Star Trek: Lower Decks, TV, Writing

TV Review: STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS (Season 2)

Out of every modern Star Trek series currently on air, Lower Decks bounced into its second season with the brightest springing step.

While not every Star Trek fan of old finds Lower Decks their cup of Earl Grey, amongst fans who do enjoy it, and indeed critics, Mike McMahan’s animated comedy clicked almost right away. Taking the precepts of Star Trek animation and vibrantly updating them with a beautifully drawn, Seth McFarlane-esque sheen, Lower Decks avoided the trap initial commentators feared: that it would be funny at the expense of Star Trek. This was not the case even from Second Contact, the opening episode, which established the core concept of a series revolving around the lowly crew members on the second rate Starfleet vessel, the U.S.S. Cerritos. Immediately, Lower Decks was an affectionate lampoon.

One of the key reasons Lower Decks worked, by and large, straight away, was the feeling that it was written and animated by people who truly loved and crucially understood Star Trek as an idea. McMahan, parlaying the TNG S8 comedy Twitter account stylistically into the series, saw an opening for spoof in the cheesy 1980s utopian formalism of The Next Generation and leaned into mockery that played, almost entirely, with the audience’s knowledge and awareness of the tropes it was spoofing, be it Captain’s Logs, holodecks programs or the crew dynamics on the ship. Lower Decks was never truly a series for franchise newcomers, it was always an affectionate love letter to Star Trek fans of the 1990s, and was unashamed of being so.

Season 2, therefore, works simply to build on what the first season established. It maintains the greatest level of consistency in a modern Star Trek series between seasons while managing to successfully take what worked in the first year and often amplify it. There is no doubt – Season 2 is, overall, a stronger year of Lower Decks than Season 1.

The truth is that Lower Decks warped in with thrusters on full in the opening year, especially the opening few episodes, and in working to establish the tone and style barely gave viewers time to catch their breath.

There was also the vague feeling that McMahan was channeling aspects of Family Guy at points that dared to tip Lower Decks into more of an overtly adult parody than the series deserved.

Granted, Lower Decks was designed less for children than the upcoming Prodigy, and as McMahan proved writing for Rick & Morty there is more than enough of a place for adult-focused animation, but Star Trek was always a show for children as much as it was for adults. It was as children most of us fell in love with the franchise. At times, early on, Lower Decks threatened to alienate that sub-section in an attempt to be edgier and more daring, after Sylvia Tilly on Discovery dropped Trek’s first ‘F bomb’ and opened a profane box for the franchise that will never now be closed.

Season 2 retains that but manages to capture something more of a balance between edgy jokes, naughty humour, and character comedy rooted in the ideals and values of Star Trek. Mugato, Gumato—possibly otherwise the nadir of Lower Decks so far—nonetheless is rooted around a fairly graphic Mugato sex scene which takes The Original Series call back to another crude level, and it is on a surface level relatively funny. It is something of a cheap shot being taken by the series but such lowest common denominator jokes are rarer this year. The comedy feels more organically attuned to the ensemble at play across the show and, as a result, the scripts and performances feel more assured – particularly in the second half of the season.

A good example of this organic growth is cited by McMahan in discussing the emergence of a background character this year:

You can have all of these plans, but when you find something that’s making you laugh, that’s unexpected, that’s worth more than any plan you could be making. There was this moment in the first season where Tawny [Newsome] was supposed to have Mariner running through a hallway saying, “Get out of my way! Get out of my way!” And she just improvised this line of “Get out of my way, Jennifer!” The way she said it was so funny. And then the artists put in this character who had been a background character in the bar, it’s this Andorian, and suddenly she became Jennifer the Andorian. It just made me be like, okay, I want to know more about Jennifer the Andorian, and I want to know why Mariner hates her. So you’ll see second season, we do delve into that a bit more, and that never would have happened if we weren’t geeking out over our own show.

This fusion of creative planning and spontaneity allows Lower Decks to create a genuine sense of the Cerritos as a crew and a family to a degree we haven’t seen in Star Trek since the days of Voyager, and how that series managed to weave in various recurring players behind the main cast, despite retaining a focus on the bridge crew.

A major criticism of Discovery—a justified one—is that after three seasons, audiences struggle to even remember the names of several of the bridge crew, given how heavily the focus has been on three or four primary characters.

Lower Decks avoids that problem as despite always keeping the assortment of ‘lower deckers’ front and centre—firebrand Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), earnest Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid), green (figuratively & literally) Tendi (Noel Wells) & anxious Rutherford (Eugene Cordero)—the show often rather expertly manages to weave their stories around an even stronger focus on bridge crew characters such as Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis), Commander Jack Ransom (Jerry O’Connell) & Lt Commander Billups (Paul Scheer). Quite how it manages to do this so well in around 25 minutes is a testament to how well structured the show is.

Lower Decks across the season continues to delight in subversions. The return of Lt Shaxs (Fred Tatasciore), the aggressive Bajoran security chief, at first threatens to undercut the impact of season finale No Small Parts but it cleverly plays into a meta-trope of Star Trek bridge crew escaping death by the skin of their teeth, often without explanation. We’ll Always Have Tom Paris manages to reintegrate a character it was disappointing to lose so early on by making his return a comedic beat, and it works remarkably well. It speaks to the level of creativity being employed by McMahan and his team in how clearly they understand the rules behind the Star Trek universe, and how they use them to get away with twists and ideas the live action series’ would struggle to pull off.

An Embarrassment of Dooplers, perhaps the funniest episode of the season, is a good example of this. The central conceit revolves around a race who double repeatedly at points of stress or embarrassment, replicating a la Tribbles to a dangerous degree, and the episode delights in the Cerritos crew doing what Picard or Janeway would often have to grapple with – appeasing and treading on egg shells with difficult alien representatives. It’s a genuinely great comedic extension of that idea that is so well played across the episode.

Moreover, wej Duj quite brilliantly extends the ‘lower deckers’ idea to Klingon and Vulcan ships (and one other race, though I don’t want to ruin the joke), recalling episodes such as A Matter of Honor where Starfleet crew would experience the lives and systems of alien ship cultures.

Indeed, wej Duj—if slightly overshadowed by the excellence of the season finale—shows just what Lower Decks can do as a series, and how by the end of this season it can genuinely take its place right next to some of the strongest, beloved outings of 1990s Star Trek.

The confidence in focusing on Klingon & Vulcan characters we have never before seen for a heavy amount of the episode, while remaining tethered to the same ongoing thematic idea as we see on the Cerritos—of ambition sometimes getting in the way of teamwork and camaraderie—is the kind of natural evolution Discovery in particular, and even Enterprise before it, routinely struggle with. wej Duj is Lower DecksQ-Who or Duet. It’s the moment you sit up and say “okay then!”, aware the series has punched through to another level of quality than we have previously seen.

That trend continues with First First Contact, perhaps the most exemplary Star Trek season finale since Voyager’s Scorpion over twenty years ago. It manages to do a number of things remarkably well; provide a strong central, time-focused crisis for the entire Cerritos crew to work on; throw numerous call backs to Trek of old into the mix (one in particular involving a recurring character that put a big smile on my face); and provide a clear, conclusive beat to the Mariner/Freeman character arc that has been developing from the very beginning, of a mother/daughter relationship in repair through coming together as part of a ship’s family. It is an exciting, funny, smart piece of television that even manages to throw in a superb, genuinely intriguing cliffhanger, a la 1990s Star Trek of old.

All of this is clearly deeply nostalgic. Lower Decks has been unashamed of that since the beginning and frequently, in every episode, will see Mariner & co openly discussing and referencing characters and stories of Star Trek past. Mariner & Boimler even in one episode find a bar top that Kirk & Spock etched their names into. The Lower Decks characters are as much Star Trek fans as we are, as the writers are, but the nostalgia is pulled off with a knowing, sentimental charm. The series is fully aware that is what the audience is there for and that it never has to be a show that breaks new creative ground for the franchise.

It’s okay if Tom Paris from Voyager pops up, or Boimler gets transferred to the U.S.S. Titan, or later held captive by a holographic Borg Queen. It is part of the experience.

Yet the skill of the series is that McMahan uses such nostalgia to his advantage rather than allowing the show to drown in it.

Character development remains front and centre and across Season 2, Mariner absolutely becomes more of a team player and less abrasive, Boimler becomes less terrified of the universe and grows closer to being the leader he has always wanted to be, Tendi edges toward acceptance and Rutherford grows more at peace with his role on the ship, even if he is teased a potentially traumatic plot for Season 3. Even the bridge crew evolve, with Freeman and Ransom a better leadership team than before. First First Contact really displays how far the characters have come in line with the series itself.

Sometimes the comedy falls flat, and arguably the second half of the season is much stronger than the first, but Lower Decks Season 2 firmly roots itself as the Star Trek show to beat right now. It ends on a creative, satisfying high, best representing what we love Star Trek for. The live action series’ would do well to take a cue from Mike McMahan’s animated playbook going forward.

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