I was among the skeptics when Lower Decks premiered. An animated comedy that pokes fun at Star Trek? Hacky stand-up comics have been making hay of Trek’s foibles (and its fans) for decades, and that well is pretty dry. And shows built around self-referential comedy tend to crawl up their own ass with references to references to references, at the expense of any original ideas. Besides that, it seemed like a waste of a killer premise — a quartet of young officers just starting their careers on a starship, and risking life and limb at the whims of the people on the bridge. That deserved better than, “what is the deal with the guys in the red shirts always dying? Am I right?”
And then a funny thing happened. Over the course of the first season, Decks’ sendup/homage of all things Trek ended up being more homage than sendup. The animated format let the show explore sci-fi concepts that a live action special effects budget simply couldn’t accommodate. The fact that three of its four main characters are overenthusiastic nerds was fertile ground for comedic mishaps, but it also meant that both the characters and the show’s writers swiftly realized something — exploring space is awesome, and Star Trek is great.
So while the Next Generation-by-way-of-Futurama setup gives the show plenty of opportunity for snark and shenanigans, it’s ultimately about four people who love their jobs (as while Mariner can’t stand authority or take on responsibility, she definitely relishes being a hyper-competent ass-kicking space explorer). And more than that, it’s a show for, by, and about people who love Star Trek. And after decades of television antiheroes, it’s refreshing as hell to watch a show full of joy and enthusiasm.
Which isn’t to say it isn’t worthwhile to have a show like Deep Space Nine or Discovery interrogate Trek’s ideals and find the moral gray areas there. That’s always terrific dramatic material, and ideals are meaningless if they aren’t tested. But sometimes it’s good to just enjoy that future utopia, even if it’s through the eyes of a bunch of screwups on the least important ship in the fleet.
It’s that dichotomy — both of our idealistic screwups, and the sendup/homage they participate in — that makes Decks work. “Twovix,” the first of two episodes Paramount+ released to start the season, typifies the multiple tones the show juggles, as the Cerritos is tasked with transporting Voyager, now converted into a museum after the events of the show of the same name. The ship opens the door to countless in-jokes and references to the earlier series, but it’s also treated as the important historical artifact the characters see it as. The museum curator (Andy Richter) is the latest in a long line of Very Serious People our crew of misfits inevitably screw up in front of, but he’s also a commentary on stereotypical nerds being overprotective of their toys.
The main story involves Boimler being up for a promotion — something he’s desperately wanted since episode one — and being hamstrung by one crazy mishap after another, all of which are references to some of Voyager’s wilder storylines. That includes the episode title, a play on the controversial Voyager episode “Tuvix,” in which stoic vulcan Tuvok and irritating alien hanger-on Neelix are merged into a new lifeform, who insists on his own rights as an individual, before Captain Janeway straight-up murders him to get her original crewmates back. Decks recreates the incident, with cat-like Dr. T’Ana and human Chief Engineer Billups merged into one person (How Did This Get Made’s Paul Scheer).
That lets the show make countless winking Voyager references, and take the Tuvix scenario to ridiculous extremes, but it also interrogates the ethical quandary presented by Tuvix far more thoughtfully than Voyager did. And the promotion storyline ends up being less about whether Boimler will screw up in front of the boss, and more about the show’s biggest strength, Boimler’s friendship with Mariner, who steadfastly supports him even while insulting him endlessly. Those seeming opposites of mocking and devotion is what Lower Decks does best.
What Decks doesn’t usually do is serialization, but “I Have No Bones Yet I Must Flee” picks up the promotion storyline, as Rutherford, the only one of our main foursome not to make lieutenant, decides to catch up to his peers by having one super-productive day, only to be constantly one-upped by a new colleague. Boimler gets a lightweight story in which he gets to move into a series of better quarters, each a candidate for worst room on the ship. And Mariner gets it into her head that cocky first officer Ransom promoted her only to demote her again, so she resolves to cause enough trouble that she earns the demotion on her own terms.
But trouble comes to her, in the form of a mission with Ransom to an alien zoo that “accidentally” captured two humans. She loudly decries the zoo as a prison, hoping to offend the zookeeper (Paul F. Tompkins) enough to get Ransom mad, and releases the smallest, cutest animal in the zoo in protest. Except Moopsy, an adorable little blob that says it’s own name, Pokémon style, is a bloodthirsty monster who drinks people’s bones.
Which is the other thing Decks does well. Taking an incredibly silly premise and giving it real stakes that include a genuine sci-fi problem, a clever (if off-putting) solution, and lets Ransom call Mariner out for her almost compulsive need to buck authority and sabotage her own career, a theme since the beginning of the show.
While Bones is definitely the weaker of the two episodes (apart from anything else, Boimler and Tendi get almost nothing to do), is still does what Lower Decks does best — several things at once. With Picard wrapped up, Prodigy dumped from Paramount+, Discovery entering its final season, and Strange New Worlds on hiatus due to the writer-actor strike, we might be without Trek for a while. So let’s savor this messy, overstuffed show that just wants us to have fun and enjoy some Star Trek.
• Also tying the two episodes together: “Twovix” ends with a coda that shows us a Klingon version of Lower Decks, where low-ranking officers from each bicker and banter like our own crew… before their ship is destroyed by a mysterious white ship that looks like a gaming mouse. “Bones” opens with a near-identical scenario on a Romulan ship. The episode doesn’t revisit the incident, so we expect future episodes will.
• “I Have No Bones and I Must Flee” is a reference to Harlan Ellison’s classic sci-fi story “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream”). Ellison also wrote “The City On the Edge of Forever,” widely considered the best episode of the original Star Trek.
• “It’s Voyager. Shit got freaky.” might be the most accurate review of Star Trek: Voyager ever written.
• Endlessly chipper Tendi and affectless Vulcan T’Lyn are a delightful pairing in “Twovix,” and I hope we see more of them together down the line.
• By contrast, the mission to the alien zoo also includes a wet-behind-the-ears ensign named Gary, who doesn’t end up being a foil for Mariner, or contribute much to the story, and if we never see him again, I’ll promptly forget he existed.
• Decks is loaded with Star Trek references, but Boimler’s new lieutenant quarters being bathed in a blinding red glow from the warp nacelles shows the show isn’t above a good Seinfeld reference.
• “This is why we don’t keep secrets. One of us always ends up covered in slime.”