Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…
I totally should have it ready for next week, I mean, unless some other big exciting distracting thing were to happen Thursday or something.
Oh. Right. This.
Well hey, they finally found a way to make a Star Trek I straightforwardly dislike. That’s got to be something.
The buildup to Lower Decks had me thinking that this show was going to be Not For Me, but I held out hope. I mean, “Let’s do a light-hearted Star Trek,” isn’t a bad idea. And “Let’s do a Star Trek that looks at the more mundane, less universe-shaking side of things that shows the world as a real world where normal things happen most of the time,” isn’t a bad idea. And “Let’s do a Star Trek from the point-of-view of people who aren’t Big Damn Heroes and aren’t tasked with making the big decisions,” isn’t a bad idea. You could show us the effect it has on the psychology of a young officer to face the fact that his life could at any moment be cut short because he wore the wrong color shirt on an away mission. Or you could show us young people having fun on their downtime enjoying hobbies other than things middle-class middle-aged white men considered “classy” in the 1980s.
Star Trek: Lower Decks isn’t any of those, though. Star Trek: Lower Decks is Rick and Morty in Space.
I don’t like Rick and Morty.
The thing about Lower Decks is that it’s not a lighthearted take on Trek; it’s a parody of Trek. How do I feel about parody? I used to like it. The problem with parody is that it only works if it’s smart, and Lower Decks isn’t as smart as it thinks it is. There’s lots of good Star Trek parody. The best kind of parody, to me, comes from juxtaposing the tropes of the thing you are parodying with a more realistic world. And maybe Lower Decks thinks it is doing that, but it’s really not.
The central theme of Lower Decks seems to be that the junior crew do all the work while the senior officers are all glory-hounds who cause more problems than they solve and don’t care about the little people. The captain can’t be bothered to learn the names of the junior officers; the first officer is a blowhard who nearly gets the entire crew killed; the Bajoran security officer is constantly begging to be allowed to blow things up, including their own ship. Which… No. Just no. That’s not being light-hearted and poking fun at Star Trek tropes. That’s… Mockery. Sort of mean-spirited mockery. And this is okay and fun on, say, Futurama, when it’s Zapp Brannigan and he’s a sort of broadly antagonistic character in a broadly ridiculous universe. But this is actual Star Trek. And besides, Futurama was, for the most part, actually funny. This is just, “What if Star Trek but everyone is an asshole?” – the trend of “Comedy is when you tell a story but everyone is an unrelenting asshole,” that has made me basically not like almost any deliberate comedy in the past ten years.
My basic annoyance at this depiction of the senior officers is compounded by the fact that the USS Cerritos is a support vessel – as indicated by the yellow stripe on its hull. It isn’t out there, exploring brave new worlds: it does things like the titular “second contact” – following up with a newly opened world to handle things like paperwork and set up antennas. That’s a fine setup for the Lighter, Fluffier series, but not in tandem with the pompous glory-seeking senior crew. It’s like they’re just taking every possible lane of Star Trek parody and mushing it together. There’s shades of Futurama and Rick and Morty and Sealab 2021, and even, say, Quark, but without much rhyme or reason, and without much to really connect it to Star Trek at more than a superficial level.
What they’ve avoided is the kind of humor of, say, Ephraim and Dot, where the slapstick antics of a maintenance robot and a tardigrade are seen as what had been going on in the background during the sorts of adventures we’re used to seeing. If that had been what Lower Decks had aimed for, I think I’d be a lot happier. But there’s no contrast here between the goofy Lower Decks and the heroic Upper Decks; they’re all assholes. Making the senior officers ridiculous ruins the joke for me. They’ve really latched onto this theme of “No one cares about the junior officers,” even showing that rather than having their own rooms, the junior officers sleep in bunks built into the walls of the saucer’s lowest deck.
The goofy stuff is glued together by a traditional A-B plot which is… Fine, I think? It shows off the lack of any real consistent direction to the show. During Second Contact, the first officer gets bitten by a native insect and refuses to tell anyone. The resulting infection turns him into a rage zombie, which quickly spreads to most of the crew. Meanwhile, it’s Science Ensign Tendi’s first day and she’s super excited to be on a starship. Meanwhile, Engineering Ensign Rutherford has recently become a cyborg and is dealing with occasional comedy glitches from his implant, and when his implant allows it, he is nervous about a big date he’s got tonight. Meanwhile, ambitious, by-the-book Command Ensign Boimer has been asked by the captain to spy on rebellious Command Ensign Mariner, who smuggles a bunch of contraband aboard the ship, apparently for kicks, and sneaks off during second contact to deliver supplies to impoverished farmers. Hijinx ensue.
One problem here is that three of our four main characters are kind of samey. They’re all optimistic Starfleet novices who gush and fanboy about how cool it is being on a starship and are sort of charmingly naive about the gritty truth (or rather, it would be charming naivety if Star Trek wasn’t fundamentally set in a happy optimistic shiny future). Tendi is the worst about it, and she’s clearly the one being presented as the “newcomer” character, but really Rutherford is just the same despite having more experience. And Boimer is similarly depicted as this naive fanboy type, sneaking off to make log entries in the style of the Captain’s Log, gushing about how cool the warp core looks. Only Mariner is cynical about Starfleet. She’s a traditional hypercompetent Starfleet officer, except that for reasons they haven’t yet disclosed, she makes a point of flaunting the rules and slacking off, having been assigned to the Cerritos as punishment for some unspecified misbehavior on her last assignment. The idea that her rebellious behavior is a cover and she’s really very good at her job is a fine setup – shades of M*A*S*H, for instance. But I don’t quite like how it fits in with everything else on the show, and anyway, it’s undermined by the fact that the very first thing we see her do is get drunk and hack off a big chunk of Boimer’s leg with a Bat’leth.
Boimer, on the other hand, is a bit of a fuckup. No, that’s too strong. Hapless. He’s clearly channeling Philip Fry. He has a similar sense of being immature with a healthy dose of Dunning-Kreuger, boldly getting things wrong and making things worse. He’s not as venial or selfish or stupid as Fry, but the influence is clear. His distinguishing character trait is that he’s not as smart as he thinks he is, whereas the others seem to have more accurate assessments of their abilities.
Boimer follows Mariner when she sneaks off to deliver farming supplies, misinterprets her actions as a shady weapons deal, pulls a phaser, and accidentally frees a giant spider, which menaces them until it turns out that it’s a farm animal. It’s allowed to harmlessly gum Boimer for hours until he is naked and it is tired. This is part of the “hapless” thing. So far, it’s not egregious, but I worry Boimer is part of the tradition that gave us Ross Geller, Steve Urkell and Xander Harris: nerdy characters written as self-inserts by nerdy men desperate to recast their own youthful humiliations as “paying their dues”, for which they will someday be rewarded with the captain’s chair and/or sex, without them actually having to do any of the actual work of becoming a good person. It’s too soon for me to accuse Boimer of being such a character, but what I see so far has me worried. The disgusting spider-saliva Boimer returns to the ship covered in turns out to be the cure for the rage virus, which you certainly saw coming ten miles away unless this is the first time you’ve ever watched Star Trek in any form.
Rutherford’s date is going pretty well despite being interrupted by the zombie apocalypse, and there’s lots of cute bonding as they continue to flirt while shooting rage-zombies and crossing the exterior of the ship in space suits to reach the muster point. Unfortunately, while she finds the adrenaline to be an aphrodisiac, he becomes obsessed with the technical question of why the door locks glitched. This frustrates her in the moment, but the punch-line is that he loses interest in her in light of her incuriosity. Tendi… Is there. I mean, she doesn’t do much in the bulk of the episode; her main purpose is for Boimer and Mariner to explain things to her in act 1. The rest of the time, she just hangs around being happy to follow orders. She shows up at the end to agree with Rutherford about malfunctioning door locks being way more interesting than sex, which I assume is supposed to be funny because she’s Orion.
After the captain makes a point of only crediting the ship’s doctor (Who is a comically crochety cat-person, a reference to Lt. M’Ress in the original animated series from the ’70s), omitting any mention of the junior officers in her log, and getting Boimer’s name wrong, he chooses not to rat Mariner out. The captain places a call to an admiral, complaining about Mariner, at which point we learn – or rather, the show reveals what you have certainly guessed – that the captain and the admiral are Mariner’s parents (The captain’s name is Freeman; presumably Mariner is named after her father; they don’t mention the admiral’s last name). Mariner decides that Boimer is a stand-up guy after all and pledges herself to help advance his career.
What else can I say about it? I guess the opening credits are a good joke: it’s a very traditional ’90s-trek style opening, rather than anything like Discovery or Picard, but with a twist. We see the Cerritos fly past the jet of stellar wind between what’s probably HDE 226868 and Cygnus X-1… And get knocked around by asteroids. It flies past a comet… And clips a mountain of ice. It encounters a massive space battle between the Romulans and the Borg… And fucks right on off. It’s a fair gag the first time. We’ll see how I feel at the end of the season. On the other hand, the Cerritos itself is an intensely ugly ship. Broadly TNG in style, it looks a bit like a TNG take on goofy-looking “Just two nacelles hanging off a saucer” design we saw in Children of Mars.
Everything about the show visually wants to evoke TNG much more than the visual styles of Discovery or Picard. Stardates are given in the TNG style of an arbitrary five-digit number, rather than the Julian-derived stardates used in everything else post-Enterprise. The interior design of the Cerritos is directly TNG; the displays are ’90s style LCARS, even the uniforms are clearly based on TNG (they look like one of the dress uniform styles used in later TNG, but with additional piping at the seams) rather than the primarily black uniforms of DS9, Voyager, or either of the Picard styles. I’m happy with the uniforms, even though it’s hard to justify them. Lower Decks seems to be set some time after Star Trek Nemesis but before the Romulan Supernova, so you’d expect either the TNG-Movie-Era black uniforms with gray shoulders or the ridiculous Fourteen Years Ago uniforms from Picard. Commbadges are a simple silver arrowhead, again, not clearly fitting anywhere in the timeline (per Picard, they should still be using the Voyager-style), but this might just be an animation abstraction.
I’m disappointed on a lot of levels. I don’t hate the show – it’s not offensive or anything. But Ephraim and Dot gave us a really compelling vision of what it could look like to have a lighthearted, broadly comedic Star Trek about what goes on with the “unimportant” folks on a starship while the heroes are having exciting adventures. Lower Decks has chosen a different and less focused path, cramming in a bunch of different kinds of comedy and satire without any good sense of whether they work together. The Cerritos’s mission is unglamorous and the senior crew are arrogant blowhards and the senior crew isn’t all that competent and they don’t care about the little people and the junior officers are goofy and the junior officers are naive and their work is unglamorous and Mariner is smarter than her superiors and that gets her in trouble and she’s irresponsible and gets people hurt and Rutherford’s implant sometimes turns his emotions off and and and and and it’s just too much. Pick a lane.
And pick a lane that isn’t “What if Star Trek but assholes?”
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