Lower Decks, Dawnn Lewis plays a new kind of captain

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The point-of-view characters on Star Trek: Lower Decks are totally the junior officers, our beloved scrappy ensigns Mariner, Tendi, Boimler, and Rutherford. But don’t get it twisted. The captain of the starship USS Cerritos is just as formidable and competent as Janeway, Sisko, or Picard. Though her daughter, Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), thinks Captain Carol Freeman is uncool, the fourth episode of Lower Decks, “Moist Vessel,” reveals that Captain Freeman is easily one of the coolest, smartest captains in the fleet.

“You got to see that she is shrewd. You got to see that she has a plan. You got to see she has a backbone,” Dawnn Lewis, the voice of Captain Freeman, tells SYFY WIRE. “And I don’t care what anyone says, the Cerritos is the most important ship in Starfleet!”

Spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Lower Decks season 1, episode 4, “Moist Vessel.” 

Before being cast in Star Trek: Lower Decks, Dawnn Lewis has had an amazing career. From her sitcom work in Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper to her extensive voiceover work in The Boondocks, Futurama, and countless other animated shows, Lewis isn’t an undiscovered talent suddenly getting her big break. Just the opposite: Lewis is busy. While recording some of her work for Lower Decks, Lewis was in the Broadway production of Tina, playing Zelma, Tina Turner’s mother. She’s an accomplished singer, despite the hilarious scene in the new episode where Captain Freeman is unable to scat or sing on key, a scene with Lewis says she “lives for.” She tells me that while Tina was still in production on Broadway, she would record some of her Lower Decks work in a small recording studio tucked away in midtown Manhattan.

After the COVID-19 pandemic shut down production, Lewis recorded her work for Lower Decks in a variety of locations, including her own home. In The Wrath of KhanSpock, and Kirk translate days of work into a few hours, by using their own personal sneaky code. Dawnn Lewis is in the same Starfleet tradition, only she — and Captain Freeman — are probably working even harder than Kirk and Spock. After all, Kirk and Spock mostly liked everyone they worked with. Captain Freeman has to suffer a bunch of fools, not to mention her rebellious daughter.

In “Moist Vessel,” we learn that Captain Freeman is aware some of her colleagues are super-pathetic and boring, but, in the interests of leadership, she’s tolerant and crafty. Lewis says that this balanced compromise is exactly what it’s like to work in the entertainment industry.

“That’s almost every job I’ve ever had to work on,” Lewis says. “Some writer. Or some producer. Or some corporate sponsor. Some colleague. There’s always one. And that person thinks more of themselves than they should, and they are put in a position of authority or supervision, the key is to see that it’s a learning curve for them as well. Sometimes you realize this very early on with these kinds of people, and you’re like ‘I’m gonna have to work with this person again.’ So you do your best. You don’t call those people ‘knuckleheads,’ but you do suggest a different way to do something, and then, in your head, you say ‘knucklehead.’ I think of myself as a problem solver and not a problem haver.”

Lower Decks might be a comedy, but Lewis explains that being a part of the Star Trek legacy, for her, is no joke. “I’m on a pretty short list of captains. But with Black female captains, that list is even shorter. I know there was Madge Sinclair before me, but it’s still a small list. Over the years, I got to become friends with Nichelle Nichols who played Lt. Uhura. Then, I got to meet Mae Jemison when she did a guest spot on Star Trek: The Next Generation. I mean, she was the first [female] African-American astronaut. So, I have lived the legacy of this as a fan. I’m a Star Trek fan. I’m a Star Wars fan. And now I’m the captain of a ship. I’m honored and humbled and jumping up and down.”

Not only is Captain Freeman on a small list of Black female Starfleet captains (Madge Sinclair played two different captains before Freeman, in The Voyage Home and The Next Generation) but she’s also one of a handful of Trek characters who have their children with them out in space. And even though, so far, Mariner and Freeman’s relationship has been defined by tension, in “Moist Vessel,” there’s actually a moment where it seems like they don’t hate each other.

“As the episode goes on, and you get to see us working together, in a mother-daughter dynamic. And when we are in peril together and we actually see each other, I think that is really beautiful,” Lewis says. “I think it comes full circle for any parent and child relationship out there. You’re so busy going at each other, that you stop seeing each other for a while. But, for a moment in this episode, they actually see each other.”

The moment doesn’t last, of course, otherwise, Lower Decks wouldn’t be Lower Decks. Captain Freeman promoted Mariner in a sneaky way to teach her responsibility, but in the end, they’re back at each other’s throats. Still, Lewis says, for her, you really get to see how smart Freeman is. “You see Freeman’s wheels turn. She realizes she has to do the last thing Mariner actually wants — which is to have real responsibility. It’s a smart lesson. I think its genius.”

For Dawnn Lewis, stepping into the Star Trek universe was easy, even if she didn’t know what she was auditioning for, at first. “A lot of these shows these days, they do their best to try to be sneaky. Like, the character’s name is Captain Smirk, not Kirk. No. I’m kidding. That’s an exaggeration. But I knew it was a sci-fi project. They gave me a dummy script, and I think my character was some kind of animal. Like some kind of talking bird. I mean, this was over a year ago. And yeah, all the characters were some kind of animal in space. But, once we found out what it really was, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it was really Star Trek.”

Even though Freeman represents the authority that the Lower Deckers tend to rebel against, it seems that even the captain of the Cerritos has some love for the underdogs. Lewis has a huge fan of The Original Series and often watched it in secret, with her three brothers, when they were all supposed to be in bed. “We would put a sheet and blankets and make a tent over our huge black and white TV. We’d try to watch Star Trek and keep the volume down,” Lewis says. “I had the biggest crush on Chekov, of all people. I thought he had the cutest little round face and his accent, I loved. Everybody talks about Kirk and Spock, but I said, Nah, I like Chekov.”

With over half of Lower Decks Season 1 still under wraps, we have no idea what will happen to Captain Freem and the crew of the USS Cerritos next. But, one thing is for certain, Dawnn Lewis has already made her mark on the vast Star Trek universe. And, she says she’s ready for more. Like most of the Lower Decks voice actors, you can easily imagine Lewis playing a live-action version of her character in another Trek series. So, would she do live-action Freeman — in a hypothetical episode of Picard or another Trek show — if asked? If so, what would change about her performance?

“Nothing,” Lewis says. “I would change nothing. And yes. I’m ready.”

Star Trek: Lower Decks has six more episodes left in Season 1. New episodes air on Thursdays on CBS All Access.



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