Further animated adventures far from the Bridge: Thoughts on Lower Decks (S2, E1-5)

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

Star Trek has a reputation for being very, VERY serious.

It’s not undeserved, of course, since the franchise as a whole has its eyes firmly on the bettering of the human race in particular and the galaxy as a whole, an undertaking far into the future that is, by its very definition, a sober, thoughtful and portentous affair.

But what people forget is that the franchise can be very funny too, with episodes like The Next Generation‘s “Menage a Troi”, Voyager‘s “Q2”, Deep Space Nine‘s “Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang” and TOS‘s “The Trouble With Tribbles” to name just four, all seeing the funnier side of idealistic future galactic life.

What is new is having an entire series cast a comical glance across an imperfect solar system but as Lower Decks demonstrates with increase verve and thigh-slapping hilarity in season 2 (season 1 reviewed), there’s a lot of rich storytelling ground to be mined with such an off-the-wall approach.

Especially when it is as cleverly written and inspired in its lunacy as this show.

Good comedy should be well-written if it’s to have any real impact, a lesson not lost on the team behind Lower Decks which manages to clock an impressive laughs-per-minute count without once devaluing its storyline.

That’s quite a feat of parodic storytelling but the show manages it with aplomb, largely due to the fact that it is more than happy to humanise Star Trek in a way that shows like Deep Space Nine and Enterprise have come close to achieving.

In this slice of the Star Trek Universe, which is getting bigger and bigger all the time with shows like Strange New Worlds and Prodigy in the offing to add to the rich narrative wonder of Discovery which returns for a fourth season this November, the focus is squarely on the people who make the people on the Bridge look good.

Well, better, anyway.

In this world away from the glamour of tense Zoom’d confrontations with aliens and spacial anomalies capable of throwing you through time or across a quadrant or two, there’s less diplomacy and future worldbuilding and more stacking of boxes and rewiring of errant Jeffries Tubes circuitry.

In other words, far more humdrum and far less heroics, all of which means the four main characters – Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid), D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells) and Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) – spend the bulk of their time doing the stuff that makes the ship work which you might think doesn’t lend itself to some great storytelling.

But that would only be if you had skimped on the characterisation, which Lower Decks most certainly has not, slapdashed the scrips (also hasn’t happened) or made the show one big unending joke (beneath the guffaws and the silliness lies a beating heart of utopian-minded Star Trek idealism, just with a but more grounded humanity).

It’s the show’s willingness to go a whole lot of Orville on the revered canon of Star Trek that really makes its humourous recipe work so well, especially in season 2 where the willingness to point out the absurdity of some of the franchise’s narrative conceits pays off time and time again.

For instance, when a particular very dead character suddenly reappears – to say who would be a spoiler but their reappearance is most unexpected given their manner of death – a lot of people, including our intrepid four, and most particularly part-cyborg Rutherford, don’t handle it all that well.

They want to know where the very dead character has been and how on earth or on Risa, they managed to come back from a very firm and definitive nail in the coffin.

It makes for a very funny episode which dares, with great affection, to peek behind the Star Trek curtain and point out that character resurrections like this, while narratively convenient and a boon to writers, are imply very, very silly and gloriously absurd.

Similar sly observations about some franchise constants re-occur through the first five episodes of the second season, granting Lower Decks the unique ability to be both a cheerleading mainstay of the franchise but also a just outside the inner circle arch questioner of all kind of franchise givens.

Which makes it’s a ton of fun to watch because while it is a very Star Trek show, with episodes that feature muscular and substantial plots worth of any of its stablemates, it is also one long big sitcom with a plethora of judiciously used and well-placed jokes which are hilarious in and of themselves or as ways of drawing out elements of character (such as when Vendi is desperate to impress her boss, Dr T’Ana, voiced by Gilligan Vigman, and goes a little too overboard, to humourous but vulnerability-revealing effect) or enhancing a narrative thread.

It is also, and this shouldn’t surprise, very much a Star Trek show.

One scene in particular in episode 5, “An Embarrassment of Dooplers”, really brings that home when Mariner and Boimler, close friends to the end, find themselves in a bar on a spacestation that has been there forever, proof being the etched graffiti on the wooden bartop of Kirk and Spock who sat at the same place as our two lower ensigns.

The two characters, one cavalier (Mariner), one deadly earnest) – the latter is so earnest that he spends much of episode 3 (“We’ll Always Have Tom Paris”) desperately getting across the USS Cerritos to get his hero Tom Paris’s signature on a commemorative plate, the latter item it’s own charmingly silly pisstake) – are in awe that for all their trials and Lower Decks tribulations that they are sitting right where two great heroes of the Federation once sat.

It’s a lovely nod to the love and great affection with which many people hold Star Trek, a franchise to which Lower Decks might appear to be a comedic aberration, but of which it is a brilliantly-realised member with the show very much having its franchise cake and poking fun at it too, proof that you can pledge undying love and allegiance to something and still have fun with it too, creating in the process a very clever sitcom that proves once and for all that far-future adventuring might be just as funny as it is idealistically earnest.

And yes we still have five more episodes to go, released in Australia via Prime Video on a week-by-week basis, and they even have their own mid-season trailer …

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