“We Could Have F#@ked It Up”
Looking back on the launch of Lower Decks, McMahan says it was “a really scary proposition” to not only create a new animated show, but to do so for a property that he grew up with and has spent so much time with as a fan. “Not f#@king it up, not letting people down” was his greatest concern going into it. And doing that while also being on a new network and working with new execs, writers, crew and voice actors only complicated the situation.
“It’s tough when you’re doing something that’s new because I’m a Trek fan,” he says. “I know how we respond to the new; we f#@king bristle and we get all crazy. … I wanted to do something that when I looked back on it for the rest of my life, I would be really proud of what I did at that one moment. And what I’m really proud of accomplishing with that season is it’s the balance of it’s really good Star Trek, and it’s a comedy that I really like, especially the last couple of episodes. We had to prove across the season that we were allowed to be a show. And then the last couple of episodes, we did a meta-trial that was really funny, we did a meta-movie that was really funny, and then we brought it home with a finale and that really felt like an expression of everything that I love about Star Trek.”
McMahan was also surprised by how much he fell for the supporting characters on Star Trek: Lower Decks. The show subverts the usual Trek scenario by putting the focus on the junior crewmembers while the traditional bridge crew of captain, first officer, etc. are more in the background. But by the end of Season 1, even those players had grown near and dear to him.“I mourned Shaxs [the tactical officer who died in the finale],” he continues. “This character that’s supposed to be a bridge officer… I hadn’t planned on falling in love with the bridge crew. I didn’t know I was going to fall in love with my show in a show. … The Starfleet stuff they’re doing, that wasn’t supposed to be as joyous. But Gene Roddenberry invented an unstoppable format; you can’t not love the characters doing that, and trying to fight that was always going to be a mistake. So letting those characters bloom along with the lower decks [group] and letting the Cerritos be this home and this world and this city that you love to spend time on — we could have f#@ked it up. I don’t feel like we did. I’m really proud of it.”
Lower Decks Season 2: Bills to Pay
“What I love about the Roddenberry format, across all Star Treks, are those standalone episodes that express the characters in ways that are consistent with the things you’ve seen [from] them before,” says McMahan. “So it’s almost like it’s serialized in that you’re on an adventure with them but not that you need a heavy ‘Last time, on…’ at the beginning of every episode.”
This means that Season 2 has, as McMahan puts it, “bills to pay” from the end of the first season. A lot happened in the season finale, including: Mariner and her mom are now working together; Rutherford’s cyborg implant was pulled from his head, resulting in his not remembering Tendi (or his other friends) anymore; the Pakleds, comedic villains from The Next Generation, are now a legit threat that we haven’t seen the last of; and Boimler has been reassigned to the USS Titan, under the command of Captain William T. Riker.
“These last three episodes created this crescendo of, ‘Look, this is what the show is. Let’s go,’” says McMahan. “And we keep that up. That’s what the beginning of Season 2 feels like. [It] is talking about those things. How does Mariner feel about Boimler taking off? How is Boimler doing on the Titan? What stories are we telling there? So, [we’re] still doing standalone, still episodes that feel episodic, but the characters don’t forget. We haven’t forgotten what we’ve said [in] Season 1.”
Star Trek: Lower Decks Cast
Canon, Continuity, and Chief O’Brien
Surely one of the toughest parts of making a Star Trek show these days is the risk of butting up against canon. With something like 800 episodes of the various shows (and counting) out there, a complex world exists that the writers must fit their stories into. And yet, Lower Decks has already made some noteworthy additions to the bigger Trek canon. One of the most notable moments came in the third episode of Season 1, “Temporal Edict,” where we glimpse a far-off future that sees Deep Space Nine and TNG’s Chief O’Brien being remembered as “perhaps the most important person in Starfleet history.”
It’s of course played as a joke, as the Chief — as much as we may love him — was never portrayed as a legend-in-the-making like a Kirk or a Picard. But joke or no joke, his future ascension is now… canon.
“I think [in that scene] we’re who-knows-how-far-off and we tried to make a point of when you see that, you think they’re going to say Picard,” laughs McMahan. “But then when you see O’Brien, your first thought is, ‘Ha, not Picard.’ Your second thought is, ‘I could have seen this because O’Brien rules.’”
“There’s a bunch of easy ways to make O’Brien the hallowed figure of all the Starfleet,” he continues. “History decides who you remember, not who history wants you to remember. And I think that we’re far enough in the future that Star Trek is flexible, there’s timelines, there’s all sorts of stuff. The headline for me is you could give any Star Trek character their own show and you could make a great show out of it. Like, we have Star Trek: Picard, right? Star Trek: O’Brien, Star Trek: Data, pre-TNG. Star Trek: Ro. I could sit around in a bar with a bunch of Star Trek fans and get drunk and beat out an entire series of television based on individual characters.”
McMahan adds that there was a meta aspect to that joke too, as Star Trek: Picard hadn’t come out yet when the episode was being written. So it was meant to be funny, but the point was also that any number of Trek characters could get their own show “because those characters rule.”
Mike McMahan’s Favorite Star Trek Episodes
We closed out our chat with McMahan listing, as best he could, his favorite episode from each of the classic Trek series. Note that we didn’t include Discovery, Picard, or Lower Decks in this rundown because those shows are still producing new episodes.
Star Trek: The Original Series
“Ah, man. I do really love… is it called ‘Private Little War’? The one with the Mugato. … There’s something about that episode. To me that episode is so Desilu. You just really see the California they’re shooting — you really see, in the costumes, the Desilu influence, they had that white gorilla costume. And then I just really disagree with how Kirk handles it at the end of the episode and it just is a very conversational one. TOS I’m not as good with with Star Trek, because I grew up with TNG, but that’s definitely one where I’m like, ‘Oh, I get it. This is great.’”
Star Trek: The Animated Series
“Oh, that’s tough. If I tell you my favorite one of that, it’ll give away something we do second season. I’m going to have to take a pass on that because we’re mining that a lot. They’re all great; too hard to pick.”
Star Trek: The Next Generation
“The whole reason that we call the show Lower Decks is that episode really has just always spoken to me. It’s so sad and so honest and so friendly. It’s tough though because it’s like, could you show that episode to somebody first? It doesn’t make sense without all those seasons of TNG before it, you know? So, I don’t know. “Inner Light” or that. That’s an easy response. Although, you’re really shaving an onion at that point because I love so many episodes of TNG.”
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
“Oh man, that’s tough. I mean, how do you pick? There’s different eras of Deep Space Nine where you start meeting the different [parts of the] Dominion. And I love Odo so much… and such great Quark episodes. It’s hard. I’m just going to say, I think my favorite, if I had to save one for a desert island, it might be the one where they go back in time to Earth, the Ferengis do. I just love Ferengi stuff. We just watched the one where they were trading up the whole time and it turns into a part of the Dominion War. And I loved Odo, I was so fascinated with Odo as a kid.”
Star Trek: Voyager
“Ooh, Voyager. I’m a huge fan of The Doctor. He’s one of my favorite characters in all of Star Trek. I love the way that Robert Picardo plays him. Voyager gets so dark and they do new stuff so much, but I think once he gets the mobile emitter, he really gets to have more fun. I really like that episode where he’s trapped on the other ship. Anything that has to do with holographic rights, I really like that stuff. I really liked his friendships that he made on the ship. But I think if you had to narrow it down to one… It’s so sad, the one where they find them in the future museum. You know? I like the one where they broadcast him back and he saves the day because he’s able to appear on a ship in the Alpha Quadrant and he’s Die Hard-ing on the ship on his own. It’s so cool. I think that’s probably one of my favorites with him.”
Star Trek: Enterprise
“I really like Enterprise. My favorite is the one where Reed gets attached to the hull with a mine. I really liked that one. I think that it was a combination of there were some limitations because of the era that I really believed in. I thought the stakes were really clear. It was just a really great adventure, that episode. There’s another one where they go into a space station that’s like a weigh station in the middle of space and they get trapped kind-of-thing; that’s cool too. For some reason, that mine episode really speaks to me. I remember that being the first time where I was like, ‘Wow, I really love this series.’ Another contender from that series would be… gosh. I don’t know, it feels like they got cut off too soon. I liked some of that temporal cold war stuff. But serialized was cool. It was different. Obviously, at the time it was the first HD Star Trek I had seen and the graphics were fricking awesome. Oh, and you know what’s so great? People don’t talk enough about the Andorian stuff. The way they write and portray the Andorians, I was all in. They felt different from other villains in Star Trek and I just really liked… Who played the lead Andorian? He was Weyoun in [DS9]. Jeffrey Combs! Combs plays a great Andorian. So my answer is twofold. The mine episode or anything with Combs. If Combs had been in that mine episode, perfect! His character was called Shran. Where’s my Star Trek: Shran? CBS … let’s greenlight Star Trek: Shran. I’m f#@king in. Let’s do it!”
Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 1 is available on Blu-ray and DVD now, and Season 2 will debut on Paramount+ this August.