The final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation features an episode called “Lower Decks,” told from the point of view of a group of junior officers on the Enterprise who see our heroes as their demanding and at times unfair bosses. It offered a fresh perspective on a show that could often feel quite tired in its last year, and cast the Enterprise bridge crew in an entirely new light without making Picard and the others seem out of character.
Two and a half decades later, the name and concept have been dusted off for the CBS All Access animated comedy Star Trek: Lower Decks. It is explicitly set in the Star Trek universe, about 10 years after the events of The Next Generation, and focuses on the lowest-ranking officers on one of Starfleet’s least important ships, the U.S.S. Cerritos. Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid) is an easily flustered try-hard who doesn’t understand why his rigorous rule following goes ignored by Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis). Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome) is his spiritual opposite: an improvisational genius with no respect for the senior officers or interest in joining their ranks. Rounding out the core quartet are Tendi (Noël Wells), a medical officer from the planet Orion, and Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), a human engineer still adjusting to a Vulcan cybernetic implant that occasionally makes him talk about the beauty of pure logic.
Showrunner Mike McMahan’s love of Star Trek is palpable throughout — maybe a little too palpable. The Lower Decks theme is an entirely sincere, inspiring composition featuring nods to iconic past Trek songs by Alexander Courage, Jerry Goldsmith, and James Horner, among others. Characters are constantly name-checking franchise legends like Khan or Chief O’Brien, as well as deeper-cut topics like the alien sex rite known as Jamaharon. The Cerritos’ security chief is a Bajoran, the primary alien race from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and the series’ opening scene has Mariner playing recklessly with a Klingon bat’leth, like the kind Lt. Worf used to use in combat.
All the references and Easter eggs prove a double-edged bat’leth. They help ground the show in the main Star Trek universe, and provide contrast with Boimler and Mariner’s comparatively lame adventures. But they also seem to be holding McMahan back from making Lower Decks the wildly irreverent — and, more importantly, actually funny — comedy it so clearly aspires to be.
McMahan is a longtime writer on Rick and Morty, a fact that would be apparent even to those without access to his resume. The primitive drawing style, the disgusting nature of many of the stories — in the premiere, Boimler gets suckled by a giant space spider, while many of the ship’s crew members are transformed into zombies with a taste for human flesh — and the general sense of chaos all feel straight out of the Adult Swim series. Rick and Morty was inspired by the relationship between Doc Brown and Marty McFly in Back to the Future, but it’s not an actual BTTF spin-off, and that makes a huge difference. It doesn’t have to be respectful to anything or anyone, and can rewrite its own universe rules many times over. Lower Decks, though, isn’t off-brand parody, but an approved part of a familiar and revered brand. So whatever satirical elements the new show features about life in Starfleet can go only so far.
But then, the entire show seems to be caught in between extremes. It’s just over the edge of being too adult for kids to watch — Mariner complains that a yeti she once met was “being a dick,” and in one episode gets a punishment detail to clean the holodeck of what’s implied to be semen — but never really delves into truly R-rated Trek content. (Several words even get bleeped, when characters on Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard have cursed.) The whole point of the show is that the four leads are the lowest of Starfleet’s low, having the least exciting careers possible, yet it tends to be most interesting when it’s taking advantage of animation’s unlimited visual-effects budget to give massive scale to the missions. (Rutherford spends part of a first date floating outside the hull of the ship to avoid the zombified crew, and it’s a really lovely sequence.)
It may just be that the Rick and Morty style doesn’t work if Dan Harmon’s not involved. His creative absence was also felt in McMahan and Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland’s recent Hulu comedy Solar Opposites, which, in the handful of episodes I saw, lacked both the cleverness and unexpected pathos of the pair’s work with Harmon. Maybe it’s that doing a workplace comedy in an obscure corner of a long-running and popular fictional universe is harder than it looks, as anyone who watched NBC’s short-lived DC Universe-set sitcom Powerless would recall. Or maybe it’s that the fundamental sincerity of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek vision can feel at odds with snarkier humor. (See also Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, which is basically Next Generation fanfic with periodic jokes left over from the Family Guy writers room.)
Whatever the reason, Lower Decks is the latest disappointment in the Star Trek stewardship of CBS All Access and producer Alex Kurtzman. Discovery and Picard have both had their moments, but those series, like Lower Decks, are most effective when merely evoking nostalgia for Trek shows of generations past, rather than when any of them try to do their own thing. Star Trek and comedy don’t have to be mutually exclusive — case in point: Kirk and Spock’s San Francisco bumbling in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home — but Lower Decks never figures out the right balance between its love of the old stories and the new course it wants to chart.
The premiere of Star Trek: Lower Decks is available now on CBS All Access, with new episodes released weekly. I’ve seen the first four.