Lower Decks Is Fun, But Star Trek Is Suffering an Identity Crisis


Star Trek: Lower Decks, the first animated series in the franchise since the 1970s show focused on the original cast, begins with an act of subversion. We hear the voice of what we assume to be the captain recording a log as the screen fills with gleaming images of the USS Cerritos. But this isn’t a captain, and Cerritos is far from a storied ship. Instead, it’s the voice of an ensign, specifically the straitlaced Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid). He’s jokingly interrupted by another peer, the worldly and confident Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), drunk on Romulan whiskey, who swerves from cackling at his earnestness in recording a captain’s log (how hopeful!) to wielding a Klingon bat’leth that slices through his inner thigh due to her sloppy handling. This is the perennial pose of the new CBS All Access series: to subvert Star Trek more than celebrate it, to visually and vocally name-drop more than carefully interweave the soul of the franchise into this new entry.

On its face, Lower Decks is intriguing as an animated, adult-oriented series that focuses on the kind of characters who are only seen in passing or intermittently — the grunt workers, the neophytes, the troublemakers, all far from the gleaming expanse of the bridge and its crew, including Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis), a graying Black woman determined for her ship to be seen as something more than the dregs of Starfleet, and first officer Jack Ransom (Jerry O’Connell), who feels akin to The Next Generation’s Riker (the great Jonathan Frakes), except more full of himself with less of a reason to be. These characters figure into the plot, but the leads are the younger, less-established, lower-deck-dwelling ensigns, including Boimler, Mariner, the Orion science officer D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells), and a cybernetically enhanced engineer, Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero). These characters comprise the heart of the series, with Boimler and Mariner edging the others out as leads. They curse, they flirt, they drink, they get turned on and beat down, they mess up with abandon. There’s a lot of potential there to be both curious and heartfelt, as Star Trek has always been, but push it into some new directions narratively and visually, with the animated format allowing the franchise to reach beyond what has come before. But Lower Decks, for all its raucous pleasures, doesn’t quite rise to that occasion.


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