Why I DO like Star Trek: Lower Decks

My last blog post was about why I didn’t like the X-Men, so I thought I’d counter it with a more positive post this time and talk about something I DO like.

Star Trek: Lower Decks has certainly been a polarizing show. Die-hard Star Trek fans have had very mixed reactions to it… well, I know from my participation in other fandoms that die-hard fans can be… VERY DEFINITE about what they like and don’t like, and Star Trek fans seem only slightly less angry about new things than Star Wars fans. But Lower Decks has had reactions all over the place, all the way from the classic “this is garbage and Star Trek is ruined forever!” to “This is the best thing Star Trek has done in years!” to “meh, it’s okay, I guess.” The critics seem mixed on it too, but the show has managed to get a few awards, and has done well enough to be renewed for a third AND a fourth season.

Now, I’m not a Star Trek fan. In fact, even though I self-identify as a geek, I find that quite a few of the things geeks stereotypically like… just don’t interest me at all. Not only Star Trek, but Star Wars, Doctor Who, Supernatural, Ghostbusters, Rick and Morty, pretty much any video games, most types of anime… and of course I used to be into superhero comics but suffered a huge case of fatigue. I have at times joked that I have to “turn in my geek card”… but I do play tabletop RPGs, I read and write fanfiction, I love fantasy and cartoons and most things Tolkien, so I’m probably okay.

Which brings us to Star Trek: Lower Decks. Which is a half-parodic cartoon with a Rick and Morty writer as the showrunner. I normally don’t like Star Trek very much, and I DESPISE Rick and Morty. So you’d think this was the sort of show I’d absolutely hate.

But no, I actually kind of really like it. It’s fun. It’s not HILARIOUS or anything, but it has some pretty clever writing, flawed-but-sympathetic characters, and a couple of the jokes made me giggle. I ended up actually becoming rather engaged with the series… and considering that this is Star Trek, that’s an impressive feat. Because I have NEVER been able to sit through a SINGLE Star Trek episode or movie before.

It’s not that I haven’t tried. I tried to check out TNG, Deep Space 9, Voyager, a couple of the classic movies, even a few eps of Star Trek: The Animated Series. And each and every time, I was SO BORED. The tone seemed stuffy and self-important, and… well, it all seemed to take itself much too seriously for a sci-fi show where giving someone a weird forehead was enough to classify them as an alien. But worst of all, the characters were dull and uniniteresting. I can forgive a lot of a franchise if the characters are good, but here? There wasn’t a single one I found remotely interesting or engaging. And so I ended up having the exact same reaction as I did when I tried reading The Wheel of Time: “I don’t care what happens to any of these people!”

Of course, whenever I tried so much as hinting this to Star Trek fans, they took offense and usually said something about how I just didn’t appreciate the “cerebral” nature of the show and should just “go watch action sci fi shows with bombastic stories and a lot of pew-pew” if I “needed a meaningless flashy action sequence every ten minutes.” Which didn’t exactly endear me to Star Trek fans, or to Star Trek in general. The friendlier fans just said I’d watched the wrong episodes and if I looked at this or that episode from TNG or DS9 you’d see just how funny and unpretentious it really is, or how very interesting and varied and deep the characters are… but it never did.

Lower Decks, though, is different. It’s the first Star Trek series I’ve seen that totally drops the pretentiousness and truly doesn’t take itself too seriously… not to mention the aliens look a lot better in animated form… but I think part of why I connect to it is that for once we’re not seeing the best and the brightest and the boldest and the biggest… Lower Decks takes place on a secondary and far less prestigious star ship; not pioneers and heroes but more workers and paper-pushers. It takes us a step away from the stuffy self-importance you get with the high-ranking, celebrated elite and takes on a more grounded, even slightly cynical tone. You still get the high concepts and the pseudo-philosophical ponderings, but now they’re viewed from a lower place; from the people who aren’t the big and special, the people who get ignored and overlooked while the main characters go off on their pretentious missions.

And THIS is where I think Lower Decks hooks me. I’ve always been a massive fan of “underdog” stories. Lower Decks is the story not only of an underdog ship, but of the underdogs on board that ship. We’re not following the captains and the officers or the bridge crew who are always doing the Big Important Things; we’re following the ensigns; the grunts, the ones who do the menial tasks, who are there to follow orders and get out of the way when the Big Guys do Big Important Things. And maybe it’s just me, but the high concepts I found tedious in other Star Trek productions, are a lot easier to take in here because we see them from the POV of characters that from the outside just look like the unremarkable lower crew. (Yes, I know there was an episode in one of the earlier Star Trek series with that premise, but this is an entire show with that premise.)

The characters aren’t the most complex in the world, but they have a good dynamic between them, with the four main characters consisting of one badass “screw the system” rebel and three total geeks — who geek out about different things. As the series goes on, they all reveal that there is more to them than what’s apparent at first glance, and even though they often screw up they usually manage to come through in the end. For the first time ever… I cared about Star Trek characters. I was actually interest in learning more about them and see how things went for them. Even the secondary cast (the bridge crew, which in other Star Trek shows would have been the main focus) worked out quite well; there were a couple of them I couldn’t care less about, but overall… maybe it’s just that for me traditional Star Trek chars work best in small doses and when they aren’t the focus.

(I have the same thing with Wolverine of the X-Men, really…. I think he works best as a supporting character. As a main character or a solo hero he gets REALLY tiresome REALLY quickly, but if you keep him in a secondary role, with the occasional day in the limelight, he’s really fun!)

I know people have expressed concern that there are too many in-jokes and that people not familiar with Star Trek will be lost… but really, even I have managed to absorb enough info through the pop culture osmosis that I was never lost. Even if things weren’t always explained, they were usually easy to grasp from the context. Possibly there were a ton of jokes that I missed out on not to knowing the history of the franchise, but it didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the show.

Lower Decks has managed what no other Star Trek show, or movie, has managed: it’s made me interested, at least slightly, in the Star Trek universe. So the next time I’m commissioned to draw Star Trek fan art I’ll have a new appreciation for the franchise.

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