Star Trek: Lower Decks somehow defies your expectations while also being exactly what you expect. Lower Decks isn't good because it's funny. It's good because it doesn't care if you like it. Which, paradoxically, makes it exactly like every Trek spinoff that has come before it. It's both back-to-basics and completely transgressive all at once. Lower Decks is like when Adam West became Batman. It's true to the original concept, but it's also making damn sure you know you're not supposed to take this too seriously.
This review of Star Trek: Lower Decks is spoiler-free.
The worst thing you can say about Lower Decks is that if you're not already a Star Trek fan, you'll miss like 30 percent of the jokes. If you don't find the concept of a science fiction show focused on normal people doing mundane things at least a little bit funny, well, I don't know what to tell you. Lower Decks delivers on that concept over and over again in ways that kept making me laugh.
The show's premise feels reminiscent of the 2002 film Adaptation. In it, the writer Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) describes his attempt to craft a fictional story with intentionally low stakes: "What if the writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens? Where people don't change, they don't have any epiphanies, they struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved. More a reflection of the real world."
This idea, of course, is an intentional paradox. When you create characters who resist change, that invites epiphanies and personal growth. Lower Decks flips the script on most other Trek by suggesting the people in the background have the real problems — which, of course, is a truer reflection of the real world. Showrunner Mike McMahan has said The Next Generation episode "Lower Decks" is his favorite episode. It shows.
Saying Lower Decks is more realistic than other existing entries into the Trek canon is a little like saying submarines work better in the water than boats. It's not technically true — both operate just fine. But a submarine is submerged in its universe, while a boat kind of glides along on top. I'm not sure the arbitrary narrative lens to focus on the "decision-makers" in other Trek has been oppressive to the "little people," but Lower Decks makes a case that that is exactly what has been going on all along. Some of it is a little on-the-nose. Some of it is subtle. But overall, if you've been paying attention to Star Trek, it all makes a lot of sense. When the space god Q turned up in the Deep Space Nine episode "Q-Less," he scoffed at Chief O'Brien as a former Enterprise crew member saying, "Oh yes, weren't you one of the little people?"
Lower Decks exists simultaneously as a rebuke to this idea and also a straight-ahead broad comedy. If the classist issues in Trek get too heavy, the characters will do something zany, or, occasionally, very exciting and reminiscent of the best Trek adventures.
It helps that the four main characters are impossible to dislike. Tawny Newsome is our de facto brash, wisecracking lead as Ensign Mariner, a character type who has never existed in Trek yet feels instantly familiar. Jack Quaid as Brad Boimler is much more relatable (and downright adorable) than the trailers suggest. Complimenting this is the bright-eyed enthusiasm of Noël Wells' Ensign Tendi, which is tempered by the detail-oriented, borderline OCD personality of Eugene Cordero's Ensign Rutherford. These four don't represent the entire spectrum of personality types, but they will remind you of some of your greatest friendships.
Lower Decks is a version of Trek that isn't quite grown-up yet, and that's sort of the point. Not all the jokes will sit right with everyone. But being bold is part of what Star Trek is all about, even when it's pretending like it's not. Star Trek: Lower Decks isn't pulling an OK boomer on the rest of Star Trek, but it also doesn't mind if you have that perception. It's a version of Star Trek that gives a high-five to its parents and then heads back out to the party. The real next generation is here.
Star Trek: Lower Decks premieres on CBS All Access Thursday, August 6.