Monday, August 17, 2020

Lower Decks, Season 1: Second Contact

Lower Decks, Season 1
"Second Contact"

Airdate: 6 August 2020

1 of 10 produced

1 of 10 aired


Four ensigns on a galactically  insignificant Federation starship try to navigate their way through a second contact mission and a zombie apocalypse.

Look at me, I'm being "edgy!"

Matthew: Well, another day, another Kurtzman Trek series. OK, OK, tone it down, Weflen. I went into this with zero expectations for quality and fun, and my expectations were surpassed. There were definitely things I enjoyed, and positive signs for future episodes. First and foremost, it seems clear that this is one person's vision, and that Kurtzman had very little to do with it. Mike McMahan clearly has watched at least all of TNG, and possibly all of the rest of the franchise. The knowledge shows in the end result. There were touches big and small. I'll leave some for Kevin, but one that stood out to me was the EVA on the hull of the ship - the animators got the EVA suits just right, consistent with First Contact. In many ways, this read to me as a love letter and a gentle skewering of TNG, something I'm definitely up for. 

Kevin: There were a bunch of little touches that showed a level of care in terms of situating the show in the canon that really worked. I wax rhapsodic about this in the podcast, but all of the runabouts being named for national parks as opposed to rivers is just the tiny but incredibly deep cut that feels like the right balance of doing fan service without letting it get in the way of telling the story you want to tell here. And definitely agree on the spacewalk. It fells like the show is aware of the opportunity the format allows and is taking advantage of it.

Matthew: Another positive aspect of the show was the 4 main "lower decks" characters. Boimler was a very nice "naif" foil for the show, and I was rooting for him. Mariner is a character with zany charm. I'll get to my beefs with her apparent arc in a bit, but as a person I mostly enjoyed her energy.  Sam Rutherford had the tech nerdery of Trek fans in spades, and Tendi also gave me naive wonder, like Boimler. Their tones and relationships were well established by the script. 

Kevin: I think I'll be willing to allow a lot of leeway in other areas of the show because the main four are such unambiguously Starfleet officers in the mold of their TNG counterparts. Much like how I fit DS9 into TNG's universe, I can accept a tonal shift in the story provided the anchors are still recognizably Star Trek characters.

Matthew: On to some negatives - the script was overstuffed. Having the zombie plot and the "should we give shovels to aliens" plot was too much for the run time, and both got short-changed as a result. I also took issue with the relatively predictable mother/daughter thing going on here. It calls into question the credibility of this organization that Mariner is given such special treatment, especially given her apparent history of insubordination. Starfleet is supposed to be a place that people work their entire lives to earn a spot in. Having two highly placed officers bend the rules to keep her in the position they like strikes me as rank nepotism and irks me.

Kevin: I can accept Mariner as a rowdy version of Barclay. We've seen Starfleet officers who aren't really tempermentally suited to Starfleet, with Barclay it's his phobia of...gestures broadly..., with Mariner, it's the rules. The demotion brings to mind Ensign Ro, and I can see her and B'Elanna Torres in the DNA of this character, so I'm not bothered. And I get the nepotism complaint, but she keeps getting knocked down in rank, so it's not like she's a Trump child or something.

Matthew: My biggest problems were two. First and less serious is Rutherford being a "Cyborg." I'm sorry, but there are no stinking cyborgs in TNG-VOY era Star Trek. We've seen enough of the universe over the course of 21 seasons of television to establish this. It seems like kowtowing to the Kurtzman retcon agenda, and that annoys me. But the greater sin here is the way the senior staff is characterized. I can buy one officer being a manipulative dick to the junior staff, taking credit for their accomplishments, ignoring their well being. But all of them? And how does this speak to the captain's relationship with her daughter if this is the way she treats her staff? It seems like McMahan wanted to emphasize lower decks-upper decks tension and just shot way past the mark tonally. It is totally inconsistent with the 21 seasons of TNG/DS9/VOY aforementioned. 

Kevin: I think the issues with the senior staff are one of calibrating the dials rather than a deep narrative problem. I can see a lot of outs. Boimler is the narrator to an extent, and his view might color ours. It could also be the narrative feedback loop of venerating the senior officers that makes them a little blinded. I could even see them being jerks, though maybe not to this degree. The Enterprise is special and we have met several jerks in positions of authority over the years. If this were Jellico's command, I could see a senior staff made up of mild dicks. And I didn't think to say this in the podcast, but in our review of the series' namesake, Matt, you suggested Picard was nakedly manipulating a junior officer to get her to 'volunteer' for a dangerous mission, so it's not like even the Enterprise is above treating the lower decks crew as redshirts. I'm just saying I think that if they calibrate the characters a little more finely, it will provide a lot of fertile ground for narrative rather than a crew of unbelievable jerks.
Matthew: As an animated show, I have to focus on voice work here. Personally, I found the voice for Mariner a bit grating during the zany "comedy" scenes. The rest of the junior officers worked for me, though, especially Tendi and Rutherford. Of the senior staff, I would say the Doctor was the best for me.

Kevin: Other than the sheer rate of speed of the lines, I was actually pretty impressed with everyone up and down the line. Especially for the main four, they managed to paint distinct characters quite efficiently, even in an otherwise stuffed episode.
Production Values
Matthew: One of the beauties of animation is that everything doesn't have to be stained with a "GrimDark" patina in order to satisfy mediocre dystopian sci-fi drones. They could portray settings that had LIGHTS in them. The character and set designs also read very nicely as a slightly updated TNG-era milieu. So all in all, I was pretty pleased.

Kevin: We've mentioned the spacewalk, but D'Vana looking out at the engines and feeling things while the music swelled legit got me. It felt like the Star Trek I have been missing and it didn't feel out of place with the rest of the episode. 
Matthew: If we get nine more episodes pretty much like this, it will be fine. Will it scratch the itch that has gone unscratched for nigh on 15 years now? No. But will it read like a loving tribute that gets a few things wrong? Sure. Is it better than The Orville? No. That show is not hamstrung by having to seem "right" and can just focus on telling interesting sci-fi stories. But this is certainly the best of the CBS All Access Trek shows..... which, granted, isn't saying a whole lot. I think it's a solid 3.

Kevin: I agree with the 3 for a total of 6, but my 3 is a little more enthusiastic. There's a buoyancy to the show that combined with the short run time leave this, at worst, a fun confection. Not a real meal, but by no means unpleasant. The core characters are well acted and are clearly classic Trek characters through and through. The design is thoughtful and beautiful, and again feels authentically of a piece with the rest of the franchise. The plotting is a little rushed and a few of the characters need to calibrated to not overwhelm the plot, but I don't think they are necessarily more severe or unsolvable than the problems we identify if the pilots of even the shows we like.


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