The Utopian Peccadilloes of Star Trek: Lower Decks
CBS All Access—soon to become Paramount Plus—launched itself as a network by doubling down on its signature properties, the most significant of which has been, of course, Star Trek. Beginning with Star Trek: Discovery, the network initiated an ambitious slate of programming set in the “canonical” Trek universe, slaking a thirst among fans whose well had been dry since the series Enterprise ended in 2005 (the J. J. Abrams films don’t count). In doing so, however, executives chose to take a page out of the Marvel Cinematic playbook: while all the shows would of course be broadly science-fictional, each would occupy its own distinct sub-genre. Thus Star Trek: Lower Decks.
Lower Decks was not the first Star Trek animated program—that distinction belongs to (you guessed it) Star Trek: The Animated Series. The Animated Series ran for two seasons from 1973–1974, and it is primarily notable for keeping the original ’60s franchise alive following its successes in syndication, long enough for the eventual advent of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. The Animated Series was not innovative—it featured the original cast with episodes written by many of the original writers, and its animation style was static and clunky. Once the films and The Next Generation caught on and expanded the Trek universe, it was quickly dismissed from the canon. Still, legions of fans regard it with nostalgic fondness.
Humanity may ascend to the stars, but in doing so, we will drag our sin with us.Star Trek: Lower Decks is quite a different animated animal. Developed by Rick and Morty creator Mike McMahan, the series was designed as a decidedly adult cartoon comedy (much to my children’s chagrin). It would be both edgy and humorous in tone, while McMahan was quick to insist that it would be “as in-canon as humanly possible.” Though this was his first formal Trek credit, McMahan is a longtime lover of the franchise, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation, and it shows. The fast-talking and visually busy series features a near-overwhelming dump of Easter eggs, well beyond the occasional crossover. Indeed, much of its humor comes from rapid-fire name-dropping and so many in-jokes that even the nerdiest Trekkie will inevitably miss some on a first viewing.
While such references raise questions about how accessible Lower Decks might be as a comedy for non-acolytes, its combination of adult-themed subject matter and humorous tone present a different tension regarding its relationship to the ideals of the Star Trek universe. From the show’s outset in the 1960s, creator Gene Roddenberry had insisted that according to his utopian vision of humanity’s future, Starfleet officers would be more admirable than contemporary people. He attempted to maintain strict parameters regarding what the Enterprise crew could and could not say or do. This led to a now-legendary conflict at the end of the first season, when notorious irascible (and litigious) science fiction author Harlan Ellison submitted his first draft of “The City on the Edge Forever.” The conflict in the script was precipitated in part by a drug-dealing officer, an idea that Roddenberry nixed; as a result, the episode was substantially rewritten, and though Ellison retained credit for one of the most memorable episodes of all time, he likely participated little in the writing of the final draft.
Internal friction such as this never ceased in the Trek universe until Roddenberry’s eventual passing in 1991. This friction was palpable in the early years of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which for several seasons relentlessly cycled through staff writers dissatisfied with the show’s constraints. It is a credit to the writers who finally did bring some stability that they were able to bring some intellectual and emotional life to the series despite the restrictions—though even then, it often wasn’t without a fight.
Because Star Trek: Lower Decks has situated itself as a descendant of TNG specifically, its format generates some dissonance. As a comedy, it highlights its characters’ faults and foibles, though Roddenberry wanted those kept at a minimum. As an adult comedy, it focuses on flaws that may be pronounced or significant—not dark ’n’ gritty, necessarily, but flaws that, if immature at times, are targeted toward mature audiences. And it thus raises an important question: what do “little” sins—peccadilloes, to use a quaint term—look like in a utopian environment?
From the start, Star Trek: Lower Decks demonstrates its commitment to doubling down on its protagonists’ moral ambiguities. Its two core characters—Ensigns Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid) and Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome)—represent conventionally opposite extremes. Boimler is a rank-obsessed butt-kisser who will stoop to almost any low in the hopes of ingratiating himself to his superior officers. Mariner is a wisecracking maverick who has been demoted for insubordination far more often than Boimler has ever been promoted. In the opening scene, Boimler records a “captain’s log,” much to the amusement of a drunken Mariner, who then accidentally slices into him with a contraband Klingon bat’leth.
Our other two major characters are a bit more moderate. Ensigns Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) and D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells) are true believers in Starfleet, the former an engineering wonk and the latter an enthusiastic and eager-to-please medical officer. But Rutherford’s love of tech borders on obsession, and Tendi’s desire to be loved at times borders on fanatical. They may occupy spaces in the spectrum between Boimler and Mariner, but their faults likewise put them in tricky spots.
These failings might (?) be forgivable in Roddernberryan terms, given the ensigns’ inexperience and low ranks. But the senior officers in Lower Decks are no better. Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) often mistakes draconian discipline for true authority, while her first officer, Jack Ransom (Jerry O’Connell), is a Kirk–style ladies’ man whose flippancy and passions cause countless problems. Violent combat is always the first option of Security Chief Shaxs (Frank Tatasciore), while every day seems to be a bad day for the irritable Doctor T’Ana (Gillian Vigman). As Boimler vociferously (and embarrassingly) announces in the episode “Veritas,” the higher-ranking officers are just as messed up as everyone else.
The result produces an unresolved—and perhaps unresolvable—dynamic inherent in the nature of Star Trek itself. As a direct descendant of The Next Generation, Lower Decks shares its progenitor’s general optimism (an optimism that all of the new streaming Trek incarnations have been at great pains to invoke). It is falling back on the progressive, even utopian, assertions of those shows first founded by Gene Roddenberry himself.
Yet at the same time, it is built around its characters’ flaws. Viewers are meant to understand that these flaws are minor—that they are indeed “human.” But the necessity of narrative conflict—and, more importantly, the reality of human sinfulness—belie such a straightforward answer. Some of our protagonists’ flaws seem anything but minor. Mariner’s resistance to authority is generally played up for comic effect, yet its results are such that they would be regarded as disastrous in any other sub-genre, ranging from potential Prime Directive violations to a distinctly violent streak that manifests darkly in a holodeck program in “Crisis Point.”
Indeed, it is in the holodeck that we see most clearly the troubling nature of our characters’ weaknesses. Holodecks are made up of holographic emitters, and from The Next Generation on, every Starfleet ship and station is equipped with them. Star Trek: The Next Generation (and later Star Trek: Voyager) became infamous for holodeck-gone-wrong plotlines. But perhaps more intriguingly (or troublingly), the recreational use of these holodecks suggested just how disturbing unlimited human fantasy could become. Aside from the episodes “Hollow Pursuits” and “Galaxy’s Child,” The Next Generation rarely pursued this thread.
Lower Decks, however, teases out these possibilities in some more detail. Captain Freeman is aghast to learn that her off-duty crew apparently use the holodeck for sexual recreation, to which Commander Ransom replies, “Oh yeah. It’s mostly that.” The darker Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had already made such uses a frequent suggestion, but those were commercial “holosuites,” associated with the less-admirable capitalist Ferengi and not Starfleet officers. Even in Lower Decks, though, the crew do use holodecks for other purposes (though Mariner clearly uses them this way). Rutherford creates a holographic AI program in the form a Starfleet insignia, nicknamed Badgey (Jack McBrayer)—only to find that he has imprinted his insecurities on the program, which promptly turns homicidal. And Mariner works out her aggression toward other members of the crew in her own holo-movie, Crisis Point, in ways that horrify her friends.
McMahan’s series never connects the dots for us, yet despite its often hilarious plot developments, the darker subtexts of Lower Decks point to a reality that Christian viewers can readily acknowledge: that in a very real and metaphysical sense, there are no “little” sins. Jesus makes this reality quite explicit in his Sermon on the Mount, declaring that avoiding adultery and murder are insufficient; true holiness consists in shunning the desires that lead to them, the lust and the anger. A faithful interpreter ought to extend this principle to all areas of sinfulness so that, for instance, covetous desire is as bad as theft. James ups the ante further in 2:8–11:
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.
In other words, we cannot easily extricate one sin from another; sin exists in vast networks of evil that spread cancerously throughout our person. On a practical social level, we can talk meaningfully about certain people being “better” or “worse”; we certainly can’t legislate against every possible arena of sin. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that any sins are insignificant; there are, in fact, no real peccadilloes. Each sin is a metaphysically, cosmically destructive force.
This understanding of sin, however, plays havoc with human attempts to create a utopia in any lasting way. Many early utopian works were proverbial thought experiments, playing out “would-be-nice” scenarios that couldn’t work in practical terms, a tendency inherent in Sir Thomas More’s coinage of the very word “utopia,” a pun on “no place” and “good place.” They may have been an ideal toward which to strive, but they were never realizable goals. Star Trek, however, is an inheritor of the later utopian tradition; as an eschatological horizon faded from view, replaced by the immanent frame of the material world, the pressure grew to make this world our best world.
The pursuit of such a world can be found in one literary antecedent to Star Trek, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward 2000–1887 (1888). Like Roddenberry’s vision, Bellamy’s novel depicts a technological society in which need has been erased and human interactions proceed smoothly and organically. Bellamy wasn’t necessarily an atheist, but his personal Religion of Solidarity shared with Roddenberry a disdain for organized religion and a confidence that what stood in the way of human progress was simply scarcity of resources and bad education. When the nineteenth-century narrator inquires into the mechanics of how this twenty-first-century utopia has been achieved, he is often met with replies that begin, “Nothing could be simpler.”
To their credit, Star Trek’s writers have long recognized that, in fact, there are many simpler tasks than establishing a utopia. The film Star Trek: First Contact and the series Star Trek: Enterprise put in some work to address the question of “getting from there to here,” from our troubled time to that of the more idyllic future. Valiant as these attempts may be, however, they fail to persuade. The question is not whether a better society than our current one is possible. While some more cynical thinkers in and out of the Christian faith may throw their hands up in despair, most would, I think, agree that some improvement (or deterioration) of society can occur, relatively speaking
But that improvement could never cross the threshold into becoming the kind of utopia that any thinker—More, Bellamy, Roddenberry, or otherwise—might hope for. And perhaps unwittingly, Star Trek: Lower Decks demonstrates precisely this. Humanity may ascend to the stars, but in doing so, we will drag our sin with us. If McMahan and his writers play up their characters’ foibles for laughs—which is indeed what good comedy does—that doesn’t change the fact that real foibles, real peccadilloes, real sins of any size are destructive. They cause real hurt and real pain—and, if we’re honest, will lead to real suffering in ways that no degree of human spirit can escape. Only one Spirit can free us from their grasp—and that will come only at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, the only utopia we’ll ever see.