Media companies know you have a choice when it comes to streaming platforms, so they must differentiate themselves from one another. That's easy for Netflix, which was first in the game; or Disney+, which leverages content catalog and a brand identity that's been nearly a century in the making. Beyond that, it gets a little more difficult for a streamer to stand out. From the start, CBS All Access has defined itself as the destination for new series in the Star Trek franchise: it launched in 2017 with Star Trek: Discovery, a new space adventure. Star Trek: Picard, which picks back up with the beloved Next Generation captain after his retirement, followed in January of this year. This week sees the premiere of Star Trek: Lower Decks, which... is a bit of a departure.
Up to now, the exploits chronicled in the Star Trek franchise (including both seasons of Star Trek: The Animated Series) have tended toward thrilling heroics. This animated series goes another way. For starters, Lower Decks is set on a Starfleet vessel — the U.S.S. Cerritos — which is tasked with handling second contact with new civilizations; Cerritos officers visit for utilitarian follow-ups after other crews have already swept in and out to collect first-contact glory. But the series doesn't even focus on the second-contact Cerritos officers: its main characters are the ensigns who live and work in the ship's titular bowels, doing tasks of commensurate crappiness.
Ensign Tendi (voice of Noël Wells), newly arrived medical trainee, is eager and geeky. Ensign Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), still getting used to his new cybernetic upgrades, is nearly as dedicated as Tendi, and her likeliest love interest; he's a superstar in Engineering. Ensign Boimler (Jack Quaid) is a teacher's pet, focused on moving up in the ranks, possibly to the exclusion of any wonderment he might be experiencing at, you know, his job as a space traveler. Constantly needling him is Ensign Mariner (Tawny Newsome, remaining in the cosmos after her stint in Netflix's Space Force this spring), a former officer who's been demoted; rather than being concerned about her career trajectory, she loves her low-pressure lower-decks life. The series was created by Mike McMahan (Rick and Morty; Solar Opposites); other writers include Katie Krentz (Over The Garden Wall) and Chris Kula (Close Enough), with Alex Kurtzman and Rod "Gene's Son" Roddenberry — both keepers of the Trek flame across all the new series — among its executive producers.
Boimler and Mariner, at the center of the story, are a classic sitcom odd couple: intense overachiever and cheerful slacker. Even if we didn't know anything about the Star Trek franchise (and, nearly 60 years in, even Trek abstainers are somewhat conversant with the basics just by osmosis), the pilot makes it clear early on which ensign's attitude Starfleet endorses: Captain Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) tells Boimler she knows Mariner is a goldbricker, ordering him to spy on her and report back on any incidents of Mariner failing to follow protocol. Almost immediately, while visiting an alien planet, Mariner departs from her orders. Boimler thinks she's selling residents Starfleet tech to enrich herself, but it turns out to be farm equipment they would get from Starfleet if they went through channels; it would just take much longer. Mariner's ways may not be Boimler's, but he decides not to snitch on her (after which we find out why Captain Freeman is taking such a personal interest in Mariner's performance).
Portraying Starfleet as a behemoth bogged down by pointless bureaucracies is actually kind of a subversive take on what is generally portrayed as an inter-galactic United Nations for a post-politics utopia. The first season of Picard challenged Starfleet orthodoxy too — specifically, on a late-in-the-Next-Generation-film-franchise plot point involving androids whose superintelligence may have threatened humanity. But after two seasons of DCU's animated series Harley Quinn, a spectacularly violent, sexually adventurous, routinely profane, gleefully meta thrill ride (a side character appears in a "Release The Snyder Cut" t-shirt, for example), Lower Decks can't help seeming tame by comparison. (The writers clearly know their Trek lore, and there's a joke in the second episode about a viral video of a "Vice-Admiral Gibson" falling off a stage that I bet was "Capt. Morgan Bateson," the character Kelsey Grammer played in a 1992 episode of TNG, before a higher-up nixed it for being too mean.) It's not entirely fair to compare the two shows — Lower Decks seems aimed at older kids and tweens, whereas Harley Quinn is absolutely not for children — but even in spirit, Lower Decks feels, at least in these early episodes, a little too reverential toward the franchise.
That said, even over the first four episodes that were released to critics, the show did give the sense of unfolding into greater playfulness, and I was reminded that the first few episodes of another fine animated sci-fi show, Futurama, were also a little tentative before the show's characters started to settle into what would be their ultimate forms. The more I saw of Lower Decks, the more I wanted to see. Congratulations, CBS All Access; you've managed to filch another couple of months' worth of subscription fees out of me.
Star Trek: Lower Decks drops on CBS All Access on August 6th.
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Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.