From what we’ve seen of Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 3, Mike McMahan is using every part of the Starfleet buffalo in his quest for comedy.
Even three seasons in, the idea of a purely comedic Star Trek series still boggles the mind, much less an animated one in the mold of Rick and Morty. And yet, somehow, Star Trek: Lower Decks has grown into, and even past, that humble brief into one of the most entertaining entries in this current crop of televised Trek. Maybe it’s that we’re getting used to the idea. Or the cast, crew, and writers are getting better at nailing that delicate balance of fanservice and farce. But Season 3 of the show provides that Mariner (Tawny Newsome), Boimler (Jack Quaid), and the rest of the crew of USS Cerritos are just as much a part of Starfleet as Picard, Sisko, and Janeway — without the security blanket of prestige to insulate them in their journeys.
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Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 3, Episode 1 ‘Grounded’
When we last left the crew in Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 2, we fell into that most commonplace of Trek cliffhangers: The captain’s been arrested for a crime she didn’t commit! (Sidenote: Between Captain Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) here and Strange New Worlds’ Number One ending their seasons with arrested bridge officers, I’m starting to sense a pattern in the buffer.) To that end, our intrepid ensigns feel the pull to stage a jailbreak, especially since they’re confident their captain didn’t discreetly blow up the Pakled homeworld, no matter how much cartoonishly-incriminating evidence shows up on Starfleet’s version of Fox News.
Like so many of Star Trek: Lower Decks’ best episodes, creator Mike McMahan leverages his encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek to revisit tropes and images Trekkies are familiar with through a decidedly irreverent eye. Since Cerritos (still without a hull thanks to the big gambit last season to save Archimedes) is in dry dock while Freeman awaits trial, everyone else is on shore leave. Boimler toils away at his raisin vineyard, evoking the tranquility of Chateau Picard while throwing one comely lass after another at a disinterested Boimler. Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) and Tendi (Noël Wells) decide to tour Earth’s major landmarks, which include a spicy stopover at Joseph Sisko’s Creole restaurant in New Orleans. (Try the Ketracel White hot sauce. Or maybe don’t.)
But Mariner, ever the Starfleet rebel, feels restless in the face of her mother’s imprisonment. She doesn’t trust the system. Why would she? She’s spent her whole career bristling against the all-encompassing bureaucracy of Starfleet, and the reveal of a biased judge makes her certain they’ll find a way to find her mother guilty anyway. (Her ire even extends to the Golden Gate Bridge, a frequent sight in many a Trek series and film: “No one drives anymore, why do we need the bridge?!” No one tell her that Picard Season 2 showed us it’s used for solar panels now.)
Her zeal to clear Freeman’s name leads her to get the band back together for some classic Search for Spock derring-do, right down to stealing Cerritos from spacedock. Until then, though, she and the others must contend with one quirk of Starfleet’s fuzzy utopia after another. First, there’s the gentle old transporter chief who’s just too sweet to bonk over the head so they can beam to Cerritos. Then there’s “Historical Bozeman,” where the Montana shantytown that became the site of First Contact in, well, First Contact, has become a kitschy tourist trap. James Cromwell even returns as Zefram Cochrane, now a sprightly hologram who encourages visitors to “make a first contact… with fun!” Between that and the statue, Geordi warns him about in the film, with his bronzed hand “reaching toward the future,” Lower Decks makes manifest all of Cochrane’s fears about becoming a historical footnote.
Sure, it’s cute and offers plenty of neat sight gags — the Vulcan ship that landed is now a playground, and there’s the “one-song jukebox” that just plays Roy Orbison’s ‘Ooby Dooby’, and a replica Phoenix ushers attendees up to high orbit. But it’s also a sly reminder of Quark’s infamous monologue about Starfleet being a bit like root beer: bubbly, cloying, and impossible to stop drinking once you’ve had a taste. Lower Decks revels in its tongue-in-cheek references to bigger and better Starfleet events, giving fans that dopamine of recognition while recontextualizing those events in a more dangerously anemic portrait of the Federation.
What’s more, Lower Decks keeps these moments grounded in the everyday concerns of our characters. All four have grown into fast friends now — thank the Prophets, we’re past most of the petty competitiveness of the first two seasons — and look out for each other in their offbeat ways. That goes double for Mariner, who constantly battles the boredom of Starfleet and engages in big gestures to keep her life exciting and unpredictable. Her complicated scheme to hijack Phoenix to get on board Cerritos, then steal it to clear her mother’s name, feels borne of a deeply human desire to keep her mother safe as it is the typical loyalty for a commanding officer. She’s still itching to go it alone, sometimes forgetting that Boimler and the rest are willing to stick with her through thick and thin; her struggle to accept her place among the crew makes for some of Lower Decks’ finest moments.
Of course, as the season premiere reminds us, this is a show not about the Big Damn Heroes of the Federation, but about the little guys who clean up afterward. That’s made clear by Mariner’s scheme being cut short by the reveal that Freeman is fine: while they were launching their plans, Freeman was recruited for a black-ops mission (alongside Captain Morgan Bateman from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘Cause and Effect’, and Tuvok) to investigate the Pakled planet, only to find it was an inside job! This is retold in breathless, blustering narration by Freeman, with a series of quick splash images ushering us through the kinds of events Next Gen would spend a two-parter on.
It’s an important lesson for Mariner, and a fun subversion for Trek fans, who are very willing to buy that Starfleet is corrupt and plans to railroad Freeman. After all, how many times have they been infiltrated by enemy forces, and how many evil admirals have we seen in the franchise’s sixty-year history? But this time, the system really did work, and Mariner must reckon with the possibility that there’s nothing to rebel against. What’s left, then, is choosing to commit to her ship, her captain/mother, and her fellow lower deckers.
‘Grounded’ is a lovely premiere for Lower Decks’ third season, setting the tone for the rest of the season. McMahan and the writers have finally locked down that precious balance between poking irreverent fun at the tropes and trivia of Trek and building a story about Starfleet’s misfits, a group of lesser-thans who are still helping each other fulfill the ideals they signed up for.
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What About the Rest of Season 3?
While we won’t spoil too much about the rest of the season (the first eight episodes were provided to critics for review), Lower Decks proceeds capably along the path its premiere sets out for these characters. There are Easter eggs aplenty, including a subplot in which Boimler et al. immerse themselves in an interactive Dungeons & Dragons game that works eerily similar to the infamous Next Generation VCR Board Game, complete with a Klingon screaming at players through the screen (J.G. Hertzler returning as Martok! Alas, he does not ask you to “experience bij”.)
There are quips aplenty about the wardrobe and formulas of ‘90s Trek, as per usual: Ransom smirks about “aliens with slightly different nose ridges,” and virtually every pre-warp civilization the Cerritos runs across is some mix of the planets Kirk or Picard’s Enterprise would encounter every week. There are Risa-like wellness planets that operate as if goop were a fascist dictatorship; psychic babies and sentient computers (sometimes both!); alien rocks that manifest everyone’s old lovers in revealing togas; the list goes on. We even get explicit callbacks to everything from the Delta Flyer to the mask from Masks, proving that McMahan is truly using every part of the Starfleet buffalo in his quest to mine laughs from the franchise.
But as much as Lower Decks keeps its tongue firmly in cheek, its bone-deep reverence for the series it’s lampooning is clear in every brightly-composed frame. One episode halfway through the season sends Cerritos to one very familiar space station, leading to some incredibly charming cameos (we won’t spoil whom) and a lovely story that hearkens back to some of the best iterations of ‘90s Trek. We even get a sorta-sequel to Boimler’s Trek movie spoof from seasons prior, ‘Crisis Point’ (S1, Ep9); where the first ep was more about exploring Mariner’s frustration with the boredom of Starfleet, this one keeps the focus on Boimler, who’s suddenly hit with an existential crisis surrounding his transporter clone from Season 2.
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Star Trek: Lower Decks Sticks With the Small Stories
Much like The Orville, another show that effectively treats Star Trek like a workplace comedy, Lower Decks spends a lot of time focusing on the fears and concerns of decidedly ordinary people amid the majesty of space exploration. Unlike the accomplished bridge officers of your Enterprises and such, the Lower Decks gang are still figuring out their careers. Mariner chooses to remain an ensign, where she can goof off and rebel without the pressure of responsibility; Boimler still strives for greatness but is too meek and accommodating to make an impression (this season tests that theory, as he starts saying ‘yes’ to things and calling himself “Bold Boimler”). Tendi is figuring out what her recent switch from science to medical means for her potential, and Rutherford is still solving the mystery of where his implants really come from. (The latter is the subject of an intriguing episode, where he must effectively best his impetuous younger self in a mental battle for supremacy.)
It’s surprising to see the extent to which Lower Decks makes room for these character journeys, and that so much of it can actually fit in 25-minute episodes that must still make room for madcap humor and more references than you can shake a jumja stick at. For all the complaints of lewdness last season (frankly, from prudes who were mostly hiding their criticisms of how ‘woke’ Star Trek has gotten — spare me), the show as a whole is as sprightly and optimistic as ever, no matter how many ‘fuck’s it squeezes into the script. There’s a deep care for its characters and the lore they’re navigating, and the writers seem curious to explore how these four misfits can find their purpose in an organization that prides itself on uncomplicated excellence in its members.
Maybe the ultimate expression of Lower Decks’ thesis comes in a simple subplot partway through the season, where a reluctant Mariner is stuck manning a table at a job fair with Boimler so they can meet recruitment quotas. With a suave, sexy explorer from the Archaeologist’s Guild on one side, and the collectors from “The Most Toys” on the other, it’s an episode that wonders: Is Starfleet actually cool? Or is it for nerds?
The way it answers that question is fun, interesting, and very Lower Decks. And it proves just what’s made this show so charming as it comes into its own: it’s a Trek show that recognizes the corniness of its past and premise. But it also celebrates the doe-eyed sincerity that suffuses even the franchise’s less-than-stellar moments. Even as Cerritos and her crew serve as also-rans for the Picards and Janeways of Starfleet, they take pride in their work. We’ve seen our share of Federation heroes; it’s time for the folks who do the grunt work to get their time in the sun.
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Clint Worthington is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Writer for Consequence of Sound. He’s also the host of the podcasts More of a Comment, Really…, and Travolta/Cage (with cohost Nathan Rabin). You can find other bylines at Vulture, IndieWire, RogerEbert.com, StarTrek.com, The Takeout, and others. He lives in Chicago with his wife, his cat, and far too many Criterions.