Star Trek As Cartoon – Pitfalls and Comparisons

Pictured: No\’l Wells as Ensign Tendi; Eugene Cordero as Ensign Rutherford; Tawny Newsome as Ensign Mariner; Jack Quaid as Ensign Boimler of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS. ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

I work in animation, so I understand that it’s a different beast than live action. And I’m well-versed in Star Trek, having watched the 1973 Animated Series several times over (on purpose!). The differences and the similarities are notable.

In the 1973 cartoon, we already know Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest. Some of the stories come straight over from rejected or never-made scripts from the original live action series, from established scifi writers like David Gerrold, Dorothy Fontana, and Larry Niven, and many are straight up sequels (“More Tribbles, More Troubles” and “Mudd’s Passion”). The episodes, like most cartoon series, are 22 minutes long (plus credits), but despite being half the length of a typical live action Trek episode, the animated series never feels rushed. Often it feels quite the opposite, too slow for a modern audience, in some instances.

Lower Decks does not have the benefit of well-established characters. Everyone in the pilot episode “Second Contact” is new to us, the audience, and so within the 26 minutes we are provided (including credits) each of the four main characters must fight for time not only between one another but also with the secondary characters: the senior officers.

Modern animation by it’s nature is more fast-paced than live action, with some exceptions of course (Primal comes to mind). I think Lower Decks suffers most because of these combined issues, which is understandable and, to me, certainly forgivable. Less forgivable, unfortunately, is the frenetic and obnoxious character of Ensign Mariner. Through some combination of writing, direction and/or acting choices, I know not which, Mariner exacerbates the problem of pacing with her loud and manic verbal diarrhea and behavior that would be more at home on the schoolground than on a Starfleet ship.

I believe her character is written this way not just as a way to deliver a barrage of cheap, immature jokes and old Trek ‘member berries’ but also to demonstrate that she has some personal issues which, I dare to hope, will be explored in such a way to make her more likeable. I’m sure we’re all picking up the ‘rebellious daughter of strict, powerful parents, who drinks too much and has intimacy problems’ thing that they’re laying down. I would love if they move past that in the writing because right now she is just unlikable.

My point? Lower Decks could have benefited from a few more minutes, to give our characters some breathing room. A little less screaming at eachother in hallways, a little more more sitting around a boardroom table like Spock, McCoy and Kirk in TAS. What we did get, apart from the introduction tour, was the scene with Rutherford and Tendi bonding in the bar at the end, and that was pleasant. The good news: there’s 9 more episodes in this season for us to get to know our characters.

And Lower Decks has Star Trek: The Animated Series beat in many ways.

Budget is always a factor, and Filmation in the 70s was known for it’s ‘limited animation’ and other cost-cutting measure (like writing Chekov out of the series to avoid paying Walter Koenig). Filmation had a habit of using the same animation over and over – see also their other properties like He-Man, Fat Albert and Blackstar – and it really shows on Trek Animated. Lower Decks, on the other hand, is remarkably well designed and the animation is smooth and modern. It’s a delight to look at, and you can tell the writers know and love their Trek history (unlike some other modern Trek series I can think of), with various visual Easter eggs in the background.

I also have zero complaints about the voice acting on Decks. Compare this with the 1970s Animated Series, where despite the fact that they got most of the original series cast back, the voice acting is sub-par. The line delivery is often flat, with Shatner notably phoning it in, and part of Filmation’s cost-cutting meant that Nichelle Nichols and Majel Barrett do practically all the female roles, while Jimmy Doohan admirably takes the load of alien roles.

Animation is a wonderful medium that can stretch and break the limitations of live action. Whereas an alien in live action Trek usually means a person in a suit or funky makeup, in animation your character can have a tentacle just as easily as an arm, and be any size you want. It’s unfortunate, then, that I feel neither the new or the old cartoon has really taken full advantage of these possibilities. Outside of a few notable monsters in TAS, the aliens are usually some variation of humanoid. And I was hoping in the new Lower Decks they’d take more chances with the main characters rather than sticking to the 80% human standard, although it is nice to see another Caitan (humanoid cat-person) – an homage to the 70’s cartoon.

Pictured (l-r): Fred Tatasciore as Lieutenant Shaxs; Dawnn Lewis as Captain Freeman; Jerry O\’Connell as Commander Ransom; Gillian Vigman as Dr. T\’ana; of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS. ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

My other big beef with this series, which I share with other recent incarnations of Trek, is the old trope of the superior officers always being wrong. Or, in this case, garbage people. Granted, as mentioned, they don’t get a lot of screen time so we don’t see all their facets, but what we see in this pilot is that the First Officer is a bully, the Captain doesn’t care about her crew, and the security officer is insane. I feel like you CAN make a Trek comedy without your crewmates being unlikeable antagonists, and so this smacks of lazy writing. Hopefully given time we’ll see some more depth there.

One weird criticism I’ve seen of Lower Decks is the assumption that because it’s a cartoon it must be for children. Folks, it’s 2020. It was always pitched as adult-leaning. If you want a kids cartoon you’ll have to wait for Star Trek: Prodigy on Nickelodeon or go back to the 1973 animated series.

As a lover of animation and Trek, I very much look forward to further episodes of Lower Decks. Despite my criticisms (and there are more than I’ve listed here) it looks like a promising show and from what I’ve heard from my peers behind-the-scenes, it gets better still.

Oh and while I have you here, Lower Decks, nix the profanity. You can’t beat Star Trek: Picard for that, so don’t even try.