It seems like CBS TV studios president David Stapf wasn’t joking when he said, “There should be Star Trek something on all the time”. In the same year Short Treks and the as-of-yet untitled Picard show were announced, and rumours of a Section 31 show surfaced, we now have another series revealed to air alongside Star Trek: Discovery on CBS All Access. Back when Stapf made that statement – eyes bulging with imagined riches – Alex Kurtzman and others at CBS assured fans that these upcoming shows would be radically different from one another so the franchise doesn’t get burnt out. And the newly announced show is certainly different. It’s called Lower Decks and is a half-hour, animated comedy series from Emmy-winning writer Mike McMahan and will chart the adventures of “the support crew serving on one of Starfleet’s least important ships”. This might be a different direction for the franchise but is it the right one and could/should a fully-fledged comedy series exist in the same continuity as all the other Trek shows?
Before we warp into speculation territory, let’s look at what we know. I like the choice of Mike McMahan as the show’s lead writer, with him having run the very funny @TNG_S8 Twitter account and written 2 of my very favourite Rick and Morty episodes. Although he did write one of my least favourite episodes too but, for reference, my overall least favourite episode of that show is the first ‘Inter-dimensional Cable’ episode which is beloved, so my Rick and Morty opinions should probably be ignored. He’s the only confirmed writer but it’ll be interesting to see if any other Rick and Morty writers get involved. I’d also be up for Enterprise writer David A. Goodman being involved but that may be difficult considering he’s a producer on The Orville now. But he is still authoring Star Trek books (his autobiography series) so I don’t think he’s out of the running just yet. And, considering McMahan became famous in the Star Trek world for his tweets, maybe he could hire the guy who writes ‘Chief O’Brien at Work’!
Another thing we know is that Lower Decks is described as an “adult” animated show. That certainly makes sense considering the writer but after all the brutal violence and Klingon rape in Discovery, is another adult show the way to go? With all these new series being announced, where’s the family-friendly show? That’s a piece of Star Trek which is missing and I feel is desperately needed. With the exception of some of Deep Space Nine and Enterprise, all the past Star Trek shows have been family shows, enjoyed by kids and adults alike but that’s no longer the case. Although when talking about the show, Alex Kurtzman has said “As we broaden the world of Trek to fans of all ages”. “All ages” is at odds with the “adult” show already described. Could the show be more like The Simpsons than Rick and Morty? I guess time will tell. All we know for certain is that Kurtzman likes contradicting fellow CBS employees as much as he likes contradicting canon.
Personally, I think the central idea of focusing on “the support crew serving on one of Starfleet’s least important ships” is great. One of my favourite things about The Orville is that it’s not focused on the flagship of the fleet like several of the Star Trek shows, and one of my hopes for season 2 was that the crew would have to meet up with the flagship – that universe’s Enterprise – and work with them, maybe being envious of their position which creates an ongoing feud. Now I don’t have to hope for that in The Orville because we’re going to be getting it in an actual Star Trek show. I’m hoping Lower Decks takes place during the TNG era and that the envy-induced feud is with the Enterprise under Jean-Luc Picard, with Patrick Stewart returning to voice the character. Speaking of The Orville, this decision does on the surface look like CBS’s response to that show and its seemingly high appreciation in the Star Trek fanbase. I wonder if Seth Macfarlane is kicking himself that he can’t be involved. This is the kind of show he would have loved to produce and he was always on good terms with CBS in the past, appearing in Enterprise and hosting special features and recording commentaries for the TNG Blu-rays.
While this is a bold step for Star Trek as a franchise, it’s also not the most original idea in 2018. We have a whole bevy of adult animated comedies that dabble in science fiction and this can be seen as CBS trying to desperately capture the zeitgeist. But the big thing is that none of them have the Star Trek name behind them. I was always hoping for a new animated Star Trek show but never a comedy. I’m not fully against the idea but I wanted, and still want, an animated show that takes itself seriously like Star Wars has with The Clone Wars, Rebels and (admittedly less so) Resistance. Whatever the tone, I want Lower Decks to take full advantage of being an animation. It can do big crazy weird sci-fi and not every alien race has to be humanoid with a couple of extra forehead ridges. And CBS can bring back Trek alumni from all the different shows to provide voices, either as regular characters or guest stars. Bring back Shatner for one last performance!
My biggest question is whether or not the show will be canon with the rest of Star Trek or whether it’ll be set in its own continuity altogether. My feelings on this depend on how big and broad the comedy will be. If it can believably fit in with the rest of Star Trek and you can believe Picard or Sisko could encounter these characters, like with the more comedy-inflected Ferengi episodes (although hopefully funnier), then Lower Decks should be a part of the canon. But if the comedy is too large, crazy and canon-breaking then it should exist in its own pocket universe. I’m fine with either, I just don’t want them to choose incorrectly.
As much as I want the Star Trek universe to expand and push forward into new time periods, I don’t see Lower Decks as the show to go where no one has gone before. If anything, it should comment on and deconstruct the Trek universe and its tropes; lovingly poking fun at everything from TOS to DS9 to Discovery. Meta humour, from Deadpool to The Lego Movie, is in right now and all the show needs to do is be funnier than The Orville, which won’t be hard.
When I first heard the news, I was surprised – shocked, even – but I quickly warmed to the idea and now I’m quite excited for the series although just how much depends on the next few vital pieces of information we receive. It’s place in canon and level of comedy being the most important. But however it turns out, I’m sure it’ll be better than Star Trek’s previous foray into animation which gave us only one good episode over two seasons and isn’t even considered true canon. Oh, and if CBS can strike a deal with Netflix for international distribution (which they still haven’t done for Short Treks) then that’d be great.
What are your thoughts on Star Trek: Lower Decks? Is an animated comedy series the right direction for Star Trek? Let me know in the comments and geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.