Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 3 Review: The Animated Series Is As Funny And Adventurous As Ever

The beauty of "Star Trek" is that there's so much of it that a certain percentage has to be good by default. Another beauty of "Star Trek" is that there's so much of it that a certain percentage of it has to be bad or weird or inexplicable by default. The final beauty of "Star Trek" is that both of those elements are key to the franchise's longevity — "Star Trek" has been on for so long, and has told so many stories, that you could literally devote a large chunk of your life to talking about it, complaining about it, and dissecting it without ever repeating yourself. "Star Trek" has been great, bad, weird, fun, moving, silly, stupid, profound, and obvious since 1966.

In other words, a love letter/ruthless parody like "Star Trek: Lower Decks" was inevitable, because eventually, people who sat around talking about every single nitty-gritty detail from every single show would eventually have the power to make their own "Star Trek" show. And they would realize that "Star Trek" deserves to be poked as much as it deserves to be celebrated.

"Star Trek: Lower Decks" season 3 finds the animated series, set in the late-"Next Generation" period after the events of "Star Trek: Nemesis," continuing the stride it hit in season 2. The jokes are funnier, the characters continuously on-point, and the storytelling, while certainly goofy, very much in-line with the basic tenets of "Star Trek." Because as much as "Lower Decks" likes to make fun of "Star Trek" minutiae, it loves one thing even more: "Star Trek" itself.

A mundane dream come true

The new season picks up where the season 2 cliffhanger left off, with Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) on trial for war crimes she did not commit, and the overlooked, overworked, under-valued ensigns of the USS Cerritos working to clear her name. But don't expect "Lower Decks" to get serialized on us. It's not long before the season returns to one-off adventures, with Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid), D'Vana Tendi (Noel Wells), and Samanthan Rutherford (Eugene Cordero) once again dealing with the mundane, but still frequently hazardous, roles of lower decks crew members on a Starfleet vessel.

The beauty of the show's structure remains intact — storylines about cosmic entities running amuck and sensitive diplomatic negotiations with alien species intermingle with plots about clashing social circles, inter-ship rivalries, and even the fraught topic of who actually gets to sleep in the nice private rooms on a Starship and who gets left in the public bunks.

In other words, "Lower Decks" keeps lifting the undisturbed rocks of the "Star Trek" universe to wonder about the tiny details another series, one built around a courageous bridge crew, wouldn't have time to explore. The show's wry tone finds a careful balance: Yes, being the lowest-ranked person on a Starship does look like it would be exhausting and painful and boring, but none of these characters would trade it for anything else.

Yep, this is definitely a show produced by people who have been dreaming about "Star Trek" their entire lives. Even the worst job a starship is a dream.

Small stories, big scope

While the entire point of "Lower Decks" is to tell lower-stakes stories about lower-ranked crew members, the show continues to have a special trick up its sleeve: stellar animation. In static screenshots, the series looks no different from contemporaries like "Ricky and Morty" and "Solar Opposites" (the former is where "Lower Decks" series creator and showrunner Mike McMahan cut his teeth, the latter is where he serves as co-showrunner). But in motion, the series is stunning to watch. Grand starships are rendered with love and care, stretches of space look alive with beauty and danger, and action sequences and creatures are realized on a scope that would break the budget of a live-action series, even one as lavish as "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds."

If a live-action "Trek" series were to do an episode about a mysterious alien weapon that realizes the crew's desires and fears (as we see in season 3), you'd see where the corners get cut. "Lower Decks," the silly comedy show, is able to run wild on a grand scale. There's a lovely irony to the smallest "Trek" show using its medium to its advantage, and telling small stories with enormous scope. And in season 3, "Lower Decks" leans into the animation more than ever, creating vast worlds and strange cultures ... and sometimes rebuilding favorite locations and characters out of digital ink and paint, pulling off what live-action "Trek" can't get away with right now.

On and off the beaten path

While much of "Star Trek: Lower Decks" season 3 is more of the same but better, two episodes, in particular, see the show stretching in opposite, but equally pleasing, directions.

Yes, as teased in the trailer, this season does return to the titular location of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," a nostalgia bomb for any "Trek" fan who desperately misses that seedy location and its deeply wounded cast of characters. However, the episode itself wryly avoids making it all about the guest stars (and yes, two "Deep Space Nine" cast members return to voice their characters), and lets the station serve as the backdrop for a story focused on the core "Lower Decks" cast. The nostalgia, the Easter eggs, the in-jokes, and the hilariously specific references are all there (the crew of the Cerritos loves Deep Space Nine as much as a "Trek" fan does), but it never becomes the point of the episode. "Lower Decks" is smart enough to know we want to return to these incredible locations and their incredible characters, but wise enough to integrate them into the existing show. It's emblematic of what the entire show does so well.

But there's another episode that breaks format in a major way, sidelining nearly every member of the main cast to focus on a minor supporting character and their increasingly strange adventure on an alien planet. It's a big swing, one that evokes "Avatar" and "Wall-E" as much as it does "Star Trek," often sidelining comedy for large portions of the story to focus on painting a touching portrait of an alien world and those who inhabit it (don't worry, there is also a hair-raising recurring gag about interspecies mating). It's bold. It's weird. It's funny. But it's also earnest. It just wants to tell a science fiction story, damn it. It wants to be "Star Trek."

There's a confidence here, a display of the show's writers and animators realizing they can't help themselves. Yes, they're here to make a comedy show. But they're also making "Star Trek." Who can blame them for pressing pause on the gags to indulge in the universe they so clearly love?

"Star Trek: Lower Decks" season 3 premieres August 25 on Paramount+. New episodes arrive weekly. This review is based on the first eight episodes.