Whether following the original Enterprise on its five-year mission or bringing Captain Jean-Luc Picard out of retirement to prevent an AI-induced apocalypse, Star Trek has always been about the allure of the unknown, the strange worlds, new life, and new civilizations that turn up when the United Federation of Planets goes where no one has gone before. But what about what happens after that?
Even if no one was asking the question, the promising new animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks is here to supply the answer via the adventures of the USS Cerritos, a starship specializing in making Second Contact. "We get all the paperwork signed," Ensign Brad Boimler (voiced by Jack Quaid) explains early in the series' first episode, before continuing, "Make sure we're spelling the name of the planet right. Get to know all the good places to eat," tasks he sums up as "still pretty important."
Coming from a different sort of character, that assessment might sound like someone lying to themselves, but not Boimler. An ensign with an eye on the captain's chair, he's a Starfleet true believer who, when asked to choose a fantastic location to visit while using the Cerritos' holodeck, opts for the ship's warp core. Boimler stands in stark contrast to Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), a fellow ensign and self-appointed mentor who's retreated from her previous ambitions to embrace the rut of grunt work. "Senior officers are overrated," she tells Boimler, "They're always, like, stressed out and just yelling about directives. It is better down here where the real action is." If that action involves smuggling aboard contraband Romulan whiskey and occasionally taking breaks for margaritas between tasks, all the better.
Series creator Mike McMahan's resumé includes a long stint on Rick and Morty and co-creating Hulu's Solar Opposites with Rick and Morty's Justin Roiland. Star Trek: Lower Decks shares a lot of DNA with those shows, from its clean, spare design to its breakneck pace to its love of heady science fiction concepts to its tendency to break out into chaotic fits of violence. But it's also firmly rooted in the Star Trek universe, even if it's set as deep in its farthest reaches conceptually as the Cerritos is physically. A series like, say, Star Trek: Voyager probably wouldn't have featured a character ascending to a higher form of existence only to encounter the image of a smiling koala, but it could have.
Only the second animated Star Trek series after the straight-faced, early '70s Star Trek: The Animated Series, which Lower Decks freely references, Lower Decks requires a careful balancing act. Lean too hard toward silliness and it stops seeming like Star Trek. But play it too straight and the comedy starts to feel like an afterthought. In the four episodes provided to critics, McMahan and his team consistently get the balance right. The jokes -- like a character yelling "Interlocked hands!" before employing a fighting style made famous by Captain Kirk -- stay rooted in the world of Star Trek, and the plots, if given a quick rewrite to sand off the jokier elements, could work on another series.
Lower Decks gets other details right, too, including the Next Generation-era fonts used for the credits and Chris Westlake's thundering theme and score, which could easily pass as products of the same era. The series comes from a place of deep love for all things Trek, even borrowing its title and core concept from a seventh-season Next Generation episode focusing on the low-ranking characters usually confined to the series' background. That doesn't mean it's above tweaking that world at every opportunity, however. In one episode, Mariner finds herself assigned to a string of humiliating tasks including "Holodeck Waste Removal," the details of which it leaves to viewers' imaginations via some well-placed bleeps.
Whether or not Lower Decks will develop the complex emotional bonds between characters found in the best Star Trek series -- or Rick and Morty, for that matter -- remains to be seen, but the early episodes point it in the right direction. Boimler and Mariner have a fun, fractious bond -- nicely played by Quaid and Newsom -- and a revelation late in the first episode provides a clue about the roots of Mariner's bad attitude. They're joined by D'Vana Tendi (Noël Wells), an enthusiastic junior medical officer who's green both literally and figuratively, and Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), a budding engineer still getting used to some cybernetic implants that have a habit of disrupting his emotions and communications skills.
With the exception of Mariner (and even her jadedness often seems like a mask) the central characters share a sense of optimism and curiosity, elements as much at the core of Star Trek as transporters and tribbles. And by eschewing some of the darkness favored by Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard -- both fine shows in their own right -- Lower Decks often feels more like a traditional Star Trek series than more recent efforts, even with jokes about blustering transdimensional energy creatures that require virtually no effort to defeat. Though featuring considerably more gags than other Trek shows, it's still set in a brighter future filled with strange creatures and unexpected possibilities. It's a wonder to explore, even on a ship that habitually gets to see them second.
TV Guide Rating: 3.5/5
Star Trek: Lower Decks premieres Thursday, Aug. 6 on CBS All Access. New episodes will premiere Thursdays.