It’s Star Trek Day 2020, as Star Trek fans everywhere celebrate the day that Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek The Original Series debuted on 8 September 1966. The latest show in the franchise to grace our screens is the animated Star Trek Lower Decks, which is halfway into its first season with five episodes to date.
How is the animated series so far? Does it indicate an overall good direction in the future of Star Trek?
Before I go on about Star Trek Lower Decks and the rest of the franchise, let me clarify that I never grew up with Star Trek. I was born in 1994, and Star Trek has never been nearly as big of a cultural phenomenon as Star Wars here in Malaysia. Even so, I finally took the time to watch every episode (and movie) of Star Trek in 2016.
It took me one year and four months, but I finished everything, and only then was I proud to proclaim myself as a bonafide Star Trek fan. Good timing too, considering the latest generation of Star Trek began in 2017 with Star Trek Discovery, then Star Trek Picard earlier this year and now, Star Trek Lower Decks.
I’ll get to how I feel about the overall direction of Star Trek, but first I’d like to discuss what I liked, and disliked, about Star Trek Lower Decks after its first five episodes.
Developed by Emmy Award-winner Mike McMahan (best known for Rick And Morty and Solar Opposites), Star Trek Lower Decks focuses on the junior members of the crew serving on one of Starfleet’s least important ships, the Starship Cerritos, in 2380.
Ensigns Mariner, Boimler, Rutherford and Tendi have to keep up with their duties and their social lives, often while the ship is being rocked by a multitude of sci-fi anomalies, which is par the course for a Trek series.
What distinguishes Star Trek Lower Decks from other series in the franchise is that we’re finally able to see what the daily lives of the rest of the crew on a starship. Normally, we would only be privy to the lives of the highest-ranked bridge crew.
This animated series essentially expands on the Star Trek The Next Generation Season 7 Episode 15 ‘Lower Decks, which also shifted the focus of an entire episode onto a group of junior members on a starship.
Star Trek Lower Decks’ humour is ultimately closer to the outrageous jokes in Rick And Morty than conventional Trek. That said, while many of the jokes in Star Trek Lower Decks can be generally funny, the best of them are those that intentionally pokes fun at established Trek tropes or canon. These are often veiled or disguised as fun easter eggs and references for Trekkies/Trekkers to notice.
These include jokes at the way Starfleet members fight (seen in episode 3 when Commander Jack Ransom fought an alien in the same ‘martial arts’ style infamously used by Captain Kirk against a Gorn in Star Trek The Original Series Season 1 Episode 18), how the Prime Directive is always cited as a reason for non-interference but is often just a used as a convenient plot device (as seen in episode 5 when an alien attempts to stop the destruction of his home by mentioning the Prime Directive to Captain Carol Freeman), and more.
At first, I was really apprehensive of how Star Trek Lower Decks was making fun of and disrespecting the franchise at its expense. However, after five episodes, I discovered that I enjoyed the series, despite the fact that the only truly memorable jokes for me were the ones that explicitly reference Trek canon.
The rest of the jokes and humour (which don’t explicitly reference Trek lore) are often hit-or-miss and falling flat at the worst of times. Perhaps the biggest problem lies in the fact that it’s genuinely difficult to write a decent sci-fi comedy. There are good ones like 1999’s Galaxy Quest, Red Dwarf, and even the recent Seth McFarlane’s The Orville (specifically more on that later), but they are far and few in between.
Even after five episodes, it’s not easy to discern who Star Trek Lower Decks is for. Right now, it’s leaning more towards being catered to fans of the franchise who’d understand the many easter egg jokes and references.
However, much of the humour doesn’t exactly mesh well with the tone of conventional Trek, and more like a less offensive version of the jokes in Rick And Morty.
It seems like the showrunners know all this, and have created the protagonist Ensign Boimler (voiced by Jack Quaid) as sort of a surrogate for Star Trek fans. You know, too rigid and unrelenting when it comes to ‘rules’ (read: Star Trek lore). This is also why Ensign Mariner (voiced by Tawny Newsome) is there to slowly ease Star Trek fans into the humour of Star Trek Lower Decks.
Would I recommend Star Trek Lower Decks to Star Trek fans and casual viewers alike? As of now, the answer to both is yes. Contrary to what casual viewers may think, Star Trek doesn’t always take itself so seriously. It occasionally pokes fun at itself through fun self-referential and meta episodes like Star Trek Deep Space Nine Season 5 Episode 9 ‘Trials and Tribble-ations’ and more.
What About The Future Of Star Trek?
There, I said it: I like Star Trek Lower Decks. However, it’s far from indicative of current Star Trek as a whole. What about the flagship live-action shows like Star Trek Discovery and Star Trek Picard? It would probably take too long for me to list down all my grievances with those series, but it’s no secret that I dislike them.
First of all, despite being set in the Prime timeline (of TOS, TNG, etc.) instead of J.J. Abrams’ Kelvin timeline of the new reboot movie trilogy, it’s clear that Alex Kurtzman (who is the Kevin Feige of the franchise, as he oversees all of Star Trek) has taken more than simply visual and design aesthetic inspirations from the latter.
It’s like Kurtzman is forcibly applying gritty edginess to the franchise and trying to make it darker than it needs to be. Look, I won’t deny that the franchise has always had its dark moments, but it’s never been like this.
Again, it’s not like everything was perfect in the Star Trek universe, look at the dirty Dominion War in Star Trek Deep Space Nine (not to mention the Bajoran-Cardassian conflict). In Star Trek Deep Space Nine Season 6 Episode 19 ‘In The Pale Moonlight’, Captain Sisko had to commit unspeakable and questionable acts in times of war.
Still, Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic and utopian vision of the future was still very much there even then. It still felt like this was humanity at its best, and it was a place where you wanted to live.
Unfortunately, now it’s all been replaced with a cynical and miserable tone, which feels more in sync with the current reality of the world than what is supposed to be a better future for all. That’s not what Star Trek is about. If I wanted that, I would rather rewatch 2004’s Battlestar Galactica or watch more of the brilliant The Expanse.
I hope this doesn’t sound too corny but watching Star Trek used to instil hope in me and made me want to actively strive to be the best person I can be.
In the current state of the world ravaged by COVID-19 and selfish politicians, a dose of optimism about the future would be more appreciated than ever.
Star Trek just doesn’t feel much like Star Trek anymore.
Another Final Frontier
Bizarrely enough, I can still get that by watching Seth McFarlane’s The Orville, which is frankly truer to Gene Roddenberry’s original vision than current Star Trek is. There are currently two seasons of the show. While the first may be a bit rough around the edges, the second season features some truly great standout episodes, including two-parter episodes in the vein of Star Trek The Next Generation‘s very best.
My only advice to all fellow Star Trek fans is this; do yourselves a favour and watch The Orville. A third season is already on its way. Oh, and it’s plenty epic as well. Look at this clip of a space battle scene from The Orville Season 2.