Star Trek fans were surprised last week when it was announced that Rick and Morty head writer Mike McMahon will be creating a new show for the franchise. Titled Star Trek: Lower Decks, the show will focus on “the support crew serving on one of Starfleet’s least important ships”. In a first for Star Trek, the show will be a half-hour comedy.
The nature of its premise will almost certainly make Lower Decks the most polarizing production in Star Trek history. More than that, it will test the limits of what the franchise can support — and what fans will accept — unlike anything that has come before it. Let’s take a look at why, and what it means for the future of Trek.
Star Trek Has Never Broken the Mould Like This Before
It is true that there is a great deal of difference between the various incarnations of Star Trek. But it is also true that for all that difference, they are all essentially variations on the same themes and formats. Deep Space Nine is a little darker. Voyager and Enterprise are more action-heavy. The Next Generation is more cerebral. However, they all fit within the same mould. Even Star Trek’s previous foray into animation, way back in the 1970s, was an adventure series that bore great tonal similarities to the swashbuckling character of the original show.
A pivot to comedy, then, is a first. Not because the franchise has never had funny moments, but because comedy has never been the defining characteristic of an entire corner of the franchise. If that isn’t enough, the premise is said to follow unimportant background characters — McMahon is quoted as saying he wants to make “a show about the people who put the yellow cartridge in the food replicator so a banana can come out the other end”. It will be the first time Star Trek has prioritized lower-ranking characters over captains and a bridge crew.
Incorporating a show that wildly diverges from the audience’s conception of Star Trek is a risky move. Imagine a sitcom released as part of the Law and Order franchise, or as a spinoff from The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones. That’s the gamble Star Trek is undertaking. It will demand more open-mindedness from the audience than anything before. And comedy brings with it some unique challenges.
Star Trek Usually Does One Kind of Comedy
Star Trek is replete with comedic episodes. TOS gave us “The Trouble with Tribbles” and “A Piece of the Action“. TNG, DS9, and Voyager gave us hilarious adventures on the holodeck. Enterprise had Trip get pregnant. Characters like Barclay, Rom, Neelix, Keenser, and Tilly often filled the role of “comic relief”. And, of course, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is a comedy through-and-through.
What that unites all of these examples is the nature of the comedy. Specifically, it’s humour that comes from taking something established as serious and subverting expectations. “The Trouble with Tribbles” is a serious story about politics, espionage, and a cold war. It is rendered hilarious because the plot is driven by cooing balls of fur. Holodeck adventures like “Our Man Bashir” are funny because the characters act nothing like themselves in a campy situation. In each case, there is a contrasting effect between the drama we normally see and the comedy we get in certain special cases.
Lower Decks, presumably, won’t be able to take the same approach, because it is first and foremost a comedy as opposed to a drama. You can’t subvert serious subject matter if the subject is not first and foremost treated as serious. Likewise, we can only hope that the show avoids the lazy route of simply parodying established Trek tropes, since, between Galaxy Quest and The Orville, enough of that already exists. Instead, Lower Decks will need to completely reimagine Star Trek through a comedic lens.
If This Works, Star Trek Will Never Be The Same
If audiences accept Lower Decks, the implications for the future are massive. Not all franchises have the flexibility to fit something as dark as Deep Space Nine or Discovery in alongside a pure comedy. If it works, Star Trek can conceivably tell any kind of story, in any kind of format, without losing its essence. It will transcend its previous status as a sci-fi action-drama and become, in some ways, a genre all its own.
Will every fan accept Lower Decks? No. There is no perfect consensus among Star Trek fans, and this project will probably be the most divisive one yet. But for the past ten years, Star Trek has courted controversy in both its films and TV, mostly successfully. The fact that Lower Decks has been greenlit only a year after the return to TV speaks volumes about Trek’s capacity to evolve and go where it has never gone before.
Star Trek: Lower Decks is currently in development at CBS All Access. Season Two of Star Trek: Discovery begins streaming January 17th, 2019.