|image from CBS Interactive|
I once wrote about the Star Trek franchise being an optimistic, hopeful view
of humanity's future (was that five years ago already? Happy 55th Anniversary then):
It spoke of the future: At a time humanity was threatened with nuclear war, environmental disaster, or worse, Trek suggested we would outgrow our worst demons and answer to the better angels of our nature, that we would achieve space flight and do so in ways that would let us explore the cosmos. That we would meet races like Vulcans and Klingons and myriad others, and that despite the differences we could blend, co-exist, share our wonder of the universe.
Star Trek is a reflection of the whole Earth: that we are a diverse species as humans, clinging to this small blue/green rock covered with air and water, facing daily challenges to survive but still looking upward and outward, dreaming up warp drives and seeking out exoplanets that might share other lifeforms. The drive to improve ourselves and improve our futures...
So that being said, another thing that science fiction geeks like to do with beloved franchises is to pull the thing apart, nitpick the errors and inaccuracies, what the literary academics like to call Deconstruction of an entire 'Verse of beliefs...
...and then put it all back together again with a sly awareness that we still enjoy the damn thing.
In the past five years or so, our entertainment media empires have exploded with content - movies, television shows, crossover materials - to fill the expansive and still-growing streaming capabilities that the Internet and high-quality video have reached this 21st Century (It's 2021, people!). Among them is/was/not sure of their current status Paramount Studios and/or the CBS network competing against the likes of Disney-Plus, which currently sits on so many franchises - Marvel, LucasFilm (Star Wars), Pixar, Disney's own empire - that Paramount/CBS had to hit back with one of the biggest franchises they own with Trek.
As a result, in the past three years they've come out with a new series ST: Discovery, followed up by a sequel/rebirth of Next Generation with the series Picard, and soon to include a reboot/prequel of the Original Series involving Captain Pike, Number One, and Spock called Strange New Worlds.
Into THAT mix of new content came an animated series fitting into the Original Timeline (yes, this is a problem with multiverses now) just after the Dominion War (ST:DS9 and ST:Voyager, also the movie ST: Nemesis) but before Picard's series. Thing is, this animated show was getting put together by people who worked Rick and Morty, a show that went out of its way to Deconstruct other shows and genres in a sometimes vicious (almost sadistic) fashion.
Star Trek: Lower Decks does indeed Deconstruct a lot of the known tropes for both science fiction and Star Trek itself... and yet for all of the gore, body horror, high-pitched screaming, and psychological trauma (not the audience, I'm talking about the in-show characters) the show is actually doing a good job of showing WHY the Trek Universe works the way it does... and why it's not a bad thing for humanity in the long run.
And it's actually a good show. Lemme get into that a little more.
The thing about space is that it's big, really big, and in that vastness of space there's millions of stars and hundreds of thousands of planets. A space that big requires a big Starfleet to explore and patrol it, meaning hundreds if not thousands of starships to trek it.
While the major shows of the Trek 'Verse either involved the crews that oversaw epic adventures (the Enterprise) or dealt with galactic crises (Deep Space Nine) or survived insane journeys (USS Voyager), there are still a lot of minor, almost common tasks that the rest of the Fleet works on. As the opening quote to Lower Decks notes:
First Contact is a delicate, high-stakes operation of diplomacy. One must be ready for anything when humanity is interacting with an alien race for the first time...
That is where the Enterprise gets involved. Alas...
But we don't do that. Our specialty is Second Contact. Still pretty important. We get all the paperwork signed, make sure we're spelling the name of the planet right, get to know all the good places to eat...
And the "we" in that opening narration is the crew of the USS Cerritos, a California-class starship that's not as glamorous as the Enterprise (the flagship of the entire Federation) or battle-tested as the Defiant, or even as quirky and durable as Voyager. Cerritos is part of one big happy Starfleet Bureaucracy, keeping up with the aftermaths of major battles and contacts and scientific findings that the major league starships resolve on a weekly basis.
The ship itself is part of a class that's easily interchangeable, one of a hundred named after small towns and cities in the state of California (a nod to the human-centric (actually American-centric) nature of Starfleet in spite of the hundreds of humanoids that make up the crews). The Cerritos is also not exactly in the best of shape, more like a 3-star hotel where the Enterprise would be a 5-star luxury resort.
And as the show highlights with most episodes, the Cerritos doesn't get any of the glamour gigs, dealing with supply runs, taxi services, minor planetary disputes, and finding out how bad the drinks are at the local Klingon coffee shop on Rigel VII. This ship is kind of like the lower deck of the Federation fleet itself.
What we get then is a show about the mundane, day-to-day activities of a large-scale employer that just happens to be a quasi-military exploration fleet that basically involves cleaning out holodecks of bio-refuse (oh yeah, the Internet of the Future is still for porn), daily maintenance checks of those sliding doors that don't magically open when they're supposed to open when you're ready to leave a room, and signing off on timesheets for the midnight shift in the astronavigation lab who really all goofed off in the bowling alley on Deck 10 instead.
You know, all the stuff that the important cast members don't have time to do because they're fighting the Borg or engaging in espionage against the Romulans or dating plasma ghosts from 19th Century Ireland. (Yes, that reference gets made in this show)
So we're stuck with the "lower deck" ensigns of Starfleet, such as Brad Boimler, an energetic newcomer out of Starfleet Academy who's a little too eager for promotion and too naïve to realize how dangerous the galaxy out there can get. Desperate for promotion, he's one of those extras you see on the bridge handing PADDs (the Tablets of the 24th Century) to another extra to make it seem like people are working.
He's been teamed up with Beckett Mariner, older and more experienced, who ought to be an officer by now except for her reckless disregard for regulations and diplomacy. Where Boimler wants to step up, Mariner wants to step out, and seems only to be in Starfleet because there's nothing else out there that gives her the opportunities to "explore new worlds" and "kick ass."
Filling in the Engineering side of things is Rutherford, a human who suffered an injury before all this and received cybernetic implants to help him function. He's the tech nerd of the group, more interested in making sure those sliding doors open properly rather than worry about a zombie infection or a bridge officer turning into a god.
Making this a four-team ensemble is Tendi, the
token alien crewmember that provides the diversity of Trek philosophy (IDIC). She's actually from the "sexy alien" category: The green-skinned Orion women who add that allure of seduction and intrigue to the Trek 'Verse... Except Tendi is the sweetest, shyest, and least sex-obsessed crew member on the Cerritos (she was a little shocked to see Mariner's naked Olympic holodeck program).
It's through their viewpoint we witness the goings-on of a regular Starfleet cruise: The weekly crises resolved with the right application of technobabble; the quick fights over Prime Directive/Non-Interference quandaries that are resolved through insane troll logic; and the reality that Starfleet operates on a kind of repetitive ennui that requires a healthy balance of holodeck fantasizing and a lack of micromanaging in the workplace.
What makes Lower Decks work as a series is that its efforts at Deconstruction are not meant as dark or dispirited mocking, but a kind of deliberate examination of "what would it really be like for the day-to-day operations of Starfleet, away from the dashing heroics of the original show and its spiritual successors?"
One episode for example focused on "Scotty Time," a Trope about how Trek engineers would inflate their deadlines for repair jobs that would get finished earlier and make them look like miracle workers. In the Lower Decks, it's become a dirty little secret to have your projects use "Buffer Time" on the calendars so that you'd have time to juggle that project with other hobbies beneficial to the ship - or better still fix any emergencies that crop up while you're working on the main task. When the Cerritos' Captain Freeman finds out what "Buffer Time" means, she's enraged because she thinks the crew is deliberately slacking off work (and hurting her chances at promotion), and then sets immediate deadlines for projects to make her crew work faster. Instead, because the deadlines are too swift, too arbitrary, and too inflexible to allow responses to emergencies, the Cerritos turns into a chaotic mess. "Buffer Time" had been happening for so long, no one could remember how much time was needed to calibrate a sensor array.
By the show's own logic, Buffer Time was a necessity: it allowed the crew (employees) to work at a pace they inherently knew could let them function while allowing enough time to handle the crazy space stuff along with it.
Another episode delved into those nightmarish episodes that would happen where a crewmember or guest-star would suffer an accident that would cripple them... or infect them with an exotic incurable disease... or turn them into salamanders (oh, yeah, THAT was when I quit watching Voyager, ye Gods. Why can't we go to Warp 10?! It'll turn us into newts!!! (We got better. SHH!!))
When Boimler gets phased improperly during a transporter upgrade test, he's assigned to a transport ship under Division 14 to take him to a "retirement" spa called The Farm for treatment. These "accidents" to crew members have been so common that Starfleet did develop a protocol for handling it. While the episode careens into a crisis when the other passengers are convinced - because they've been en route for months - that there is no Farm, the matter is resolved when the transport finally arrives to an exotic, Risa-like planet that does take care of the injured personnel as they were promised.
Mixed into all of this is a critique of the serial storytelling of the early Trek series, how weekly escapades and epic movies would ignore the ramifications of those events down the line. As television narratives evolved in the past 20 years to allow for continuity - for novel-styled story arcs that ensured a coherent, developed history would emerge from what we watched - what were stand-alone episodes for TOS and TNG now seem antiquated, and leaving behind issues that the "lower deck" crews like the Cerritos would have to clean up after.
In this, the animated series' Deconstruction is more deliberate, and raises legitimate issues regarding the idealism of Star Trek's philosophy. The contradictions of "exploration and discovery" behind Starfleet curtailed by a Prime Directive that insists on non-interference with "lesser" yet sentient races. The sporadic threats of one-off villains like Pakleds coming back years later as serious threats. And
the abuse of flare lighting in holodeck movies, okay, the emotional conflicts of allowing family members (Mariner is secretly Freeman's rebellious daughter for much of Season One) serve on the same ship.
But I come to praise Lower Decks, not to bury it. Underneath the snarky witticisms, gag replays of Trek's less-noble plot points, and obvious physical humor, there is some legitimate character development AND 'Verse development for a complex, overwhelming universe as Star Trek's entire franchise. For all the craziness the ensigns go through, you see how the excitement and challenges of space travel keep them going, even in the vastness of bureaucratic inertia where they work. That for all the eldritch horror (and repetitive cleaning chores), there is still Hope that humanity (that may seem a bit speciest, but it's the only way we can define the nature of Starfleet itself) will prevail.
It gives me hope that somewhere down the line they can plot out a decent crossover moment with Dr. Who and Star Wars and DC Comics and Marvel Comics and... and... YES, I KEEP HOPING FOR A MASSIVE CROSSOVER, DAMMIT. IT'S IN MY BLOOD!
In the meantime, Season Two is streaming... somewhere. CBS Access or some such. BINGE IT while you're buried alive. BIIIINNNNNGGGGEEEEE IIITTTT!!!!!!!