When CBS first announced the television show Star Trek: Lower Decks, it felt like something completely new for the Trek universe. A half-hour animated workplace comedy, set in the final frontier, with a focus on the junior officers — what’s not to love? All of the Star Trek shows thus far, whether they be the legacy installments or the more current ones, focus on the “upstairs” crew — Starfleet’s best and brightest, boldly going where no one (or at least no human) has gone before.
The main characters of this new show, though, are the “downstairs” crew — the ensigns that write the reports and clean the Jeffries tubes, work that no one else wants to do. Ensign Beckett Mariner (voiced by Tawny Newsome) refuses to conform to Starfleet rules and regulations, and usually pulls along strait-laced Ensign Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid) along for the ride. Ensign D’Vana Tendi (Noel Wells) is new to the ship, the USS Cerritos, while Ensign Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) is an Engineering whiz but less great at relationships.
While each of these characters is important, it’s Ensign Mariner who feels like the real focus of the show. She’s been places and seen things; she’s not the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Starfleet ensign we’ve come to know and expect. In fact, she takes pride in breaking the rules, being spontaneous, and following her gut. It’s not the first time that a Star Trek show has shown us the perspective of a junior officer with a penchant for rule breaking, but the story the show is trying to tell is more complex than it seems at first. Lower Decks builds on the themes of legacy Star Trek episodes that came before it, and through the character of Ensign Beckett Mariner, it’s entirely redefining what it means to be a Starfleet officer.
The show name Star Trek: Lower Decks serves as a nod to the series’ inspiration: the excellent, and underappreciated, seventh-season The Next Generation episode of the same name. “Lower Decks” (which is absolutely worth revisiting) is mainly told from the perspective of four ensigns serving on the Enterprise. As they go about their daily lives, working and socializing and discussing possible promotions, they show us for the first time the reality of living and serving aboard a starship. Much of what we saw on The Next Generation was the story of the chosen few bridge officers, the best and brightest. This gives us an entirely new perspective, in which these starry-eyed young people are also forced to grapple with the hard realities of being a Starfleet officer.
“Lower Decks” is in and of itself something of a follow-up from a previous The Next Generation episode “The First Duty,” which sees Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) involved in a cover-up of a fatal accident at Starfleet Academy. One of the cadets from that episode, Ensign Sito Jaxa (Shannon Fill), finds herself assigned to the Enterprise. The episode opens in Ten Forward with Jaxa and three other ensigns, Alyssa Ogawa (Patti Yasutake), Sam Lavelle (Dan Gauthier), and Taurik (Alexander Enberg), sharing drinks and discussing their careers. By offering dueling perspectives between the senior offices and junior ones, showing us the ensigns agonizing over their promotions and the bridge officers deciding their fates, it brings an entirely new depth to Star Trek we hadn’t seen much of before.
That’s just what Lower Decks, the new show, does. While the primary perspective is these new ensigns, we do get to see the perspective of the bridge officers making decisions as well. But because this new show is a comedy, it grapples with the same issues in a different way. It depicts the senior officers as overly concerned with their own glory; it’s the ensigns who really embody the values of Starfleet. It’s entirely believable that this would be the case leading into the Starfleet portrayed in Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek: Picard.
Lower Decks also dispels the devoted junior officer myth through Ensign Mariner, that idea that all Starfleet ensigns are completely committed to the uniform. Instead, she forges her own path within Starfleet’s rules to a point, but often outside of them if necessary — in the premiere episode, “Second Contact,” we learn that Mariner had been demoted in rank back to Ensign. She does things her own way.
But that doesn’t mean that Mariner is disruptive or working against Starfleet’s goals. In fact, I’d argue it makes her a better officer. Looking at some Star Trek: Voyager episodes that are also set in the Lower Decks vein can help us understand why.
Voyager’s premise featured a single Starfleet ship alone in the Delta Quadrant, 75 years away from home, trying valiantly to get back to Earth while also fulfilling its Starfleet exploration mission. One of the sadly underexplored sources of conflict in the show was the integration of two different crews: Starfleet and the Maquis, the freedom fighters that Voyager had been pursuing on her maiden mission. For the most part, the Maquis crew members never attended Starfleet Academy and some had trouble fitting into the rigidity that its rules and regulations presented.
In the first season episode “Learning Curve,” Tuvok (Tim Russ), a former Academy instructor, puts four underperforming Maquis crew members through what is essentially a boot camp, trying to help them understand what it means to be a Starfleet officer. It’s brutal, and the Maquis don’t react well to what they perceive as unfair treatment. In the end, Tuvok learns just as much from the Maquis as they do from him: It’s a place of mutual respect and trust, rather than trying to force these junior officers to conform to Starfleet expectations.
That thread is picked back up seven seasons later in the episode “Good Shepherd,” when Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) takes three underperforming junior officers on their first away mission. These young people aren’t the idealistic ensigns we’ve previously seen. They’re content to be in the background, at times held back by their own insecurities, but at other times because they believe they thrive when no one’s paying attention.
It’s these seeds from Voyager’s two “lower decks” episodes that come to fruition in Lower Decks. Mariner believes that she does better at a lower rank because it gives her the freedom to make a difference. No one’s paying attention to what she’s doing (or at least, that’s what she thinks), and as a result, she can do what she wants. Sure, at times that’s hijinks, but at others, it’s helping people because Starfleet will take too long to help them.
Mariner gives us a new example of a Starfleet officer, one who’s content at the junior ranks — not because she can’t hack it in a leadership position but because she’s not interested in the bureaucracy associated with it. She’s been a higher rank, and she’s found she can get more done, and help more people, when all eyes aren’t on her.
You might argue that her refusal to follow the rules or adhere to protocol might make her a terrible Starfleet officer. But she’s actually an excellent one. She doesn’t care about the organization, but she internalizes the mission: to help people. Mariner will break every rule she comes across if it means she can provide assistance or make someone’s else’s life easier, and that makes her more Starfleet than anyone. It remains to be seen whether, over the course of the series, other characters will see the possibilities within Ensign Mariner.
New episodes of Star Trek: Lower Decks premiere Thursdays on CBS All Access.