JONATHAN, HIS BLOG FILLED WITH SPOILERS!
I almost couldn’t believe it, but there it was. STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS‘ second episode of season 2, “”Kayshon, His Eyes Open,” includes a total zinger at the end aimed directly at its older sister-series, Star Trek: Discovery. But before I show you the clip (you’re just gonna scroll to the bottom of this blog to watch it anyway, but y’all come back up now, y’hear?), let me share a few thoughts with you…
It’s becoming increasingly more challenging to write these blogs about the various CBS All Access…er, I mean ViacomCBS Paramount+ Star Trek series. The reason is that I’m not really a reviewer…and most people don’t actually care what I or other reviewers think about the episodes, anyway. It’s not that we don’t have interesting insights to share, but people either agree with us and just want validation that someone else believes the same way they do, or else they don’t agree and pretty much just want to argue and tell us how wrong we are. Star Trek reviewers these days might as well be shouting “Kal-if-fee!” at a Vulcan marriage ceremony or “All Klingons are wussies!” at an Ascension Ritual.
That’s certainly the case with Discovery and, to a SLIGHTLY lesser extent, to Star Trek: Picard. Lower Decks, however, has been a bit of a strange puppy. Unlike the two other Trek series I just mentioned, not nearly as many fans seem to have that same level of soul-devouring moral indignation about Lower Decks. In other words, there’s not quite as many Lower Decks “haters” out there. And indeed, there’s rather a few fans who think Lower Decks is the only “real” Star Trek series being produced anymore—embracing Star Trek‘s rich heritage and feeling very much like a sequel to Next Gen, DS9, and Voyager rather than a complete makeover reboot that shakes canon like an Etch-a-Sketch. The stories on Lower Decks FEEL like Star Trek…except for one thing:
It’s not that Star Trek can never be funny. Ever since Captain Kirk got buried under an avalanche of dead tribbles and Spocko uttered the words, “I’d advise ya’s ta keep dialin’, Oxmyx,” Trek has demonstrated itself to be quite capable of humor. The most quotable lines from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (“Well, a double-dumbass on you!” “I love Italian, and so do you…” “Hello, computer…” “No, I’m from Iowa; I only work in outer space…” “Ve are looking for nuclear wessels…”) were the funniest ones. Data studied comedy from Joe Piscopo, for goodness sakes, and an entire episode of DS9 could well have been titled “The Bad News Niners.” And don’t even get me started on Dr. Chaotica!
But Lower Decks is different. It crosses a line.
Or does it…?
The original title (and theme) of this blog was going to be “Is LOWER DECKS the RORSCHACH TEST of Star Trek?” If you’re not familiar (or only barely familiar) with the concept of a Rorschach test, it is given by psychologists and psychiatrists to their patients as a means to determine personality traits and cognitive functioning (among many other things). The patient is shown a series of essentially random-shaped (but mostly symmetrical) ink blots and asked to tell the tester what it is the patient sees when they look at the images. The patient’s comments, questions, even their behavior and movement as they examine the cards is recorded and analyzed later.
There’s no such thing as a correct or incorrect answer to a Rorschach test. The ink blots aren’t really supposed to look like anything in particular—so “butterfly” or “demon face” or “woman’s hoo-hah” are all equally valid answers. The simple act of analyzing and discussing the cards tells the evaluator about the person looking at the images. Even your reaction to the fact that I just wrote “woman’s hoo-hah” can say a lot about you…and about me for choosing to use the term “hoo-hah.”
But I digress…
However, in a way, I don’t really digress because, just like Rorschach tests (and hoo-hahs!), the way a fan reacts to Lower Decks can tell us more about the fan him or herself than about the TV series. And again, there’s not really a “right” or “wrong” answer. No everyone finds the same things funny—and not every fan thinks the same things are Star Trek.
Case in point, my longtime friend Jack “Towaway” Eaton. (And if you want to know why he’s nicknamed “Towaway,” you’ll need to ask GEORGE TAKEI…long but hilarious story that involves George getting arrested for jogging in Maine.) Anyway, after the first episode of the second season, “Strange Energies,” aired, Jack posted the following comment to Facebook (there’s more, but this was the most relevant part)…
So, they are openly making no secret of how the current producers and show runners of the current crop of the Star Trek franchise view their audience; lemmings. On this week’s episode of “The Ready Room” (I hope Wil Wheaton is dragging home big bags of money for his performance as a used car salesman where every car on the lot runs like a Ferrari regardless of what it looks like) more than one member of the cast and the showrunner made more than one reference as to how much the fans will love the call backs to Trek history. They are erroneously calling them “Easter eggs” but what they are, is fan service. They are hoping long times fans will be in the afterglow of nerdgasm that someone said “Eminiar 7” that they won’t notice how badly the story was written. This week’s episode of “Lower Decks” is one of their worst. They slap together a “plot” around a reference to “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. The show is promoted as a comedy but I kept waiting for the funny to show up but it never did. I am holding out hope “Strange New Worlds” will be good and not an Alzheimer’s test of Trek fans memory.
Now, I actually enjoyed the first episode of season two. And while I only LOL’d once or twice, I had a smile on my face during most of it. I thought it was a decent story—certainly better than “Spock’s Brain,” “The Royale,” or “Threshold” (the one where Janeway and Paris devolve into giant iguanas and then mate). But hey, I’m setting the bar pretty low there. I’d actually say the first Lower Decks of this season was on par with the stronger episodes of the first seasons of TNG and DS9. And did I enjoy the reference to Gary Mitchell becoming a godlike being? Absolutely! I love fan service because I’m a fan and like to be serviced. (Oh, wait, that totally didn’t come out right…especially since the next thing Jack said was “nerdgasm.”)
But seriously, I’m happy to see stuff like that. But apparently Jack isn’t. No right or wrong answer, though. In fact, as much as most people seem to love The Orville, tastes are split on whether or not there should be so much outright comedy…or at the very least, maybe tone it down a little on jokes about anatomy and bodily fluids. On the other hand, some people are fine with all of that. As we say on Earth, “C’est la vie.”
So I was all ready to write about Jack’s comment and the whole Rorschach test thing. But then I finally got around to watching the SECOND episode of the season. If you haven’t seen it yet (then why the heck are you even reading this spoiler-filled blog???), the basic plot is that a collector—much like Kevas Fajo from TNG‘s “The Most Toys”—has just died, and the the crew of the U.S.S. Cerritos needs to help catalog his collection before putting it up for auction…since some of the stuff might be, y’know, dangerous. Of course, like the most obsessed of us Trek fans with our own collections, this collection spans the length and breadth of Star Trek‘s many series!
If Towaway thought the FIRST episode was full of fan service—Holy Rings of Betazed, Batman!!!—this episode was crammed with more easter eggs than a Peep Factory! (Okay, that was a horribly inaccurate metaphor, but just imagine for yourself something crammed with an ungainly amount of easter eggs. Help a blogger out here, people!) You’ve gotta frame-by-frame the darn thing to catch ’em all, but everything from the U.S.S. Valiant‘s ship’s recorder from “Where No Man Has Gone Before” to a Vulcan lirpa to Khan’s broken belt-buckle necklace to the alien “game” headset that disabled the crew of the Enterprise-D to a giant skeleton of Spock Two from the animated TOS episode “The Infinite Vulcan” appears in the episode.
Plus we get a Tamarian security officer (the “Darmok and Gilad at Tenagra” species), the Pakleds, a Miranda-class starship, Cardassians shining four lights on a Starfleet prisoner, and multiple references to Will Riker’s transporter clone, Thomas. And one of the shuttlecraft from the U.S.S. Titan? The Coltrane…likely named after John Coltrane, one of the greatest American jazz saxophonists ever and certainly someone a jazz-playing trombonist like Will Riker would want one of his shuttles named after. (If we ever see the shuttle Armstrong on the Titan, assume it’s Louis and not Neil.)
Anyway, “Nergasm” doesn’t BEGIN to describe the fan service of this episode! It’s almost as if the writers traveled forward in time, read Towaway’s comment, traveled back in time, and wrote the episode just to overload his mind!
Okay, you’ve read this far, it’s time for me to reward you with the click-bait that I used to draw you here in the first place: how exactly did Lower Decks dis Discovery? (Can we just take a millisecond to appreciate what I did there?) Anyway, here it is…
In case the video doesn’t load for you, Boimler describes his time on the U.S.S. Titan under Captain Riker as “…a bunch of complex characters thrown into heavily-serialized battles which always ended in mind-blowing twists that made me question the basic tenets of my reality.” If that doesn’t sum up many fans’ reactions to Discovery (and to a lesser extent, the frenetic JJ Abrams reboots), then I don’t know what does!
But notice that the writers aren’t necessarily saying it’s a good thing or a bad thing…only that it wasn’t Boimler’s thing. He is more “at home” on the Cerritos, even though it’s not the Titan or any of those other action-packed ships that are constantly fighting. He even says earlier in the episode that he’d rather explore the galaxy than shoot his way through it; that’s why he joined Starfleet in the first place.
And frankly, that’s my truth, too.
You might remember how, last season, I wrote a blog about how Boimler, Mariner, Tendi, and Rutherford represented the four archetypes of typical Star Trek fans. (If not, read it here.) But the fact is that they are all on the U.S.S. Cerritos, not the Enterprise or the Titan or some front-line ship. As fans, we’ve all been there and done that. We’ve watched those episodes over and over and over again. So now we’re seeing Starfleet from another perspective…the view from the “lower decks.”
And yeah, it might not be everyone’s cup of Earl Grey. But that’s okay. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to like Discovery either. You don’t have to like eating kale. Just please don’t judge those who do. Don’t think of them/us as “lemmings” or “get-a-lifers” or anything other than other Star Trek fans who enjoy one of the shows that doesn’t necessarily float your boat.
There’s still enough room in the water for al of us.