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‘Star Trek: Lower Decks’ (review)

Two of my all-time favourite Star Trek stories were titled “Visit to a Weird Planet” and “Visit to a Weird Planet – Revisited”. They were written by Jean Lorrah, Willard F. Hunt and Ruth Berman in 1968 and then in 1976 and were re-published in Star Trek: The New Voyages.

I first read them in 1979.

The premises were simple but hilariously entertaining: in the first story, a transporter accident sent Kirk, Spock and McCoy to the set of the television show. In the second, the reverse happened and Shatner, Nimoy and Kelly wind up on the USS Enterprise. I also used to love reading the slapstick parodies that were featured in the fan magazine Trek edited by Walter Irwin and G.B. Love.

Caricatures of the characters I knew and loved from TOS were placed in ridiculous situations, given crazy dialogue and were a formational source of my warped (excuse the pun) sense of humour.

I remember the Rod Roddenberry and Trevor Roth telling me about how Majel Roddenberry used to “whack their asses” if they got out of line when they were growing up.

Star Trek has a well-established history of irreverence and laughing at itself. I like to laugh too and that brings me to enjoying Star Trek: Lower Decks and talking about why people aren’t supposed to laugh at Star Trek.

With the releases of Star Trek: Discovery and more recently, Star Trek: Picard, the Star Trek fandom has been besieged by overwhelming hyper-negativity in the form of comments like “that isn’t my Star Trek”, or some other similarly-phrased reaction, and frankly – I’m tired of it.

Look, I’ll admit that I haven’t gotten as much out of Discovery or Picard as other fans have, but there isn’t anything wrong with that.

It’s my opinion and I’m not going to force my views on another fan by criticizing their enjoyment out of it. That’s intolerant. I think Star Trek is for everyone, and that there’s enough room in the galaxy to encompass all of our preferences.

When fans allow their intolerance of others’ perspectives to get the better of their natures, that creates a toxic atmosphere and it’s unacceptable.

That’s why we need Star Trek: Lower Decks.  

With all the stress and strife that 2020 has brought, I’m personally grateful for something to bolster my spirits. Star Trek has an already-established tradition of laughing at itself and if it brings a smile and a chuckle, then thanks to creator, Mike McMahan.

The selection of the milieu is the first thing to acknowledge. The Next Generation is an entry point for a lot of current Trekkies. It’s also one that older Treksters will appreciate as well. Being one who grew up on both TOS and TNG, I welcomed the setting. Since the last three iterations of Trek have been out of the TNG time period, it’s comforting to return to what we know. Familiar surrounds make changes and new things easier to accommodate. It’s a very clever and measured approach to a new Trek show.

Then, there’s the opening that sets the tone for the show. The initial few minutes were seen millions of times around the globe, as that made up the preview at this year’s SDCC-At-Home. The serious tone of Ensign Boimler’s fake Captain’s Log is countered by Beckett Mariner’s drunken comedy.

The scene is made funnier with the Easter-Egg placement of articles in Mariner’s collection of contraband. The Bat’leth incident and the Romulan Whiskey aside, did anyone look closer at the container Mariner was pushing around? There was mace-like Glavin from TNG, what looked like part of the NOMAD probe from the TOS episode, “The Changeling” – and if I wasn’t mistaken, didn’t I see part of a Vulcan lyre? Definitely enjoyed seeing and laughing at those familiar elements. It gets funnier every time I see it.

The credit sequence shows a vast number of comedic situations for the USS Cerritos.

First, we see it fall into a singularity; then it hits a comet’s ice-spike, and then later flees a fleet-sized battle with the Borg. It’s definitely a parody of the Star Trek: Voyager opening, whose tone was to inspire wonder, a sense of exploration and daring. Yeah, this opening couldn’t be any further from that iteration of Trek and that makes the first five minutes or so of this show a hell of a good laugh.

That’s who Mike McMahan is … he’s a comedy writer. It’s what he’s good at but at the same time, he’s a Star Trek fan who understands that it’s just as important to laugh at those things we hold dear in order to make them more relatable. If you can’t laugh at something you know very well, then you can’t be comfortable with it. That’s why jokes about a nun, a rabbi and a Catholic priest walking into a bar work.

Fans who fall back on a strict adherence to canon are fans who have difficulty with remembering to respect each other.

Comedians know that intelligent humour, to laugh at something with wit and cleverness requires a deep knowledge of it. Laughing at it doesn’t mean mockery; it just means that the subject doesn’t become your master.

The concept of canon is important to Star Trek fans; often it’s misinterpreted – and misspelled more times than I’d like to see.

Let me define the term so that we’re all on the same page. Canon is essentially material that is generally accepted as part of an established set of rules, laws, or in the case of literature, part of an ongoing storyline that conveys authenticity, genuinity and establishes precedent for future stories in a setting. It’s a fluid concept to a lot of people because of the concept of authenticity.

You see, that’s when the phrase “that’s not my Star Trek” comes into use.

Simply throwing items like the contents of Mariner’s cargo box into view may or may not establish to concept of authenticity of a “Trek-worthy” story for some fans. However, the fact that they are from previous iterations of Trek does establish the story’s canonical nature. Thus, Lower Decks is a canonical show. Plus, Easter eggs, as they are called, are always fun to find.

Given the direction of the show, will it ever be used as a canonical source?

Probably not.

You see, this isn’t a dramatic show, unlike its predecessors. It’s a comedy. It’s designed to make us laugh, not to make us think. There won’t be any arguments about its canonical nature because instead of seeking to establish new canon, it’ll be relying upon the canon of the prior Star Treks as material to giggle over.

However, given that one definition of canon is that it has a religious connotation of a collection of spiritual texts or holy laws, people take canon way too seriously and that will be a sticking point for a lot of fans who regard Star Trek as sacred.

That’s why some fans object to the notion of laughing at Star Trek. To some fans, Star Trek IS sacred. It’s a way of life and is also an established history that requires complete acceptance and any incongruity with that history demands swift forbearance and correction.

But … it isn’t.

Star Trek is my favourite fandom.

My last name was Kirk and the story from my parents is that there was actually an argument between them over my given names. When I discovered that I could have been named “James T.” I didn’t speak to my father for three months. I was a serious Trek fan, even to this day. I mean, I’ve interviewed, hosted and even hung out with dozens of Trek celebrities in my writing career.  I know and love Star Trek, but I think I can enjoy a joke about it.

It’s a fantasy – not a religion. We’re allowed to make light of it and to make intelligent and witty jokes at its expense. If it’s good, it can take it. That teaches us humility, tolerance and you know what? In these trying times those are concepts that we dearly, dearly need to get us through the rest of this year.

So, I’m okay with Boimler’s love of the warp core. I’m definitely looking forward to more of Mariner’s unorthodox visits to the holodeck and other antics as we discover more of her undisciplined nature unbecoming of a Starfleet officer and yeah, if I see a Tribble used for anything more than just a prop gag, then this show isn’t living up to its potential.

For a first episode, it established characters, set the right tone and gave us something to laugh at.

I’m looking forward to more and to be honest, I take great comfort that it doesn’t take itself too seriously because I am up to the metaphorical here in trying to accommodate fans who regard this show holier than the Holy Rings of Betazed or the Sacred Chalice of Rixx.

See what I just did there? I made a Star Trek joke.

Looking forward to next week’s episode on CBS ALL ACCESS
in the U.S. and CTV SCI-FI CHANNEL in Canada.

 

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