As he does with AWN every season, the two-time Emmy winner riffs on his latest collection of sci-fi adventures that ‘boldly, but not too boldly’ go where no one has gone before; his uniquely funny and very ‘Trekky’ adult animated comedy, the ‘Star Trek’ franchise’s first, is now streaming on Paramount+.
For each of its four seasons, Mike McMahan’s labor of love and paean to all things Trekky, Star Trek: Lower Decks, has gotten funnier, tighter, and better looking. Wish I could say the same for myself. The two-time Emmy Award-winning show creator, currently hard at work writing a fifth season, recently took a break from his Starfleet duties to talk to AWN about his series, the Star Trek franchise’s first adult animated comedy. He riffs fast, but not loose, always energetic and passionate about his hit show, a comedy - not a parody - about the Star Trek universe and colorful characters he loves quite deeply. His show exemplifies the phrase, “In space, no one can hear you underachieve.” But at its heart, it is every bit the Star Trek show as is its companion hit series, the live-action Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Both stream on Paramount+. And both are dynamite.
Lower Decks, which “boldly goes where no one has gone before, but lower,” focuses on the support crew on one of Starfleet’s least important ships, the U.S.S. Cerritos. In the new season, an unknown force destroys starships and threatens galactic peace. Luckily, the crew of the U.S.S. Cerritos isn’t important enough to get involved. Instead, stalwart Ensigns Mariner, Boimler, Tendi, Rutherford, and Provisional Ensign T’Lyn spend their time focused on their Starfleet duties, avoiding malevolent computers, and getting stuck in a couple caves – all while encountering new and classic aliens along the way.
The Starfleet crew residing in the “lower decks” include Mariner, voiced by Tawny Newsome; Boimler, voiced by Jack Quaid; Tendi, voiced by Noël Wells; and Rutherford, voiced by Eugene Cordero. The Starfleet characters that comprise the U.S.S. Cerritos’ bridge crew include Captain Carol Freeman, voiced by Dawnn Lewis; Commander Jack Ransom, voiced by Jerry O’Connell; and Doctor T’Ana, voiced by Gillian Vigman.
The show is produced by CBS’ Eye Animation Productions, Secret Hideout, and Roddenberry Entertainment. Secret Hideout’s Alex Kurtzman and Heather Kadin, Roddenberry Entertainment’s Rod Roddenberry and Trevor Roth, and Katie Krentz (219 Productions) serve as executive producers alongside creator and showrunner McMahan. Aaron Baiers (Secret Hideout), who brought McMahan to the project, also serves as an executive producer. Titmouse (Big Mouth), the Emmy Award-winning independent animation production company, serves as the animation studio for the series.
Here's what McMahan had to say…
Dan Sarto: Okay. So, one of the strikes is over.
Mike McMahan: Yay!
DS: What can you share about the new season?
MM: What can I share? What can I share? I've always loved the cave episodes of Star Trek. So, there is a love letter to cave episodes this season people should look forward to. We have a really cool season-long runner that nobody I've seen has kind of pieced together yet. There are some breadcrumbs people have noticed… and I haven't said this to anybody else, it kind of mirrors an unresolved piece of Mariner not wanting to have been promoted. I know there was an episode early in the season where she and Ransom seemed to have it out, but there's something boiling beneath the surface with Mariner that is going to be activated by the reveal of what this runner is. So, I really love how that kind of comes together at the end of the season. I'm really proud of that. And I think that's all I want to say. There's good stuff coming.
DS: We've talked about this before... the animation just gets better and better.
MM: Oh, for real. Yes.
DS: I know that wasn’t necessarily the focus of the show to start. It always looked good, but it just continues to look better and better. Anything new for this year as far as the pipeline, your development process, or your design process that you can share with us?
MM: Oh my gosh. Yeah. Look at any animated show. It's hard to create something from nothing, especially on Lower Decks, where we're trying to match the aesthetic of previous shows while also pushing it forward. We're literally using design cues from every Star Trek that's come before us, including the original animated series, which is like, “Oh, we're designing characters that look like that!” The art team on this show is great. Barry Kelly, who's our producer and supervising director, is the perfect person to be doing this. His leadership with these amazing directors we have... People are... I think a big thing you can say is we've gone from me telling people what I want to people being fans of the show that are coming to us being like, "I want to be a part of this. It's important to me."
And when you have directors and designers and animators, and people who are doing this because they have emotional skin in the game of wanting it to be good, as opposed to hearing a guy in a Cubs hat named Mike telling them what he wants to be good, I just think you keep building on what you've done the previous years. They're just amazing at what they do.
DS: Well, part of your guidance as the show’s creator, in the earliest days, was to teach the crew what your vision was. It sounds like you're getting to the point where the talent on this show is coming back to you and saying, "This is how we think this could look and should look," and they're taking what you've shown to even newer heights.
MM: That's exactly it. Another way of saying it is I'm working with people who tell visual stories. And in the first season, I really had this vision for what I wanted to show, but I can't draw. So, it is a little bit of a Marco Polo situation. You know what I mean?
Now, each season as we progress, when I get a piece of art in, I'm already excited by what they interpret it as. They are now surprising me, as opposed to me asking them to do stuff. And it really is just like when they want to push stuff, I trust them. The way that they understand this world and the tone, obviously, we're still all working together. They'll hear this or read this from me and be like, "What's he talking about? It's a lot of work." It is a lot of work, but at the end of the day, they all get what we're doing, and then they're pushing for it to be even better.
An example is having Lieutenant Kayshon run in the Naruto style, which is a visual meme. And he's from a species that speaks in memes, and it looks hilarious when he is doing it. It's moments like that where I'm like, “I didn't ask for that.” They did that, and I laughed. And now it's in, and I love it. So, the more freedom they can get without me being like, "No, this, this, this," the better it's going to be, and we'll both be happier.
DS: Right. Let's talk a little bit about the Strange New Worlds crossover episode. You teased it when we spoke last August. It was a fantastic episode.
MM: Thank you.
DS: The animation held its own against a well-designed visual effects-driven show. It did both worlds proud. It fit. It wasn't too gaggy, but it was funny. I was really impressed because I had no idea what to expect. And of course, Commander Riker [Jonathan Frakes] directed it. So, tell me about your involvement. And how tough was it to pull that off?
MM: Strange New Worlds allowed me to get to somewhere where it was a little funnier than they're used to and a little more strange new worlds than I'm used to. I was a tool that they were using. So, they used me on multiple script passes in the edit, helping conceive of the episode and all that stuff, but I can't take any credit for that. It really was an amazing thing that they wanted to do because it was so different. And they're only in their second season. I don't think I would've had the balls to do that on a second-season show. But what it really came down to is we all had a blast, and that really comes through when you watch the episode.
And I could have made that a feature-length episode and added way more Orion pirates and all sorts of stuff. But at the end of the day, what it really highlighted was character, and I think that was really smart, that Tawny and Jack are fucking amazing. But you know who else is? Everybody on Strange New Worlds. So, getting to see them all mixed together the whole episode, it's just such a party. It's just such a Star Trek party that, if you're watching this era, that is a crazy encapsulation of what makes you feel good. It's like what you like about Trek.
It speaks to how great the Strange New Worlds folks are, but it also speaks to just... Star Trek is a blast, and it's a container that holds lots of different expressions.
DS: Well, you hit on something that's always been at the heart of Star Trek, going back to the original series. It's about the characters. And yes, you put them in interesting situations, but it still comes back to the characters, not the action, not the visuals. It’s these great characters.
MM: Why do we talk about Beverly Crusher's Fuck Lamp episode, and why do we talk about Tuvix all these years later? It's because there's no episode of Star Trek that you don't want to be there for because you just want to spend time with those guys. You know what I mean? Nobody's like, "Ah, you know what I love about Star Trek? Inner Light. I want to see Inner Light every episode." You know what I mean?
You want to see Picard occasionally get inner lighted because you love Picard. And that's what this episode really highlights – it’s let's spend some time with two different groups of characters that both love Starfleet, but maybe are just so different that you're mixing them together. I don't know. It was a blast. I loved it. I'm a big nerd for our shows.
DS: When we spoke prior to Season 1, you talked about how the show would be funny, but in no way whatsoever a spoof, that you came into this as a huge fan with reverence for the entire franchise and universe, and that this show would fit into the Star Trek world like any other series or film would. How difficult has it been to hold to that? You're 40 episodes in now. Has that been difficult to hold onto? And do you see that being problematic at all moving forward?
MM: No. What's funny is that that's the most freeing part of it because all of that is very defined for me. Now, a lot of the comedy writers I hire are kind of like, "Can't we just make this funny?" I'm like, "Well, yes, but with a thousand rules." You know what I mean? Usually, comedy writers don't love a thousand rules, but what's for sale, part of what has to be surprising about Lower Decks is we're doing funny episodes, but we're also weirdly into Star Trek. And then when you watch it, we want people to lower their shields, and then that's when we do a weirdly Star Trekky episode. And to me, that's what's fun about this show. It doesn't get harder. That's what's for sale to me as a writer. Because when I first met with [Executive Producer] Kurtzman about it, I was like, "Look, it's important to me that this doesn't feel like it could be called Star Bleck, or that it's disposable."
What I love about Star Trek is spending time with this surrogate sci-fi family, where it really feels like I'm a part of their world. So, writing episodes that fit into Star Trek, that's the fun of it. What's getting harder and harder is sort of getting it done... Getting full Star Trek ideas done in a 10-episode structure, even with full running time, is already tough, right? Getting the A story and B story that feel like TNG [Star Trek: The Next Generation] in a 10-episode structure, and always surprising myself a year before you guys get to see it, and having it feel like Star Trek, and feeling like the characters are growing, and writing up to the actors, and making sure we're not stepping on the toes of any other Star Trek that's happening, and making sure we don't step on the toes of any other 800 episodes of Star Trek, that's a bit of a puzzle. That's tough.
But at the end of the day, we have our actors who are hilarious, we have our timeline in Star Trek that I love, and we've been building out our own show's lineage as well. So hopefully, you guys still are loving it. It's a herculean effort to make sure that this never isn't what I promised you before the show came out, because that's when I'm not delivering to myself what I want to be making.
And I think you'll see, as I'm writing Season 5 and still loving it, even as Season 4 is going, it gets even more freaking Star Trek in the back half.
The show is the gateway drug. You know what I mean? That's another element we're thinking about when we're writing it, is if you've seen every episode of Star Trek, this is magic. If you've never seen an episode of Star Trek, you feel like you're not lost. That's the goal of every episode, and it's why I have less hair and see my kids less. But I love this show, so it's worth it.
DS: Well, that dedication and sacrifice show up on the screen. Last quick question. As you further develop the characters and the worlds of the show, where do you want to take this series? You say you're writing Season 5. Where are you headed?
MM: I have paths that I want to take. I've surprised myself with new paths with some characters that I think are even better than I originally designed. I would love to go for more than seven seasons. I have a seven-season arc. I'd love to get to seven seasons. There's stuff in Season 5 I'm writing right now that I don't want to give away, but I'd love to challenge these characters and have them be in situations that you guys have never expected. And then eventually, I want to write a big, crazy hilarious feature like a Star Trek: Lower Decks movie, that is the best Star Trek movie you've ever seen. That's what I would like to do.
And listen, let me tell you, we're reaching an end of an era and beginning a new era in Trek right now, as shows are finding new homes or are kind of wrapping. I'm not ready for Lower Decks to wrap, but there are no guarantees. So please watch early, watch often, have friends sign up for the free trial, and watch. I need ammunition to get more Lower Decks. And everybody's enthusiasm helps, but I'd rather they be galvanized now than for a letter-writing campaign after its gone.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.