The animated series, now in its second season, pays homage while also poking gentle fun at its predecessors.
We’ve all had that experience where we can laugh about something with our friends or family members and poke fun at one another’s foibles without anyone batting an eyelash. And yet, if someone from outside of that circle of trust were to make the same kind of joke about one of our pals, we’d be ready to tear them a new exhaust manifold.
The reason is simple but powerful — because we love the people close to us. We know any minor jabs among friends come from a place of playful affection, not a desire to be genuinely callous or hurtful. Our close relationships make it safe to gently rib one another in a way it wouldn’t be for an outsider.
In a weird way, that’s the secret to Star Trek: Lower Decks’ success. The show has the unique distinction of being a Star Trek spoof that is, at the same time, canon to the Star Trek universe. That means it’s poking fun at the excesses of more than fifty years of storytelling at the same time it’s progressing those stories with direct follow-ups and spiritual successors. The series adds new details and key events to the galaxy the show shares with its more serious brethren while at the same cracking wise about its shaggier corners.
It would be all too easy to get the balance wrong and not only muck up the imaginative universe of the franchise that’s lasted since 1966, but trample over it in a way that comes off mean-spirited. Lower Decks certainly isn’t shy about spoofing the more ridiculous elements of Star Trek or riffing on the tropes that sister shows like Discovery and Picard play straight.
But what makes it all work is how Lower Decks is absolutely brimming with affection for Star Trek in all its forms. The series’ gags hit home, and sometimes even draw some (green) blood, but the call is always coming from inside the house.
This is, after all, a show that regularly pays tribute to Star Trek: The Animated Series, an oft-maligned stopover between the cancelation of the original Star Trek program and the franchise’s rebirth in cinemas. Despite TAS having an infamously questionable status in canon, Lower Decks frequently pays loving homage to the franchise’s first foray into animation.
For example, Lower Decks includes a direct screen grab of the 1970s cartoon versions of Kirk and Spock. It reintroduces two species who made their debuts in the Filmation series. And it even stages a major set piece on the bones of a giant Spock clone from one of The Animated Series’ more outlandish episodes. These shout-outs are emblematic of Lower Decks’ drive to reclaim and restore. The series isn’t afraid to pick up the long-disavowed stepchildren of Star Trek and have some fun at their expense, while ultimately giving them some love.
Take the Pakled — a group of doltish roly poly aliens duped by Commander Riker in an early episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Despite posing a minor threat via their phony distress signal ploys, the Pakleds are almost inherently comical foes. And yet, Lower Decks not only brings them back for the yuks, but turns them into the show’s main antagonists, and even uses them to make a broader point about Starfleet’s blind spots.
One of the major messages of the show’s season 1 finale, “No Small Parts” (which closes with a climactic battle against the Pakled) is that there’s merit and potential in the overlooked, maligned, or forgotten parts of Star Trek’s illustrious history. Lower Decks means to mine those neglected (or ludicrous) corners of its universe for all they’re worth. The writers hope to wring the humor from them, of course, but also the chance to deconstruct venerable franchise tropes and point to these quirks and quarks as a vital part of what makes Star Trek great.
No episode drives that idea home better than “Kayshon, His Eyes Open”, the show’s most recent outing. With a title that harkens back to one of TNG’s finest hours, the episode offers a heartfelt defense of, and tribute, to 1990s Star Trek and the broader era of the franchise Lower Decks is most directly parodying.
In terms of the timeline, Lower Decks is set after Star Trek: Nemesis, a cinematic outing for the Next Generation crew that left the franchise’s filmic fortunes in such a dire state that it took J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot to revive them. Despite that, Lower Decks reflects the look and feel of the Enterprise–D officers and their contemporaries more than any other sources of inspiration.
The show parodies TNG’s stuffy classical music concerts and poker games, spoofs the resolution of territorial disputes amid interstellar catastrophes, and even features Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis themselves to joke about Riker and Troi’s love of jazz, fertility statues, and visiting Captain Archer’s Enterprise on the holodeck.
Make no mistake; Lower Decks plays off of Star Trek bits from across the spectrum: from callbacks to the original series (a Gary Mitchell homage in the season 2 premiere) to reference to fellow modern series (shout-outs to “complex characters thrown into heavily serialized battles”). But it’s most strongly indebted to, and poking fun at, the more staid adventures of The Next Generation and its successors.
The series isn’t afraid to pick up the long-disavowed stepchildren of Star Trek and have some fun at their expense, while ultimately giving them some love.
At the same time, though, when thrown onto a new ship where the action is, Ensign Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid) pines for the lower-volume but no less endearing stories that 1990s creatives like Michael Piller oversaw. He yearns for wacky science shenanigans and silly diplomatic flaps and single-episode parables. It’s the most direct articulation of the message that practically dripped from the show’s first season: “We adore those stories, warts and all, as much as you do.”
Lower Decks creator Mike McMahan and his team aren’t blind to the goofier parts of those classic episodes. To the contrary, they’re the lifeblood of the show’s humor. But they kid because they love. Like the show’s protagonist, Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), they may roll their eyes a tad at the more stiff or absurd elements of Star Trek, but their knowledge is deep and so is their appreciation for what Starfleet, and the shows and films where it’s brought to life, are truly about.
The series’ writers are palpably ecstatic to be able to play in this sandbox, even as they mock a few of the nuttier toys left lying around there. In the same way, the show’s tone is irreverent while its ethos is celebratory. It takes the franchise’s familiar tropes and quirks, plays their ridiculous elements and blind spots for laughs, while ultimately repurposing them to affirm what Star Trek was and is and still can be. The show soars, and the humor lands, because all of that comes from that place of love for Star Trek. It may not be faith of the heart, but Lower Decks’ perfect blend of mockery and affection could still take the series wherever it wants to boldly go.
Season 1 of Star Trek: Lower Decks is available on CBS All Access, & Season 2 on Paramount +