Star Trek: Lower Decks celebrated its third season premiere today with the release of the first episode titled “Grounded.” The animated series follows a group of low-ranking officers from the USS Cerritos. It’s full of smart-Trekkie humor with just the right amount of snark and even a hint of subversiveness. Lower Decks packs a ton of character development into less than half an hour per episode without relying on technobabble to push their stories forward.
Lower Decks has big Adult Swim vibes and is appealing even if you haven’t seen the previous two seasons. Show creator, Mike McMahan, was a writer and producer on Rick and Morty, so the humor style makes sense. (He even had a hand in the “Pickle Rick” episode!) However, if you’ve never seen an episode of Star Trek, some of the humor may not hit in the same way, and the show may not be for you. But the best way to solve that issue – and really, you should – is to go back and watch some other Star Trek immediately and then return to Lower Decks. It’s worth your time and is a fun tour through the Star Trek universe.
Lower Decks features the characters Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid), and D’vana Tendi (Noël Wells.) Eugene Cordero is the cybernetically augmented Sam Rutherford. “Grounded” was written by Chris Kula and directed by Jason Zurek.
[Warning: Spoilers for season 2 and the premiere episode of season 3 ahead.]
Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 3 Premiere – “Grounded”
The premiere episode “Grounded” opens where the last episode of Season 2 – “First First Contact” ends. The Pakled planet has been destroyed, and it looks like Cerritos Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) is to blame. FNN does a nice rundown of everything that happened, so you won’t be left behind if you’re coming in cold.
We open the episode with Beckett Mariner throwing vases at a view screen. She’s naturally upset about the situation – after all, Freeman is her mom and has been falsely accused. And further complicating things, the whole crew is grounded and stuck on Earth until things get straightened out.
So right off the bat, Lower Decks establishes some pretty significant stakes in this episode. Despite the breezy animation and storytelling, the genuine stakes are one of the show’s strengths. The characters are vulnerable in moments couched with humor.
In “Grounded,” Mariner is upset and wants to free her mom and get back to space. These are her biggest desires. She spends the episode, with the help of her friends, trying to achieve this. And here’s where the subversiveness I mentioned earlier comes in. Mariner’s dad, the Admiral (Phil LaMarr), tries to reassure her that Starfleet will figure out the truth. That isn’t enough for Mariner – she doesn’t have faith in the institution that she’s almost been kicked out of several times. So she takes things into her own hands.
In the end, it’s all for naught. Mariner, Boimler, Tendi, and Rutherford grow closer with hijinks; however, they don’t actually achieve what they set out to do. After they steal the Cerritos, they get stopped by dry dock security. They’re “caught” within a mass of procreating bioluminescent extremophiles.
They are very close to explaining why they needed the ship and getting away with it; however, they need the name of a commanding officer to satisfy security. Enter Captain Freeman. Justice has prevailed, and Starfleet found her innocent of the Pakled mess. The Lower Decks squad’s efforts weren’t needed after all, and Mariner gets precisely what she wants. Almost.
Mariner still wants to be in Starfleet, and so far, through all the demotions and drama, her mom and dad have pulled strings and been able to cover for her. Freeman makes it clear that this is the last time. Whether or not Mariner stays in Starfleet will now be up to her right-hand man, the menacing Jack Ransom (Jerry O’Connell.)
The episode moves fast (but the pacing never feels off), and it does a great job setting up the new normal moving forward for Ransom and Mariner.
The episode also does a great job of including things that will amuse long-time Star Trek fans. One, there’s a sequence with an extraordinary guest star. And two, because I am missing the Sisko-verse, I want to point out the Deep Space 9 things I spotted in this episode.
Zefram Cochran and the Phoenix
This episode features an unexpected and brilliant appearance by a holographic Zefram Cochran, voiced by the one and only James Cromwell. The Lower Decks gang visits Bozeman and the Phoenix in their bid to get justice for Mariner’s mom.
The ship and the town from Star Trek: First Contact have been turned into a funky amusement park, complete with churros and a Vulcan ship/bounce house that’s a “first contact fun zone.” It’s funny, and it’s the kind of meta-commentary that showcases why Lower Decks has been so successful.
The Promise of Deep Space 9
Last month, I wrote about the new trailer for Lower Decks that debuted at San Diego Comic-Con. I explained that one of the reasons why I was so excited for this season was because of how heavily the trailer leaned into Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and because the people behind Lower Decks have leaned into DS9, too.
Now, wait for a second – if you’re a Trek fan, you may be thinking of the other animated Star Trek series, Prodigy, and their massive crossover, which included DS9. That episode, entitled “Kobayashi,” was the convergence of 5 different Star Trek iterations. And although Rene Auberjonois cameoed as Odo, no one went to the station with the pylons that make Trekkies’ hearts sing.
Enter this season of Lower Decks. With that SDCC trailer, Lower Decks promised to change that. And although this first episode didn’t feature the iconic station known for keeping the Bajoran Wormhole company, it did feature some pretty big callouts to the series. I really enjoyed these callouts and am hopeful about how they’ll visit the station later in the season.
The first big callout to DS9 is the shot of Sisko’s Creole Kitchen. The animation is close to what we saw in the live-action DS9 episodes of “Homefront” and “Paradise Lost.’ Rutherford is at a table with Tendi, sharing a meal. The bottle of Ketracel White Hot sauce on the table made me giggle.
Even more exciting than the restaurant was Rutherford’s sweater. It looked like one of Elim Garak’s finest garments – and was a pretty close match for something worn by Jake Sisko (Cirroc Lofton) on the show.
Here’s Jake’s sweater posted on Twitter by Gavia Baker-Whiteaw (@HelloTailor). It’s pretty distinctive.
Jake Sisko's wardrobe is lowkey one of the greatest guest stars of Star Trek DS9. pic.twitter.com/BEUpxzpKo4
— Gavia Baker-Whitelaw (@Hello_Tailor) September 9, 2017
Now notice the sweater Rutherford wore at Sisko’s Creole Kitchen and throughout the episode. It’s not exact, but the sweater is a close match to Jake’s.
This is the kind of nerding out and respect for the history of Star Trek that I love. And I can’t wait to see more in upcoming episodes. (For now, I’ll just keep rewatching the trailer for even more DS9 goodness.)
Today, you can watch the premiere of Star Trek: Lower Decks season 3 on Paramount+ in the US. And if you’re still in the mood for more Star Trek, check out my review of the season finale of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.