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Lower Decks Season 3 is the best Star Trek show of the year

Star Trek: Lower Decks does not go boldly where no franchise series has gone before, and that’s what makes it brilliant.

Lovingly mocking something while also making a true and earnest version of that thing should be impossible. Imagine if someone said Austin Powers was one of the best James Bond movies and, somehow, James Bond fans everywhere almost unanimously agreed. That’s what Star Trek: Lower Decks is to the rest of the Trek franchise and Trek fandom at large. And, as it embarks upon its third season, what began as the riskiest new Star Trek show isn’t an underdog anymore, it’s now top dog.

With Season 3, Lower Decks has established itself as the new Trek series by which the many other shows in this fictional universe should be judged. Here’s why. No spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 3.

Perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions about Star Trek, in general, is that it needs to somehow contain original and cutting-edge science fiction to be good. Not only was this not true for The Original Series, but it has also almost never been what makes this beloved franchise so long-lasting.

Way back in the ‘60s, the classic Star Trek freely used existing science fiction tropes — familiar to a relatively small group of niche readers of magazines and books — and loudly brought those concepts into the TV mainstream. Before Star Trek, there just wasn’t a mainstream consensus for why sci-fi did or didn’t work on TV. After Star Trek, everything that followed was compared to it, even if those things were trying to do the opposite. As TOS writer Norman Spinrad told me, what Star Trek did for science fiction tropes was “like when Bob Dylan went electric.”

Well, so what? What does this history lesson have to do with Star Trek: Lower Decks?

Calling Lower Decks extremely derivative would almost classify as a joke because it’s such an obvious statement. But what Lower Decks has in common with The Original Series is that, at this point, it doesn’t care at all about pretending like all any of its tropes are new.

One of the biggest burdens of every Trek series since the TOS era has been to try and make not only the sci-fi tropes seem fresh, but also, the world of Star Trek somehow newer and better. Each of these shows — from The Next Generation to Discovery to Strange New Worlds — has wanted the audience to take its newly rebooted version of Trek seriously, and see novelty as the path to that goal.

This is the key to the brilliance of Lower Decks. It’s actually the only show in the entire canon that doesn’t really want to be taken seriously — which, paradoxically means, that we do. That’s because, at its core, Lower Decks has a quality that makes all the other Star Trek shows work: great characters who, for better or worse, exist in a workplace-centric TV show. It’s just that, in the Trek world, their workplace is outer space.

Dawnn Lewis (Captain Freeman), Mike McMahan (showrunner), Noël Wells (Tendi), Tawny Newsome (Mariner), and Jack Quaid (Boimler) at San Diego Comic-Con, 2022.Michael Kovac/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

The crucial reason that Lower Decks is so successful is that it takes the office-in-space concept and remixes it as a straightforward sitcom. This has been going on since 2020 but, in Season 3, it really makes you wonder if the best aspects of other Trek shows aren’t their closeness to the philosophical sitcom setup too. Ask yourself: how many great TOS episodes end with a joke and a big laugh on the bridge?

Lower Decks Season 3 has more Trekkie Easter eggs, callbacks, and surprise cameos than Seasons 1 and 2 combined. Just when you think this season won’t go there, it goes there. And then, sometimes, it goes places you never knew Star Trek could go — and you love it for it anyway.

But, interestingly, despite the many flashy connections to the rest of Trek, Season 3 also seems to have the most serialized internal continuity, at least when it comes to character arcs of our beloved lower-deckers themselves. The Mariner (Tawny Newsome) of Season 1 is not the same person we meet in Season 3. She’s more complex, funnier, sadder, happier, and on the path to becoming one of the greatest Star Trek characters of all time.

The gang dressed as...Klingons?Paramount+

These subtle-yet-hilarious character flourishes are also true of Boimler (Jack Quaid), Tendi (Noël Wells), and Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), all of who change in surprising ways this season. Meanwhile, Captain Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) makes a convincing case for being one of the most consistently competent Starfleet captains in the entire franchise.

One simple joke that Lower Decks loves telling over and over again: People who are good at their jobs almost never get enough credit, regardless of their job title. In Season 3, Lower Decks presents this moral conundrum from several angles — in wildly different ways across various episodes. If you do the right thing, but nobody knows, is it still right? In these episodes, very often the public truth of something is revealed to be different from a private truth, which gives Lower Decks a kind of reflective duality rarely found in sitcoms, much less an animated sitcom that is intentionally derivative of the biggest sci-fi franchise of all time.

And yet, it’s those contradictions that make Lower Decks kick so much ass. It’s the least ironic intentionally ironic TV show of all time. In The Wrath of Khan, when Spock sacrificed himself, Kirk said at his funeral that “of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most human.” This was ironic because Spock was (duh) not human. It was a joke that was also sad that was also profound.

Kirk’s irony was only interesting if you already knew something about Star Trek. Lower Decks lives in that exact place where sci-fi irony and humanist honesty collide. And if fans are lucky, this show will stay in that time loop forever.

Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 3 debuts its first episode on Thursday, August 25, on Paramount+.

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