It is a pretty wild time to be a fan of Star Trek, especially if you’re a CBS All Access subscriber. As masterminded by executive producer Alex Kurtzman, the Trek universe on TV now includes three ongoing original series, and perhaps in tribute to the Vulcan principle of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, the latest is the most distinct yet.
Star Trek: Lower Decks, created by Mike McMahan (Rick and Morty, Solar Opposites, the TNG Season 8 Twitter feed), spotlights the crew of the U.S.S. Cerritos — specifically, the ship’s junior officers, who other Trek series rarely acknowledge. It’s an eclectic mash of personalities: Ensign Boimler (Jack Quaid) wants to advance in the ranks with an ambition fueled by his worship of Starfleet, while the usually-loud often-drunk Ensign Mariner (Tawny Newsome) might be Starfleet’s most promising young officer, if she’d stop finding ways to get herself demoted. They serve alongside newcomer D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells) and new-to-being-an-cyborg Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), handling some of the more mundane aspects of starship life while finding ways to enjoy the ride.
Trek has never avoided comedy — every series ever produced has featured lighter episodes with plenty of good laughs: The Original Series had “The Trouble With Tribbles,” The Next Generation loved holodeck misadventures and merry men, and there’s an entire episode of Deep Space Nine that’s literally just a James Bond satire. But Lower Decks is the first series to be officially billed as a comedy, with the promotional materials playing up the irreverent side of the series.
Fortunately, based on what’s been made available to critics, Lower Decks isn’t here to make fun of Star Trek — even the roughest jokes are clearly written by people who genuinely love this franchise. And not only is the show clearly a labor of fan love, but it even manages to bind comedy stories with the sci-fi action that’s typically happening in the background. Set during the Next Generation era (and featuring some TNG-esque visual touches as a result), Lower Decks manages to pull off the trickiest challenge inherent in its premise: It’s pretty damn funny, but even as a half-hour comedy, it still manages to feel like Star Trek.
Part of why that is definitely comes down to the clear joy that the writers found in creating wild sci-fi scenarios for animation, freed from the budgetary and physical limitations of live-action production. But really, what makes Lower Decks work is the fact that while the show’s core characters are all flawed in various ways, those flaws don’t eclipse the fact that all of them are talented and loyal members of Starfleet (to varying degrees). There’s no mystery as to why they show up to serve, and the biggest obstacle they face is more often than not their own inexperience.
This definitely hearkens back to one of creator Gene Roddenberry‘s major principles when it came to Star Trek, that the men and women serving in Starfleet represented the very best of humanity. Building a series around aspirational characters was a big part of Roddenberry’s hope that the people of the 23rd century would have grown and changed for the better, but it’s tricky to balance that idealism with the need to anchor a show with interesting and complex characters. And most interesting of all is the rebellious Mariner, whose love of breaking the rules is matched only by her innate talents as an officer. While ol’ Gene might not have approved of Mariner’s casual attitude towards the job, he would hopefully be able to admire how her unconventional approach represents a young Kirk in the making.
A major factor in what makes Mariner as a character so compelling is the wry energy and raw emotion of Newsome (in her second space-set role this summer, following a scene-stealing turn in Netflix’s Space Force). In general, the voice cast excels at finding the right level of comedic balance, with Quaid finding different nuances in Boimler’s frequent freakouts, Cordero capturing Rutherford’s joy for his work, and Wells showcasing Tendi’s hyper-positive attitude. The cast also features Dawnn Lewis as the captain of the Cerritos (who frequently butts heads with Mariner) and Jerry O’Connell as first officer Jack Ransom, with Paul Scheer and Haley Joel Osment, among others, popping up as guest stars.
The clean animation style keeps the action relatively grounded — certainly, the show adheres to modern rules of physics, not Looney Tunes physics, with no touches of the grittier style that Star Trek: Discovery often adopts. The four episodes provided to critics also stand out in contrast to modern television by virtue of the fact that they’re all pretty stand-alone adventures; perhaps a more fleshed-out connective thread will emerge by the end of the season, but in the meantime, there’s something to be said for concise storytelling. Also, there’s the occasional moment of rude humor, but by and large Lower Decks would make for completely acceptable family viewing — especially for a family where Trek is already one of the shows everyone can agree on.
Not every joke lands perfectly, but so much of Lower Decks‘ humor is impressively well-calibrated to celebrate this franchise for its quirks, while also poking fun at concepts that are relatable no matter the century, like boring business meetings, professional jealousies, and awkward first dates. It’s not easy, trying to find a new way to sing Star Trek‘s song, but so far Lower Decks has found a way to nimbly balance some tricky concepts and look good doing it. The U.S.S. Cerritos crew might not become the stuff of legends, but they’re definitely a crew you can count on for some fun.
New episodes of Star Trek: Lower Decks premiere Thursdays on CBS All Access.