Review: 'Star Trek: Lower Decks' Goes Boldly, and Brashly, into Season Two

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday August 12, 2021

'Star Trek: Lower Decks' returns with Season Two
'Star Trek: Lower Decks' returns with Season Two  (Source:Paramount+)

The brash Ensign Mariner (Tawny Newsome) and her circle of painfully earnest friends are back for a second season of Warp 10 animated fun, as "Star Trek: Lower Decks" returns for a second season of ten fresh episodes.

The crew of the Starship Cerritos are tasked with "second contact" duties, coming in after the Federation's heroes have done the glamorous work of saving planets and initiating peaceful relations. It would be the galactic version of boring scut work if the Cerritos crew, and Beckett in particular, didn't have such a talent for creating situations that spiral out of control. In one episode, Beckett power-washes an ancient temple and ends up unleashing "strange energies" that mutate the ship's first officer, Commander Ransom (Jerry O'Connell), into a super-powered menace. (Cue the Gary Mitchell reference, from the original series second pilot "Where No Man Has Gone Before," complete with a stylized visual that would make for a great poster.) In another, she partners with the perpetually anxious Lt. Tendi (Noël Wells) on a milk run mission that swiftly cascades into an incipient interplanetary incident.

Just as volatile are relations between the often-overlooked ensigns of the ship's lower echelons and the bridge crew; the show's running gag is that Mariner's mother (Dawnn Lewis) happens to be the captain of the Cerritos, and mother and daughter are perpetually locked in emotional combat: Captain Freeman is a control freak and Beckett, pushing back, is determined to sabotage her career in order not to advance in rank. Tendi spends her time worrying about how to please the ship's crabby Caitian CMO, Dr. T'Ana (Gillian Vigman), whose felinoid nature is played for some well-placed laughs. In another plotline, junior engineer Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) wrestles with guilt after having been saved from certain death by Security Chief Shaxs (Fred Tatasciore), who sacrificed himself on Rutherford's behalf; the fact that he's a cyborg, and massively OCD, adds to Rutherford's anxieties. Over on the Starship Titan, commanded by Captain Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes in a recurring guest role), Beckett's best friend, the newly-promoted Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid), finds that bridge duty on one of the Federation's capital vessels entails a lot of borderline-suicidal action — not to mention plenty of clutching his console and screaming in abject terror while his pumped-up superiors bark commands and shout in glee.

"Lower Decks" is a "Star Trek" series unlike any other, abandoning the self-seriousness that gives "Trek" enduring gravitas while also making it ripe for parody. While the show doesn't exactly mock the wider franchise, it views all of Trekdom as comic fodder, including the all-holy (but notoriously inconsistent) "Star Trek" canon. Unlike its long-ago ancestor, the original "Star Trek: The Animated Series," this cutting-edge production follows in the hyper-kinetic, all-out nutball tradition of modern adult-oriented animated comedies like "The Simpsons" and "Rick and Morty" (the latter also being a production from "Lower Decks" creator and showrunner Mike McMahan).

If "Lower Decks" revels in its cartoon format, it's just as keen to exploit everything that's boldly come before, throwing out references by the handful: Mugaotes, Tom Paris collectible plates, villainous alien fish people. Sometimes these references form the spine of an episode, but often they flash by in tart throwaway moments. (It's best not to blink while watching this show, lest you miss a callback or six.) The handful of Season Two episodes made available for review are saturated with fond, often snarky, recollections of past glories: One adventure riffs on the 1990 "Next Generation" episode "The Most Toys," while, at the same time, visually quoting original series clunker "The Savage Curtain" from 1969, and even scaring up a ghoulish callback to "The infinite Vulcan," a 1973 episode of the original animated series penned by original series actor Walter Koenig (he played Mr. Chekhov). Elsewhere, "Lower Decks" cameos not one, but two alien species not seen on screen since the original animated series' 1974 episode "The Jihad." (Bubble bath packaged in Mr. Data bottles also features here.)

Other references are less subtle; fans of the 1991 TNG favorite "Darmok" will get a giggle from the introduction of a new Tamarian ensign and his struggles to speak in something other than mythic metaphors. Elsewhere, Beckett looks set to reprise an iconic moment from "Star Trek" history when she challenges a group of Nausicaans to a game of dom-jot. (She turns out to be handy in the anbo-jyutsu ring, as well.) And just wait and see what happens when a group of Ferengi poachers cross energy whips with our resourceful crew.

If all of this sounds like a string of Trekkie insider humor, well, it is. But don't worry; the show is structured to move along at such a quick clip, and with so much slapstick action, that you don't have to be a rabid fan to enjoy it. Also, the flipside of such blatant fan service is the show's willingness to poke fun at pop sci-fi tropes (like, for instance, the way major characters have of returning from the dead... but let's not stray into spoilers here).

Perhaps the most gratifying new world "Trek" has ventured into recently is acknowledgement that right here on Earth there's such a thing as the LGBTQ community — and in a thrilling moment that's delivered with low-key intentionality, we get one character's offhand admission of what can only be described as cosmic pansexuality.

The show's Season One premiere last August kicked off a celebrated run of 23 weeks of fresh "Star Trek" on Paramount+. It's unclear at this point whether the show's second season will usher in another months-long streak of original "Trek" programming, though a run of new content lasting well into 2022 is a possibility, with another animated series — "Star Trek: Prodigy" — slated to kick off soon, not to mention upcoming seasons of "Discovery" and "Picard," as well as the introduction of a brand new series, the Captain Pike-era "Strange New Worlds." Even if not, though, this outlier remains a unique take on the "Star Trek" saga.

"Star Trek: Lower Decks," Season Two, premieres on Paramount Plus on August 12.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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