I don’t think it’s a secret that Star Trek is my favourite thing. I grew up watching both Captain Kirk’s Enterprise in re-runs and Captain Picard’s Enterprise as it aired. I have seen every episode of television and every film at least twice, and probably more. I’m not telling you this so much to brag as I am to establish my bonafides. I love Star Trek, but I also know Star Trek.
So when I tell you that Star Trek: Lower Decks is a both a good show and good Star Trek, you can believe me when I say it.
The setting, the lower decks and junior officers of a Starfleet vessel tasked with second contact (that is, the follow up visits after ships like The Enterprise have been somewhere for the first time) is inspired. While the crew doesn’t meet many new species (although, we meet a few) it means that they get to take a closer look at all of them, and at how Starfleet engages in ongoing diplomacy. Late in the season it’s even outright said that Starfleet is “good at observing, but bad at maintaining”.
Letting this dynamic play out between the duelling perspectives of Ensign Boimler –the nervous, by the book new guy who at the start of the series has only been to five planets, and that’s only if you count Earth and Vulcan– and Ensign Mariner –the freewheeling, rule-breaking, authority defying, hyper-intelligent but with amazing instincts experienced crew-mate who is only still an ensign because she seems to prefer it that way– works wonders, too. Through them, we get to see both how Starfleet thinks things should work and also how the real universe does, too.
Jack Quaid (Also of The Boys) and Tawny Newsome (Brockmire, Space Force) are each perfectly suited to these characters, bringing exactly the right energy to each one. Each of them have their foibles, but it’s nice watching Boimler learn that breaking the rules every so often will get things done, and watching Mariner learn that following them from time to time isn’t actually a bad thing. I really hope we get to see a future version of Mariner in particular, where she’s grown up and gone on to be a great captain.
Rounding out the main cast are sciences and engineering ensigns Tendi and Rutherford, her a perpetually enthusiastic Orion and him a human with a Vulcan cybernetic implant and a penchant for diagnostics. Tendi being always enthusiastic for everything is refreshing, and Rutherford being so in tune with the ship that he’s somewhat blind to other people is adorable.
One of my favourite things is also that none of these relationships ever turn romantic. They’re all just friends, and they all work best that way. Tendi and Rutherford seem like a natural choice to pair up just because, but the show is stronger for them not doing it.
What makes the show good Star Trek though is that they tell stories of exploration and adventure, and more importantly of doing the right thing. Even in breaking the rules, Mariner always has the best interests of all involved, and in making sure that Star Fleet’s guiding principles have a lasting influence on cultures rather than the fleeting one that it’s implied they often have.
The people making the also clearly love Star Trek. Each episode is laced with fan service, references, callbacks, and in-jokes. There are too many to list here, but my favourites include a conversation over whether Khan or Roga Danar (from Next Generation) is the more badass villain, several references to salt vampires (an original series monster), the chief medical officer being a Caitian (a deep cut to the 1970s animated series), an appearance by Landru (original series evil computer), two-handed punches, and look I could go on and on here.
The point is that the people making the show know the material, and it shows through in every episode without overwhelming every episode. The fan service is the garnish, not the entree.
One of the things I love most about the recent reinvigoration and expansion of Star Trek as a television property is that they have started to take chances with the material. There is still a main series to follow in Discovery, but efforts like Short Treks and Lower Decks allow the people involved to explore more aspects of the Star Trek universe, in more varied ways. So many franchises find one way of doing things and then stick to it, but Star Trek is slowly proving that franchises don’t have to do their one thing one way, and I adore that.
The first season of Lower Decks ended last week and is available to stream (Crave in Canada, CBS All Access in the US). A second season is in production I can’t wait to see where they go next.