In the TNG episode “Tin Man,” the Enterprise rendezvouses with the Hood, whose captain says, “They send you Galaxy-class boys out here to the far reaches. Me, I’m just hauling my butt back and forth between starbases.”
Star Trek: Lower Decks, the first animated Trek series in forty-six years, has been showing us the adventures of another ship that hauls its butt back and forth between starbases, and has been at best a partial success. Herewith, the good, the bad, and the ugly of LD’s inaugural season.
In Tendi and Rutherford, the show has given us two delightful characters. Show-runner Mike McMahan has stated that Tendi is pretty much the stand-in for how he himself would act if he were assigned to a Starfleet ship. And her boundless enthusiasm is infectious—as is Rutherford’s. The cyborg engineer is your prototypical engineer, one who takes joy in tinkering and futzing with equipment and such. He’s what you imagine Scotty or O’Brien or Tucker were like when they first joined Starfleet. Both characters are fabulous and, if anything, should be getting more screen time.
Also, the plots involving Tendi and Rutherford have on the whole been the best parts of any given episode, whether it’s Rutherford’s date that continues unabated while the Cerritos is undergoing a zombie apocalypse, or Tendi trying so hard to help a crewmember ascend to a higher plane of existence after she screwed up his ritual with her enthusiasm, or Rutherford’s ill-fated creation of Badgey (which is one of the greatest creations in 54 years of Star Trek), or Tendi’s lengthy rant about racial stereotyping of Orions, or both of them nerding out over the top-of-the-line Vancouver, or both of their missions related to the rescue of Magistrate Clar.
Commander Ransom is a hilarious send-up of the square-jawed white male hero who dives in and gets his shirt ripped off, embodied on previous Treks by Kirk, Riker, and Paris, not to mention by Commander Peter Quincy Taggart on Galaxy Quest. Jerry O’Connell absolutely nails the role, too.
More than any other Trek show, LD embraces the fact that life in Starfleet is damn crazy. Individually, each mission is pretty weird, but the cumulative effect of watching Kirk’s Enterprise, Picard’s Enterprise, Deep Space 9, Voyager, Archer’s Enterprise, Discovery, and, now, the Cerritos (with Pike’s Enterprise on deck) all having batshit crazy missions is that there’s a lot of wacky in Starfleet, and LD has embraced it to a hilarious degree.
On top of that, the satire of Trek movies in “Crisis Point” is absolutely spot-on, and provided some of the funniest moments in the season.
The U.S.S. Titan showed up twice, and in its second appearance, we also got her captain and his wife, with Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis adding to their huge pile of appearances as Riker and Troi by providing the voices for their iconic characters. Best of all, the design of Titan was the one created by Sean Tourangeau for the Star Trek: Titan novel series that Simon & Schuster has been publishing since 2005. Also points for getting John deLancie back to voice Q, and also hiring Trek veterans J.G. Hertzler and Kurtwood Smith, as well as Phil LaMarr, Jess Harnell, Kevin Michael Richardson, Jessica McKenna, Haley Joel Osment, Gillian Jacobs, Tim Robinson, Maurice LaMarche, Toks Olagundoye, Gary Cole, Paul F. Tompkins, and the great Kether Donohue to do various guest voices.
LD has served as a loving tribute to its predecessor: there are animated series references galore, from a Vendorian to what may or may not be a Skorr to a mention of the giant clone of Spock to a picture of Kirk and Spock that uses the animation from that series. Not to mention a Caitian in the main cast and a guest appearance by a member of Arex’s species.
Speaking of that Caitian, my favorite character in the show is the terminally obnoxious T’Ana, the chief medical officer, delightfully voiced by Gillian Vigman. We need more of her caustic wit in season two, please.
My second-favorite character is Shaxs, the ultra-violent, uber-pissed off Bajoran chief of security, who sadly dies in the finale. For a show that has embraced light comedy and ridiculousness, shoehorning a tragedy into the final episode (which also had a ship being destroyed with all hands lost) is a tonal shift that doesn’t entirely work. Also, I will miss the hilarious Shaxs, bombastically voiced by veteran voiceover actor Fred Tatasciore.
One of the biggest problems with the show was mitigated by the finale, as the entire season was a litany of Boimler never getting what he wants and screwing up, not always due to any flaw of his own, but at the end of “No Small Parts,” he actually gets a promotion and a transfer to Titan. But still, the repetition of Boimler being on the receiving end of a shit sandwich grew tiresome, especially given the role Mariner played in it. (More on that in the next section.)
Also, the show kept indulging in not-very-funny teasers that had nothing to do with the rest of the episode, but they also dropped that by the halfway mark.
The show is only half an hour. While the one-hour Treks were often well served by having an A-plot and a B-plot (and sometimes a C-plot), a half-hour show can’t always accommodate two storylines, and all too often one or both got seriously shortchanged. The strongest episodes this season were the ones that only had one overarching plotline. This also helped make some of the surprise twists fall flat on their faces, as they didn’t have room to be adequately set up or be properly twisty. (“Much Ado About Boimler” was a particularly egregious example of this.)
Humor is subjective, and I’m the first to admit that, but I found that the show worked better when it just wrote funny stuff instead of writing stuff that was consciously trying to be funny. (As an example, Ransom’s “TOS” joke in “No Small Parts” was trying to be funny and wasn’t really.)
The number of references to past Trek grew wearying as the season wore on, especially since the references were almost entirely limited to TOS and TNG. It made it feel like we weren’t watching the Star Trek universe so much as we were watching people cosplaying the Star Trek universe.
The lead character is this show is completely unlikeable. Beckett Mariner is a fuckup and a slacker and a mean horrible person. She treats Boimler like crap, she treats her commission like a joke, and she should have been drummed out of Starfleet ages ago, and she only hasn’t due to nepotism, which is the most un-Star Trek thing ever. The self-revelation she got after her holodeck movie in “Crisis Point” should have led to a reformation of the character, but it looks instead like she’s now having her behavior enabled by Captain Freeman, instead of her mother trying to stop it.
Worse, the show is locked into the formula that Mariner is always right and Boimler is always on the wrong end of the stick, and they are completely wedded to that, even when it’s horrible. The worst example is in “Cupid’s Errant Arrow” where Mariner is so invested in the incredibly mean-spirited notion that Boimler can’t possibly have a girlfriend that she becomes obsessive on the subject, concocting numerous absurd conspiracy theories—one of which turns out to be absolutely right, in opposition to logic and common sense, in order to sledgehammer into this tiresome formula.
My biggest complaint about Mariner in “Second Contact” was that she should be Chris Knight from Real Genius and is instead Bluto Blutarsky from Animal House. Nine episodes later, I stand by that assertion. The backstory for Mariner as someone who used to be a Starfleet rock star who has instead become cynical and embittered by all the craziness she’s seen that she has just stopped giving a fuck has potential. But they express it by making her a screwup who actually endangers people’s lives, from drunkenly playing with a bat’leth to almost getting an away team killed due to forgetting an important piece of equipment.
I also have come to the end of this season with absolutely no handle on Captain Freeman as a character. Whatever the show’s other flaws, most of the characters are pretty well drawn, and I feel like I know Boimler, Mariner, Tendi, Rutherford, Shaxs, Billups, Ransom, and T’Ana. But Freeman’s personality keeps changing with the needs of the plot. Sometimes she’s a hardass, sometimes she’s understanding, sometimes she’s brilliant, sometimes she’s short-sighted and dumb, and so on. I like her best in exasperated mode, best seen in her dealings with the people of Mixtus III, the Betans, and the Anticans and Selay. I like her much less in oblivious mode, especially in “Second Contact” and “Temporal Edict.”
In general, the show can’t seem to make up its mind whether it’s a comedy in the Star Trek universe, a parody of Star Trek, or a 21st-century office comedy awkwardly transplanted onto a 24th-century Starfleet vessel. Either of the first two would be fine, though trying to do both simultaneously doesn’t always work very well. The third is consistently disastrous, from crewmembers talking about after-work drinks with chest-bumping and finger-pointing and general dudebro behavior to Mariner constantly calling Boimler a nerd derisively to talk of better replicators on the command deck to Freeman overworking the crew so they don’t pad their repair estimates to Tendi and Rutherford competing for the hip new tech that the Vancouver has and they don’t even though both ships have replicators.
The real question is what we’re in store for in season two: Will Boimler’s transfer have a good effect on his character? What effect will Rutherford’s loss of his cybernetic implants and concomitant amnesia have on him? Will Mariner stop being horrible? And how feeble will the contrivance to get Boimler back on the Cerritos be?
Keith R.A. DeCandido assures everyone that he will also be reviewing new episodes of Star Trek: Discovery starting this week with “That Hope is You.” Also you should be reading his Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch, which is currently in that show’s early fourth season.