It feels like every time somebody in charge decides to relaunch Star Trek, two things happen. First, the new creative person decides to make it all-new, ignoring canon if it doesn’t match their vision. Then, when fans inevitably push back, it course-corrects and tries to retcon out any mistakes. It happened with Enterprise, it happened again after Star Trek Into Darkness, and most recently Discovery had to work out a lot of kinks in season 1. (Seriously, those bald Klingons must go.)
But now Trek pursues full-franchise universe mode, with multiple shows in multiple styles. Ironically, the one that made most of us feel good about the future of the property is a cartoon comedy. At one point, that might have seemed like blasphemy. But think about it: Kirk, Spock, and McCoy induced legitimate laughs more often than not, without negating the premise. And Star Trek: Lower Decks Blu-ray for Season 1, out this week, does it more. But really, really well.
The behind-the-scenes mini-docs on the discs imply that creator Mike McMahan was plucked from obscurity because he made a Twitter account of fake Star Trek: The Next Generation season 8 episodes. In fact, McMahan, the fourth-season showrunner on Rick and Morty, also previously worked on South Park. While both of those shows have a bad rap based on some of their worst fans who like to emulate Eric Cartman and Rick Sanchez, they remain popular in part for their deep and extended universes. Rick and Morty may use an alien race to go for the joke more often than the high concept, but its galaxies, biomes, parallel universes, and pseudoscience are really well thought-out. Take away some of the more obvious joke species, and you have what Star Trek needs. Every new Trek writer wants to do Klingons and Borg; Lower Decks has both, but also deep cuts like Exocomps and Pakleds.
But fundamentally, the humor on the show comes from the answer to a very real-world question. If Enterprise (any version) represents the best, most competent ship in Starfleet…what’s the worst one like? And what’s the worst job on that worst one like? It doesn’t hurt the credibility of the Star Trek universe to imagine that some people in it got the short end of the Federation stick.
Uber-confident underachiever Beckett Mariner, by-the-book socially awkward social climber Brad Boimler, new cyborg Sam Rutherford, and science nerd D’vana Tendi embody the perfect mix of heroism and hare-brained. They’re kids with good educations who nonetheless think they know more than they do. When they encounter some classic Trek tropes, like the empowered evil Holodeck character, or the trial on another planet for accidental crimes, their reactions are very different than those of, say, Jean-Luc Picard. There are even Easter eggs like the awkward vintage toy Spock Helmet, and viewers can feel confident they’re in the hands of superfans. The show itself looks great, clearer than it ever did on streaming. Little details like rack-focusing back and forth between characters on different planes really add to the depth effect.
The episodes should make mandatory viewing for any Star Trek fans of all stripes. The Blu-ray set, however, insists on being awkward. Like the Blu-rays for the original animated series, most of the extras hide under individual episode titles. So a viewer must click on the episode title first, then opt to either watch the episode or the one or two extras that the disc groups with it. It’s an annoying way to group them, particularly, if the attached mini-doc doesn’t necessarily relate to that specific story. Then two additional extras get grouped under a generic “special features” section only on disc 2. Mr. Spock had a word for such things. Begins with the letter “I.”
Once found, however, the extras are worth it, even though they contain some atrocious greenscreening. Mini documentaries cover the development of the show from the premise, the style, the music, the alien races, the Easter eggs and more. (Many of the names in the show represent McMahan’s friends and family.) A full animatic version of the first episode showcases the literal drawing board. Meanwhile, a few deleted scene animatics demonstrate how extraneous dialogue gets pared down to fit the running time. And watch how the voice actors dealt with COVID! Spoiler: the studio mailed them very expensive microphones and computers.
Most fun, if illusion-shattering, is the featurette introducing the voice cast. Most look somewhat like their characters, but not quite. It feels a bit like seeing a Mirror Universe, to coin a phrase. In terms of design, we learn that the cast fit a calculated “prime time animation style,” which makes sense considering it feels half Seth MacFarlane, half Justin Roiland.
No digital code comes included, as Paramount+ would presumably prefer we all subscribe in perpetuity. But kudos for the physical media, considering that, for example, The Mandalorian has none. Even if the disc menu is a royal pain.
Grade: Lower Decks Season 1, 5/5; extras 2/5.
Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 1 is available now wherever Blu-rays are sold.
Recommended Reading: Star Trek: Discovery – Aftermath