Star Trek: Lower Decks “Second Contact”

Before we’d gotten too far into the fabulous 21st century, it became evident that the kind of television the Star Trek franchise produced wasn’t going to be relevant for very much longer. New technologies such as DVR and streaming, new standards of production value for genre TV, and new clamor for serialized stories and gritty mature content meant that the pulpy, plot-driven, episodic fare Star Trek was known for had aged like Andorian cheese. The franchise had to adapt—everybody knew that—but into what?

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First, they rebooted the Star Trek movie series with the creatively-named Star Trek (2009), which set the series into a new, fashionably dark continuity in order to give the characters the kinds of tragic backstories that were in vogue at the time, and ditched the two-part episode tone of most of the previous movies in favor of lots of stunt-heavy action and lots of special effects. You have to take these movies for what they are; I personally still enjoy the first and third ones quite a bit.

Next, we got Star Trek: Discovery (2017-present), which feels more than anything else like a trashy CW fantasy drama. Discovery isn’t what we would call “good”, but despite its many flaws it’s still oddly watchable, mainly because of the vague feeling of goofy surrealism arising from the tension between what we know of the franchise and what this show is doing. It feels kind of like Riverdale, if you follow me; lots of virtual ink is spilled over what a ridiculous show Riverdale is, but if we’re being fair, it’s not that much stupider than any modern teen drama. It just seems that way because the source material is corny comic books with grade school jokes that are sold next to the candy bars in the express lane. Similarly, Discovery, while campy, isn’t campy in any of the ways Star Trek is usually campy; in fact, it seems determined to check every one of the boxes on a list of everything Star Trek isn’t. To take only one example, whereas Star Trek usually at least makes an effort to remain scientifically grounded, right off the bat Discovery is like “fuck it, what if we figured out how to teleport across the galaxy using mushrooms?”

Then after that we got Star Trek: Picard, which had the opposite problem. Picard tried to turn Star Trek into Prestige TV, and the problem with that is Prestige TV is fucking boring. The tonal problems were rife; the prevailing leaden seriousness made its few sequences of pure goofiness stick out like sore thumbs. Most of all, the show felt oddly constrained by convention in a way that was never a problem on Discovery; it teed up a lot of genuinely ambitious themes that would have taken Star Trek to new areas as a franchise, then for the most part didn’t swing.

Which brings us to Star Trek: Lower Decks. There was a lot of negative reaction from the show’s trailer about its resemblance to Cartoon Network shows, due to its adherence to the “CalArts” style that’s completely over-represented in modern cartoons. However, I know next to nothing about art or animation so I’m not really qualified to judge here. What I will weigh in on is this: there’s plenty of room for a comedic take on Star Trek mythos, as is shown by the series The Orville and “The Trouble with Edward”, the hilarious highlight of Star Trek: Short Treks. And a setting emphasizing the “grunt work” on a starship has a lot of fertile satirical ground (Something Awful did a whole series of articles about this). And the showrunner is Mike McMahan, head writer on Rick and Morty, one of the cleverest and most brutal sci-fi satires ever made.

But despite all this working in its favor, the jokes on Star Trek: Lower Decks mostly suck. Most of them fall into the “so that just happened” school of brain-dead sitcom schlock. And even with the ones that don’t, you feel that tension between the desire to be irreverent and snarky and the overwhelming fear of appearing less than totally respectful of the sacred IP which characterizes so much of nerd humor. This tension means that the resulting “satire” is totally toothless and mostly involves the characters acting out a trope while saying out loud that they’re doing a trope, making sure to over-explain everything so as to leave no room for ambiguity in the writer’s intentions, capped off with a poorly-timed, deflating Whedonesque quip.

We do a cold open on an unidentified man making a log entry while the camera pans over a starship docked at a space station. This is the USS Cerritos (named after a Los Angeles suburb, in case you were wondering how in-jokey this show’s going to be). The ship specializes in “second contact” with almost-new alien species, which is “still pretty important: we get all the paperwork signed, make sure we’re spelling the name of the planet right, get to know all the good places to eat…”

At this point, the man dictating this log is interrupted by a door opening behind him. The man is Ensign Boimler (Jack Quaid) and his colleague Ensign Mariner (Tawny Newsome) has just busted him pretending to be a captain while recording his log. Mariner’s talking really fast, which is how you know she’s quirky. She dunks on Boimler a bunch and then reveals she’s shithoused on Romulan whiskey, which is green, and not blue as you would expect it to be, because Romulan ale is blue (a fact that she points out herself, in case you weren’t up to speed). This whiskey came out of a huge box of contraband she picked up on her last shore leave, which also includes a bat’leth, and she excitedly waves it around until hacking into Boimler’s leg.

“Oh my god, is it terrible of me that I really want to bread that and fry it in oil with a little parsley and lemon juice?”

After this, it’s time for the intro sequence, which is set over a typically bombastic Star Trek theme song with a couple of passable sight gags in it, including the Cerritos scraping its nacelle on a comet and the Cerritos turning around and fleeing from a battle with Borg cubes. Then a new Orionian woman comes on board the Cerritos, identifying herself as Ensign Tendi (Noel Wells) and being assigned to the command of Ensign Boimler. Said ensign is currently trying to fix a replicator that’s spewing out hot bananas. Tendi is excited to be working with the elite command division, but as Mariner puts it, “we’re more like the scrappy underdogs”, because the best way to make a joke out of a trope is to just have your character describe the trope.

While giving the tour, the three ensigns run into yet another ensign, Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), whose character trait is that he’s recently been fitted with a cyborg implant and the kinks haven’t all been worked out yet.

I really feel they should have gotten an actual cyborg to voice this role.

After some tedious antics in the holodeck and the communal dorm for non-senior officers, Boimler is called to the bridge and freaks out because he’s a suck-up and loves being on the bridge.

Meanwhile, down on the planet, the second contact team, which naturally includes the ship’s XO, Commander Jack Ransom (Jerry O’Connell), are bidding farewell to a group of pig-snouted Rick and Morty leftovers. Cmdr. Ransom gets bitten by a mosquito but waves off someone else’s suggestion that he get it looked at.

Boimler talks to Captain Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) in her ready room. She deduces that Boimler, being a gigantic nerd suck-up, would be interested in the opportunity to rat out his co-workers. She assigns him to monitor Ensign Mariner and report anything illegal or insubordinate she does.

“I’m thinking of redecorating. Every captain has model ships. I was thinking of a sort of Chinese restaurant theme. Koi carp in a tank, maybe one of those waving cats.”

In Ten-Forward, or whatever it’s called on this ship, Ensign Rutherford is on a date with what looks like a Trill woman, making small talk about his work repairing the food replicators. (“They really break that often?” “Only when you get food in ’em.”) The small talk is hampered by the fact that Rutherford’s cyborg implant, which is apparently of Vulcan design, keeps suppressing his emotional responses. This is one of several bits that they set up and don’t do anything with. How did such a sloppy episode come from the guy who wrote Rick and Morty, a show whose every 22-minute episode is tight as a drum?

Down on the planet’s surface, the away team, including Mariner and Boimler, are about to set up some gobbledygook that doesn’t really matter, giving Mariner the opportunity to do a little character-appropriate protocol-breaking. They’re conveniently absent for the moment in Ten-Forward when Ransom, drinking at the bar, suddenly gets turned by his bug bite into a black-puking, flesh-craving zombie creature, who bites several people who also turn into zombies. Rutherford and his date duck behind a table and continue their small talk while phasering some zombies.

“I don’t think you’ve got that nerve pinch quite down yet.”

Boimler spies Mariner loading some stuff into what appears to be a Warthog from the Halo series, and he mutters “unbelievable” and takes off after her. Meanwhile, Tendi reports to her post in Sickbay to find it swamped with restrained zombies. The chief medical officer, who’s a member of a feline-like species, starts barking orders at her.

“Wow, I really got the wrong impression when they told me you were a crazy cat lady.”

On the planet’s surface, Boimler catches Mariner with some locals unloading a crate full of stuff. Assuming she’s selling them Federation weapons, he points a phaser at her while she tries to explain it’s full of farm equipment. In the confusion, the aliens duck inside a cave, neglecting to close a gate behind them, leaving the giant spider creature in the cave free to escape and chase the two ensigns.

“What I wouldn’t give for a 50-foot rolled-up magazine right now! Too bad print media died 300 years ago.”

Boimler starts hassling Mariner for breaking protocol, which Mariner defends on the grounds that those farmers would’ve starved had they waited on Starfleet bureaucracy. Mariner says her determination to help people at the expense of protocol is what got her demoted and assigned to the Cerritos. She throws away Boimler’s combadge when he tries to radio for emergency transport, then begins stripping off her uniform to create decoy dummies. The dummies work and draw the giant spider away from them, but Boimler stumbles, jumping onto the spider’s back and gets eaten. The aliens stop Mariner from phasering the spider, saying “that’ll spoil the milk!” Apparently, the creature is an herbivore who’s just suckling on Boimler.

Meanwhile, Rutherford and his date spacewalk across the hull to get to a section of the ship that turns out to be just as full of infected crewmen as the one they left. The emergency-sealed turbolift hatch fails to recognize their combadges, and Rutherford only barely gets the glitch fixed in time to make it in and close the door. His adrenaline-charged date begins kissing him, but Rutherford is too fixated on the failure of the turbolift to notice.

The spider is now done suckling Boimler. “My bones!” he complains. Mariner replies, “You’ll be fine. The doctor’ll wave a light over it.” They get in position to beam up, with nobody noticing Boimler is naked and covered in pink slime. In the transporter room, the zombies have nearly broken in. Dr. T’ana (the cat lady) swabs the slime and it’s one of those deals where they accidentally discover the perfect substance they need to solve whatever problem they currently have.

“Huh, whaddaya know, it cures coronavirus too. Coulda used that.”

They get Boimler to Sickbay and inject Ransom with the slime. He turns back into a person and asks worriedly, “Did I eat flesh?” to which Tandi responds, “Hardly any.”

The goo is aerosolized and spread throughout the ship, and before you know it, everyone’s back to normal. We cut to the bridge and see Captain Freeman narrating her log entry, which gives all the credit to the senior staff and none to Boimler, who discovered the goo that saved everybody. Boimler is in the room as she’s doing this and decides not to rat out Mariner after all. This enrages Freeman, and after Boimler leaves, she gets a video call from an unnamed admiral and complains about Mariner’s attitude. It turns out that this admiral and Captain Freeman are married, and also Ensign Mariner’s parents.

“Admiral Character-Actor, reporting for duty.”

Back in Ten-Forward, Mariner is moping at the bar, assuming Boimler has ratted her out. When he says he hasn’t, and grudgingly admits his respect for her, she flies into an extremely annoying tizzy, pledging to help him fulfill his dream of becoming a captain. She then launches into a light-speed monologue about all the Starfleet heroes he needs to learn about, like Spock, Sulu [?] and Deanna Troi [???]. We zoom out of the window, the end.

Next week on Star Trek: Lower Decks: Boimler, like, crazy needs to pee, and he’s marooned on a planet without toilets and he’s like whaaaat! Ha ha!

TV Show: Star Trek: Lower Decks

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