Saturday, May 14, 2022

Star Trek: Lower Decks, Season 2

I was starting to think I would have to wait forever for this season of animated Trek to come out on DVD, but I was pretty much resigned to it because I didn't hold with paying a monthly subscription to watch one network. And I had successfully held out on seasons 1-3 of Star Trek: Discovery as well as season 1 of Picard – the DVD release of whose fourth and second season, respectively, I was also willing to wait for, and pay for, but that didn't excite me enough to subscribe to CBS On Demand or Paramount+. Maybe that's ridiculous, but I've never been interested enough in watching TV to be willing to pay for it.

And then Star Trek: Strange New Worlds debuted and I just couldn't wait to watch it. So I did sign up for the basic-level Paramount+ subscription, and after being driven crazy by a ridiculous number of full-length commercials (more, I'd swear, than would actually air on normal TV), I actually leveled up to the ad-free option, which costs double. Because, you know, the acute sense that life is short and my precious time is being wasted every moment that I have to look at a commercial is one of the reasons I stopped watching TV 20 years ago. I felt stupid falling for that disgusting trick, and I hereby abuse Paramount and CBS in the filthiest language you can imagine, up one side and down the other, for being the highway robbers, scam artists and all around turkeys they are, and I heartily hope all their streaming service endeavors come to grief so we can go back to watching shows on normal TV without having to pay by the channel and extra to not be driven crazy by commercials. But let's face it, I'm terrible at waiting to see Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, and after seeing the first couple episodes of it, I sense that I'm just going to get worse at it. And since I've got that subscription, I decided I might as well use it to watch those other Trek shows.

So, I did. Anyway, I watched the second season of Mike McMahan's "Family Guy"-esqe animated comedy spinoff of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise, all the way through, and I enjoyed it. I also watched such episodes of Star Trek: Prodigy's first season as have already come out, although I understand Season 1 is still underway and is just on hiatus so that CBS and Paramount can torture fans even more, I mean, release episodes of Picard and SNW. They're hanging on to another 10 episodes of Prodigy season 1, so I can't issue a review of the full season just yet.

In the second season of Lower Decks, I laughed a lot, which is kind of the point. It has some great gags, on-point dialogue and an at times (to be honest) discomfiting level of raunchiness. In the premiere episode "Strange Energies," First Officer Ransom takes a faceful of exotic particles and develops godlike powers, parodying multiple The Original Series episodes all at the same time, while Tendi takes an aggressive approach to ensuring that her friendship with Sam Rutherford hasn't been erased by the replacement of his cybernetic implants. "Kayshon, His Eyes Open" introduces a new security chief, replacing good old Shaxs after his death in the season 1 finale. A member of the Tamarian race previously seen in the TNG episode "Darmok," Kayshon leads the lower deckers on an away mission to the booby trapped museum-ship of a Collector (see TNG's "The Most Toys"). In "We'll Always Have Tom Paris," a member of the Voyager cast makes a cameo appearance (guess who). Also, Rutherford is shocked to spot Shaxs back from the dead, and has trouble accepting that lower deckers aren't meant to understand how things like this can happen. Meanwhile, Boimler has his own issues as a consequence of becoming a transporter double in the season permiere (I forgot to mention that) – a minor matter of the ship refusing to acknowledge that he exists.

"Mugato, Gumato" riffs on an infamous continuity error in the TOS episode "A Private Little War," featuring the same enormous, horned, ape-like creatures as well as some wily Ferengi. In "An Embarrassment of Dooplers," the Cerritos fills up with duplicates of an annoying alien who multiplies himself when he's under stress. Also, Mariner and Boimler try to sneak into a bigshot Starfleet party and end up having a wacky adventure on a Deep Space Nine-like space station. "The Spy Humongous" takes us to the homeworld of the hostile but stupid Pakleds (cf. TNG's "Samaritan Snare"), featuring a character who takes the intelligence out of the phrase "intelligence agent." In "Where Pleasant Fountains Lie," Chief Engineer Billups turns out to be the prince of a planet colonized by fantasy fans (basically, a Renaissance Fair with starships) and, thanks to a decree that he will become the king as soon as he has sex, his Starfleet career depends on him remaining a virgin. Meanwhile, Mariner and Boimler have a shuttle crash while escorting an evil computer core, voiced by recurring Trek actor Jeffrey Combs, to the Daystrom Institute so he can't, you know, take over the universe or anything.

"I, Excretus" is the one where the officers and crew switch places in a series of simulations to test their skills, and when everyone but Boimler fails the test, he has to stay in his simulator way beyond the normal parameters of his Borg-based scenario to buy time for the crew to save the Cerritos from being broken up. The title of "wej Duj" is actually displayed in Klingon characters and means, I think, "Three Ships." It cuts between the actions of the Cerritos lower deckers and their counterparts on a Vulcan and a Klingon ship, which finally come together in a battle involving the Pakleds. And "First First Contact" (not a typo) is the one where a minor character from TNG, whom you've probably forgotten, comes back as the captain of a ship that's supposed to make first contact with a new civilization – but when an unstable planetoid explodes and sends the Archimedes hurtling toward the planet in question, the Cerritos has to get naked (so to speak) to save it. The episode concludes in something of a cliffhanger, with Capt. Freeman arrested on a false charge and led off the ship in handcuffs.

The show has been criticized for mistaking "fan service" (i.e. covering the background with Trek trivia and loading the dialogue with in-jokes) for actual comedy. But like I said, I got some legit laughs out of this season. It walks the mathematically thin line between parodying the Treks of yesteryear and honoring them with an affectionate ribbing. It takes a deep dive into the previously unexplored implications of some classic Trek episodes, and does get some mileage out of juxtaposing incongruous elements. But it also has characters and relationships that work, and it exploits them for a combination of sci fi enrichment and situational comedy. Its cast of flawed misfits, who frequently stumble in their duties either due to attitude problems or simple mediocrity, may seem a little out of place in the rosy Trek universe but has a certain The Orville-ish charm, acknowledging that not every Starfleet vessel is a "capital ship," but even if they aren't far up (either on the scale from superhero-level skillz to total ineptitude, or in the importance of their assignments), their adventures can still be far out.

Also, there's the acting. Everyone in the regular voice cast (whom I introduced in my post on Season 1) has the spark of comic genius, most notably Jack Quaid as Boimler, Tawny Newsome as Mariner, Jerry O'Connell as Ransom and Gillian Vigman as Dr. T'Ana. There are some Trek star cameos, from Robert Duncan McNeill as Tom Paris to Jonathan Frakes as Will Riker, to Alice Krige as the Borg Queen and of course, Jeffrey Combs – who can play a box with a flashing light for a face and still hit it out of the park. So, to sum up, LDS2 didn't hit every note, but it racked up enough fun and enjoyment to be well worth watching and coming back for Season 3.

Review over. Back to rant. With my subscription, I could also watch the episode or two at the end of Enterprise that I never saw, or Season 4 of Discovery, or Season 2 of Picard, but I'm still not excited enough about those prospects to act on them; in fact, I've been working my way through a CBS show called FBI instead, when I'm feeling inclined to tube out. At times, even FBI veers toward being more about the message and less about the story; but heck, the story still works. You know what I mean? Do you? Hmmmmm???

Maybe part of my message here is that the makers of "new Trek" have done a lousy job of creating series that ignite the passion of lifelong Star Trek fans. I mean, really lousy. I'm so lukewarm about Discovery and Picard at this point that the only reason I'm at all considering watching them is my slightly OCD impulse to complete the collection. And that impulse has been fought to an equilibrium by my dread of being let down even more than those shows already have. My reason for not rushing to complete my run-through of Enterprise, only lacking two episodes, is similar; I'm just too aware of how low the show sank by its last few episodes, and the fan buzz about how betrayed they felt by the finale. That same feeling pervades online chatter among Trekkers regarding the last two live-action spinoffs and, worse, there's a nerve-jangling sense that the creatives are blaming the fans. It's nearly enough to make me say, "screw them," and comprehensively write off Star Trek as something that I used to care about, but care no longer. But since I learned that SNW was coming, I've been clinging to a tiny spark of hope that this show will be the gift to fans that Alex Kurtzman Trek should have been delivering, but hasn't until now. And for once, online buzz has encouraged me to think that hope may not be in vain.

Who am I kidding? Eventually I'll either lose interest in FBI or catch up on all the episodes, and meanwhile I'll be looking for more episodes of SNW and Prodigy, and when I've had my fill I'll have to watch something, and then I'll probably complete my tour of the Trek canon. I gather that Picard has only one more season coming, and I know there's gonna be a Discovery Season 5 but really, please, Alex, just let it die so we can see whether you've learned anything from your mistakes with the upcoming shows Starfleet Academy and Section 31 (or whatever their actual titles will be), if and when they happen. And maybe, in the future, try respecting the franchise's fans and caring about what they care about, there's a good lad. Because as I'm sure the inevitable success of SNW will teach you and yours, Alex old boy, there's a profit angle in not approaching a beloved franchise from the perspective of someone who doesn't understand it or like it. So far, SNW seems to evince the attitude adjustment your creative team needs if this is going to work. Carry on in that manner and we can all be friends. Eh?

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