Turning Star Trek into an animated comedy for adults is, honestly, a genius idea. If you’re not super into the franchise, it’s easy to assume Star Trek is stodgy and self-serious, the sci-fi show for people who like thinking more than fun. Actually watch Star Trek, and you’ll find all sorts of quirky idiosyncrasies and plenty of comedy because Star Trek is really just about meeting people who are different than you, and sometimes that has very funny results. This makes CBS All Access series Star Trek: Lower Decks great idea — but it also, strangely, feels stale because Rick and Morty has already beaten it at its own game.
At first glance, the comparison doesn’t seem apt, but that’s only because Lower Decks delights in Trek minutiae. The show follows the crew staffing the eponymous lower decks on the U.S.S. Cerritos, handling much of the menial labor that keeps a starship running while the bridge crew gets to have all the fun you see in most other Star Trek shows. While each episode features a number of characters, most stories center on Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), an incredibly irreverent ensign who really doesn’t care about her job but also happens to be very good at it.
Mariner is both the strongest aspect of the show and its biggest hurdle. Newsome imbues her character with charisma capable of powering three whole shows, making Mariner a one-woman hurricane that is a delight to watch. Unfortunately, she also feels like a character from another show where everything is wackier. Mariner would fit right in on an episode of Adventure Time or blowing through Bob’s Burgers. It helps that everything in Lower Decks is a little more ridiculous than Star Trek normally is. This also means it kind of just feels like any other animated comedy, just with more sci-fi jargon and a few in-jokes.
It’s only about midway through a given episode — usually when Mariner or one of her colleagues, like fellow ensign Brad Boimer (Jack Quaid), get roped into a strange altercation on an alien world — that Rick and Morty starts to haunt the show. Lower Decks seems primed for Rick and Morty’s brand of clever, irreverent comedy that’s also rich in ideas and having a ball. With a bit less nihilism, Rick and Morty would make for a pretty good Trek homage. Curiously, though, Lower Decks is more interested in zany situations than ideas — in one episode, a rage plague turns the majority of the Cerritos crew into zombies — and even isn’t terribly interested in being very “adult.”
As a result, the show fails to distinguish itself, even as it is well-animated and performed. If you’re a Trek fan and not too much of a purist, you’ll have a great time watching the show gently take the piss out of the grandeur of Star Trek. Otherwise, the best way to approach Lower Decks is as a workplace comedy about under-appreciated labor. Many episodes hinge on the feeling of being overlooked for being in a support position, of characters who aren’t respected as autonomous and skilled by bosses who let their position get to their head.
In most cases, that’s fine. But there are moments when Lower Decks, entirely in passing, makes jokes that suggest an altogether more interesting show. One of the best gags the show has at its disposal is how working for Starfleet will kind of mess you up. “Ever been trapped in a sentient cave?” Mariner asks at one point. “That’s a dark place that knows things.”
The crew working Starfleet’s least-glamorous jobs have seen some shit, and I wish Lower Decks dove a little more into this. Some jobs — especially those that are frequently life-threatening but mostly mundane — can’t help but make you a little bit weirder as time wears on. (I should know. I work on, and for, the internet.) The characters on Star Trek: Lower Decks have jobs that are unimaginably weird, and I’d love it if the show felt a little stronger or more like it was maybe… boldly going where no one has gone before? Is that anything?