Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Second Contact, the first episode of Star Trek: Lower Decks. There may also be spoilers for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.
Star Trek: Lower Decks was a surprise addition to this summer’s television lineup. Though it had been announced that the show was coming this year, it seemed logical to think that Discovery’s third season – now scheduled to premiere the week after the Season 1 finale of Lower Decks – would have come first. Partly the change is due to the ongoing pandemic, and with Lower Decks being ready first, it got to go first.
It isn’t the fault of creator Mike McMahan, nor of the cast and behind-the-scenes crew, but Lower Decks has not been made available internationally. I’ve discussed this on the site several times, and if you want to see what I had to say you can find the articles dealing with the subject on the Star Trek: Lower Decks page. I won’t go into detail on that issue here, but suffice to say it’s a moronic decision to broadcast the show in the United States and Canada without also making it available to fans elsewhere.
“But Dennis, aren’t you from the UK? How can you watch Lower Decks?” I’m glad you asked. In order to circumvent ViacomCBS’ selfish and stupid decision to only release one of their biggest shows in a limited market, I had no choice but to physically move to that market. My second home, high in the Sierra Nevada mountains of North Dakota, overlooks the crystal clear waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This sleepy all-American town, an hour’s drive from the nearest big city (Honolulu, for those of you who don’t know your geography) and close to the snowy bayou of the neighbouring state of Kentucky, seems like the perfect place to chill and watch Lower Decks, don’t you think? I’d invite you all to come too, but I think that would be a violation of social distancing.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s talk about Second Contact. The episode begins with a scene that was a big part of the show’s marketing, appearing in two of the pre-release trailers. This was the scene with Ensign Boimler recording his pretend “captain’s log” in a closet. While this wasn’t new for me and was less interesting as a result, it was a good way to set up the premise of the show for new viewers and for those who skipped the trailers, and the scene as a whole was funny – even though some of the impact of the humour was blunted by having already seen it a couple of times.
Ensign Mariner interrupts Boimler’s log, having got drunk on “Romulan whiskey”, which looks a lot like Romulan ale. She teases him for wasting time with a pretend log, and while showing him a Batleth that she found, accidently cuts his leg.
After this scene came the title sequence. I enjoyed the music; it’s much more up-tempo and adventurous than either the Discovery or Picard themes have been, which is nice. It’s a piece of music that could have been played over the opening titles for The Next Generation and would have fit right in. Interestingly – and I was not expecting this – the title sequence uses The Next Generation’s font for the names of characters and actors, and that was a fun little bit of nostalgia for returning fans.
Before we go any further with Second Contact, let’s talk about returning fans, Trekkies, and people like myself who are longstanding fans of the Star Trek franchise. In some ways, Lower Decks is trying to target that demographic. But there are certainly going to be Trekkies who are turned off by the style of humour. While I’d argue that there is a good degree of crossover between fans of Star Trek and fans of comedy series like Rick & Morty, the two groups aren’t one and the same and there will be fans who, having seen Second Contact, will decide that Lower Decks isn’t a show for them.
I’ve spoken before about divisions within the fanbase, but generally speaking, Star Trek projects until now have all been within the science fiction or action/sci-fi genres. Fans had preferences within that genre as to which show or film they preferred, but Star Trek was, by and large, a franchise firmly in that space. Lower Decks is something different – an overtly comedic series. Thus I think it’s quite likely that some fans, even those who’ve enjoyed Discovery, Picard, and the Kelvin-timeline films, may feel Lower Decks isn’t something they’re into and will choose to skip it. As long as they come back for Strange New Worlds, Discovery, Picard, and other live-action series, from ViacomCBS’ perspective that’s probably okay. But in that sense, at least among longstanding Star Trek fans, I expect there to be some degree of controversy.
There is a flip side, however. There are going to be fans of animated comedy series like Disenchantment, Solar Opposites, Rick & Morty, or even shows like Family Guy, for whom Lower Decks will be their first adventure in the Star Trek universe. It’s a show which I believe has the potential to reach out way beyond Star Trek’s usual viewer base and attract a whole new crowd of fans. Some of them may go on to become Trekkies, inspired by Lower Decks, though of course many won’t. Making a series like this will certainly expand the franchise into a new market – figuring out how best to capitalise on that and retain some of these new viewers will be a challenge, but Lower Decks could perhaps be the first of several comedy series produced under the Star Trek brand if ViacomCBS deems this experiment a success. Only time will tell – and unfortunately the lack of an international broadcast will hurt that in the short term.
Let’s get back to Second Contact, because the episode was generally quite fun. After the title sequence we’re introduced to Ensign Tendi as she arrives aboard the USS Cerritos for the first time. Ensign Boimler is assigned to be her orientation officer, and Ensign Mariner butts in, making fun of Boimler and taking Tendi on a tour of the ship where they also meet the other main character, Ensign Rutherford. I’d speculated, by the way, as to whether Rutherford was an ex-Borg or had been cybernetically augmented (like Lieutenant Detmer in Discovery) and it turns out to be the latter.
Boimler, Tendi, and Mariner visit the holodeck – which looks just like the one on the Enterprise-D – and each of them take turns choosing somewhere to visit. Boimler chose the warp core, before being summoned to the bridge.
The senior officers have just returned from a successful second contact mission with a race called the Galardonians – who I believe are new to Star Trek – and have returned to the ship. Captain Freeman speaks to Ensign Boimler in her ready room and gives him an assignment: keep an eye on Ensign Mariner and report any breaches of regulations. In principle I like this setup. Boimler is by-the-book, and giving him an assignment to keep tabs on Mariner gives him a reason to follow her and spend time with her, developing the relationship between the two. However, it seems from the previous scenes as though Boimler and Mariner were already friends, in which case Boimler may not be a good choice for this kind of assignment. Some of this connects to how I feel about Mariner as a character, but we’ll come to that later.
I also liked the Galardonians – animation as a format allows for more “alien-looking” aliens, and it was nice that they weren’t just another random group of humanoids with slightly different features.
The first officer of the Ceritos – Commander Ransom – was bitten by an insect on the planet’s surface and brought a pathogen or parasite back to the ship. While Rutherford is having a date in the ship’s bar, Ransom basically turns into a black bile-spewing zombie, and the infection rapidly spreads through the ship.
On the planet’s surface, Boimler follows Mariner to where she’s making a secret deal with some Galardonians. He accuses her of selling them weapons – but it turns out to just be farm equipment. They’re attacked by a giant spider-creature, and Mariner has the idea to make decoys using their uniforms. Boimler ends up getting chewed on by the creature, which the Galardonians keep as some kind of farm animal. The two return to the landing site with Boimler covered in slime. I will come to Mariner’s conduct and the way she comes across in a moment, but for now let’s wrap up the story.
Aboard the ship the zombie infection is out of control. Rutherford and his date escaped to one of the transporter rooms by going out an airlock – which was a pretty neat sequence. Mariner and Boimler beam up, and it turns out that the slime he’s covered in is the antidote to the zombie infection. The crew fight their way through to sickbay and synthesise a cure – this was one of the scenes that featured heavily in pre-release marketing.
With the infection over, Captain Freeman and the senior officers take credit for saving the day despite Mariner and Boimler’s help, and Boimler decides not to tell the captain what happened on the planet’s surface. It later turns out that Captain Freeman is Mariner’s mother. I’m sure this revelation will be important later in the season.
This setup, with Boimler tasked to spy on Mariner but choosing not to, feels like it didn’t work as well as it should. They were introduced as already being friendly, which undermined the whole setup, and the payoff at the end where she tells him she’ll mentor him felt unearned. It seemed like he would absolutely rat her out for not following orders – and I’m not really sure why he didn’t given that she got him chewed on by a giant spider.
So it’s time to talk about Mariner. She gets top billing for the series, was the most significant character in pre-release marketing, and takes the central role in the show as its star. But so far I don’t like her. She’s rude to Boimler, despite supposedly being his friend, and we’ll later learn that she’s been demoted and kicked off several past ships that she served on. In fact, it seems as though her family connections – her parents are the captain and an admiral – might be the only reason she’s able to stay in Starfleet.
Lower Decks, as a comedy series, was always going to have to find ways to make the typical goings-on in Star Trek funny, but I don’t necessarily feel that making a character who’s rude, insubordinate, and inherently un-Starfleet is the right way to generate that comedy and those funny moments. Mariner seems to be a rebel, someone who likes breaking the rules and who doesn’t have much respect for Starfleet, for her uniform, her ship, or her crewmates. Yet in any other Star Trek project, someone like that wouldn’t have even made it to the rank of Ensign.
And I know, this isn’t “any other” Star Trek project. But if we’re asked to take Ensign Mariner as our protagonist for this show, she needs to be less offensive and just nicer. I know we’re only one episode in, and a lot can change over the course of a season. I’m willing to give her a chance to grow on me. But Star Trek isn’t a franchise like Rick & Morty – a Rick-like character, which is what it feels like Mariner is meant to be, who doesn’t play by the rules and is unpleasant and selfish doesn’t feel like a good fit. Mariner put Boimler in danger, insisting she knows best despite only having a gut feeling, and has generally been unkind, rude, and insubordinate, not only to Boimler but to the rest of the crew as well.
Right now I’m having a hard time getting behind her as a fun protagonist, and that’s a problem because the other three characters aren’t exactly protagonist material either. Tendi and Rutherford feel underdeveloped; Tendi’s entire character consists of saying “wow” to everything because she’s new to Starfleet, and Rutherford has the cybernetic augmentation but we really didn’t learn anything else about him, making him feel like a secondary character in the premiere episode. And then we come to Boimler. A character perhaps inspired by The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, Boimler is neurotic and seems to suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder. While I like the contrast between “by-the-book” Boimler and “rebel” Mariner, the contrast is perhaps a little too extreme for my taste, and scaling both of them back a few notches would make their dynamic – and the series – more interesting.
Comedy is subjective, and one person’s sense of humour isn’t the same as another’s. Lower Decks will definitely succeed in appealing to fans of the kind of shows I mentioned earlier – Rick & Morty and the like. And there is some degree of crossover with Star Trek and sci-fi for fans of animated comedy, meaning Lower Decks could be a springboard for some people to watch Star Trek for the first time. But for many existing Trekkies, the style of humour on display here will be a turn-off.
I don’t want to say that Second Contact was jarring, because that isn’t exactly true. But a couple of days earlier I re-watched Lower Decks, the episode from The Next Generation’s final season; suffice to say there is a major contrast between what this show is and what other Star Trek shows have been. Star Trek has always had a sense of humour – something I said countless times in defence of Lower Decks in the the run-up to the premiere. But the franchise’s past sense of humour is certainly different from what we saw in Second Contact, and when compared to an episode from a past iteration of Star Trek that played it straight, the difference is vast.
What’s so odd, I think, is that Star Trek usually requires its crew members to work together. Even in Discovery and Picard, which both featured single protagonists supported by secondary characters, there were many times where the crews would come together and work in common cause. Lower Decks has set up Ensign Mariner as its protagonist, and she isn’t someone who seems to work well with… anyone. At least not at this stage. Yes it’s early days, and she has the chance to improve and work better as a team player, but it feels like Lower Decks is setting her up to be Star Trek’s answer to Rick Sanchez, and as a Star Trek fan, I don’t think that kind of character works, at least not within the confines of Starfleet.
Comedy and animation require a different kind of suspension of disbelief than a live-action, non-comedy show. And Lower Decks is very much in that category, where it needs to be seen as an animated comedy first and a Star Trek project second. There is a lot to like, but I’m also thinking that perhaps its sense of humour isn’t always going to be “my thing”. Some of the jokes in Second Contact relied on Mariner being unkind to Boimler in particular, showing no care whatsoever for her friends or her crewmates. For me, most of that side of the show’s humour failed to land, and while for many fans of other animated comedy series it might, I’m having a hard time detaching Lower Decks from the rest of the Star Trek franchise to see it in that way.
Second Contact’s zombie story was okay. I liked that Rutherford, on his date, kept his cool and the fact that he and his date kept talking romantically while chaos erupted around them was funny. This story wasn’t the main focus of the episode, though, and took up comparatively little screen time.
I’d have liked to have spent more time with Ensign Rutherford, who really only got the date/zombie fight on screen. And perhaps, as mentioned, the setup for Boimler and Mariner’s friendship could have been better established prior to Boimler being tasked with spying on her. However, overall the episode was solid, and it seems that Lower Decks has started as it means to continue.
After more the fifty years, the question is whether Star Trek can successfully transition to a new genre. I enjoyed Second Contact, but on that – the biggest question the show faces – the jury is still out.
Star Trek: Lower Decks is available to stream now on CBS All Access for anyone lucky enough to be in the United States. The Star Trek franchise – including Star Trek: Lower Decks – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.