Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 1, Episode 1 – Debuted Thursday, August 6th, 2020
Written by Mike McMahan
Directed by Barry J. Kelly
With a strong debut episode, “Second Contact” feels like Star Trek, while taking the franchise into an entirely new genre: adult animated comedy. Starting with Trek’s formula and turning it on its head, this pilot introduces us to a set of ensigns as our guides to Lower Decks, each of whom is interesting, distinctive – and most importantly – funny. This is due to rapid-fire comedy writing by creator Mike McMahan, with a big assist by the voice cast, especially the two leads: Tawny Newsome as Mariner and Jack Quaid as Boimler.
WARNING: Spoilers below!
This pilot episode tells you almost everything you need to know in the opening teaser, as it first lulls you into a sense of Star Trek security with a ship docked at a Starbase and a captain’s log narration. We see a bridge crew of 24th-century heroes only to be snapped out this reverie by a drunk Ensign Beckett Mariner returning from shore leave. She busts Ensign Brad Boimler recording what turns out to be a fantasy captain’s log in a utility closet.
We learn this show is set on the USS Cerritos, and its mission is to handle “second contact.” This less glamorous Starfleet duty includes getting the spelling of new alien planets right and finding the best places to eat out. Our first adventure will send the crew to the Galar system.
With Mariner and Boimler we have our Kirk and Spock for this new show, with a strong helping of Oscar and Felix mixed in. Beckett plays by her own rules and has an affinity for contraband, Klingon lore and weaponry, and Romulan Whiskey (apparently just as potent as their famed Ale). Brad hasn’t met a protocol he doesn’t like, is obsessed with promotion, and sees beauty in warp cores.
You get all that in less than two minutes before the opening theme rolls. This teaser sets the pace for a rapid-fire episode jam-packed with jokes, action, character moments, and Star Trek references (did you notice Nomad propped up against the wall in the closet?). Everything for the Star Trek: The Next Generation era looks just right, even down to the typeface. Oh, and Mariner totally stabbed Boimler with a bat’leth too… but it was an accident.
The Cerritos Bunch
The rest of the first act introduces us to the other two main ensigns and nicely sets up the foursome’s character dynamics. D’Vana Tendi, a fresh-faced eager Orion medical officer, arrives on board, allowing the audience to take a brief tour of the ship through her starry eyes. Not even a jaded commander going meta by dismissing her as “lower decks” or getting a bunk next to the musty sonic showers can tamp down her unbridled enthusiasm.
We soon meet the fourth lower decker ensign, Sam Rutherford. He is a nerdy engineer (is that redundant?) struggling to get his brand-new cybernetic implant to stop glitching, and gets a little help from Mariner, showing she has some skills too. The tour ends in the holodeck, which Tendi – of course – is amazed by, reminiscent of Riker’s introduction to the Enterprise-D holodeck in the series premiere of TNG. While all this is happening we get more insight into the characters, especially Mariner. She relishes in poking fun at Boimler, reveals she has been demoted (proudly), and she thinks senior officers and everything going on the upper decks is “super lame,” except for the bar, of course.
The show seamlessly flexes both sides of its humor with broad gags like Rutherford’s anxiety mini-meltdown as he realizes he isn’t ready for his big date, to Boimler’s for-Trekkies-only joke about how the ship layout just has “a ton of ops.”
For the middle of the show, our ensigns break into pairs, with Boimler and Mariner heading down to Galar to work on installing a communications array for Chief Engineer Billups (voiced by Paul Scheer, who didn’t get much to do in this first episode to show his comedy skills). Boimler has also been given a secret mission by Captain Freeman: to keep an eye on Mariner and make sure she stays in “lockstep” with protocols. What could possibly go wrong?
With this pair, it is clear a whole lot can go wrong, really fast. Mariner sneaks off from the group to meet up with some Galardonian farmers, only to be confronted by Boimler at phaser point, accusing her of selling weapons. Turns out she was on the ship that made first contact with the planet before her demotion and met these farmers and just wanted to give them some basic equipment without going through all that annoying Federation red tape.
The kerfuffle involving some dueling Starfleet regulation citing and minor phaser fire results in the locals running off and accidentally releasing a monstrous spider-thing. Brad sums the situation up well, saying, “It’s shooting butt webbing at a tree; it looks pretty pissed.” Mariner’s plan involving dressing scarecrows up in their uniforms to distract the beast doesn’t go as planned, with Boimler paying the price by being violently “suckled” by the herbivore. While he bemoans “my bones” and being covered in a purple goo, Mariner dismisses it, quipping, “You’re fine, Doc will wave a light over it.” And that is how you make Star Trek funny without making fun of Star Trek.
Even with all this action and humor, we continue to learn more about this odd couple, with her having served on five ships, “I have seen stuff!” and him only having been to five planets, and that’s counting Earth and Vulcan! And for all her rebellious bravado and dismissal of senior officers only wanting glory, she embodies the ideals of the Federation in her concern for the aliens, even down to not wanting to spoil the milk of the domesticated giant spiders. As for Boimler, he still idolizes those officers and all this lack of protocol has him ready to write her up.
I Dream of Zombie
Back on the Cerritos, Tendi and Rutherford are our entry point into what would be the A plot for a regular Star Trek show. First Officer Ransom was bit by some alien bug before beaming back up, but he wasn’t worried about the growing purple welt on his neck so he and a buddy headed to the bar, where Rutherford is actually doing pretty well on his date with Ensign Barnes.
Amazingly, the continuing glitches in his implant didn’t derail Sam’s date, nor did Ransom turning into a purple-veined zombie and zombifying every bar patron he could sink his teeth into. Without skipping a beat on their adorkable flirting, Rutherford and Barnes go into red alert action mode, complete with a lovely stroll across the hull in space suits, bonding over a shared love of the “ancient music” of The Monkees. Sadly, the love connection was severed after Rutherford was overtaken by a burning desire following their first kiss, and that desire was to run a diagnostic on the maintenance hatch doors. Bad timing, buddy.
Tendi’s introduction to sickbay is a real trial by fire, or more accurately, by puke… gross. Chief Medical Officer T’Ana has no time for pleasantries as she assigns the young ensign to strap down the infected, including D’Vana’s supervisor Nurse Westlake. Even his spewing some black stuff on her barely dents the Orion’s frenzied eagerness, as she replies, “I’m looking forward to working with you!” Tendi also shows she is ready for the job as she manually pumps a heart that really should be inside one of her patients, but she dutifully follows the orders of the caustic Caitian CMO, who hisses out, “Nobody is authorized to pass out!”
Mariner Knows Best
Our family of ensigns is reunited when Boimler and Mariner return from the planet to discover the chaos on the ship. Captain Freeman and Dr. T’Ana are losing the battle against the growing horde of crew zombies. We get our only insight into the Bajoran Security Chief as Commander Shaxs’ only suggestion at this point is to detonate the warp core, so yeah, he is a little intense. But hope lives in the form of that purple goo covering Brad, and the small group of still-sentients rally behind the inspiring call to action, “Protect this slime!”
As this is a half-hour show, there is no time to waste on sciencing, as within moments T’Ana has analyzed the slime and turned it into a gas, curing the crew. Ransom is the first to be revived, mainly concerned with how much flesh he consumed while under the influence of the “rage virus.” He and the rest of the senior officers focus on self-congratulations, leaving Mariner ignored as she speaks up for the role the lower deckers played in saving the ship, “This guy saved your asses, Ensign Brad Boimler, put that in your paperwork!”
All of this does seem to have an impact on Boimler, who bookends the episode through watching Freeman’s real captain’s log lay all the glory on the higher rankers. And so something snaps inside the nebbish ensign, as he chooses not to rat out his friend Mariner, and even borders on being insubordinate. “Maybe that goo that saved the ship messed with my memory.” Dismissed.
We also learn why Captain Freeman was so concerned about Ensign Mariner. It turns out they are mother and daughter. Plot twist!
“Second Contact” wraps up neatly, with the gang bonding some more at the ship’s bar, which has been cleaned up pretty quickly. Tendi and Rutherford show a spark as they geek out over why “a red alert overrode maintenance hatch 70’s access protocols.” While Boimler shows some growth by accepting that Mariner is good Starfleet, even if she is a bit “unorthodox.”
When Mariner learns Boimler didn’t report her complete disregard for protocol she has a whole new view too, declaring – whether he wants it or not – she will be his mentor, and he will be her cha’Dich, a double-whammy Star Trek deep cut and a callback to the opening scene and her drunken ramblings about Klingon honor.
This all put a nice bow on a tight, fun, funny, exciting series premiere as we fade out to some over-the-top meta moments of “Lower Decks!” chants and Mariner’s scatter-gun references from Mr. Spock, to space whales, to Sulu’s sword, to Deana Troi’s outfits. How could someone who expressed disdain for officers obsessed over history books be so excited by all these historical greats? As she said earlier, she’s complicated, thank you.
Having fun with Star Trek…
When assessing an adult animated comedy, the most important criteria is the humor, and Star Trek: Lower Decks is funny, bordering on uproarious. The humor on the show works on a number of levels, with sight gags, character moments, and witty dialog. And the jokes keep coming, with Mike McMahan trying to pack as much funny as possible into this premiere; some may even think it is too much and he should slow down the pace.
The comedy should work well with Star Trek super-fans, casual fans, and even those new to the franchise. This leaves some elements as a bit of special bonus for those in the know, although at times the show has flirted too much on the meta, dangerously tapping on the force field of that fourth wall.
With any good comedy, much of this comes down to the characters. And in one short episode, Lower Decks has crafted some unique individuals with our four ensigns, especially Mariner and Boimler. They are believable as members of the crew of one of Starfleet’s least important ships. They are interesting, sympathetic, and funny. Voice actor Tawny Newsome is a true standout, adding some unexpected layers to Mariner. We are still getting to know some of the other characters, including the senior officers, some of whom are starting out somewhat one-note in this premiere. Hopefully given time, they too will have more nuance, and more opportunities to provide some laughs.
One surprise is that despite McMahan’s pedigree as an Emmy-winning writer on the irreverent sci-fi comedy Rick and Morty, his Lower Decks feels more like a traditional sitcom, with elements of both the family variety and workplace variety. There are a handful of gross-out moments and bleeped words, but Lower Decks has a very strong heart, with some good old-fashioned feel-good lessons learned.
…while not making fun of Star Trek
Some may think that there isn’t room in Star Trek for a comedy, but humor has always been an element of the franchise, going back to The Original Series. And for those that can find room in their beating fan hearts for an adult animated comedy, the reward will be some impassioned Star Trek. Lower Decks is clearly made by people who love the franchise as much as any fan engrossed in the details of starship nacelles or the history of the Beta Quadrant.
A lot of attention to detail has been made to fit Lower Decks into the TNG era. The show is made to be part of the canon of Star Trek, and the creative team for this comedy are taking that very seriously. Inside and out, the USS Cerritos fits the part as a ship dedicated to the less-glamorous task of second contact, and the crew manifests the diversity that makes up the United Federation of Planets. Even in their cartoon forms, the Vulcans, Andorians, Benzites, and others are all recognizable. The episode is also worth a re-watch, as there are lots of little Trek details and gags you may not even notice your first time through.
Even the crisis-of-the-week with the crew being taken over by an alien virus feels straight out of the Trek trope handbook. While it might have been a bit clichéd as the plot of a live-action drama, it worked perfectly as the B-story for an animated comedy focused on the ensigns.
Although it is an entirely new genre of show, Lower Decks also fits many of the conventions of the TNG era shows, including the tone, style, and episodic structure of the stories. It is ironic, but this animated comedy feels more like traditional Star Trek than the darker and highly-serialized Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard.
Making it so
The 2-D design of Lower Decks provided by Titmouse Animation (perhaps best known for the Adult Swim show The Venture Bros.) fits the tone of the show well. Deceptively simple, the animation has a lot of detail and is certainly light years ahead of the franchise’s first animated outing, Star Trek: The Animated Series.
Composer Chris Westlake’s score strikes out on its own, rarely paying homage to Star Trek tradition, and for the most part, this works. But the main title score may need to grow on you.
Lower Decks! Lower Decks! Lower Decks!
The bottom line is: Star Trek: Lower Decks is a delight. It’s funny. It’s Star Trek-y. What isn’t there to like? It’s just what 2020 needs to cheer us Trekkies up.
Team coverage on Lower Decks and “Second Contact” to come
There is more to discuss for this season premiere and so keep an eye out on the site in the coming days for more, including looking at all the easter eggs and references in the episode.
And the TrekMovie Podcasting Network is giving full team coverage to the Lower Decks premiere. It will be the focus of Friday’s episode of our new podcast: All Access Star Trek, which will include interview clips from Lower Decks creator Mike McMahan. The next episode of our long-running Shuttle Pod will also focus on the new series, with insights from Matt, Kayla, and Brian.
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And keep up with all the news and reviews from the new Star Trek Universe on TV at TrekMovie.com.