By the end of the first season of Star Trek: Lower Decks, the show was my favorite of the three Trek series that had premiered on Paramount+ (née CBS All Access) since Discovery brought the franchise back to TV in 2017.
Some of that is definitely rooted in nostalgia. Lower Decks intentionally recreates the aesthetic of ’90s-era Trek shows like The Next Generation and Voyager, from the ship design to the scoring to the blue typeface used for the credits. But it’s mostly because the show isn’t afraid to be low-stakes and silly and tell self-contained stories. This was a hallmark of ’90s Trek—Deep Space 9 followed the gorgeous, nuanced Far Beyond the Stars episode with a Honey I Shrunk the Kids spoof where someone accidentally makes a shuttlecraft tiny—but this sense of playfulness is often absent from the nonstop world-saving bombast of Discovery or the convoluted storytelling of Picard.
This isn’t to say that Lower Decks is always top-tier Trek. Its irreverent, self-referential style can get tiring in large doses, and there’s a fine line between “clever” and “lazy” in any show that leans this heavily on references to older shows for everything from throwaway sight gags to major plot points. But by the end of its first season, Lower Decks had proven it could be a good Trek show in addition to being a Trek reference factory, combining well-established characters, comedy, and genuinely engaging action sequences in the way that Futurama could when it was firing on all cylinders, and season two is more of the same.
Boldly going where someone has gone before
If you’re not familiar (or need a refresher), Lower Decks focuses on a group of ensigns serving aboard the USS Cerritos, a starship generally assigned to less-than-glamorous, paperwork-intensive “second contact” missions while the Enterprises and Titans of the fleet are off having adventures in uncharted space. It’s a permission slip for the show to continually riff on characters, alien races, and concepts from throughout Trek’s history (in one first-season adventure, the Cerritos visits an original-series-era planet where Captain Kirk freed the populace from the thrall of a dictatorial supercomputer, only to find that everyone on the planet went back to worshipping the supercomputer the moment the Federation’s back was turned).
When we left our heroes, ensign Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid) had been promoted to lieutenant and transferred to the USS Titan under the command of one William Riker. Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), outed as the ne’er-do-well daughter of the Cerritos‘ captain (Dawnn Lewis), has agreed to work with her mother to circumvent some of the Federation’s red tape. Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) has just lost his memory of his time aboard the Cerritos after having his cybernetic implant torn out, and his best friend D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells) is determined to make them best friends all over again.
If you’ve ever watched anything on TV, it’s only the very lightest of spoilers to reveal that the show substantially reverts to the season-one status quo within the first couple of episodes, with Boimler and the others reunited on the Cerritos as put-upon ensigns. But the way the show gets there is fun and out of left field, and the vision of life on the Titan under Riker that we do get is a blast because of how much fun Jonathan Frakes is clearly having returning to his best-known role. Lower Decks dabbles in some lightly serialized storytelling across the five episodes that were provided to reviewers, but like the ’90s Trek shows it emulates, it’s the most at home telling character-driven monster-of-the-week stories.
And the second season of the show benefits immensely from having established, likable characters. As fast and jokey as the show often is, no one in the main cast exists just to be a punchline. The first season of Lower Decks drew a lot of Rick & Morty comparisons because of creator Mike McMahan’s time as a writer on that show, but none of R&M‘s all-encompassing cynicism or nihilism has seeped into Lower Decks, and it makes them completely different shows. When Mariner simultaneously misses Boimler and tries to seem like she doesn’t care about Boimler, or when Tendi frets that Rutherford might not become friends with her given a second chance, those emotional beats really work. (My favorite bit of the season so far explores Tendi’s complicated relationship with her Orion heritage.)
But here’s the thing: I can only review this show as a Star Trek fan, and the show is clearly written specifically for me. As fun as I think it is, and as much as I enjoy this world and these characters, it’s hard to think it would succeed quite as well for someone with no background in Star Trek or a casual Next Generation viewer who has never loaded up a page on Memory Alpha. The second season isn’t interested in changing this, and each of these episodes hinges on a plot point from some prior Trek episode in a way that rewards fans and lightly punishes anyone else. You’ll get the most out of these episodes if you know who Gary Mitchell is, or if you have a lot of affection for the earlier energy-whip-toting version of the Ferengi, or if you know about that episode where the guy tries to add Data to his collection of rare objects (“they always try to collect Data,” mutters the captain). And even fans who just want latter-day Trek to break more new ground may get frustrated by the show’s endless recycling and repurposing.
That’s not me, though. Lower Decks is still giving me pretty much exactly what I want from Star Trek: episodic fun where the very fabric of the world/the Federation/the universe/reality as we know it is almost never in mortal peril. Lower Decks never asks me to feel feelings I don’t feel about one-note, tropey characters I just met, and it’s refreshingly light on mysterious people with troubled pasts and unknown allegiances.
Describing life on the Titan, Boimler wearily explains that “it was a bunch of complex characters thrown into heavily serialized battles, which always ended in mind-blowing twists that made me question the basic tenets of my reality.” I’d be tired of that, too, buddy.
The second season of Star Trek: Lower Decks premieres today on Paramount+. New episodes will air every Thursday through October 14.
Listing image by Paramount+