the episode ‘Terminal Provocations.’ He’s a sight to behold.
Lower Decks has evolved into a hilarious comedy with a lot of heart. I’d even argue it’s transcended its Rick and Morty roots. While that series has somewhat floundered after its breakout early seasons, Lower Decks has quickly grown into something really special that works as a love letter to Trek, a fun comedy, and has a group of characters that you love and want to root for.