Interview: ‘Star Trek: Lower Decks’ Creator Mike McMahan Talks About The Joys of Painting with the Palette of Trek [EXCLUSIVE]

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Star Trek: Lower Decks Courtesy: CBS All Access

The latest expansion of the Star Trek universe – Star Trek: Lower Decks hit CBS All Access at midnight tonight! And we were lucky enough to have a chat with showrunner and creator, Mike McMahan (Rick and Morty, Solar Opposites) about what it’s been like to create his dream Star Trek show and why it felt natural for him to make it a comedy.

*Warning: There are mild first episode spoilers so please beware!*

Nerds and Beyond: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today and congratulations on the premiere of LOWER DECKS!

Mike McMahan: Oh thank you!

NaB: So this is a question I’ve been asking a lot right now but… what’s it like to have a show premiere in the middle of a pandemic?

MM: Oh it is a bummer, because there are so many people that it takes to make a show like this that you want to go and have a party with them, and celebrate them, and get up in front of a big group of people and shout people out by name and thank them. Especially with an animated show it takes an army of artists. And we kind of got robbed of that a little bit. So that being said, and this being a labor of love with everyone working on it also trapped inside, we all love Lower Decks so much – we make fan art of it and constantly talk about it – we’re the original fans of the show and it’s driving us crazy that we can’t quote it with people because we can’t ever been out in the world. But you know, now everybody’s stuck inside and the world is crazy and everything sucks, but we’re also like “well the thing we all love, we get to share it with everybody!”

NaB: It also feels suspiciously timely because *mild spoiler alert* the first episode kind of has its own mini pandemic happen.

MM: It’s funny, I don’t know why I did it, but rewatching it, I had Ensign Mariner washing and then rewashing her hands twice and boy… what in the world had me want to do that with her? There’s just always something funny to me about people washing or not washing their hands, and not people not washing their hands has always seemed like something that was gonna get left behind in our century. And I feel like Starfleet is made up of people who all wash their hands and are super good and floss three times a day.

And we also included a viral element, because for the first episode, we’re setting up the world of the show, and the characters, and other stuff, and I wanted a really basic sci fi premise – like a virus that didn’t get caught by the filters in the transporter and you know…. sometimes life works out in the worst ways I guess.

NaB: It does make me feel hopeful though, like maybe per the end of the episode, all we need in the real world is for our own Ensign Boimler to come in covered in special slime and it will save the day.

MM: Yes exactly!

NaB: To go back a bit, how did Lower Decks come to be? Did CBS approach you or did you pitch them?

MM: It actually came out of a general meeting I had with the folks over at Super Hideout. One the executives knew me from back when we were assistants together and I was running a twitter account called @TNG_S8 and so he knew how much I loved Star Trek and he knew that while he was moving up the executive path I was working my way up the ranks writing for Rick and Morty. And so when they were exploring the ability to do new Star Trek shows, they brought me in just to talk about animation on Star Trek in general. It was not a pitch at all.

But in that conversation, a person asked me, “What would be your dream Star Trek show be, and I literally pitched them exactly what Lower Decks is, and they turned to everybody in the room and said, “Well, sounds like we have to pick up another Star Trek animated show.”

Because they had only been working on the concept for Star Trek Prodigy which is a children’s animated show. And mine is solidly working in the 14 and up, Primetime adult animated comedy area.

But really it just came from having a conversation and nerding out, and talking about what was important to me about Trek and stories we could tell in that world and ultimately what feels like a celebration of Trek.

NaB: One thing about the Lower Decks episodes that I’ve seen is that it really brings something to the forefront that people don’t always think about a lot with Star Trek, which is humor. Because I feel like Star Trek has always been funny – or there’s always been humorous elements to it. But it’s never been a straight comedy, while Lower Decks is and I was wondering if you could talk about why that was important for you?

MM: You’re right. Star Trek has always had comedy and it’s always had funny characters. Even when an episode isn’t comedic, Worf can have a line that steals a scene. Because Worf is funny. And Data is funny. Like these characters and these situations are “human” and human beings get to be funny. If they were all static and controlled they would be like the Borg. Which is the whole point of the Borg. So Star Trek did always have funny – but I think the characters themselves are funnier than the episodes that try to be funny.

But, you know, what really speaks to me is that the reason I wanted to make a Star Trek show is because I just feel so comfortable with it, and I love watching Star Trek, and it’s like you write what you know, right? So I’m already writing animated comedies, and I’m already taking joy in doing that. So, the most excellent expression of this is the way I like to make shows, mixed with the things I love about Star Trek, in a way that to me – so Star Trek has so many gatekeepers right? But to me, this show is not unlike a lot of Star Trek stuff we’ve seen before. And I’m not begging people to like it. I’m kind of just putting everything in there so that, just in case somebody likes TNG for the same reasons that I do, or if they liked it but have never defined it like that, and then are able to watch this and go, “Oh yeah I do like this stuff!”

It’s not going to be for everybody, because clearly it’s important to so many people for so many different reasons. But, just like how Deep Space Nine said “we’re going to do a Cold War story about Bajor” with Star Trek, we are going to do a family style workplace comedy, but with Star Trek.

NaB: I think it’s very apparent that there is so much love and knowledge going into Lower Decks, just based off of the number of easter eggs – and easter eggs from every series at that. There’s nods to TNG, DS9, Voyager. There’s even a nod to the original animated series with making Dr. T’Ana a Caitian.

MM: I think there’s a Caitian in one of the films as well, I’m not sure which…. I think it’s the Search for Spock.

But yeah, we do have a lot of these deep cuts. And it’s not because we’re trying to prove our Star Trek pedigree in any way. I know that people are going to be tweeting, and there’s so much love and so many details, that I think it does run the risk of people being like, “wow, the show really wants to prove that it’s Star Trek” but we’re not trying to prove anything really. How we view it is this: All Star Trek, from the books, to the movies, and shows, and everything in between… is the palette of paints that we get to use for comedy.

Ensign Tendi (Noël Wells) and Ensign Rutherford (Eugene Cordero).
Courtesy of CBS All Access

NaB: I also really enjoyed what you did with the characters that make up the core friend group in Lower Decks because they feel like familiar Star Trek archetypes but with an unexpected twist or complexity to them that I think is what really makes the show so fun and interesting.

MM: Star Trek is often about duos, in a way. You’ve got Kirk, but often you’re framing Kirk with Spock. Or Kirk and Bones. And you’ve got Data, but often it’s Geordie and Data. Or Riker and Troi. And getting to see these characters have these relationships, either professionally or romantically, you know, in different ways just really really screamed Star Trek to me.

The original sort of comedic vibrancy, but also friction between Mariner and Boimler, is really defined by Tawny (Newsome) and Jack (Quaid). They’re so funny together and they act like those characters. Lovingly teasing each other but also supporting each other. Even when we’re just going out to dinner together. And that’s kind of the relationship I have with my friends. Your friends are the ones who are going to tear you down the hardest because they know you’re gonna laugh with them about it. And at the same time, they’re the ones who are going to go to the mat and support you more than anybody else in the world. Friends are family, and that’s what Star Trek feels like in the best way.

Or like Tendi and Rutherford. They are almost “in science” with each other instead of being in love with each other. They have this “will they or won’t they” but it’s not like a “will they or won’t they” hook up but more like a “will they or won’t they” get to work together on the warp core. And I love writing that. There’s no other show where you get to do that, and it’s just so Star Trek. It’s just such a joy to write.

NaB: I really love Ensign Mariner. I think because of the ways that she gets to let loose and have fun, and you don’t really get to see a female sci-fi character, especially a Black female sci-fi character enjoy herself like this. She is basically the boss of every situation, especially when things are at their most chaotic. Basically, what I’m getting at is, will Mariner ever face off against the Q continuum?

MM: That’s definitely a possibility.

NaB: Final question, is there anything that you’re dying for people (who are either fans of Star Trek or totally new to it), to know about Lower Decks before they dive in?

MM: Oh wow. It’s a combination of so many things. And it’s clearly a Star Trek show, you can’t claim it’s anything else. And it’s also trying to have an awesome time. It’s trying to do things you haven’t seen characters do before but that still feels right. It’s a labor of love from everything like the designs of uniforms, to the Cerritos, to the captain on the bridge. And the stories are so emotional and fun, that my big hope for people is that – well every episode is different. And I think there’s always going to be things you love and things that for you personally aren’t important to what Star Trek means to you. But the show is an expression of what me and the other writers love about Star Trek.

There are 10 episodes and every episode is different. If you want to party with us, sign up on the first day and watch every week. If you want to just give it a chance, you can wait for all of the episodes to be up, but watch all of them because you are going to find something that you love in there. Because basically, no one here is just trying to cash in on Star Trek. We just somehow got the keys to the kingdom and we tried to make it a celebration.

(Star Trek: Lower Decks will air Thursdays on CBS All Access.)

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By Britt
Britt is a Los Angeles based writer, burlesque performer, and life long nerd. A former drama kid turned playwright and classic ambivert, (shout out fellow ambiverts! There are dozens of us! Dozens!) her love of books, snacks, and cats makes her a Ravenclaw with Hufflepuff leanings. She is a voracious reader, writer, and unapologetic binge-watcher. Her lifelong obsessions include Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, Arrested Development, Neil Gaiman, and Frank Herbert's Dune series. Her current obsessions include: Sherlock, Black Mirror, The Great British Baking Show, RuPaul's Drag Race, and Counterpart. She will also gladly talk people's ears off about graphic novels if they let her, which they usually don't. Find Britt on Twitter @MsGeorgiaOQueef
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