Lower Decks Joins the Trek Universe with Second Contact

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.

Ensigns Beckett Mariner, Brad Boimler, Sam Rutherford, and D’Vana Tendi adjust to life aboard the USS Cerritos as the ship warps to its important mission of Second Contact. As expected, things do not go according to plan.

Here there be SPOILERS

With its premiere, Lower Decks joins the Star Trek franchise, and overall, despite solid animation and above average voice acting, “Second Contact” comes in as a shaky start for the first animated Star Trek series since 1973. As always, this review contains spoilers for the episode, so read on at your own risk.

Plot Ahoy!

The episode opens with Ensign Brad Boimler recording a pseudo-Captain’s Log while working in what would be a broom closet in another context. He rhapsodizes about the importance of “second contact,” which is apparently the ship’s current mission. Ensign Beckett Mariner interrupts, flinging herself on him to get access to his log before devolving into jokes about the shore leave contraband she’s acquired, including a Klingon bat’leth. Pretending to be an exaggerated version of a Klingon, Mariner threatens Boimler with the weapon, ultimately wounding him fairly severely on the leg.

Meanwhile, Ensign D’Vana Tendi joins the U.S.S. Cerritos as part of its medical staff. She’s thrilled to serve, particularly with ensigns in the Command branch, and Boimler serves as her orientation liaison. Mariner, however, quickly appropriates Tendi to help her move a large box of shore leave contraband. On the way, they encounter Ensign Sam Rutherford who struggles with his new cybernetic implant, which mutes his emotions as a side-effect, evidently because he procured it from Vulcan. He and Mariner discuss his impending date with a lovely Trill engineer. Mariner and Boimler continue with Tendi’s tour of the ship, stopping at the holodeck and demonstrating its capabilities.

Captain Freeman calls Boimler to the bridge and tasks him with observing Mariner and reporting on anything she does that breaks protocol just before the Cerritos arrives at Galardonia. First Officer Ransom promises the Galardonian council that his crew will set up a communication array before preparing to beam back to the ship. Just before the transporter activates, a native insect bites Ransom who chooses to ignore the bite in order to continue his duties. Unfortunately, the bite worsens, and Ransom is overcome by a new, alien virus that turns him into a zombie. The virus spreads rapidly throughout the Cerritos, though only mildly interrupting Rutherford’s date.

Back on the planet, Boimler tracks Mariner to a clandestine rendezvous with a pair of Galardonians. He accuses her of selling weapons and threatens her with his phaser, but Mariner explains that she is providing necessary farming equipment that has been held up by Starfleet bureaucracy. Boimler’s actions startled a local spider-cow, and the animal appears to attack Mariner and Boimler. While they watch the spider cow destroy dummies made from their uniforms, Mariner explains that she participated in First Contact with the Galardonians and has served on several ships. She therefore knows things Boimler doesn’t, and she tells him to follow her lead. The spider cow captures Boimler, but the Galardonian farmers explain that she’s simply sucking on him to extract moisture and will calm down in a bit. Boimler, now covered in pink slime, and Mariner return to the ship after having helped the farmers.

They find the ship in mid-zombie outbreak, but Dr. T’Ana discovers that the slime covering Boimler can cure the alien virus and synthesizes enough of it to distribute through the ship. Freeman credits T’Ana with saving the ship in her log, which she records in front of Boimler. He refuses to snitch on Mariner, and after he leaves, Freeman discusses Mariner with her partner via subspace, revealing that she is Mariner’s mother. Mariner, thrilled to hear that Boimler had her back, promises to become his mentor, regardless of his feelings on the issue.

Analysis

From the moment the credits roll, “Lower Decks” tries to impress upon viewers that this is not your regular Star Trek. Riffing off of the intros from TNG, Voyager, and DS9, which depict the ships and crews valiantly flying through space or conducting business, the “Lower Decks” credit sequence highlights the Cerritos’s misadventures, rather than its accomplishments. Nothing signals that this ain’t the Enterprise like a giant space bug sucking on a warp nacelle. Even the teaser, which features Mariner’s casual disregard and even disrespect for Klingon culture, just serves to highlight that we’re not dealing with Starfleet’s A-team here. Mariner can’t even remember that the weapon she slices Boimler with is called a bat’leth. Boimler himself comes off as a purple-haired junior version of Reginal Barclay, albeit with less overt anxiety. Even Rutherford and Tendi feel so much younger than the characters we’ve previously seen portrayed in the franchise.

The command staff wouldn’t win any awards either. Freeman abuses her position to secure a babysitter for her wayward daughter. Ransom’s casual disregard for the bug bite results in catastrophic injuries to other crew members, and Shaxs is very clearly meant to be a Bajoran meathead. None of them care one whit about what happens to the other members of the crew; Mariner accuses the command staff of being glory-hounds, and she’s right. T’Ana unabashedly hits the nail on the head when she calls Boimler worthless, less important even than the slime with which he’s coated. In that moment, there’s a real sense that but for that slime, Boimler and Mariner would be abandoned as cannon fodder to allow the senior staff to escape. The implication is more unsettling than it is funny.

There are good moments, hints of a more interesting show. Mariner talks about the weird things she sees, including a sentient cave that knows things, and even Rutherford’s failed attempt at a love life indicates just how inured Starfleet officers must become to the absolute strangeness of space. However, I keep coming back to the very real distrust with which Mariner and, by extension, the show regards Starfleet as an institution and her command crew in general. One of the elements that sets Star Trek apart as a franchise is its general assumption that societal institutions are good. Lower Decks focuses on what Starfleet ignores, including the contributions of its junior officers and whatever real problems might exist on worlds like Galardonia. Certainly, there are hints in TNG and DS9 that Starfleet has its issues, but not until Picard has Starfleet been portrayed as this callous and this incompetent. I truly wonder how far the show plans to take this distrust.

Overall, it’s clear that CBS has plans for Lower Decks, the animation is slick and well done, even if it is in a style that some might find distasteful. The voice acting is solid. Tawny Newsome especially shines as Mariner, capably handling her rapid-fire dialogue. I can see where there were serious attempts at humor, but frankly, most of them fall flat, even the sight gag of buff, naked men working out. Tendi’s utter lack of interest should have been able to carry the moment, especially as an Orion, but like most of the humor, it’s just awkward. I won’t even discuss the spider cow sequence, beyond observing that some of the design recalls the monster on Delta Vega from Star Trek: 2009. Hopefully, the show finds its comedic rhythm sooner rather than later, but judging from the humor in this episode, I do not have high hopes that I’ll find it funny.

Rating:

I’m going to need Romulan ale for this.

Stray Thoughts from the Couch:

  1. Really? Tendi has no clue what a holodeck can do? I don’t buy that, but her confusion regarding sand is pretty cute.
  2. There are so many nostalgia references in this episodes. Mariner apparently experienced Rura Penthe more or less the same way James Kirk did. She plays with a bat’leth. Shaxs is a Bajoran, and T’Ana is Caitian. Judging by the next episode’s teaser, yet another Klingon has an eyepatch bolted to his face much like General Chang in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. I did like that while Mariner has heard of Gary Mitchell, apparently his activities in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” don’t feature strongly enough for Boimler to have heard of him.
  3. Rutherford’s fascination with a level two diagnostic and its disastrous consequences for his date should have been funny. It was only mildly cute, and I’m mostly impressed his date wasn’t angrier at being ignored for a door.

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