'Lower Decks' is an indictment of Abrams and Kurtzman-era Star Trek

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·Buyer's Guide Editor
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The following contains spoilers for season two, episode two of 'Star Trek: Lower Decks.'

I’ve been a Star Trek fan for most of my life, and yet I still chuckled at this Onion video released after the first J.J. Abrams installment came out back in 2009: “Trekkies Bash New Star Trek Film As 'Fun, Watchable.’” Star Trek isn’t to a lot of people’s taste, J.J. Abrams’ among them. He’s said in interviews he never really liked Trek and was trying to make it more like Star Wars. (This was six years before The Force Awakens came out.) The reboot films were a breath of fresh air after four years of no original Trek content, and they did get some new fans into the franchise. Some of those novices would later dip their toe into the water of TV Trek and found that they did actually enjoy it a lot, despite its slower pace.

However, despite the franchise’s strong TV track record with shows like TNG and DS9, the Paramount+ era has been taking its cues from the Abrams films, which isn’t surprising with executive producer Alex Kurtzman at the helm. Alongside Roberto Orci, he’s one of the two screenwriters behind 2009 Star Trek and 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, as well as a J.J. Abrams collaborator on Alias and Fringe. Given the box office numbers of the Abramsverse films it makes sense to put him in charge, but it still made a lot of long-time Trekkies groan as we had hoped for a return to the kind of shows we grew up on.

After three seasons of heavy action on Discovery and the jaded grimdark of season one of Picard, the first season of Lower Decks injected some levity back into the franchise, with parody that went up to, but not quite over the line. It couldn’t, since it was intended to be canon. It had to fit alongside TNG, DS9 and Voyager. So it packed in plenty of references to keep the wiki addicts over at the Star Trek-centric Memory Alpha busy, while indulging in old tropes like drunk Klingons, arena battles and the occasional omnipotent being. It also took some direct swipes at the live action Trek shows, like how crew members always seem to die in the most low-tech ways like being impaled by spears or how of course the holodeck is used for sex stuff.

But those references were always in a more general sense, framed in a “wouldn’t X be ridiculous” way that only long-term fans with deep knowledge of the franchise would fully understand. Until this week’s episode, that is, where crew members of the USS Titan specifically call out the Enterprise D and its galactic cruise ship mentality. Shakespearean plays and string quartets? Peace conferences? How utterly boring compared to the constant run-and-gun that the Titan seems to have been stuck in since last season. They judge the value of their work based on how exciting it is, and think that William Riker must have been bored to tears being stuck on that ship for seven years.

Of course, TNG fans know it was anything but boring for Riker. He’s been locked in a mental institution, trapped in an alternate future and even had god-like powers for an episode. And he likes performing in jazz concerts with his trombone!

Pictured: Jonathan Frakes as Captain William T. Riker of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS.   Photo Cr: Best Possible Screen Grab CBS 2020 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Pictured: Jonathan Frakes as Captain William T. Riker of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS. Photo Cr: Best Possible Screen Grab CBS 2020 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

None of this slander sits right with new crew member Brad Boimler, who transferred over from the USS Cerritos at the end of last season. The Titan’s pursuit of the dangerous Pakleds has the young lieutenant junior grade in a constant state of panic as he mans the flight conn position, a big change from quietly toiling away on the lower decks of his old ship. But he’s recognized that this is where the opportunities for promotion are, and soon finds himself on an undercover mission with his fellow bridge crew. At least, it’s supposed to be undercover — the other Titan members quickly get them embroiled in a shootout and facing certain death.

That’s when Boimler takes the opportunity to tell his crewmates how he really feels. “I’d love to be in a string quartet. I love that when Riker was on the Enterprise he was out there jamming on the trombone and catching love disease and acting in plays and meeting his identical transporter clone Thomas. That stuff might not seem as cool as what you guys do, but it’s Starfleet, all the way.” His confession elicits similar confessions from the other team members, before they manage to find a way out in classic technobabble fashion.

For years Star Trek has always danced around the question of whether Starfleet was a military force. It employs naval ranks and the ships are outfitted with phasers and photon torpedoes for defense. But its stated purpose was exploration and other activities that help tie the vast Federation together. The Abrams films spent all their time reacting to one crisis after another — the crew didn’t start an actual mission of exploration until the very end of Beyond, and there hasn’t been another film since to follow up on that.

Both DS9 and Discovery engaged in wars with the Klingon Empire. On Enterprise the crew ended up hunting down the Xindi with a cadre of trained soldiers on board for its third season. Even Voyager had to deal with the constant accusations that they were a conquering force as they struggled to get home. Lower Decks is our first look in a while at a Starfleet dedicated to exploration, with the crew of the Cerritos specializing in “second contact,” that is, getting communication and trade set up with the planets that flashier ships like the Enterprise meet in their adventures. 

So Lower Decks has always been a sort of commentary on the greater Star Trek philosophy, but it’s never been as blatant as Brad Boimler saying, “I didn’t join Starfleet to get in phaser fights. I signed up to explore, to be out in space making new discoveries and peaceful diplomatic solutions. That’s boldly going.”

The Onion video takes old school Trek fans to task for being gatekeepers, for wallowing and fetishizing things that other folks find boring. The new era of Trek has stretched the definition of what Star Trek could be, expanding into new genres and injecting a little action to sate the appetites of modern audiences. But Lower Decks is the first time I’ve seen pushback from within the franchise itself. The show is basically saying, “Sure, Star Trek can be exciting, but there’s a reason it became popular in the first place!” Let’s hope that with future programs like Strange New Worlds, Alex Kurtzman is listening.

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