NO SPOILERS – PROMISE!
Okay, I’m not going to waste time telling you the premise of the show or explaining who the characters are in the new STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS. You can get that info elsewhere. Instead, I want to talk about this “great experiment” and discuss whether CBS should have taken this risk in the first place, and now that they have, was it worth it?
First the good news: the Lower Decks pilot episode “Second Contact” wasn’t awful. And I can’t say that about every new Star Trek series. After watching the pilot episode of DISCOVERY back in 2017, I had a list of complaints a mile long. But with Lower Decks, it was more a feeling of, “Is this all that there is? Is there nothing more?” (Oh, wait…that was V’Ger’s line.)
And that’s kind of the thing with Lower Decks. My last joke about V’Ger was something that hard-core Trek fans are going to appreciate. And Lower Decks certainly passes the Trekkie CAPTCHA challenge. It’s obvious that the folks in charge of this show know their Star Trek, and they throw in a parade of references (almost too many!) to assure us that “we reach” and that the creators wish to mind-meld with us and share their love of Star Trek. And thank Landru(!), so far their attempts to reference canon have been deeply respectful rather than trying to upend it….unlike some CBS series I won’t mention (COUGH, COUGH, Discovery, COUGH).
Also, I have to say unequivocally that the show looks FANtastic. Despite the caricature cartoon style of most of the characters (more of a feature than a bug), the look and feel is straight out of 24th century Star Trek. The one thing that fans can’t complain about it (although I’m sure some still will!) is that this show doesn’t look like Star Trek. It most certainly does!
And I love the opening credits sequence. For anyone who has ever visited Disney’s California Adventure and ridden the Soarin’ ride (originally Soarin’ Over California), that’s where the music is (mostly) inspired from…since the U.S.S. Cerritos is a California-class starship and Cerritos is only 10 minutes from Anaheim where the Disneyland theme park is located. The opening sequence is fun, showing the traditional “hero” shots of the starship—all gorgeously rendered—but with the ship looking anything but heroic! It sets the stage nicely for what to expect.
So as an animated comedy, I think CBS got the “animated” part right. That’s half the battle. Ah, but then there’s the “comedy.”
The famous saying in Hollywood goes, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Did sh0w-runner MIKE McMAHAN hit a home run, barely make it to first base, or strike out completely? And even more importantly, should CBS have even given him the baseball bat to begin with?
RISK…RISK IS OUR BUSINESS
Anyone who is shouting right now that is isn’t appropriate to take a serious franchise like Star Trek and turn it into a comedic romp is missing a very important point. Star Trek has ALWAYS been about taking risks! And I don’t just mean the characters on their space missions. Each new series has taken at least one major risk (often more):
- Next Gen – Star Trek without Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the TOS cast?
- DS9 – Boldly staying in one place…Star Trek without a starship?
- Voyager – Star Trek without the Federation or anything else familiar for 70,000 light-years?
- Enterprise – A leap back in time to the 22nd century?
- JJ Trek – Can you recast Kirk, Spock, McCoy and reboot the franchise 43 years later?
- Discovery – The main character isn’t the captain? And she’s a black woman?
- Picard – No one’s in Starfleet, there’s no starship, all of the characters are damaged people seeking redemption/salvation, and the entire season will be one, long 10-part story?
Okay, so Star Trek has been known to take some risks. But comedy??? I mean, sure, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was funny at times, but no one would ever call it a “comedy.” There’s a difference between throwing in a few gags here and there and taking something with a rich history and reputation for seriousness and suddenly playing it completely for laughs!
YES, FOLKS, COMEDY CAN INDEED WORK FOR SERIOUS SUBJECTS
The biggest complaint I’m seeing out there is that Star Trek was never meant to be a comedic romp though space. These junior officers on the U.S.S. Cerritos all graduated from Starfleet Academy. They shouldn’t be bungling idiots, and the senior officers shouldn’t be so flawed and caricaturish. Star Trek should be serious, dammit! Treat it with some respect.
Of course, that’s what CBS—and Paramount before them—have been doing for 54 years (with the exception of episodes like “The Trouble with Tribbles” and “Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy”). Perhaps the time has come to take Star Trek where it hasn’t gone before?
“NO!” the purists scream! “Some things are sacred! Some things simply can’t be turned into comedy and still be taken seriously!!!”
Oh, really? Let me throw you a few Hollywood pitches for sitcom ideas…
- “Okay, so there’s whacky mischief and hijinx during World War II as allied prisoners outwit their German captors week after week in a Nazi P.O.W. camp!”
- “All right, get this: It’s South Korea. It’s war. And we’ve got a weekly appointment with zany doctors at a mobile army surgical hospital! They’re always pranking each other and making jokes…especially during surgeries while they’re covered in blood patching up wounded and dying American soldiers!”
- “So America is being torn apart by civil unrest, racial inequality, women not being respected, and a president who might very well be crooked. So we’re gonna deal with all of that, and our main character is going to be a lovable racist who hates minorities, doesn’t respect women and is totally loyal to the president. What was that? Of course it’s a comedy!”
War. Physical and emotional trauma. Incarceration. Racism. Sexism. Prejudice. All of those things would easily be considered the third rails of comedy, right? And yet Hogan’s Heroes ran for six seasons, M*A*S*H ran for 11 seasons, and All in the Family ran for 9 seasons…and each show won multiple Emmy awards.
So let’s not discount comedy as a viable medium even for very serious subjects…especially for serious subjects! Granted, comedy doesn’t always work for everything. UPN’s atrocious Homeboys in Outer Space comes to mind. As I said: dying is easy, but comedy is hard.
SO DID THE LOWER DECKS COMEDY WORK?
That’s a hard question to answer. As I watched the first episode, I only laughed a few times, and a cringed at some jokes. I found a few of the gags downright stupid, and I didn’t necessarily buy into all of the characters being quite as incompetent, self-centered, and clueless as they appeared.
In other other words, it was like watching The Office.
Now, before any Office fans start writing me angry essays about how The Office is infinitely better than Lower Decks, I get that. The Office is brilliant. And unlike Lower Decks, The Office isn’t constrained by five decades of continuity and canon and seriousness. But Lower Decks is, in some ways, trying to be The Office in outer space. The question is: how can Lower Decks pull that off? There actually is a way.
There are ample brilliant shows out there about stupid, clueless, self-centered people acting like idiots. In addition to The Office, there’s The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Veep, Modern Family, Will & Grace…the list of successful Emmy-winning comedy romps is extensive. And I’m not saying that Lower Decks is going to win an Emmy or can even hold a candle to any of these other shows…at least not after watching only one episode.
But there’s something that these successful romp comedies have in common. They don’t just show an endless parade of their characters behaving like morons. There’s STORY. Homer Simpson might spend 90% of the episode being a buffoon and aggravating Marge. But at the end, he learns something and grows from it (at least until next week), and perhaps we learn something, too. And the episode has a satisfying conclusion. We’ve taken a 24-minute journey with these characters, and we’ve all wound up at the same place. If successful, the journey was enjoyable and worth taking again.
Was this the case with Lower Decks?
For me, it almost wasn’t. Almost. For most of the episode, it just felt like I was watching Homer Simpson or Cosmo Kramer do goofy things with no rhyme or reason. Of course, I realize that the pilot episode has to do a lot of introductions and exposition. So I didn’t want to be too hard in grading it. But yeah, it was mostly a ho-hum affair for me, as I enjoyed looking at the beautiful animation but found myself only barely caring about the characters.
A LAST-MINUTE SAVE
But then the episode wrapped up with a big surprise that I didn’t see coming. I won’t spoil anything other than to say it comes during a scene where the captain of the Cerritos is communicating via subspace with a Starfleet admiral. And suddenly, one of the characters (well, two, in fact) became a LOT more interesting to me. And quite unexpectedly, I could look at seemingly stupid and inappropriate things that had happened over the course of the episode with an entirely new perspective.
I liked that! In fact, I very nearly loved it.
And that, my friends, saved Lower Decks for me. I’m now invested in at least one of the characters, possibly two or more of them. And I’m hopeful that the writers can navigate a successful course through this perilous region of space known as comedy. So yeah, the batter did wind up getting on base—barely, but at least he’s now in scoring position.
Now don’t expect Lower Decks to get everything perfect right out of the starting gate. The first seasons of most Trek series are usually the weakest ones. And heck, even M*A*S*H started off with an awkward CBS-mandated canned laughter track, something that didn’t disappear for nearly six seasons. There’s always room for improvement in even the best comedy series.
So I’m going to give Lower Decks a chance to impress me, surprise me, and pull me in with a tractor beam. But it’s far from being a done deal at this early point. However, CBS was nice enough to offer me a free month for reactivating All Access, so Lower Decks has another three or four tries to win me over a little more.
I’ll let you know how it goes.