An animated sitcom set in the Star Trek universe was a bold idea, but when it debuted in 2020 everything about Lower Decks felt too safe, from its Rick & Morty-inspired art style to its constant pandering references to Star Trek’s past. Reviewing the first three episodes, I called it “a trip to the Star Trek museum.” But over the next few years, Lower Decks has proven that it has a lot more to offer than inside jokes and Easter Eggs. Lower Decks sports one of the most lovable and memorable casts in the franchise, with its own set of evolving conflicts and long-running gags. While plenty of the show’s upcoming fourth season still riffs on Deep Space Nine and Voyager (including a few cameos from their casts), there is far more emphasis on its own history, and on the extent to which its characters have grown or failed to grow over the course of the series. Lower Decks may have begun as a venue for loving parody, but it’s a far better show when it’s doing its own thing.
Lower Decks Season 4 kicks off with “Twovix,” an episode that works despite indulging in some of the show’s most annoying habits. The rank-and-file crew of the USS Cerritos is assigned to escort a freshly-restored USS Voyager to its new home as a museum on Earth, which, naturally, leads to a bunch of gags and cameos from Star Trek: Voyager. As someone who is chapter and verse with the Trek canon myself, I cannot personally guarantee that “Twovix” will play for those unfamiliar with the source material, but as usual, the heart of the comedy comes not from simply pointing at familiar icons and shouting, “remember this?” but from the reliably self-defeating behavior of its own characters. Ensign Bradward Boimler (voiced by Jack Quaid) has been told that his promotion to Lieutenant is all but guaranteed, so long as he doesn’t screw up the Voyager mission in some spectacular fashion. The pressure gets to him immediately and, predictably, zany slapstick action ensues. Whether or not you remember the episode where Voyager gets invaded by a macroscopic virus or the name of Captain Janeway’s holographic boyfriend, you’ll probably still get a kick out of it.
Though “Twovix” is far from the only reference-packed episode of the season (Paramount (PARA) granted me access to eight of its ten installments), the stories that follow are more invested in exploring new layers of its quirky characters and arranging them to into new permutations. Lower Decks stories typically pair up Boimler with the maverick rule-breaker Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), and unfailingly optimistic D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells) with her equally sincere bestie Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero). This season, however, Boimler and Rutherford finally develop their own friendship independent of the group dynamic, Mariner and Tendi spend more time together, and all four leads benefit from the addition of a new, deadpan comic foil, Vulcan exchange officer T’Lyn (Gabrielle Ruiz).
Added to the cast by popular demand after a guest appearance in Season 2, T’Lyn offers a refreshing contrast to Mariner’s recklessness, Boimler’s anxiety, and Tendi’s effusiveness, traits we’ve all gotten used to but are still puzzling to her. The pitch for Lower Decks has always been, essentially, “What if a bunch of dorky Star Trek fans joined Starfleet?” The addition of the stiff, competent T’Lyn is the reality of Star Trek pushing back against them, encouraging them to take themselves more seriously and behave more like their idols, without actually killing any of the fun. It’s a well-timed shift to the status quo, as the long-suffering Ensigns take on new responsibilities beyond their usual mindless drudgery. Our lovable losers now have some real experience under their belts, and they’re beginning to act like it.
So, too, have the writers, producers, and cast of Lower Decks, who have eased into a steady, confident rhythm. Now two seasons beyond its initial 20-episode order with more already in the works, creator Mike McMahan’s goofy canonical fan fiction experiment has proven to be one of the modern franchise’s biggest hits, even crossing over with the mainstream smash Star Trek: Strange New Worlds this summer. McMahan and company have the run of the Star Trek universe now, and even if that means using that license to spend a whole episode relitigating the less popular command decisions of Kathryn Janeway, it also means continuing to unpack the self-destructive tendencies of Beckett Mariner and the intense platonic intimacy of Rutherford and Tendi. The only wrench in the gears is a repetitive mystery plot that runs across the course of the season—a number of episodes open with nearly identical teasers, reminding the audience of a looming threat that doesn’t do more than loom (at least in the first eight episodes). Still, this takes up only a small chunk of the given episodes, after which we quickly move on to the fun part.
As a general rule, I find reverence for “legends” and “legacy” within the fictional context of an entertainment franchise to be a shameless intrusion of marketing into narrative. Yet unlike the sappy nostalgia fest of Picard Season 3, Lower Decks never asks you to get weepy about Star Trek’s past, only to laugh at it. The emotional investment is entirely focused on the future, on the Cerritos and her crew. They are allowed to get nostalgic and emotional, but in the context of their own lives, their obsession with the accomplishments of celebrity astronauts is silly and embarrassing. We’re laughing with them, of course, because we understand every made-up word out of their mouths, but also because they’ve earned our affection themselves. However much longer their series runs, Mariner and Boimler are the legends that fans will be talking about and dressing up as for decades to come.