NO SPOILERS AT ALL!
I think I’ve discovered the secret of STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS…and it’s a revelation! Granted, if you’ve already figured it out, too, then you’re just gonna write “So what? Big deal. It was obvious from the first episode…” and curse me out for wasting your time. And of course, if you’re an irate fan determined to hate this show and the very molecules of VCBS and ALEX KURTZMAN, then I doubt any “secret” is going to make you suddenly re-watch Lower Decks with and kind of fannish love and adoration.
But I digress…
Let’s wander back to last Thursday and what turned out to be my favorite episode of the series so far: “Terminal Provocations” (and not just because J.G HERTZLER guest starred as the alien captain). The episode opened with this one-minute gag…
After the episode had ended, I was e-mailing back and forth with my friends David, Marc, and Gorf…telling them how much I (and my son Jayden) enjoyed the latest episode. Like most fans, we’re not all in agreement on how we feel about the show, and Gorf (former DC Comics Batman editor JORDAN GORFINKEL) responded with the following:
GORF – My problem with it is [that] the characters are played as contemporary people with far advanced technology. I’m enjoying it. It’s the closest thing to aspirational Trek that New Trek is putting out. But it’s still living in the shadow of what was.
Although I agree that Lower Decks isn’t on the level of TNG, DS9, or VOY, I didn’t feel it was fair to complain about the characters played as contemporary people because, to be fair, that’s what makes comedy work. It needs to be relatable to the audience in some way. The viewer/listener needs to say, “Oh, I soooo get that!” And thus did my next e-mail contain the following response…
JONATHAN – As soon as you stop telling yourself the show “needs” to be serious Star Trek (as if Stripes needed to be a serious military drama), the sooner you can just sit back and enjoy the brilliance of the comedy we’ve worked five decades to enjoy. These characters can be “us” because that allows the comedy to happen. Would Red Dwarf have worked as well if those weren’t just contemporary Brits on a mining ship 3 million years in the future? Would The Orville be as funny if Ed Mercer weren’t a fan of Billy Joel who sounded like he’d grown up in the 1980s and Gordon weren’t the same kind of office wise-ass we all have to deal with? WE make sci-fi funny and relatable. That’s why the Doctor has companions…to lighten up the show.
GORF – Well put. I guess what I’m not easily getting over is that Next Gen evolved TOS brilliantly—though it took a while figure it out—and this executive team hasn’t gotten there yet. (In fairness, prior Trek iterations took a while to get their Federation groove on, and I have great empathy for this staff, some of whom I know, for the incredibly hard work it takes to make any show, never mind one with a 50+ year history!)
Regardless, Mike McMahan knows his stuff and has found a niche that’s diverting and has heart. He gets it. More amazing is that every episode has a different writer, which means he’s an excellent showrunner. As with Star Wars and Dave Filoni, the animation people get it as well if not more (at this point) than the live action folks, and it makes you wish they’d hand the keys to the mother ship over to the animation folks, too. Imagine what McMahan could do if he were running a “serious” show. And I mean that seriously.
I agreed that Lower Decks show-runner MIKE McMAHAN could probably do an amazing serious Star Trek series. But as I got up from my computer to head for bed, I was thinking about the last thing that Gorf had said about McMahan being a true fan. And then, as I was brushing my teeth, I suddenly realized the secret of Lower Decks and its four main ensign characters!
If it was a snake, it’d bit me!!!
It’s not simply that the four protagonists are just any contemporary people. The four main characters are us! They are the four archetypes of Star Trek fans…
Mariner – she’s the cocky fan who has watched every episode of Star Trek, memorized them, and walks around like she’s God’s gift to fandom. Her knowledge of Star Trek trivia is second to none, which is ultimately meaningless, but in the kingdom of the Trekkies, the fan with the most trivia expertise is king (or queen) and knows it. Mariner is the fan who boldly goes up to WILLIAM SHATNER at a con and talks to him like he’s an old friend, reminiscing about the good old days when they were on Star Trek together. Granted, the fan was never on Star Trek, but they know all the stories from the sets, so it’s almost like the fan was there. This fan has no fear when approaching any Star Trek celebrity.
Boimler – he’s the nervous and insecure fan. For him, Star Trek is sacred, something to be quietly and intensely worshiped. He knows all of the trivia, but he’s always been socially awkward. Unlike Mariner, who also knows all of the trivia, Boimler takes it all WAY too seriously. Other fans look at Boimler and tell him to “get a life!” If he sees Shatner at a convention, the Boimler fan pees in his pants (or costume), faints, and when he finally recovers and changes into his spare uniform, he gets on the autograph line at the very back, practices what he’ll say to Shatner the whole time he’s waiting, finally gets to the front, then freezes and babbles incoherently before finally peeing in his pants again.
Rutherford – he’s the fan who has memorized every Star Trek tech manual and blueprint and NCC number and prefix code. He studies starship designs and weapons systems and transporter circuitry and can speak the language of technobabble fluently. What the Star Trek writers created out of thin air to quickly explain how Geordi or B’Elanna or Trip was going to save the ship makes perfect sense to the Rutherford fan. In fact, he’s probably written or drawn tons of specs himself which he shares online with other Rutherfords in blogs and podcasts. This fan doesn’t bother with Shatner’s autograph line at all and instead spends 90 minutes chatting with MICAHEL & DENISE OKUDA and RICK STERNBACH along with a dozen other Rutherfords who are all debating whether the Enterprise-D is 642 meters long or 642.5 meters long.
Tendi – she’s the fan who just loves EVERYTHING about Star Trek! She spends most of the convention going to the panels and walking the dealers room and buying a ton of merchandise. Oh, and she takes a BILLION pictures! She gets on the Shatner autograph line, gets to the front, tells him how much she loves Captain Kirk and Star Trek, and BEGS him to let her take a picture with him! Of course, the convention says “no pictures” except for the ones you pay $250 for later on. So she says okay, pays the $250 (even though it means not eating for the next three weeks), gets on line again, takes her photo with Shatner giving him a huge hug and kiss, and then enlarges the photo to wall size and puts it next to her blow-ups of all the other Trek cast members she’s met. Oh, and the Shatner photo also becomes that year’s Christmas card that she sends to all of her friends, family, and to Shatner’s agent with a note, “Please give this to Mr. Shatner and tell him how much I appreciate all he’s done for me and other fans. Live long and prosper and keep on Trekking! All my love forever. – Tendi fan.”
And of course, these fans argue and debate among themselves about everything Star Trek the same way that Mariner and Boimler and Rutherfold and Tendi do. Sometimes it’s just friendly banter between friends who find the arguments fun and lively (Rutherfold and Tendi). Other times, the “friends” bicker and yell and try to tear each other down for being “wrong” about this or that (Mariner and Boimler).
We have seen the Lower Decks ensigns, and they are US!
I emailed the above analysis to Gorf and the gang the following morning, and this was Gorf’s response…
GORF – I think you’ve NAILED it. I bet that’s what they discuss in the writers room. No wonder the show launched with such unusual self-assuredness. They knew the characters because they’d been living with them their entire lives, like you said. In a way, they’ve inverted, subverted or subsumed Galaxy Quest and one-upped The Orville.
Indeed, I think they have. In many ways, Lower Decks is Star Trek‘s answer to The Orville…the answer to the answer, as it were. And in the same way that SETH MacFARLANE is a true fan who puts contemporary fan and non-fan archetypes onto his Planetary Union Ship, so does Lower Decks. And while the comedy levels on Orville are only turned up to 6 or 7, the dials on Lower Decks go to 11. And sure, that level of laughter and levity isn’t every fan’s cup of tea. Certainly, the Boimler fans out there probably won’t appreciate it.
But for the Mariner fans, they’ll enjoy all of the little references to Star Trek easter eggs everywhere. For the Rutherford fans, they’ll like that the show LOOKS like Star Trek (except for the caricature cartoon style of the characters) rather than ignoring established tech canon like STAR TREK: DISCOVERY does. And of course, the Tendi fans will just love Lower Decks because it’s Star Trek, and who doesn’t love Star Trek…am I right???
So I guess what I’m saying is that, if you still don’t like Lower Decks at this point, you’re probably a Boimler. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but you probably belong on Starbase 80. (And if you don’t know what that means, well…then enjoy Starbase 80.)
Okay, I’m going to rewatch the first five episodes again now that I know the secret…