Despite being set in the same universe as Gene Roddenberry’s landmark series and its myriad film and television offshoots, Star Trek: Lower Decks, an innocuous new animated series about a crew of up-and-coming Starfleet crew members, never leans on its own mythology. The lead characters are young goofballs who work on the crew of the USS Cerritos, a ship specializing in “second contact”, which means they visit new planets after the A-team has already done the more prestigious work. Their jobs are routine and bureaucratic. They usually involve paperwork. None of the characters resemble Captain Kirk or Mr Spock, mentioned here only in passing and usually as the butt of a joke. Instead, Lower Decks smartly creates new, original characters who are funny, relatable, and fully independent of their source material. If Star Trek weren’t in the title, you might not even notice the similarities.
It’s also radically non-serialized, with each episode representing its own comic adventure for our bumbling protagonists. There is Boimler (voiced by Jack Quaid), a rule-following aspiring captain; Mariner (Tawny Newsome), his rebellious co-worker who specializes in making more trouble than Boimler can clean up; Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), an engineer with a new cyborg implant he’s struggling to adjust to; and Tendi (Noël Wells), the crew’s newest recruit, who is all bubbly enthusiasm. There are also various captains and commanders, and each episode features a smaller assembled crew piloting down to a new planet, getting into trouble with a new race of aliens, and making it back to their spaceship having learned a lesson about teamwork.
Or something. Lower Decks is a little too breezy for its own good, and it moves so quickly through its various plots – each episode feels like it was fastidiously edited to remove any dead air – that it leaves no lasting impression. In the season’s first episode, Boimler has been tasked by his superiors with keeping tabs on Mariner. He discovers her selling what he thinks are weapons to some local aliens and disrupts the sale, but it turns out the weapons were only farming equipment, and Boimler’s mistake offends a local monster, putting the duo in peril. It all happens so fast. The characters are endangered and back on their ship in about two minutes, which hardly leaves the viewer any time to get involved.
There’s something admirable about how fiercely committed Lower Decks is to being low-stakes entertainment, which is difficult to achieve in an era in which there is pressure on all creators to be political. Try as we might, no critic will be able to find a hidden agenda here. “All they care about is glory,” Mariner muses about their superiors, which is the closest Lower Decks ever comes to critiquing the powerful. It’s a significant change from Roddenberry’s original series, which had its feet firmly planted in the civil rights era. It promoted racial diversity and multiculturalism in both its casting and its themes. Even the latest Star Trek movie featured a hint – OK, one shot – of a gay romance. Lower Decks could be seen as continuing that legacy by casting Newsome, a black woman, as one of its leads, but its interest in identity politics, or any other kind, stops there.
The problem is it’s not really interested in anything. It’s a comedy show without gags or setpieces. The voice actors – most of whom are members of the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy improv family – do their best to imbue the dialogue with real comic timing. Recalling her encounter with “rectal insectoids”, Mariner jokes: “I got chewed out, but his ass got chewed up!” It’s not quite a joke, but Newsome sells it so hard you’ll end up laughing regardless. Less effective are the occasional self-referential quips, as when one character finds themselves accosted by tribal warriors. “Ah, circled by spears, this is a classic,” Mariner says. “What am I, Kirk?” It’s a kitchen-sink approach by the writers, trying every style they can muster without landing on any actual comedy.
The disappointments of Lower Decks are particularly frustrating because, in theory, this is exactly the kind of approach to intellectual property that we need. For years now, critics and fans have fantasized about a studio or network taking a real chance with a franchise. A real neo-noir Batman, or a romantic comedy starring Black Widow and the Hulk. Instead, we get a repetitive cycle of origin stories. But here at long last is a series that is willing to cast the old myths aside and explore a hidden corner of its world. It could have been the start of something great, if that hadn’t been the last risk this particular series ever took.
Star Trek: Lower Decks is available on CBS All Access now with a UK date to be announced