Home TVInterviews Interview: Star Trek: Lower Decks’ Mike McMahan

Interview: Star Trek: Lower Decks’ Mike McMahan

by Leora Heilbronn

In my teenage years (and onward), I watched a ton of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Star Trek movies (not just the odd-numbered ones), so it was such a joy to be given the opportunity to chat on Zoom recently with Star Trek: Lower Decks creator/writer Mike McMahan (Solar Opposites, Rick and Morty) about the first ever animated Star Trek comedy (!) series. The following is an edited and condensed version of our deep dive into a few of the Easter eggs within the fun show.

Brief Take: Congratulations on the enormous success of Solar Opposites, Rick and Morty, and now Star Trek: Lower Decks. As someone who watched a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation in my formative years, I loved seeing all the different homages and Easter eggs within this show.

Mike McMahan: Oh thank you! Yeah, it was a joy because Lower Decks is not made just by this Trekkie but a whole team of Trekkies, and so everyone got to put in stuff. Easter eggs and callbacks and jokes and characters and just the style of the show. We wanted it to feel like it was harkening back to that TNG era stuff that we love.

BT: I don’t want to reveal any spoilers but I personally adored that there was a nod to Q in one of the episodes I’ve seen. He was my favourite TNG character.

MM: [laughs] I mean listen, if you lived in a world where Q could show up, you’d bring him up, right? You would reference Q! You’d be like “Sorry I’m late. Q stuff.”, you know?! [laughs] Who’s going to doubt you?

BT: I read that when you were first starting out as a screenwriter, you wrote Star Trek scripts as practice. What drew you to the Star Trek universe, which shows did you watch, what were you into?

MM: I grew up watching TNG with my folks when I was a kid. I was born in 1981 so I was prime for TNG, Deep Space Nine and Voyager. I would say that TNG and Voyager were probably more my shows, I think I was a little too young for Deep Space Nine to really kind of quite understand the fun of it, which I now love. I mean I’ve seen every Star Trek multiple times, I’m that kind of Trekkie. I will say though that there are people who are clearly much, much more into Star Trek than me because I’ve never read any of the books. I have a lot of friends who are like “Pssh, you don’t know anything!”. [laughs] I’ve read the guides and the manuals and the design stuff and Larry Nemecek’s stuff, and I like all that kind of stuff, but I’ve never read any of the novelization stuff, so I do have a blind spot.

BT: Tell me about the construction of the characters on this show. They feel unique and yet, to this Trekkie, they also felt very familiar in that universe. 

MM: Well thank you! The baseline of the characters were based on the ‘Lower Decks’ show, the episode from TNG, because that was the episode that told me that you could have these vibrant, flawed characters that still felt very Starfleet. So it was important to us that the characters had a comedic point of view and that they had a vibrancy and life to them, that they felt natural and fun, you know? But at the same time, fit into (Gene) Roddenberry’s view of what makes a futuristic human being who they are. So they still are seeking out personal truths and historical truths and scientific truths, and they still are moral and ethical, and they still want to strive to do this amazing science exploration stuff in space, but that they don’t know everything about themselves yet. They’re still finding out about them and their station in the Federation and in the workplace and in life and socially. So do you want me to run through them a little bit?

BT: Yes, please! I’m loving this. 

MM: So Mariner was the first character where I was like “I can understand why she could be a funny Starfleet officer in that she’s the best at what she does – she knows everything. She has a storied history of having worked on Starfleet ships. But the one kind of flaw that she has is that there’s something about her, that we investigate throughout storytelling in the show, which is ‘why does she hate the military structure of Starfleet? why does she bristle at being given orders and why does she think she can do it better?”. She’s kind of like, like I grew up watching Top Gun and she’s kind of like Maverick. She’s buzzing the tower a lot. It doesn’t mean she’s not great at Starfleet stuff, it just means that there’s something about her that she hasn’t become the officer she could be if she found her place in Starfleet.

Then her foil, Brad Boimler, is [laughs], every one of these characters is a little based on me. Mariner is kind of who I wished I could be and Boimler is, he’s great at all the Starfleet stuff but he just doesn’t pivot. He can’t follow his gut, he’s not like Kirk. He has to always follow the strictest letter of the law, all the rule book rules, and it ends up making him an imperfect Starfleet officer because he can’t just let the human side of him take over and do the things that feel right instead of which things on paper are right. I’ve been like that in the past, where I so desperately wanted to be good at a job that I just can’t relax, you know? He’s a pretty great comedic foil for Mariner because she’s basically the opposite, even though they both love Starfleet.

Tendi is our Orion Ensign and the pilot. It is her first day on the ship and the way we write her is, I mean she’s another knowledgeable Starfleet officer, but the joy that Noël Wells brings to playing her…and Mariner, who’s played by Tawny Newsome, who’s brilliant, and Boimler, who’s played by Jack Quaid, who is hilarious, but Noël brings this sense of awe and wonder and joy to Tendi. Tendi is basically if you were a Star Trek fan who got to actually go and be on a Starfleet ship, like she’s just a huge geek for this stuff. She’s in heaven! She loves it. There’s no job that’s too little or too growdy for her to not get super excited by it, because I think that’s how I would feel on a Starfleet ship. I don’t care if I’m cleaning out the Holodeck, I’m on the Holodeck! This is awesome!

And then the last lead character is Ensign Rutherford, who is played by Eugene Cordero, and he’s got this cyborg implant and he’s our engineer guy. He is sort of our Geordi La Forge, literally down to having something covering one eye, he’s like our version of Geordi, except he doesn’t solve the problem at the end of every episode. To me, it was important to say, you know I love that all of the big brains on Star Trek ships can usually take 40 minutes to solve a problem, unless it’s a two-parter, but science doesn’t always work like that, you know? Sometimes you have to keep failing and keep failing. You have to learn what doesn’t work in order to find out the truth of something. So the fun thing, to me, about Rutherford is that he’s an engineer who isn’t at the top of his game because he’s still learning, he’s still figuring stuff out. It’s fun to know that since he’s not running the entire engineering department, you get to see him doing stuff that you always suspected engineers did but maybe wasn’t important enough to be on screen.

BT: Again, no spoilers, but can you talk a little about the construction of the opening title sequence?

MM: Oooh! Well I don’t want to spoil anything there because nobody else has seen that yet, but it was very important to me that our show had a long, beautiful, what somebody might call ‘ship porn’ sequence. A lot of our show, because it takes place in about half an hour, you don’t get a lot of the exterior, beautiful, awesome sweeping shots of the ship but I love the Cerritos. I love that ship. So it was very important to me that we have this opening sequence where you really get to see the ship doing some stuff before the show started up. I love the score for it, I think it’s beautiful, it was composed by a composer I worked with on Solar Opposites and a friend of mine named Chris Westlake. The opening sequence feels like TNG, it feels like Voyager, but it’s also got something else going on, so I love it.

BT: What was behind the naming of the ship Cerritos?

MM: So the ship is called the U.S.S. Cerritos and partially I wanted to have a new California class of ships that were fort ships in Starfleet that would do stuff like Second Contact, that’s the specialty of the Cerritos. [laughs] So First Contact gets done and then the Cerritos shows up and does Second Contact, which is a little less important, a little more fun, but they’re still setting stuff up and making sure that the new federated planets have communications with everybody and that kind of stuff. When I first moved to Los Angeles, there’s an ad that runs…well I’m getting ahead of myself. All the California-class ships, I wanted to name after California cities because I knew that I wanted to have a new group of ships in canon but that I didn’t want to step on or have to figure out new names like the Reliant, the Defiant, the Enterprise, like you’re going to run out of naval ship names at some point. So I knew that every California-class ship was going to have a California city name so you could run across the Sacramento or Fresno or Los Angeles but that for our ship, the lead ship, the Cerritos just makes me laugh because when I moved to L.A., there was a radio ad for a car dealership or a group of car dealerships called the Cerritos Auto Square that played all the time on the radio. [laughs] It’s kind of a famous local ad and I was like “you know what, let’s give Cerritos one more thing other than just being the home of the Auto Square, let’s give a Starfleet pedigree.”

BT: At the end of the first episode, Mariner lists off Star Trek characters that she thinks are legendary and in a later episode there’s an adorable nod to a Deep Space Nine character who’s given a statue in the future. Do you have a favourite Star Trek character of all time? 

MM: For me, my favourite character is Geordi and Data together – the team, the friendship. I love watching those guys together. They’re the Calvin and Hobbes of Star Trek to me. If I had to narrow it down, probably Data. I mean how could you not love Data?! He’s so pure. [laughs] Any time Data is trying to be human you’re like “Data, I get it. I’m trying to be human too, man.”

Star Trek: Lower Decks airs on Thursdays at 9pm ET on CTV Sci-Fi

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Brief Take