Star Trek: Lower Decks (overview, “Second Contact” and “Envoys”)

Prior to Discovery, there were six Star Trek TV series: the original series, the weird little coda of the animated series, the heyday of the shared Trek ninetiesverse with The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager all taking place around the same time and with a similar eyefeel, and the fun but flawed last gasp of Enterprise.

And then nothing happened for a while (except some movies I mostly don’t care about.)

And now suddenly we find ourselves inundated with Star Trek. Between Discovery and Picard and the upcoming Section 31 show and the one about Captain Pike and Prodigy on Nickelodeon and the subject of this article, we’re going to have (assuming they all go as planned) six Star Treks, all at the same time. Star Trek dreamed of a post-scarcity future, but here in the future the only scarcity we’re actually post is the scarcity of Star Treks.

These series are a lot more diverse than they were in the old days, when DS9 was the odd duck out because its Starfleet captain and crew were on a stationary object. Callbacks to the sixties, callbacks to the nineties, covert ops, a kids’ show on Nickelodeon. And then there’s Lower Decks.

Two episode have aired as of this writing and the coverage I’ve seen of it has been kind of meh at best. It’s not an instant classic, and the second episode didn’t quite improve on the pilot as much as I’d hoped – you expect the pilot to be shaky, but by episode two of your science-fiction comedy you should be going to a moon amusement park or uplifting the dog. It has a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of potential, and I really want it to succeed, damn it! So here’s my intro to the series, its characters, what I love about it so far, and where I think it could improve. I will mention some things that are revealed in the first two episodes, though I’ll try not spoil the entire plots.

The USS Cerritos

The show is set on the USS Cerritos, a ship specializing in second contact. That is, they come by a little while after the first contact ship leaves to start the process of actually setting up relations with the Federation, deal with any issues that have cropped up in the meantime, and so on. That pretty much sums up the show’s whole deal: “second contact” sounds like a joke mission, but that would actually be a pretty important thing to have someone doing. I’m not sure of the degree to which Lower Decks is considered canon, but it’s not not canon: you can buy this as a real ship with a crew that has a real job and generally does it well. It’s still ridiculous, but that’s because Star Trek itself is pretty ridiculous and this just leans into it more.

The bridge crew is a pretty diverse bunch – the no-nonsense Captain Freeman, action-hero first officer Ransom, gruff Caitian chief medical officer T’ana, rowdy Bajoran head of security Shax, and so on. They’re significant, but the show isn’t really about them – as the title says, it’s about the lower-ranking characters. Not the ones who work on consoles in the background and don’t say anything because if they had lines they’d have to pay them more. More like the Joseph Careys who talk to the bridge crew a lot but don’t have plots of their own, and then when you want to drum up a little pathos you can send them on an away mission with the main cast and it’s not quite as obvious what’s about to happen as it would be if it was an extra you’d never seen before. That’s our cast:

Beckett Mariner

mariner

Mariner is (so far) the most spotlighted of the four main characters, and also the one whose past we know the most about. She’s also, I think, a major reason why people were primed to dislike this show based on the trailers, because her deal just does not come through at all in a brief clip. Mostly, she just looks like an out-of-control idiot, and you wonder why someone like this is even in Starfleet. But under the surface something a lot more interesting is going on.

Mariner, it turns out, is the daughter of Captain Freeman and an admiral on another ship, and essentially grew up inside a previous, unseen Star Trek series. Since childhood, she’s been dealing with warrior races and energy beings and sentient caves, and is done taking any of it seriously. This is of great concern to her parents, who watched her turn from a promising officer to lackadaisical goof-off and now keep shuttling her back and forth trying to make her each other’s problem. But the other thing Mariner’s upbringing did was make her really, really, really badass and competent when she needs to be. It makes sense that the show’s creator previously worked on Rick and Morty, because Mariner is nothing so much as a Morty whose Rick was all of Starfleet (and has grown into more than a bit of a Rick herself.)

Brad Boimler

st-ld-boimler

Boimler, along with Mariner, is in the command program, and dreams of being a captain one day. He’s the prickliest and most officious of the main four. At heart he’s deeply insecure, and clings to rules and procedures and trying to learn everything about everything so he knows what to do in every situation. He is, in short, a bit of a twerp, and the first two episodes don’t really paint a great picture of him; in the first one, he doesn’t turn in Mariner for breaking a rule only because he got annoyed with the captain for not giving him the credit he wanted – in the second, Mariner makes a mistake on purpose so he can correct her and feel needed, and he goes way, way overboard in making fun of her for it, well into “what a jerk” territory.  He’s both irritated by Mariner and kind of in awe of how easily everything come to her.  He’s like her Frank Grimes. 

So far Boimler hasn’t done much that wasn’t just bouncing off Mariner in some way, so I’m kinda curious what his solo plots will look like. 

Sam Rutherford

rutherford

Rutherford is a cyborg engineer; as of the beginning of the series, he’s only been a cyborg for about a week, and he’s still getting used to the implants. Engineering is his life. When he sees a problem, he becomes totally absorbed in solving it and blocks out other stuff. This is played as a plot-resolving joke in the first episode when he brushes off his date throwing herself at him because he notices a minor malfunction in the automatic doors, and drives his plot in the second episode, when he transfers out of Engineering because it’s the most direct solution to a scheduling problem.

Rutherford reads as possibly being a bit on the spectrum to me – the way he disappears into his interest, and in particular he’s nice and considerate in a low-key way, which could be interpreted as the aspie trait of being very carefully polite because you can’t gauge how anything saucier would be received. It’d be cool to have a neurodivergent character on Trek. But I also may be reading waaaaaaay too much into this.

D’Vana Tendi

star-trek-lower-decks-ensign-tendi

Tendi is a medic, and also a recent transfer to the crew; she functions as audience surrogate for the first episode so there’s someone to explain things to. She’s also an Orion, a race so underrepresented that she’s already the main picture on the Memory Alpha article for Orions. Orions are mostly known for having to be awkwardly retconned when someone realized that it was deeply gross for Starfleet officers to be leering at “slave girls”, so now it’s like, uh, no, that means they enslave you with their sexy pheromones. (Tendi’s pheromones haven’t come up yet.)

So that’s Tendi. She’s sweet and peppy and positive and she’s an alien, and an alien from a culture that really needed a good representative, to boot. So obviously she became my favorite character instantly. She’s probably gotten the least screen time of the main four, though – in Episode 2 she’s the only character who doesn’t really get a subplot beyond being part of Rutherford’s – so here’s hoping for some Tendi-centric episodes to come. They’re pretty clearly hinting at some eventual romance between her and Rutherford, which is like, yeah, fine, but not just that, okay?

Conclusion

So, I like the show a lot. It’s not like anything Trek has done before. I’d like to see it gain its feet and broaden what it’s doing a little. A lot of the first episode is Boimler being irritated at Mariner breaking the rules but still succeeding. A lot of the second episode is Boimler being irritated at Mariner breaking the rules but still succeeding. And I love Mariner, but I hope this isn’t the ooooonly trick in the pony. There’s so much potential here; I don’t think they’re quite hitting it out of the park yet, but it’s also only been two episodes.

One thing Trek has always done really well has been to create worlds you’d like to be a part of. Yeah, a lot of really bad stuff happens. But it happens in a really cool, comfortable setting where you’d love to live, among people who you’d want to know, and this is one thing Lower Decks really nails. Wouldn’t it be fun to be friends with these people, it says, with this goofy, hyper, but sisterly adventurer and this cool, laid-back smart guy everyone likes and this cheery little firecracker who’s so excited to be here? Even Boimler manages a kind of pitiable woobie charisma.

Also, they’re just cute. They’re cutie pies. I want to ship them. I’m pretty sure that was intentional. What do you think?