"The best comedic riffs on Trek, though, from Galaxy Quest to The Orville, are those where the laughs aren’t based on scorn, but recognition," says Christian Blauvelt of the animated CBS All Access series, created by Mike McMahan. "This is an insanely earnest franchise — an entire movie is about saving the whales and it somehow manages to be one of the best comedies of the ’80s — and so the humor is baked right in. You don’t need to add something else to the Trek dynamic. You just need to embrace the Trek dynamic. That’s what CBS All Access’s new animated comedy series Star Trek: Lower Decks achieves so perfectly. This may not be the best Trek series ever, but based on the first four episodes it might be the most Trek series ever. It isn’t a riff on Starfleet shenanigans, it’s the real deal, raw and undiluted."
Lower Decks is an entertaining entry in a franchise suffering an identity crisis: "For all its glossy new aesthetics and adult content, Star Trek currently feels intellectually and emotionally juvenile in ways that frustrate," says Angelica Jade Bastién. "Even at its best, Lower Decks reflects the identity crisis that the franchise has been mired in since at least J.J. Abrams’s 2009 film reboot, grafting its iconography onto different styles instead of being boldly its own thing. At worst, you get Star Wars playing Star Trek dress up, like Abrams’s films in particular. But even other recent forays like Discovery feel almost embarrassed to be Star Trek in the first place, pulling from so many other science-fiction shows while treating Trek itself as a source of Easter eggs and recognizable characters to reference. (Spock, again?) Look, I don’t need this show to repeat the triumphs of the franchise’s 1990s past, but when I watch Star Trek I always hope for awe. Awe at the intricacies of the human condition. Awe at the imaginings of worlds both far-flung and intensely human. Awe at its cerebral qualities. Awe at its hard-won optimism. Star Trek: Lower Decks is a lot of things: fun, raucous, adult in language but not in emotional landscape. But it’s also too cool to aim for awe."
Lower Decks captures the fun of the Star Trek franchise: "It’s in those absurdities that Lower Decks mines its best humor and does so at an incredible pace in every episode," says James Whitbrook. "Jokes are thick and fast, from ones that needle at Star Trek tropes to knowing nods to the franchise’s long past. You don’t have to be a Trek diehard to enjoy the gags Lower Decks has to offer but if you love Trek, it becomes immediately clear, even when poking fun at it—especially when poking fun at it—that Lower Decks is with you every step of the way. It’s essentially a sci-fi take on an office sitcom, just with more scenes where alien viruses that turn people into rage zombies attack the cast. From blink-and-you’ll-miss-them sight gags and references to prior adventures, even to episodes that just build themselves around those sort of silly, geeky questions you’ve always wondered about the humdrum living or working on a Star Trek ship, Lower Decks constantly wears its passion for what Star Trek is on its sleeves. Even Mariner’s constantly rolled-up sleeves, much to the chagrin of her commanding officers."
Lower Decks lacks punch, politics or purpose with lazy sitcom tropes: "A better version of Lower Decks could have followed the example of Discovery, which shifted away from the series’ traditional focus on the ship’s captain to primarily follow a disgraced first officer," says Samantha Nelson. "Creator Mike McMahan could have used Lower Decks to tell meaningful, funny stories about questioning authority by setting up a harsh divide between Starfleet’s ranks. But rather than providing any commentary on the number of redshirts casually sacrificed over the decades so the people in charge can look cool, or even examining the systems that put certain people on a ship’s bridge in the first place, Lower Decks quickly fades into a series of lazy sitcom tropes."
It’s about half Star Trek fan service and half smutty workplace sitcom: "Apparently, that’s not an easy formula," says Mike Hale. "Through four episodes, Lower Decks feels caught in between. It’s a smooth and zippy package, but it doesn’t register very strongly as either a geekfest or a transgressive satire. Which is another way of saying it’s not all that funny. Wherever it’s going, it’s not doing it very boldly."
Lower Decks is a little too breezy for its own good: The Star Trek animated series "moves so quickly through its various plots – each episode feels like it was fastidiously edited to remove any dead air – that it leaves no lasting impression," says Noah Gittell, adding: "There’s something admirable about how fiercely committed Lower Decks is to being low-stakes entertainment, which is difficult to achieve in an era in which there is pressure on all creators to be political."
Lower Decks is the latest new Star Trek series to fail to justify its existence: "The problem is that, at least as of right now, The Lower Decks is less 'funny' than it is 'the idea of funny,' with voice actors doing high-energy, rapid-fire delivery of dialogue that’s never as witty or clever as it needs to be," says Zack Handlen. "Jokes are obvious when they exist, and while 'obvious' isn’t always the death of comedy, there’s a difference between using familiarity to build on a gag, and just grabbing the most obvious punchline in any given situation. Too often, the first episodes present situations where intellectually you know you’re supposed to be laughing, but there’s no twist or unexpected bit of cleverness to make it fresher than every other show that’s mined similar humor. That and a reliance on fan-service references to previous Trek properties gives the whole thing a feeling of something that’s designed to deliver on fan expectations without actually satisfying them. A large part of this is due to an inability to settle on an appropriate tone."
Lower Decks offers comfort food, but it treads a dangerous line: "Winks, nods, and references are fine up to a certain point; they tell the audience that they and the creator are in on a joke together and can respect each other's knowledge," says Kate Cox. "Too many, though, are alienating: a viewer can start to feel that the creator understands the form, but not the function, of what they are supposed to be accomplishing. In the first two episodes, at least, Lower Decks manages to fall on the correct side of that line. I felt as though I were in a room with a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable fan just brimming over with things he wanted to say, rather than trapped in a 'how do you do, fellow kids' hellscape. That said, once the show has proven its bona fides—it's OK! I'm a real Star Trek show, I promise!—it could do well to lay off a little bit on the deep cuts that don't add anything. Despite its pushing to be considered a proper member of the canon in its own right, Lower Decks feels most like an amuse bouche: a fun little treat to keep you fed and happy until your real food arrives."
Despite being well-animated and performed, Lower Decks fails to distinguish itself: "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," says Joshua Rivera. "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."
Lower Decks is a largely joke-free missed opportunity to capitalize on a corner of the Federation workforce that has long enticed writers: "There's still room for Star Trek: Lower Decks to evolve into something with a stand-alone sense of humor, but for now it's best suited as a good-natured time-waster between installments of Discovery, Picard and whatever comes down the pipeline next," says Daniel Fienberg, adding: "The idea of doing a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-esque Star Trek comedy adjacent to more iconic main characters is hardly revolutionary, especially recently. Leaving decades of fan-fic out of the equation, or even a one-off like the New Generation'Lower Decks' episode, this was the premise of a proposed (and never produced) series from the It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia team; it informed some of the funniest parts of Galaxy Quest; and it was at least part of what Seth McFarlane has wanted to do on The Orville. The combination of animation and the extremely talented and sufficiently geeky McMahan felt nearly perfect. What stands out early on in Lower Decks, and never ceases to be the case in the four episodes made available to critics, is how few actual punchlines there are in the series."
Lower Decks is less Rick & Morty and more Saturday morning cartoon: "The tragedy is in the wasted potential," says Brian Tallerico. "Not only is (Gene) Roddenberry’s world a fun one in which to play in with the budgetary freedom allowed by animation but consider how progressive this franchise has been in the past in terms of sex, morality, and philosophy. So why take all of that and reduce it to an oil-and-water buddy comedy with an antiquated sitcom set-up in which everything that goes wrong in an episode will be patched up by the end of it? Audiences who embrace sci-fi, especially in animated form, need to be challenged a bit more than Lower Decks is willing to even consider, making it feel more like an old-fashioned CBS sitcom than a streaming service offering willing to push any sort of envelope at all. It wouldn’t be that out of place on network TV in the era in which the original Star Trek: The Animated Series aired."
Recalling Star Trek: The Animated Series: The Saturday morning cartoon, premiering in 1973, was canceled after one season and 22 episodes. "Though it was short-lived, The Animated Series would prove to be an instrumental development in fans’ calls to revive Star Trek, a movement that culminated with the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979," says Keith Phipps. "It also proved how well Star Trek could work in animated form — even if it didn’t set a technological bar so high that subsequent shows wouldn’t have trouble clearing them."
Creator Mike McMahan says Lower Decks grew out of his love for Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Everything you see on screen is not only a choice, it's got to be painstakingly tracked and drawn and moved," he says. "That's why when you watch those old Looney Tunes the background just repeats over and over when they're running. And the special effects are handled differently -- beaming in a cartoon doesn't quite look as magical as it does in live action. But then you can meet alien races that don't have to have an actor sit for 13 hours to apply a prosthesis."
Lower Decks writers had to strike a balance between accessibility and catering to diehards who grok every inside joke: "To tighten their connection to Trek tradition, McMahan and his writers conducted a Star Trek TV club, in which they would watch one old episode a night and discuss it the next day," reports Ben Lindbergh. "But he also stocked his writers’ room with some Star Trek neophytes who could gauge whether jokes landed without a comprehensive recall of the contents of Memory Alpha and help trim references that seemed inserted solely for the sake of referencing." McMahon adds: "The references in the show are either used for comedic purposes or for sci-fi texture. They should feel so nonstop that if you haven’t seen Star Trek, it feels like a mythologically broad sci-fi show that has a clear understanding of the world that it inhabits. But if you do know Star Trek, you’re like, ‘Holy sh*t, that’s a Bat’leth.’"
McMahon says the Star Trek franchise has always been rich in comedy: “I don’t even really consider myself to be the first one doing it,” he says. “I just consider myself to be the first one doing this version of it. My favorite episodes of Star Trek always have comedic elements to them because they’re character based and the characters are so lovable. Worf, Data, Geordi, and Riker — there’s so many funny moments with these characters.”