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Star Trek: Lower Decks lacks punch, politics, or purpose

Solar Opposites’ co-creator offers up a sitcom Star Trek that seems designed to not offend anyone

A character from the animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks shrugs, with a data pad in one hand Image: Best Possible Screen Grab / CBS Interactive

When the creators of Star Trek: Discovery decided to focus their story on a black woman and introduce the series’ first openly gay characters, and Star Trek: Picard delved into modern politics with commentary on isolationism and the treatment of refugees, a small but vocal segment of the fanbase complained that the franchise had gotten too political. That claim runs counter to the nature and history of Star Trek, which has always been rooted in the progressive humanism of creator Gene Roddenberry. But viewers who wanted to see the Star Trek setting used to deliver space adventures, with no stakes, introspection, or larger cultural relevance, may have finally gotten their wish: the tepid animated comedy Star Trek: Lower Decks has arrived.

Kicking off its 10-episode first season on CBS All Access on August 6, the series follows the misadventures of a group of four ensigns serving aboard the U.S.S. Cerritos, a Starfleet vessel that’s a lot like the Enterprise, but less prestigious. A better version of Lower Decks could have followed the example of Discovery, which shifted away from the series’ traditional focus on the ship’s captain to primarily follow a disgraced first officer. Creator Mike McMahan could have used Lower Decks to tell meaningful, funny stories about questioning authority by setting up a harsh divide between Starfleet’s ranks. But rather than providing any commentary on the number of redshirts casually sacrificed over the decades so the people in charge can look cool, or even examining the systems that put certain people on a ship’s bridge in the first place, Lower Decks quickly fades into a series of lazy sitcom tropes.

One character in Star Trek: Lower Decks puts another in a headlock as a group of characters stands together in front of a star field. Image: Best Possible Screen Grab / CBS Interactive

Lower Decks centers on four fairly broad archetypes. D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells of Saturday Night Live and Master of None) is an overly enthusiastic medical-bay worker who just joined the crew. Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) is a workaholic engineer who quickly falls into a romantic plot with Tendi based on them both being oblivious nerds. Brad Boimler (The Boys star Jack Quaid) is a stickler for the rules who dreams of one day becoming captain. His foil is Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome of Space Force), a slacker with little respect for authority, who’s nonetheless awesome at everything she does.

All four leads, and much of the supporting cast, are constantly spewing rapid-fire dialogue. The writers seem to have taken the “more quips means more chance some of them will land” approach to comedy. The show is absolutely filled with references to existing series characters, and the plots rarely have more power behind them than the small comfort of knowing why a Ferengi might want to take a trip to Risa.

The show lands some good gags based around Star Trek’s inherent absurdity, like a sequence where strutting first officer Jack Ransom (Jerry O’Connell of Sliders) rips off his shirt to display his well-oiled muscles as he engages in trial-by-combat with a hulking brute. Or the episode where Rutherford refuses to let a zombie-like outbreak on the ship disrupt a first date. But like the voice actors, the plot rarely has time to breathe. Crises tend to come out of nowhere just to push the action along, like a notoriously boring captain suddenly deciding to take a risk to show off, with disastrous results.

Even when the writers do commit to a bit, they’re often just digging up dull, regressive sitcom chestnuts. In the episode “Envoys,” Tendi is disappointed that Rutherford doesn’t have any time to hang out and watch a beautiful celestial event with her because of his busy work schedule, so he decides he has to give up on engineering and pursue a different career. Tendi doesn’t object, and after Rutherford spends the whole episode deciding that there’s no place he’d rather be than inside a Jefferies tube, Tendi winds up watching the event on her tablet instead of from a window, sitting in a narrow crawl space while Rutherford ignores her. This is meant to be a happy ending.

Two Star Trek: Lower Decks characters cram into a Jefferies tube to ignore each other. Hooray! Image: Best Possible Screen Grab / CBS Interactive

McMahan co-created Solar Opposites, a safer, blander version of Rick & Morty, and Lower Decks uses the same animation style of both previous shows. It is impressive to see the Star Trek scenarios that can play out when the series is freed of the need for a special-effects or CGI budget, like a terraforming process run amok, causing oceans and forests to sprout across the ship. There are even glimpses of the gonzo weirdness that can make Rick & Morty so fun, like when a crew member following Star Trek’s long tradition of characters turning into higher beings finds the process isn’t what he’d hoped for. But McMahan seems to be striving to keep Lower Decks as inoffensive as possible, leaving it feeling entirely superfluous.

Every time the writers seem on the cusp of making a legitimate point about flaws in the Star Trek formula, they back away until the message just boils down to “Being a free thinker is good, but the people who want you to follow the rules are also good.” Mariner’s efforts to distribute farming equipment to some aliens so they don’t have to go through United Federation of Planets bureaucracy could provide some commentary into the difficulty of building a true post-scarcity society, but that idea is brushed aside in favor of an extended gag involving a giant spider-cow chewing on Boimler. An episode where ship captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) starts using an app to track the efficiency of all the ensigns feels like it could easily become a commentary on similar procedures used at Amazon, except that she’s a decidedly benevolent leader who holds herself to the same standard.

In the first four episodes, Lower Decks feels directionless. The writers flirt with satire, but only deliver the lightest digs at Star Trek canon. The show has the broad character archetypes and opportunity for Futurama’s creative mission-based hijinks, but lacks any of its biting commentary on capitalism or politics. Lower Decks occasionally dips into Rick & Morty grotesquerie, but then retreats back into its safe, comfortable humor. The writers also can’t even summon the sharp wit or absurdism that made the sitcom structure work in the best episodes of The Simpsons or Family Guy.

The result is a show that has Star Trek’s flavor without any of its meatier parts. It’s a thin, innocuous broth that might satisfy some fans. But it feels utterly devoid of any nutritional, philosophical, or even real comedic value.

The first episode of Star Trek: Lower Decks premieres on CBS All Access on Aug. 6. New episodes drop weekly on Thursdays.