It has the humor that ‘Picard’ lacks, and the humanity that ‘Discovery’ never will
As a whole new series of possible space-exploration futures proliferates beneath the skirts of Space-X, Blue Horizon and the Chinese lunar program, the Star Trek franchise remains as vibrant as ever, even if it is hiding over on CBS All Access. It remains intent to seek out what “final frontiers” remain for humanity left to explore. Three recent offerings seek to answer that question, with varying degrees of success.
Picard is back
‘Picard’ takes the safest route. By reintroducing fan favorite Captain Jean-Luc Picard, CBS provides viewers with a familiar anchor in a Trek universe that has “moved on”. Starfleet has failed to live up to its promise, sectors of the galaxy are in disarray, and The Next Generation’s captain is a bitter retiree with an axe to grind. Equal parts formulaic Trek mixed with cyberpunk and a gritty feel reminiscent of Outland, ‘Picard’ dares mightily courtesy of head writer (and Pulitzer-winning novelist) Michael Chabon.
Sadly, ‘Picard’ has failed to take flight in the ways its creators perhaps envisioned. In portraying a broken Federation–and a broken protagonist–it could be the franchise went too boldly where no Trek has gone before. An undercurrent of regret and sadness lingers in many of the episodes. What flashes of humor exist in ‘Picard’ feel forced. I agree with the scribe who identified ‘Picard’ as the Silent Generation’s final cry of rage. But its subtext about duty and sacrifice rings hollow in our current cultural moment. The show is well-written and poignant but fails to inspire.
Discovery crashed into cultural consciousness with a set of breathless trailers that exploded with promise: great special effects, a compelling scenario and the introduction of action stalwart Michelle Yeoh into the Trekkieverse. Plus? A new ship. Discovery is the direct precursor to the original series, setting up characters and scenarios that will later appear on Captain Kirk’s viewscreen. With such compelling antecedents, how could Discovery fail to deliver?
Yet it does, and in spectacular fashion. If Trek has ever had a capital-F failure, Discovery is it. With shortcomings so numerous and abject, it is amazing no one caught and ironed them out in the writer’s room. Where to begin? It would take an essay the length of this one to plumb Discovery’s many failings. But the short version is that the show literally subverts almost every successful narrative convention established by the franchise. Instead of Starfleet adventure, we get preachy one-note storylines about diversity and difference. Rather than a diverse ensemble, we get an all-female bridge crew that resembles a lesbian book club. And instead of an entertaining interplay between equals, we get relentless focus on a single hero(ine) whose lack of believability grows with each passing episode. Instead of going boldly, Discovery goes Wokely. And crashes. And burns.
Star Trek: the cartoon
The humorous, cleverly written, animated Star Trek: Lower Decks, on the other hand, lives up to the franchise’s promise At first blush the least promising of the new offerings, the show bears the torch with surprising skill, class and a reverential affection for all things Trek. If we recall the importance of humor as a signifier of intelligence, Lower Decks delivers in spades.
The “lower decks” of the title refers to the unglamorous precincts of the USS Cerritos where the support crew labors, loading equipment into shuttles for away-team missions, lubing turbo-shafts, scraping gunk from warp drives. The indomitable Ensign Beckett Mariner leads our ensemble of Starfleet also-rans. She’s a troublemaker, ex-officer and daughter of the ship’s captain. But Mariner, like her team, is enamored of all things Starfleet. Almost every episode contains a humorous or ironic reference to an episode from one of the other Star Trek series. And this enthusiasm serves both to bond audience to crew members and ground the series in the enduring values of Trek culture. These crew members are more than just luckless lower-deckers–they’re fellow fans and believers in Starfleet’s vision.
Science fiction, whether The War of the Worlds or Star Wars, is at its best when it puts humanity front and center. Compelling characters experiencing human dramas within the context of a far-flung future is the proven formula. And although he resisted the mantle of “sci-fi author,” Harlan Ellison might have put it best when he characterized sci-fi as being about how the future affects people. As the Star Trek franchise owners throw stuff at the wall to see what sticks, they would do well to remember that perfectly heroic characters will never connect with an audience, that nostalgia and sadness are sour notes in a futuristic melody, and that the flawed strivers belowdecks are the ones with whom viewers most readily connect. Trying hard and failing more often than they succeed, their flawed humanity is what makes them the ideal heroes to explore the final frontier.
Lower Decks may be a comedy, but its characters and situations are compelling and it places an original sci-fi angle on the stories. In one episode, an alien chemical created to turn inanimate matter organic splashes around the ship with hilarious results. Throughout, our intrepid band of B-listers relies on good faith, team-work and dogged adherence to Starfleet’s highest principles. The Lower Decks team are the wannabes of the Federation. Bumbling and semi-talented, they lack the polish (and connections) of their higher-ranking crewmates, but because of that, they try that much harder. And the results are pure Star Trek: inspiring, thoughtful, even heartwarming. Lower Decks is everything Discovery tries and fails to be.