Get ready for an, ahem, animated discussion…and probably a whole bunch of really angry response comments!
These days, if a new Star Trek series from CBS All Access debuts to universal or near-universal acclaim, then it’s probably premiering in a different universe! In THIS universe, Trek fans are an infamously hard-to-please/easy-to-piss-off mob with social media pitchforks and YouTube podcast torches.
I know; I’ve been one of them…kinda.
Granted, I’ve probably kept more of an open mind than many, and with the exception of the last two episodes of the first season of PICARD, I actually really enjoyed that series. But you guys know how critical I was of DISCOVERY‘s first season—and season two, while significantly better, didn’t completely escape my blogs of shame!
And so, like many fans, I reacted to details about the new STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS series (debuting next month) with some serious trepidation…although still trying very hard to keep an open mind. It hasn’t been easy. The very concept of the new series scared the crap out of me!
I mean…an animated comedy???
Star Trek has survived being animated before. The 22 episodes from Filmation in 1973-74 had a few true gems (“Yesteryear” and “The Slaver Weapon”) and some major klunkers (“The Infinite Vulcan”). But it was generally a well-executed series. As for comedy Trek, episodes like “The Trouble with Tribbles,” “A Piece of the Action,” and movies like Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home showed that you could certainly add a bit of comedic flair to Trek and get a pretty decent result.
But could an animated series designed purposefully for non-stop gags and punchlines still work as Star Trek? Would fans accept such a tongue-in-cheek approach to a universe that we’ve dearly cherished and believed in for all these decades?
Well, CBS (now VCBS, I guess) and ALEX KURTZMAN have decided to find out—and I suppose we will, too, on August 6…and more likely on August 7 when the fannish mob once again takes to social media to make their opinions known (probably quite loudly).
But I am going to go out on a limb and say that, in my gut, we fans might just be getting the Star Trek we’ve been demanding for so long now from both CBS and Paramount!
Before diving into my reasons for that bold prediction, however, if you haven’t seen the latest trailer yet (released on July 12), then please have a look…
Also, a short scene from the first episode was just released yesterday…
And now, let’s cry “Havoc” and let those dogs of war slip a little…
WILL THE FARCE BE WITH THEM?
When I initially heard about this show, my first horrified thought was, “Oh, please, don’t let it be Teen Titans Go!” Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy that show. But it’s total farce. The otherwise proud and impressive superhero group that I fell in love with during the 80s and 90s has been reduced to nothing but silly and offbeat gags and foolish characters. There’s enough other superhero cartoons out there right now that a series like Teen Titans Go! is a pleasant diversion. But with Star Trek, having one-third (or one-fourth?) of all the series being farcical just felt cringe-worthy.
Then I heard that the head writer of Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty, MIKE McMAHAN, was creating Lower Decks and…well…I didn’t quite cringe so much as go, “Hmmmmm…” If you’ve never watched Rick and Morty, you can click on this link, but be warned! It’s totally PG-13 (possibly worse sometimes) and not everyone’s cup of tea. The best analogy I can come up with is imagine Doc Brown from Back to the Future as an obnoxious, alcoholic, nihilistic, self-absorbed, sociopath with a really bad attitude and dysfunctional family life. Or imagine The Doctor as a complete a-hole loser who, instead of loving humanity and wanting to save people every week just really doesn’t give a $#&! and goes around telling everyone off just because he’s bored and he feels like it.
So, um, yeah. This is the writer creating Lower Decks.
But before you cancel your subscription to All Access (or decide never to subscribe again…or ever), let me just say the following without hesitation:
I THINK THAT RICK AND MORTY IS A REALLY GOOD SHOW!!!
Don’t ask me to explain it. I can’t really explain why I loved Ren and Stimpy either. But Rick and Morty actually won the 2018 Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program. The show is really quite brilliant, and once you get past the fact that the main character is the biggest, most repugnant (and smartest) jerk you will ever not want to meet, there’s just this amazing honesty to the show. Oh, and it’s totally sci-fi, so we geeks and nerds have something to love.
Anyway, rather than being a deal-breaker, the Rick and Morty connection actually intrigues me. While I’m sure that some (possibly many) Trek fans won’t appreciate that kind of comedic approach (it’s VERY British, by the way, even though it’s an American series), the show is still high quality and brilliantly written. Lower Decks might seem dumb to some, but I suspect/hope that it’s actually going to be an extremely intelligently-written satire like Rick and Morty…not a farce like Teen Titans Go. If so, then that brings us to the most important question…
WILL IT BE STAR TREK?
Mike McMahan is absolutely a Trek fan. How do we know? (After all, anyone can SAY they’re a fan.) Well, first of all, the chief medical officer of the USS Cerritos, Dr. T’ana, is a Caitian! That’s the cat-race from the original animated series that included Lt. M’Ress and the furry admiral from Star Trek IV. Fans love Caitians because, well, who doesn’t love cats (other than dog people)?
But if you want more proof, do you see those uniforms with the Star Trek II-ish flaps on a Next Gen-ish tunic? That was actually a design originally intended for Star Trek Generations…a merging of the two uniform styles (TWOK and TNG) that the filmmakers asked costumer ROBERT BLACKMAN to create. At the last minute, they decided to go with the TNG and DS9 designs instead, but toymaker Playmates never got the memo and released these action figures in 1994 (look from 17 to 22 seconds)…
Mike was aware of those unused uniform designs and wanted to purposefully use them. Were YOU aware of those unused designs? I wasn’t. So in my book, I’m calling him a fan…and a pretty obsessed one, at that!
But don’t take my word for it. Look at that trailer again. This LOOKS like the Star Trek we know! Set a year after Star Trek: Nemesis and five years before the destruction of Romulus and the Synth attack on Mars, Lower Decks is an era that we fans are very familiar and comfortable with…and so it’s incredibly important that this new series match what we already know.
This was, perhaps, the greatest flaw in Discovery. Of everything that bothered fans about that show, the complete and total visual disparity between Discovery and TOS was a bridge too far. (Sorry, bad pun.) Sure, the technology wasn’t going to be rainbow-colored gumdrop buttons and switches, but those uniforms…nothing at all like TOS. And don’t get me (or anyone) started on the Klingons! Even CBS realized the mistake and brought in the more familiar bright-colored tunics with the black collars for part of season two, gave the Klingons hair, and made the USS Enterprise interior look just a little more like TOS (not much, but at least a little).
And while Picard hewed more closely to the Star Trek that we knew in terms of characters and little visual elements here and there, it nevertheless felt like a very different kind of Star Trek. It didn’t take place on a starship. The “captain” was in his twilight years and not the man he once was. The ship (barely more than a large shuttle) was full of damaged misfits. It was a great show (I thought), but not Star Trek as we knew it.
And J.J. Abrams’ version of Star Trek, well, that pretty much missed the mark entirely…unless you want your Star Trek with a quintuple shot of espresso followed by a six-pack of Jolt!
The Orville, now THAT was Star Trek as we knew it (only with penis jokes). And fans have been clamoring for CBS to just give us more of that. No need for “darker and grittier” and “more epic.” We like what we like. Hopefully, STRANGE NEW WORLDS will give us something a little closer to what we wanted all along: good, honest, optimistic Star Trek.
But Lower Decks…that definitely has some potential. And at least visually, it’s a closer match to established Trek than anything we’ve seen from CBS or Paramount in a long time. Sure, the USS Cerritos isn’t the most attractive starship design ever (not sure it was supposed to be), and that uniform style will only exist for about five years before it’s replaced by the snazzy uniforms from the Picard flashback with Raffi. But Lower Decks has LCARS displays and a Type 8 shuttlecraft like they had on Voyager and dustbuster phaser designs, and holodecks and corridors and Orions and Bolians that we know and love.
So, put a check box on the Lower Decks report card under”visual design.”
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE CHARACTERS?
Back during TNG‘s final season, an episode titled “Lower Decks” took a big chance and became a fan favorite. The story centered on four junior officers hoping for a promotion after their latest evaluations. The episode starts off whimsically but slowly turns more serious and ends tragically. Along the way, the viewer sees the main characters—Picard, Worf, La Forge, Dr. Crusher, etc.—from a new perspective. This episode isn’t about any of them; it’s about the four junior officers…each of whom we begin to care about almost as deeply as we do the command officers.
Junior officers have always intrigued fans because, unlike the main characters, they often had more noticeable and significant shortcomings than our “heroes.” TOS’s Lt. Bailey was hot-headed. Lt. Stiles was bigoted. Lt. Kevin Riley wouldn’t stop singing “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.” Ensign Garrovick wallowed in self-pity. TNG‘s Lt. Reg Barclay suffered from insecurity and just about every phobia you could imagine…and the list goes on (including most of the supporting characters on Deep Space Nine along with Lon Suder, Samantha Wildman, and Seska on Voyager).
All of this is to say that the concept of devoting an entire series to flawed-but-well-meaning (or not so well-meaning ) junior officers hoping to jumpstart their careers—wanting to be noticed but all-too-often kept completely out of the loop—such a series has been an untapped potential for Star Trek for 54 years and certainly since the “Lower Decks” episode of Next Gen 26 years ago.
Anyone complaining that these characters on Lower Decks act like idiots just doesn’t get it. They’re not supposed to be pure paragons of perfection. They’re starting out at the bottom of the ladder just like any Starfleet Academy graduate…with no real experience yet to draw from. I’m expecting that these characters will steadily grow and get less idiotic as the show progresses. Not that I ever expect Lower Decks to lose the humor, but I’m hoping that the jokes and gags will evolve along with the characters.
And what if they don’t grow and develop? Then I suppose I’ll either love the show despite that because it’s just so good or else the jokes will start falling increasingly flat and I’ll stop watching in disappointment, frustration, or disgust…depending on how bad it gets. But at least for now, I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.
BUT HERE’S THE MOST IMPORTANT REASON THAT THIS SHOW MIGHT BE THE STAR TREK WE’VE BEEN WAITING FOR…
My long-time readers know it’s one of my most frequent complaints about CBS-produced Star Trek: not enough character banter. Clever and humorous banter serves to not only develop a character but also helps to humanize them and make them easier for the audience to connect with.
Take away the graveyard scene from Hamlet and the main character is just moping and making long speeches to himself the whole time. But when he matches wits with the sarcastic gravedigger, we get an insight into the young Danish prince that doesn’t appear in all the “To be or not to be…?” soliloquies and poetic protestations anywhere else in the play. Or, if you’re not into Shakespeare, then just imagine Spock and McCoy without the banter about the Vulcan’s green blood or Spock considering that McCoy’s comparing him a computer is a compliment.
Banter is something sorely lacking from nearly the entire first season of Discovery. On the other hand, in season two, Pike had banter in many of his scenes, and look how much we all love him. Burnham is the character with some of the least banter—except a bit with Pike and her adopted brother Spock—and look at how the audience doesn’t really connect with her. But in general, the characters on Discovery feel mostly flat (except Tilly, although she doesn’t have banter so much as serve as the court jester).
The banter in Picard is quite a bit better, and those characters are more fully developed in general. Of course, those Picard characters can be so intense and morose and damaged that the banter is almost necessary so that we don’t just reject them all as unlikeable.
But from the trailer, it looks like character banter is going to saturate Lower Decks, which isn’t surprising. After all, banter means laughs, and this is a comedy, after all. But in so doing, these characters will likely be lighter, more humorous, more colorful, and more human (even the aliens) than most of what we’ve seen on Star Trek in recent series and movies.
And if you think about it, Star Trek has always been most successful when it provides hope and lightness and color (always color!) to make us feel like the future is bright. Discovery ultimately failed miserably at this (hopeless most of the time, dark, and monochromatic). Picard started course-correcting a bit. But Lower Decks…this one is bright and hopeful and ridiculously and refreshingly colorful (literally!). I don’t know about all of you, but after subdued palettes since the launch of Star Trek: Enterprise (not counting JJ Trek), I am ready for some saturated reds, yellows, and blues again!
Not only that, but the characters look to have personalities as colorful as their uniforms and skin (and hair!). Yeah, I know they’re probably gonna behave like idiots from time to time, get drunk, swing bat’leths indiscriminately, and almost dismember their fellow crewmates. But hey, we put up with Reginald Barclay. Ezri Dax had her foibles. Tom Paris got into trouble enough times to get demoted. And don’t even get me started on Tilly and F-bombs! At least give these new guys a chance.
Most of all, though, I’m just intrigued at the concept of this show being something fresh and new while also grounded in the Star Trek mythos. I’m curious to see what happens with a SECOND contact after the first contact. I’m eager to see what life is like on a starship that isn’t the flagship of the Federation or on the font lines of a galactic war or the lone Starfleet vessel trapped in the delta quadrant. I want to get to know these new characters a little better.
Or the show could suck.
But once again, I’m going into this with an open mind. I’ll be restarting my subscription to All Access in two weeks, and I’ll probably even post a few review editorials. So feel free to tell me that I’m completely wrong now…or else wait a short bit and then you can provide specific examples of why I’m wrong. I’m fine either way.