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'Star Trek: Lower Decks' Sketches Out Life In The Bottom Berths Of The Starship


This is FRESH AIR. In the six years since CBS launched its subscription streaming service CBS All Access, it's tried to lure viewers to its site by presenting new series spun off from the ongoing "Star Trek" franchise. First, there was "Star Trek: Discovery," and more recently there was "Star Trek: Picard," in which Patrick Stewart revived his Jean-Luc Picard role from an earlier spinoff series, "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Now CBS All Access has another entry in the "Star Trek" canon, but this one is different. For starters, it's a cartoon. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: There aren't many pop culture sensations from the '60s that still generate a buzz more than 60 years later. There's James Bond and the Beatles and "Star Trek," though that NBC sci-fi show when it originally aired in the '60s never wound up in the season's top 10, or the top 20, or for that matter, the top 50. But it hung around and was repeated in syndication then found new life in both movies and TV, eventually spawning an ever-growing number of sequels and spin-offs. In the early '70s, between the original show and the first "Star Trek" movie, there even was an animated TV series with original stars William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley providing the voices of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy.


WILLIAM SHATNER: (As Captain Kirk) Captain's log, Stardate 4978.5. We are approaching the Arcadian star system on a mission to locate an old friend. Do you think Harry Mudd is down there, Spock?

LEONARD NIMOY: (As Mr. Spock) The probability of his presence on Motherlode is 81%, plus or minus 0.53.

DEFOREST KELLEY: (As Dr. McCoy) Why can't you just say Mudd's probably there?

NIMOY: (As Mr. Spock) I just did, Doctor.

BIANCULLI: Close to 50 years later, there's another new "Star Trek" cartoon, but without any famous voices. This one, from CBS All Access, is created by Mike McMahan of "Rick And Morty" and is based on the overall "Star Trek" universe envisioned by Gene Roddenberry. It's set in the time after Captain Kirk but before "Star Trek: Picard" and is set aboard a starship whose mission is to explore strange new worlds.

But this time, instead of focusing on the heroic officers on the bridge, this new series spends most of its time with the ensigns who populate the bottom berths of the ship and are charged with mostly menial tasks, like fetching drinks or repairing food replicators. Think of it as a sort of animated "Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead" with a starship captain instead of Hamlet. "Star Trek: Lower Decks" is a comedy and finds its footing after establishing the relationships among the characters. The brand-new ensign, for example, is green in more ways than one. Her skin is lime colored. And her attitude is much too enthusiastic. Her voice is provided by Noel Wells.


NOEL WELLS: (As Ensign Tendi) Ensign D'Vana Tendi reporting for duty. I'm a transfer from Outpost 79.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Deck 4. Follow the yellow line. Take the turbolift (ph) all the way down.

WELLS: (As Ensign Tendi) Thank you so much. And can I just say that I'm really honored to be...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Keep it moving, lower decks. Next.

BIANCULLI: She soon meets the other members of her lower decks crew, who give her a tour of the ship. And then their adventures begin. There are in-jokes and Trek references everywhere, but "Lower Decks" can stand on its own, as when two of the ensigns beam down to a newly discovered planet and find themselves in danger. The young man, voiced by Jack Quaid, is flustered. The young woman, voiced by Tawny Newsome, is not.


TAWNY NEWSOME: (As Ensign Mariner) You've been on - what? - four planets?

JACK QUAID: (As Ensign Boimler) Five if you include Vulcan.

NEWSOME: (As Ensign Mariner) Of course I don't include stupid Vulcan. You may as well count Earth.

QUAID: (As Ensign Boimler) I was counting Earth.

NEWSOME: (As Ensign Mariner) You don't know anything except what's in your manuals. Since you can't think for yourself, how about you follow my lead? And, maybe, we'll get out of this alive.

BIANCULLI: Her character, Ensign Mariner, is the daughter of the ship's captain. Both mother and daughter are Black, which is worth mentioning because in the original "Star Trek" series back in the '60s, it was a very big deal to have a woman of color - Nichelle Nichols as communications officer Uhura - working on the bridge. Now in this new series, a Black woman, voiced by Dawnn Lewis, is in the captain's chair and in full command. Though, she has some issues raising her daughter, as she complains in a call to a fellow Starfleet officer.


DAWNN LEWIS: (As Captain Carol Freeman) Listen; I've had enough. I'm throwing her in the brig.

PHIL LAMARR: (As Admiral) We already tried that. You know it doesn't work. She loves the brig.

LEWIS: (As Captain Carol Freeman) She undermines me in front of the crew.

LAMARR: (As Admiral) I'm sure nobody notices.

LEWIS: (As Captain Carol Freeman) Yeah, they do.

LAMARR: (As Admiral) Sweetheart, just...

LEWIS: (As Captain Carol Freeman) Don't you sweetheart me. We agreed if she didn't fit in here, you'd send her back to the keel. Well, she doesn't fit in.

LAMARR: (As Admiral) I got to go - admiral stuff. Love you.

LEWIS: (As Captain Carol Freeman) Don't you hang up on me. She's your daughter, too.

LAMARR: (As Admiral) Hanging up now.

LEWIS: (As Captain Carol Freeman) Don't you dare.

LAMARR: (As Admiral) Finger's on the - oh...

LEWIS: (As Captain Carol Freeman) Don't you...

LAMARR: (As Admiral) I'm losing you.

LEWIS: (As Captain Carol Freeman) I said, don't...

BIANCULLI: Even though "Lower Decks" is an official branch of the "Star Trek" tree, it's not as delightful as the 1999 movie "Galaxy Quest," which was a live action comedy that embraced "Star Trek" in the same spirit but without authorization. But "Lower Decks" is better than "The Orville," a current live action comedy series from Fox that attempts the same thing. By being animated, "Lower Decks" can be looser with its ideas and its humor and contains some language and action not suitable for young children.

Being animated also gives "Lower Decks" another secret weapon. During a pandemic, when it's very difficult to get actors together to star in TV shows, animated programs can be drawn, recorded and edited in isolation. "Star Trek: Lower Decks," like other cartoon series, can produce additional episodes safely while most other series are still in lockdown, which is good news for fans of "Star Trek: Lower Decks" and great news for fans of "The Simpsons," which the Fox Network just announced will present its Season 32 premiere as scheduled in September.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and a professor of TV Studies at Rowan University. He reviewed the new animation series "Star Trek: Lower Decks" on CBS All Access.

On tomorrow's show, we discuss Malcolm and Martin Luther King, their relationship to each other, their own era and to our time. We talk with Peniel Joseph, author of a new book about them called "The Sword And The Shield." Joseph is the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas, Austin. I hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.