LOWER DECKS premieres, but is STAR TREK ready for animated comedy? (editorial review)

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?

Batter up…!

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 GenStar Trek without Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the TOS cast?
  • DS9 – Boldly staying in one place…Star Trek without a starship?
  • VoyagerStar 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!

Isn’t there…?

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.

40 thoughts on “LOWER DECKS premieres, but is STAR TREK ready for animated comedy? (editorial review)”

  1. Interesting take, Jonathan.

    But, remember…CBS *did* dabble a bit with an animated version of Trek. I hope this venture proves to be a bit better than TAS was.

    Granted, TAS was set during the TOS era, and they were trying to keep the spirit of Trek alive. As I recall (from the many Trek Cons I’ve attended, where TAS was mentioned, and dicussed at length), TAS *wasn’t* initially intended for children.

    I’m wondering if “Lower Decks” may be another attempt on CBS’ part to echo TAS’ initial attempt.

    Also remember…Trek, in general, came out when the majority of its’ fans were children. Now that we’re adults, we can certainly appreciate the mature jokes, and (most likely) grittier themes.

    That’s my .02 quatloos on the subject. YMMV

    Doug

    1. For the record, Doug, the original animated Star Trek series from the 1970s aired on NBC, not CBS. And the studio behind it was Filmation. I don’t think Lower Decks is intended for children, but I did notice the one swear work from the Doctor was bleeped…although I did hear the word “dick” quite distinctly. Either way, though, MUCH less cursing than either Discovery or Picard! 🙂

  2. How to do Trek and Comedy? Just look at the first season of THE ORVILLE – it pulls off the early M*A*S*H episodes ballance style of comedy-drama. (The Second Season of THE ORVILLE is closer to the later episodes of M*A*S*H with the drama being a little more than the comedy – I got a feeling 3rd Season of THE ORVILLE is going to be alot like the last season of M*A*S*H where the balance was shifted even more from comedy)

    Still this is only the first episode of LOWER DECKS – so I’d expect that they are finding their feet in how to do Trek & Comedy.

    1. To me, The Orville early on felt like a serious sci-fi/Star Trek-inspired show with a series of “insert penis joke here” interruptions that seemed like hitting speed bumps on a freeway. Later on, the comedy in Orville was toned down, and the show became even stronger.

      Lower Decks is more of a romp, with one comedic gag leading into another. There’s MUCH more comedy (or intended comedy) in Lower Decks, I think, then there ever was in The Orville. Just my too sense. 🙂

  3. You know, we’ve done 80+ fan films over the past decade, and one of my personal favorites is an almost farcical French comedy. More than half of our viewers loved it. Slightly less than half hated it.

    I concluded that some Star Trek fans just don’t seem to appreciate comedy, and given the same sort of reactions to Lower Decks, I feel my conclusion is valid.

    I’m looking forward to more!

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed it! I hope the remaining episodes are just as good! I wish I could binge them.

        1. Different business model, UW. Netflix floods its subscribers with a steady stream of new content. There’s no reason to cancel a Netflix subscription because there’s always something new coming next week or next month.

          All Access is constrained by having only 14 original series at the moment, and four of them are Star Trek (Discovery, Picard, Short Treks, and now Lower Decks). Of the other ten series, two have been either canceled or ended, another three haven’t been canceled or renewed, and five new series have been announced but are not yet in production. In other words, not a lot of new content. Thus far this year, only one or two series have released new episodes in any given month, and some months have had no new anything from All Access. Netflix has multiple new releases each WEEK.

          So to keep viewers subscribed, All Access releases their new series one episode per week, like Disney+ did with The Mandalorian. Whether or not that is a viable strategy when facing stiff competition like Netflix and Prime the jury is still out.

  5. I agree with all your comments Jonathan.
    I liked the series premiere, I laughed at some of the gags, I chuckled at others, and overall I was entertained.

    Bottom line? Star Trek: Lower Decks is a workplace sitcom that just happens to be set on a Federation Starship.

  6. My problem is I see a difference between comedy and stupid and so far i see the ‘comedy’ of lower decks as being dunb. It takes the ideas that Star Fleet characters are comic relief instead of a group of well trained ,,disciplined people for no other reason to he a laugh
    I’ve heard the second episode is much better and i certainly hope so! Don’t get me wrong, I WILL be tuning in every a Thursday! It’s still new Star Trek and i refuse to miss new Trek!
    I’m trying not to be a hater and will give the show every possible chance!
    See Jonathan, I’m not ALWAYS A jerk!!

    1. Good to know, Edward!

      I realize that Starfleet Academy graduates are supposed to be the best of the best…but we’ve still had Reg Barclay and Tom Paris. Not every graduate can be a Harry Kim! 🙂

      1. I agree but would the ‘class clown’ graduate from an academy like Star Fleet? Unless they let us see some serious sides of these characters I’m afraid it will be a failure. Sure, it will probably last 3-4 seasons but will it be remembered in 10 years as more than a joke? I don’t think so…but I have been wrong once or twice before!

          1. We actually don’t know how Finnegan turned out…at least not in terms of established canon. It’s possible that Finnegan became a fine starship commander or even a high-ranking admiral.

            But personally, I hope he joined security and got eaten by some giant plant or blasted by some god-like super being or turned into a cube and crushed. 🙂

  7. I’m going to go watch it right now so I can justify my utter hate and disgust.

    On a side note a live action The Office on a Starship would be hilarious. I don’t mind comedic farce with my Trek. I mind this Rick and Morty style animation garbage. Thats what doesn’t belong in Star Trek. And don’t bother bringing up The Animated Series. It was serious animation for its time. They could do an animation Star Trek or do animated Star Trek like G.I. JOE RESOLUTE or the new TRANSFORMERS on Netflix. Just not this immature Rick and Morty style crap.

  8. Everything I hated.

    The run from a fight in the opening credits.

    The First Officer is a moron.

    The Captain wants one Ensign to spy on another.

    Cyborg guy is stupid.

    Medical is a butcher shop.

    Mom’s a Captain Dad’s an Admiral daughters a schmuck. She’s not even close to a Tom Paris type.

    It wasn’t funny. I didn’t even crack a smile.

    Every opinion I formed about this God forsaken monstrosity before it came out was correct. I should be a psychic helping cops solve crimes.

    Horrible absolutely horrible.

      1. Honestly I didn’t really notice it. I’m sure the music was fine because it’s hard to screw up the music.

        Honest hand to god truth (if I believed in a god) I hated it as much as I expected to. There’s no way to approach something like this without preconceived ideas. Mine were verified.

          1. I knew you were kidding. And I’m sure the play was excellent.

            Someone should put on that play for trump. Where’s John Wilkes Booth when you need him.

  9. Well, I already saw the first episode, (don’t ask me how and I won’t have to lie to you. Nothing openly illegal but twisting the rules a bit). I saw it without subtitles and, given the speed at which they speak, I would probably miss some jokes ,,, even so my final feeling is also V’ger’s “Okay, this is the best Trek you can do?”. Understand me, I did not expect anything and I did not get much, so my disappointment is not as great as the one I felt with Picard, but if this is the series that should make the fans stay here waiting for ,,,,, Waiting for what exactly?
    This series would be an acceptable appetizer, only acceptable, while they bring me the main dish and I’m afraid that today (and with this chef in the kitchen), the main dish will have to be eaten at another restaurant. (Orville I don’t know if you know him, I’ve had a table reserved there for a long time), Reserved on CBS?, no thanks.

    1. Actually, Lower Decks is meant to be a bit of an appetizer, as current plans call for season 3 of Discovery to premiere almost immediately afterward. Sorry it wasn’t your cup of Earl Gray, Patricia.

  10. You don’t have to apologize, it’s not your fault. I am at a point where the official Trek can no longer disappoint me, Lower Decks is the most acceptable of the things they have done, and the short Trek Calypso, (and taking into account the extra effort involved in watching a trek episode outside from the USA, pay all access, pay a VPN, look for some moderately adjusted subtitles, translate them and synchronize them ,, and ,,,) well frankly, it is not worth it, I prefer to invest that time in Fanfilms that are more satisfactory and at least they are made with affection and respect. In that regard, your blog is irreplaceable for me and a must-see every week. Thanks for your work, (I think I never told you) 🙂

    1. Well, thank you for that, Patricia. I’m slowing down a little in fan film coverage lately for two reasons. The first is a slowing of new fan film releases themselves, although there’s a few major ones set to premiere soon (ones long in production). The second is that I finally picked up a part-time job that I’m doing from home, which is sucking up some serious blog time!

      But look forward to a few audio interviews with Constar people named Vance and Greg, a feature on the German stop-motion fan films from Jurgen Kaiser, and an upcoming multi-part blog on the long history of Yorktown: A Time to Heal. Just gotta make time for all that! 🙂

  11. I really enjoyed it (once I managed to escape my Apple TV’s urge to narrate… I didn’t even know it could DO that!)

    I thought the 4 main characters each had their moments, both together in pairs and when dealing with others, and I thought they played off each other well. Now they need to rinse and repeat.

    Animation was good (SO much better than the old Filmation budget-constrained style) and the backgrounds were excellent. If I had any complaints with character design, it would be the funny pig-like aliens on the planet. (TAS did better in that regard, IMHO.)

    Lastly, of all the nods to the past, the one I loved the most was the sequence of notes in the opening theme that clearly (to me) was a shout out to the theme of TAS. Anyone else catch that?

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