‘Star Trek: Lower Decks’ finds riches in its own margins

CBS

It’s been a long road, getting from Lower Decks’ slightly rough-around-the-edges first episode to here. But it hasn’t taken that much time, since Star Trek’s first animated sitcom very quickly found its feet to become my favorite Trek of the streaming era. The second season showed a growing confidence in its own execution, and as the third season concludes, we find it proud to show the world what it’s now capable of.

The clue, really, was in the swift resolution to the Pakled cliffhanger which ended the second year. On one hand, a sitcom like Lower Decks doesn’t need to turn into The Wire to keep you hooked. But it’s also aware that it can sow the seeds of a running plot thread – the story of Rutherford’s implant – into the fabric of so many episodes. And that the payoff was far more interested in the impact on the character than the cliffhanger.

And these strands certainly paid off in “Reflections,” which revealed that a person, or persons unknown, were behind Rutherford’s implant. But even that paid off in a way that you weren’t necessarily expecting it to come back here in the two-ish part finale. And who was the big bad of the season, really? Nothing more than the bete noire of so many Golden Era Trek episodes, the Evil Admiral™. I loved the show’s attempted justification for why Starfleet churns out so many of them – the lack of career development pushes people to extremes – too.

If there was a sore spot, it was that the penultimate episode, “Trusted Sources” wheeled out the hacky Journalist Makes Everyone Look Awful plot. It’s about as hackneyed as the one where a sitcom character has their boss over for dinner yet accidentally forgets to tell their partner. It’s only really a crowbar to get Mariner pushed out of Starfleet in preparation for the finale, and it never looked like it was going to stick given her obvious love of the Cerritos.

Naturally, the season ends with a punch-the-air victory for not just the Cerritos, but the whole California Class. I’ve always loved Lower Decks’ celebration of the painstaking, cautious and fundamentally boring, yet fundamental, work that serving in Starfleet often requires. Its regular rejection of the, uh, more Kurtzmanesque tendencies of the series makes me love it all the more. Because, like science, the best work is often slow, incremental and dull until it marks a fundamental shift in how we understand the universe. And you can’t really do that if you’re spending your whole episode running from an explosion or proving how tough you are.

Another sign of the show’s confidence is in its second crew-lite episode (I’m always a fan of a show that’ll take you elsewhere for an episode or two). This time, it was centered on the fate of the evil Exocomp Peanut Hamper, last seen making a run for it in the first season finale. “A Mathematically Perfect Resolution” allowed the show to both flesh out a previously one-note character, and explore a new corner of the Star Trek world.

Even better, the sparse opening act offered a lengthy showcase for Chris Westlake’s gorgeous score. Star Trek has always been about its music as much as its narrative, and the show is lucky to have both Westlake and Nami Melumad producing virtuoso work on a weekly basis. I can’t wait for a season three soundtrack album, especially since we once again hear the James Horner-parodying Lower Decks Action Theme several times this year.

If I have a concern, it’s that Lower Decks often feels like it’s designed with lasers to milk my nostalgia glands. I’ll often spend a chunk of each episode clapping like a mad seal at the latest Trek deep cut Mike McMahon and Co. throw at viewers each week. The only thing that prevents it from becoming gratuitous fanservice is that these feel mostly earned. And it has been an orgy of references, including an extended visit to Deep Space Nine.

My heart can do nothing but swell when Nana Visitor (Kira), Armin Shimmerman (Quark), JG Hertzler (Martok), Susan Gibney (Leah Brahmas) and George Takei (Captain Sulu!). And the show has the appropriate respect for Trek MVP Jeffrey Combs to bring him back for a quick visit to Agimus, still trapped in Starfleet’s filing cabinet for self-aware, megalomaniacal computers. I didn’t even mention the extended First Contact riff, complete with an appearance by James Cromwell, or the riff on classic TNG episode “Symbiosis” with quite possibly the darkest joke ever seen in a Trek series.

I’m running out of room to heap the usual praise on the cast, all of whom do sterling work on a regular basis. And that’s before we discuss the glorious, last-minute reveal that T’Lyn, the so-called “emotional” Vulcan from last year’s “wej Duj” has transferred to the Cerritos. (Do I want her to join Beta Shift? I have no idea, but I’m looking forward to seeing how she interacts with the gang now she’s here.)

I’m naturally very excited for Lower Decks’ Season 4 but, by my calculations, the next time we’ll see Mariner and Boimler appear in Strange New Worlds. Given that we already know that Tawny Newsome and Jack Quaid look like their characters, I can’t wait to see them appear on the Enterprise bridge and stare lovingly at Pike’s Peak. My favorite nü-Trek series merging with my second-favorite? Be still my beating heart.