Going by volume, it’s a good time to be a Star Trek fan. Star Trek: Discovery, the franchise’s current flagship title, is heading into its fourth season; legacy sequel Star Trek: Picard will debut its second season sometime next year; and there are at least two new Trek shows currently in development, Star Trek: Prodigy and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Clearly, the words “Star Trek” are being said a lot these days. But for all of Paramount’s continued efforts to build their own Star Wars/MCU-type juggernaut, it’s hard not to feel that a certain old magic has been lost. Discovery, which started as a prequel, has abandoned the familiar for a far-flung future-version of the Trek-verse that leans heavily into modern TV trends, and Picard, ostensibly a nostalgia trip, bungled its attempts at both revisionism and new world-building. Sometimes, all you really want out of a Trek show is something that feels like a rerun you haven’t watched yet, and Star Trek: Lower Decks serves this need almost perfectly.
It’s a kind of fan service that does credit to the name, and the second season finds the show hitting its mark with consistency and no small share of aplomb. After a clumsy start in season one (which was hindered by tonal problems and a lack of solid jokes), the show quickly found its focus, and season two shows no sign of slowing down. Much as with the original Star Trek animated series, Lower Decks uses its format as license to poke into familiar Trek tropes from different angles, grounding the meta-humor with a likable and well-developed core cast. In addition, the show handles continuity as well, and often better, than its live-action counterparts, acknowledging shifts in the status quo while still making sure each individual episode stands on its own as a discrete, satisfying story.
About those status quo shifts: Lower Decks’ first season ended on a minor crew shake-up, with Ensign Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid) taking a promotion to a different ship, the Riker-helmed USS Titan. The new season picks up with Boimler gone and his best friend/nemesis Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome) struggling with her resentment over his absence while trying to balance the new tensions of working with her mother, the captain of the USS Ceritos. Things settle back into familiar rhythms soon enough in ways it would be irresponsible to spoil, but there’s a gratifying flexibility to the show’s willingness to change things without losing sight of its strengths. The ability to bring in new elements and still keep the core in place is a key part of a strong Trek show, as the blending of the work-place drama and the anthology series is a large part of the franchise’s continued drawing power.
The other part is Trek’s fundamental optimism, to which Lower Decks also stays committed. At the start of the first season, there was some question if it could maintain an effective mix of Rick And Morty-style meta-humor, which depends on constant undercutting of convention and a near boundless contempt for everything, with Trek’s utopian vision of a future where things really can work out, basically, if people (and aliens) work hard enough. The solution the show eventually landed on was to balance its intermittent bursts of cynicism with fundamentally good-natured leads and a seemingly boundless enthusiasm for itself. Every Trek production since the J.J. Abrams reboot in 2009 has attempted to exploit nostalgia for the franchise, but Lower Decks is the first one to pull it off in a believably guileless way. This is a show that is just so damn excited to be a Star Trek that you can’t help but be happy for it.
Take the introduction of a minor character early in the second season, Lieutenant Kayshan. Kayshan (Carl Tart) is a Tamarian, a race first introduced in the Next Generation episode “Darmok.” Tamarians speak entirely in metaphor, a concept the original episode used as an allegory for the challenges faced in establishing contact with alien cultures. On Lower Decks, Kayshan isn’t really an allegory so much as a fun gag with just enough character development to keep him from being a complete caricature. It indulges in nostalgia while offering just enough of a spin (how would a Tamarian crew member behave?) to avoid the stagnation of spending too much time in the past.
This is a neat trick, and one Lower Decks pulls off with admirable frequency. The show’s constant nods to earlier entries in the franchise can be occasionally tiresome, and it’s hard to know how well they’d work on someone who isn’t familiar with with the source material. But at its best, the jokes come across as cheeky nods to the past that pay homage without completely losing sight of the present. Even better, they add complexity to familiar concepts in ways that enrich the show’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead approach to Trek lore.
It helps as well that the overall joke writing has improved from the start of last season.There are still the occasional clunkers, and the trick of having characters occasionally shout out overly-excited dialogue bursts is never quite as funny as the writers and performers seem to think, but overall, the show has found its strengths by leaning into character humor when it isn’t poking around the edges of Federation prestige. In addition Mariner and Boimler, D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells) and Samanthan Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) return as a pair of nerdy best friends who may or may not end up being romantically involved, and the supporting cast (including Dawnn Lewis as Captain Carol Freeman and Jerry O’Connell as Jack Ransom) continues to work well together. The animation is consistently inventive and gorgeous throughout, managing the neat trick of being hilarious and awe-inspiring as needed.
Lower Decks’ biggest flaw is arguably one of its biggest selling points: it’s ambitious, but only to a certain point. The first season ended on an unexpectedly thrilling action finale, and the second season shows little sign of slowing down on the spectacle (this continues to be maybe the only Trek series to have come up with a good use for the Holodeck); but it’s too early to say if it will ever find a way out of the shadow of old Trek past. To an extent, that’s by design—this is as comforting as comfort food TV gets, and it’s reached a level of consistent quality where it’s easy to recommend to any Trek fan who remembers the one, say, where a creep tried to “collect” Data. But given the clear level of talent involved, it’s hard not to hope that it might one day reach a little higher than “Hey, remember the one where…” Till that happens, though, it’s still a ride worth catching.