The fourth season of Star Trek: Lower Decks isn’t the show at its peak, but it’s well worth a watch.
Something interesting always happens four seasons into a Star Trek show – or it certainly did during the 1990s era of the franchise. After three seasons where the shows find their feet, often painfully, a transformation happens.
In The Next Generation, Captain Picard is abducted by the terrifying Borg, briefly leading viewers to wonder if Patrick Stewart would return. In Deep Space Nine, Commander becomes Captain Sisko, Worf arrives as a regular and the Klingons emerge as a major threat once more. In Voyager, Seven of Nine becomes the breakout character of the entire series. In Enterprise, the show finally gives in and becomes joyous fan fiction, spending what becomes its final year sketching in gaps of Original Series canon.
Indeed, The Original Series remains the only show in Star Trek history, ironically, to be cancelled before it could reach a fourth season (certainly in live action, at least), a fate which Star Trek: Lower Decks has assiduously avoided.
Mike McMahan’s sweet natured, irreverent pastiche of Star Trek tropes, characters and storylines has a deep awareness of this history of the franchise and enjoys playing on it. Each season in some way works to reflect Star Trek history of old, and its own fourth is no exception.
McMahan’s gambit is to begin the process of promoting the ‘lower deckers’ and build in a level of anxiety about it from all of them, particularly ostensible protagonist Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), a reckless but talented firebrand, endlessly at odds with her parents respected Starfleet heritage and living up to a failure she herself has created.
Mariner is like Discovery’s Michael Burnham on particularly choice narcotics; she could be a Captain, perhaps even higher, but she is eternally self-sabotaging and cynical about what Starfleet is to take it altogether too seriously.
Mariner, in other words, is a perfect reflection of McMahan’s own approach to Star Trek.
Having been noticed by Paramount for his wonderfully irreverent Twitter account ‘TNG Season 8’, and in the wake of his own comedy writing experience on series such as Rick and Morty, McMahan from day one has consistently showrun Lower Decks as a fan who appreciates how ridiculous much of 1990s series Star Trek was. His series has been an exercise in bursting a slightly arch, pompous bubble which wouldn’t work anymore if produced in such a fashion in the 2020s.
The result has always been a show about the underdog in a post-scarcity world. A series deriving humour from the workers who clean up after the ‘legends’ we associate from previous series and their grand plot lines. Junior crew members who do things like clean out the holodeck after a sexual program.
They are a classic commentary on the working class in the modern West, the zero-hours contract group beaten down by The System. Lower Decks’ humour could only work during a period of global anxiety about our economic future. It is directly about people making the best of a rubbish set of working circumstances.
It makes sense in that regard for the central, overarching narrative of a series largely constructed of traditional, standalone Star Trek episodic stories, concerns a former cadet with what he considers the ultimate in personal grievance.
Screeners made a point of asking reviewers ahead of time not to spoil the reveal of Nick Locarno (Robert Duncan-McNeill) as the villain, given he is a character fans have wondered about for over three decades. I won’t litigate the whole history but go and watch TNG’s ‘The First Duty’ from Season 5 for that backstory, essentially revealing Locarno behind a conspiracy to cover up the death of a cadet he was responsible for.
Locarno was originally set to be a major character on Voyager, but McNeill ended up playing a new, identical-looking similar character (Tom Paris), which allows for some fun jokes here as Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid) and Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) make that comparison (given our lower deckers often work as a Greek chorus, acting as fans might comment on episodes with an almost meta-awareness of Star Trek’s own history).
Though Locarno’s plan revealed in ‘Old Friends, New Planets’ doesn’t take much to foil (allowing for a big, enjoyable play on the climax to The Wrath of Khan in doing so), as a long-lost character he is a big deal enough to make sense as a Lower Decks antagonist.
He also fits the USP of McMahan providing the crew of the U.S.S. Cerritos with lower scale villainy across the seasons, such as the Pakleds, who the other series (especially in live action) wouldn’t touch. Locarno fits here as his grievance is all about lost potential. Mariner could have ended up like him, indeed in Season 3 she does leave Starfleet for a while and becomes a swarthy archaeologist trading on the black market, but she values herself enough to know she can offer something to Starfleet’s mission of collective good.
Locarno is too egotistic, self-centred, with his central evil plan revealed quite swiftly as a fallacy.
He created ‘Nova Fleet’, a force with which he intends to challenge the Federation, as a grown up version of ‘Nova Squadron’, the Academy elite he believes he deserved to be part of. It’s a neat idea – kidnapping ‘lower deckers’ of all kinds of races (from Ferengi to Bynars) across the season, all of whom have similar grievances against their hierarchical monopolies, even when existing in capitalist economies (Ferengi), feudal monarchies (Klingons) or totalitarian regimes (Romulans), and weaponising that frustration into forming their own equal collective.
The way Lower Decks does this really reminded me of Doctor Who’s eighth season, where Missy brings people killed into ‘Heaven’ across the course of that season, before the mystery is revealed.
Lower Decks successfully manages to balance the older style of Star Trek episodes with a newer, serialised approach. Certain episodes have leaned heavier on continuing elements, such as ‘Something Borrowed, Something Green’, which establishes the importance D’Vana Tendi (Noel Wells) has to the Orion Syndicate of criminals, which factors both into her character development (the joke being she couldn’t be less Orion Syndicate if she tried), while other outings manage to exist largely independently (such as ‘Empathological Fallacies’, very much a play on the traditional Betazoid comedy of old). Lower Decks never manages to be throwaway, which is to its credit, as it easily could be.
It does lack, however, something of the power or impetus of earlier seasons, especially in how they often built to explore broader anxieties, particularly in artificial intelligence. It’s a common refrain in modern Star Trek, the idea of a super-computer or program taking control (whether a mutated security system in Discovery or Lovecraftian ancient technological thing in Picard), but Lower Decks understands how much Star Trek has worried about it from the very beginning. ‘In the Cradle of Vexilon’ sees the Cerritos having to save a planet from the kind of ancient computer system that the 1960s era show loved, albeit a good one whose programming has broken down. Season 4 works to try and rehabilitate or come to terms with these threats, in fact.
‘A Few Badgeys More’, which brings back crazed holographic insignia Badgey (a play on Microsoft’s Clippy) as he brings together numerous other computerised villains featured in Lower Decks (including tortured Agimus, voiced wonderfully by Star Trek stalwart Jeffrey Combs), to finally destroy the crew. It’s a highlight of the season but Lower Decks largely brings these hanging plot lines to a close, perhaps aware that AI can only serve as a threat for so long (especially after the cataclysmic threat of the third season finale).
What we end up with is a villainous narrative that slightly underwhelms, with a stronger idea than execution around Locarno and his relationship with Mariner. The climactic departure of Tendi also never feels like one that will stick, at least not for long.
There are numerous missed opportunities too. ‘Twovix’, which opens the season, plays on one of Voyager’s more infamous outings, ‘Tuvix’, where a transporter accident fused Tuvok & Neelix together creating a new being. Lower Decks plays this moral conundrum for laughs nicely but strangely it never uses the opportunity to bring any characters from Voyager in, despite utilising the old ship.
Similarly, (the admittedly brilliantly named) ‘Parth Ferengi’s Hearth Place’, though containing numerous funny plotlines (such as Boimler becoming addicted to trashy Ferengi TV), wastes the reappearance of Deep Space Nine fan favourites Rom (Max Grodenchik) and Leeta (Chase Masterson). As always, Lower Decks is festooned with winks, nods and Easter eggs to the past, but not all of them land as well as they have in previous seasons.
One senses the beginning of an end to proceedings now, as the show bears down on a fifth season. It could run indefinitely, being animated, and with a very elastic concept, but I can’t see it having the shelf life of a Family Guy. It will eventually begin repeating itself, which currently its managing to avoid doing.
My favourite episode this season was ‘Caves’, an inventive portmanteau episode set during a traditional Star Trek cave mission, which has a level of experimentation that will keep Lower Decks alive if further employed. I could see it going to at least seven seasons, given how much it follows the in show and external trends of the 1990s Star Trek series (all but one of which got seven years), but I’d be okay if it started to wind down and go out on a relative high.
As while this probably wasn’t my favourite Lower Decks season (they’ve all been at worst, good), the show still remains far and away the strongest modern Star Trek series since the franchise was reborn in 2017. It really will be hard, on the animated front, for Star Trek to top.
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