When a franchise meets a certain level of complexity, canon goes out the window. With Star Trek: Lower Decks, Star Trek finally not only bent canon, it completely blew through it.
The animated series from Rick and Morty creator Mike McMahan takes a decidedly tongue-in-cheek poke into Gene Roddenberry’s world. And I have to say, after ten episodes, the show kind of grew on me. All except the main character, Ensign Mariner. I found her loud and annoying delivery even worse than her constant protocol busting attitude toward Star Fleet.
Of course, there is a legacy in Star Trek of not following the rules exactly. Even the people who don’t follow the rules can quickly quote them or have someone nearby point out the error of their ways. By episode 10, Lower Decks reaches that kind of accommodation. Doing the right thing might well require some significant rule-bending.
This is not a kids show
Ever since Fritz the Cat, animation stopped being a kid’s only medium. Lower Decks goes nowhere near that level of adult exploration, but regularly bleeped words and elaborate innuendo don’t just pepper Decks’ humor, they dominate. There is very little in Decks to call kid-friendly, or even kid funny. Lower Decks’ recruits from Trekkies and delivers to Trekkies looking for something less solum than almost any other Trek out there.
But that’s the other reason Decks isn’t for kids. The general situations involve adult themes without child-friendly explorations. DNA manipulation and rouge holodeck programs all lean into creepy or threatening, not slapstick or even sophisticated children’s level humor. Sure, its a toon, but the holodeck Delta Shield character, though ultimately redeemed, is a disturbing construct that could go toe-to-toe with any of the Enterprise-D’s holodeck snafus.
No characters or plots prove appropriate for children. Watch it with your kids, but don’t pretend you are watching for your kids.
Where no Trek has gone before
As I said, Star Trek: Lower Decks, grew on me. Why? Primarily because it found some fun ways to skewer recent Trek’s foibles while playing homage to TOS. Star Trek under Kurtzman needs to find not only its humor but also a positive vision about the future. Art can play three roles and don’t for a minute argue that television isn’t art. First, it can react and comment on the current moment while giving into that moment. Art can wallow in despair and fill the future with extrapolations of how that despair manifests tomorrow. Art can also react to current events with a vision of tomorrow that inspires people to move beyond today, to find ways to overcome obstacles and create a better tomorrow on the back of today’s lessons. And Art can also offer pure escapism.
Gene Roddenberry’s Trek leaned toward the middle, imaging slightly wiser humans to share their journey toward becoming even wiser human beings. Recent Trek, however, has gone toward the path of wallowing in the present and not imagining a way out. Deep state conspiracies, rouge factions, secret organizations, systemic doubt about the mission, demonizing technology, even infiltration at the highest levels by well-known enemies. That is where recent Trek takes us, all except Lower Decks, that I think also recognizes the lengthening distance between vision and hope, and faithlessness and floundering.
Trekkies who wish to adhere to canon have already lost the day. But for those who desire hope over despair, exploration over conflict, need to share their thoughts. Many stories that Trek’s curators put forward remain to be written. New writers, with aspiration and vision, can still take the narrative reigns.
As happens so often in the annals of Doctor Who, the other 1960s legacy Sci-Fi franchise, creative control shifts the baseline, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. But different creative forces will lead to different vectors—perhaps Kurtzman and team, and Abrams and Team, need to give Star Trek over to an even younger generation, one capable of finding hope again in Roddenberry’s vision, in a world that some might argue needs it even more than it did in the 1960s.
Perhaps Lower Decks will break through the despair and let CBS find a new way forward for its more mainstream Trek offerings.
So, should I watch Lower Decks?
Hey, you like Star Trek. So if you subscribe to CBS All Access you will watch the show. You may moan and complain, or cheer and applaud, or some combination of those actions—but you will watch. And you should. Any Trek is better than no Trek. Take a deep breath and imagine the well-filtered air on the Cerritos, enjoy the uniforms, and the pips, the phasers, and the Tricorders. It’s not perfect, but Trek never is and never was. But it’s Trek, so enjoy it. Season 1 is sometimes a training mission. (Remember TNG season 1?) We still watch. And if we are lucky, we’ll get a “Best of Both Worlds” moment when they realize that they are an adult show, and being a toon doesn’t just mean playing for a laugh.
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