I know, I know. Who needs another comedic take on “Star Trek,” right? The space adventuring saga has been mercilessly skewered from “SNL” to “Black Mirror.” This writer remembers UPN’s “Ultimate Trek: Star Trek’s Greatest Moments,” in which Jason Alexander played Captain Kirk. At one point, in uniform, he takes a tricorder reading of Randy’s Donuts.
The best comedic riffs on “Trek,” though, from “Galaxy Quest” to “The Orville,” are those where the laughs aren’t based on scorn, but recognition. This is an insanely earnest franchise — an entire movie is about saving the whales and it somehow manages to be one of the best comedies of the ’80s — and so the humor is baked right in. You don’t need to add something else to the “Trek” dynamic. You just need to embrace the “Trek” dynamic.
That’s what CBS All Access’s new animated comedy series “Star Trek: Lower Decks” achieves so perfectly. This may not be the best “Trek” series ever, but based on the first four episodes it might be the most “Trek” series ever. It isn’t a riff on Starfleet shenanigans, it’s the real deal, raw and undiluted.
Every single “Trek” has struggled to find its footing at first, to define its characters and make them “stick” with the audience in a meaningful way. All except for “Lower Decks.” This show seems perfectly defined from the start, with an incredibly appealing array of crewpeople to follow: our lead is Ensign Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), someone so preternaturally gifted at exploring, cultural diplomacy, and scientific discovery that she lives up to the very best of Starfleet while also flouting every single one of its rules, causing massive headaches for her superiors and making it highly unlikely she’ll advance up the command ladder.
Mariner knows how to carouse with a Klingon in a way that’ll earn respect, even if that means drawing blood. She’s paired up with stickler Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid), another ensign who knows every Starfleet regulation and is about as by the book as you can get. But he’s never actually been anywhere and all he knows about the galaxy he’s learned in books. To build up Boimler’s confidence, Mariner gets a Ferengi friend of hers to play the most stereotypical, species-ist version of a Ferengi so that it’ll appeal to Boimler’s notion of what Ferengi are like and he’ll feel more confident for having responded to the situation the way he does. (Talk about a merited dig at how the franchise has uncomfortably assigned personality traits to entire sentient species at large since its beginning.) Afterward, Mariner calls her Ferengi pal and, now wearing a monocle, he’s as erudite and cultured as the Ferengi on “Next Generation” were greedy, tasteless, and venal.
In short, Mariner and Boimler are a classic sitcom pairing who also happen to be a natural fit for the “Star Trek” universe. Other characters similarly pop right away: among the lower decks ensigns there’s also the engineer Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), who loves Jeffries Tubes more than anyone should, and the nurse-in-training Ensign Tendi (Noël Wells), an Orion whose pure kindness and earnestness is absolutely infectious. Her attempt at helping a fellow crewman use meditation and different spiritual techniques to “ascend” past his corporeal form and become a god-like spirit of pure energy — always a possible life goal in Starfleet ever since the “Where No Man Has Gone Before” episode of “The Original Series” — is the hardest this writer has laughed since Larry David’s unfortunate mishap with a blow-up doll on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” earlier this year.
Among the bridge crew, there’s a Bajoran security officer (Fred Tatasciore) and a cat-like Caitian chief medical officer (this was a species first introduced on the franchise’s original 1970s cartoon show, “Star Trek: The Animated Series”). The first officer, Jack Ransom (Jerry O’Connell) was described by O’Connell at San Diego Comic-Con as being “like William Riker “if he was on speed and had less shame.” When captured by aliens who demand he fight in a gladiatorial ring for a minor cultural slight (another hazard of being in Starfleet), he intends to solve the situation by writing a really great speech to convince the aliens they need to release him. For his mandatory birthday celebration, he intends to sing and play acoustic guitar for hours. “And the songs? Well, he wrote them!” Captain Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) says. “They’re all about the month he lived in Bar-thelona.”
The captain herself? Well, she has a particular agenda in mind for Mariner that quickly becomes apparent. And yes, this is the single most diverse starship crew we’ve ever seen in “Star Trek.” It immediately becomes apparent that means we get so much more information about the time period, what happened after the previous shows, and what it’s like to live in the Federation than we would if it were a less diverse crew. Diversity here is a key to unlocking exploration, which is about as “Star Trek” a point of view as there is.
There’s a lived-in feeling to the comedy too, like it emerges organically from actual storytelling that continues the particular ’90s-style exploration of the galaxy we saw on “Next Gen” and “Deep Space Nine.” There is confirmation that pretty much everyone just uses the holodecks for sex. That everyone feels a little inferior to those who serve aboard the Enterprise. That some of the established “Trek” history really does blow people’s minds, like about how Spock came back from the dead. And there’s a quintessentially 24th Century framing of our own pop culture, when one crewperson talks about her enthusiasm for “a classical band” called The Monkees. It’s such a 90s “Trek” feel you might even stop and think “Is Rick Berman the EP on this show?” But he isn’t, of course.
“Lower Decks” is the brainchild of Mike McMahan, the “Rick & Morty” contributor and “Solar Opposites” creator who masterminded one of the single most perfect Twitter accounts in existence: TNG Season 8, which gives TV Guide-style loglines to hypothetical episodes of “Next Gen,” if the series had continued beyond its seventh season finale in 1994. “Stern professors of a university planet doubt Picard’s commitment to science” and “Riker protects a class of alien school kids and their attractive teacher during a lava storm. A flock of tiny, flightless birds hunt Wesley” are just a couple of the gems. If anything, though, those loglines might point to the one area so far that deserves quibbling on “Lower Decks”: that three of the plots seem to deal with things (a rage virus, crystal-worshiping zealots, a weird terraforming substance) possibly taking over the ship. Hopefully the plots will become as compelling as the character work soon.
“Lower Decks” looks a bit like “Rick & Morty,” and the animation company Titmouse is behind its flat, purposefully cartoony — but never less than engaging — look. By the end of the four 25-minute episodes made available, you feel even that much more connected to all of the characters than you would have after 100 minutes of any previous “Trek” series. It’s quite an achievement.
But one that makes sense. There was always a ton of humor in “Star Trek”: the dynamic between DeForest Kelley’s Bones and Leonard Nimoy’s Spock was essentially a classic insult-comic versus straight-man dynamic. Data was always hilarious. “Deep Space Nine,” often considered the darkest “Star Trek” show, has comedy coming at you from everywhere: literally every character on that show, even the most sinister, could be hysterical. Sometimes a laugh can put everything in perspective. On “Lower Decks,” that laughter points the way to “Star Trek’s” soul.
“Star Trek: Lower Decks” has a new episode available every Thursday on CBS All Access.