Star Trek #1502: Second Contact

CAPTAIN'S LOG: The first episode of Star Trek: Lower Decks. Meet the crew of the USS Cerritos as it deals with an alien virus.

WHY WE LIKE IT: A new ship and crew to get to know.

WHY WE DON'T: The rapid-fire pace needs getting used to.

Never having seen Rick and Morty, I wasn't too sure what to expect from Mike McMahan's Lower Decks animated series. I was surprised to find it so plotty, honestly. I was all up for the main characters going on about their lives and menial tasks while the BIG action was going on in the background, but the first episode definitely had the young ensigns in the mix, the only real difference being that the bridge crew took the credit for their work. Overall, there are some good jokes about what it must be like to be in Starfleet at the lower end of the spectrum, though between the tight joke-per-square-inch content and the rage zombie virus plot, I found Second Contact a little too frenetic for my tastes, which is a weakness of putting so much (intros, jokes AND two complementary plots) into the allotted 25 minutes.

Like any Trek series, Lower Decks is going to fall or fly on the strength of its characters. First billed is Tawny Newsome, cementing her place in sci-fi comedy as she is also a big part of Steve Carrel's Space Force, playing Beckett Mariner, on paper the most interesting ensign in the bunch. She USED to be of higher rank and served of several ships, but was demoted after unspecified misconduct. Now she has no respect for the bridge crew and revels in her low status, in a position where she can goof off and not much is expected of her (though her maverick heroism comes out on the mission). But the captain is onto her and doesn't want her there, going so far as asking her crew mates to report on her. In the episode's final twist, we find out Mariner is the Captain's daughter, so that complicates things in a nice sitcom kind of way. I say on paper, because the fast-talkin' Mariner is really obnoxious in practice (very far from what Newsome is doing on Space Force), and a little of her goes a long way (and we get a lot of her). Do like how she's always slightly out of uniform though. Nominally the main character however (though I expect a rotation), is Brad Boimler, a pathetic wannabe who craves action and promotion, but is the show's punching bag. In this episode, he loses his uniform, gets suckled by a giant spider, accidentally saves the day, but no one gives him credit for it. As the target of Mariner's humor, he's sure to continue to be an important access into the show's comedy. A tried and true trope of ensemble shows like is to have a rookie who needs to have the world explained to them. That's the over-excited D'Vana Tendi, an Orion science officer - so the Orions have joined the Federation by Nemesis, I do wonder about their pheromonal powers, or if their society will be explored at all in the show - whose main trait is to love it on the USS Cerritos even if it's a third-rate assignment. Last and at this point least is Sam Rutherford, an engineering ensign who has recently been fitted with a Vulcan cybernetic implant that screws with his emotions, not useful when he has a date scheduled for later. Like D'Vana and Boimler, he has a nerdy love for what he does, and I don't think it's the implant's fault if he ditches the date to run a diagnostic. Backgrounds aside, that makes most of the main cast pretty similar, with Mariner the misfit who nevertheless "leads" them. Obviously, we need to see more to tell.

We get into the bridge crew's heads comparatively little, but they are generally played as self-important (without the balloon-puncturing that occurs with Boimler's) and dismissive of lower decks crew. Captain Freeman is competent and no-nonsense, which is why her daughter gets her dander up. First Officer Jack Ransom (Jerry O'Connell) is a Riker-like douche whose machismo actually causes the plague aboard ship (I wonder if there's any relation to the unscrupulous captain from Voyager's Equinox). Lieutenant Shaxs is a buff, grumbling, Bajoran security chief who puts into question my image of Bajoran males as pretty meek relative to the women. And Dr. T'Ana is the first Caitian since the original Animated Series' M'Ress, and this cat's a real curmudgeon, jaded and impatient with every situation. They are essentially foils for the main cast and don't need too much meat on their bones, but I do wonder why there's a security officer, but no chief engineer for Sam to play off of (or alternatively, why Sam isn't security, though at his level, that might mean getting killed on his first away mission).

The USS Cerritos (named after a Los Angeles suburb) is meant to be one of the least important ships in the fleet and the opening credits certainly speak to that. It's a parody of TNG's or Voyager's (or The Orville's), with the ship getting pummeled by the beautiful effects, or running away from battles. I feel like that's a one-off joke we'll get to see every week, but it's not a bad one. Stranger to me is that the name and insignia is on the back of the saucer, so that you would only read it if the ship is flying away from you. Makes thematic sense, but it's weird detail in-canon. The California class is one of those odd-looking ducks that separates the saucer section from the engineering module in a way that makes you wonder how the turbulifts work, but again, very much in line with the theme - the lower decks really are disconnected from the higher-ranked crew - not that that's where the characters actually work. The sets are basic Star Trek, but there are some nice touches, like the lower ranks' sleeping quarters being in corridor bulkheads.

To give you a sense of how below the bar the Cerittos is, its mission here is to make Second Contact, a year after a proper starship made First. This is described as getting a lot of paperwork done. Of course, things go wrong, the XO is bitten by a mosquito that transmits a rage zombie disease and all hell breaks loose on the ship. That gives Sam and D'Vana minor things to do, but the important stuff is down on the planet, when Boimler follows a rogue Mariner out of town where she means to sell shovels to struggling farmers (that these simple tools have tech on them is surely a joke) she met on that original mission. A dairy spider escapes, wild action, the ensigns in their undies to draw the monster out, and more humiliation for Boimler, and the spider slime is of course the key to curing the rage virus. In the end, Boimler refuses to tattle on Mariner because in true Starfleet fashion, it's more important to do good than to follow regulations. This is a pretty good plot that, I think, reveals something about how much more complicated Starfleet missions are than what we see on screen, but like I said, there's so much action, the show'll make your head spin.

Which leaves us with the question of whether or not a Star Trek comedy actually works. I think The Orville proved it could, but it didn't need to be in canon, and it's far more restrained. My favorites here as the ones that tickle my Trekkie nerd side, like the "banana, hot" malfunction, how replicators break down when you get food in them, and references like cha'DIch and Gary Mitchell. Less successful are the amusing but not laugh-worthy moments I might expect on The Orville, like characters quoting the Monkees, or designing nude holodeck programs. Not sure the COVID joke had wings, or for that matter making the guest aliens look like little pigs. But yeah, if what you propose is a Star Trek cartoon comedy, then I want those deep cuts.

We need to reassess how we view all those other Star Trek heroes.

REWATCHABILITY - Medium: Second Contact really needed to settle down for me to completely enjoy it, but I certainly see the show's potential.


Timothy S. Brannan said...

I rather enjoyed it myself. Esp. after all the seriousness of Picard.
I might need to give it rewatch, I missed the Gary Seven ref.

Siskoid said...


It's at the very end when Mariner is rattling off Starfleet's great heroes.


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