Friday, October 7, 2022

Interview: ‘Star Trek: Lower Decks’ Creator Mike McMahan Talks Season 3 [EXCLUSIVE]

TELEVISIONPARAMOUNT+Interview: 'Star Trek: Lower Decks' Creator Mike McMahan Talks Season 3
Image courtesy of Paramount+

Set your phasers… to fun? Star Trek: Lower Decks is back with their hilarious third season beginning on August 25th for Paramount+! The animated series is chock full of references and homages to satisfy the most die-hard Trek fan, but most importantly it is also full of laughter and a lot of heart. The riotous third season is no exception and we were lucky enough to have a quick chat with the show’s creator and showrunner Mike McMahan. We discussed the future of Lower Decks, what might be in store for Boimler, Mariner, and co in season 3, and most importantly (for some fans… well most fans) the world’s greatest bromance – “Spoimler.”

(Warning this review contains mild spoilers!)

Nerds and Beyond: Hi! How are you? Thanks for chatting with me today and congrats on season three! I loved the first eight episodes and thought they were really incredible.

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Mike McMahan: Yay thank you so much, I really appreciate it.

Nerds and Beyond: Well let’s dive right in! One of the things that we love about the show is that it features characters working at the bottom rung, so to speak, of a starship. But over the past 2 seasons, we see these characters growing and improving, and getting the attention of their higher-ups. So, my question is, how long can the show stay in the lower decks as we continue to watch them grow and succeed?

Mike McMahan: You know, I think it could probably stay in the lower decks as long as Harry Kim was in the lower decks. As long as all of these kind of stuck in amber characters are in the lower decks of their basic shows, or maybe not even the lower decks but the mid decks. 

For me, I never wanted Lower Decks to feel like The Simpsons, which obviously like… those kids don’t age. You have to do a special time travel episode or go and meet a fortune teller to be able to see what it would look like if Lisa was grown up. For me, I want to incrementally move our characters forward and see them more than just rank changing, but see them growing as people. Because I think that who you are as a person isn’t necessarily attached to how many pips you have in your rank, right?

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So that’s what I’m more worried about, seeing these characters figure out who they are. And I mean, I was an assistant for like four or five years in various capacities. So like, these lower deckers have been lower deckers for way less time than I was a lower decker, so there’s a lot more Star Trek and a lot more of my experience to plumb for this kind of stuff. 

Nerds and Beyond: Lower Decks has seen the return of some iconic legacy characters and actors, and this season we get even more, especially with the crew of the Cerritos visiting Deep Space Nine. Without spoilers, what is it like working with these Star Trek legends? Are you ever nervous pitching jokes to them? 

Mike McMahan: I’m usually nervous right as we’re about to start, and then they always are the nicest, most charming people because these are Star Trek actors! They’ve been through movies, and like 26 episode seasons and like, I’m just having them come in to do some voice acting. The only thing I’m most worried about is that I want them to give me what they think the best performance for the character is (because they always know better than me), but I also have to have it fit into the tone of the show. So like, trying to get them to give me the Lower Decks size version of their performance is what I always get really nervous about. But literally, everybody has been such a pro and it’s been such a dream to work with them. I don’t want to spoil anything either. But like the people who you’re thinking of in your head right now, definitely were a blast. 

Nerds and Beyond: So they announced that in the next season of Strange New Worlds we get a crossover episode of Boimler and Mariner on the Enterprise. Were you involved in that episode, how did it come to be, and did they run things past you/get your approval?

Mike McMahan: Yeah I was heavily involved in the episode. They pitched me the episode and I said “yes, but here’s a couple of little changes that I think you guys should make to make it feel more Lower Decks.” I directed a bunch of the voice actors for the animated portions. I did a lot of dialogue passes on the script. I didn’t write the script, but I was heavily involved in it. Henry (Alonso Myers) and Akiva (Goldsman) love Lower Decks and it was partly their fandom of Lower Decks that caused them to be like, “wait, is there a way to combine these two shows because they both have a similar spirit.” I actually did a little bit of uncredited writing on “Spock Amok” so we had already kind of played on the script a little bit together and we liked working together. So it kind of came together like that. 

And then once Tawny and Jack agreed to do it, and go up there and film live action together, (which the schedule was kind of tough because Jack was filming The Boys and Tawny was filming Space Force) but once they got up there they had a blast. I was getting photos from set of them hanging out with Jonathan Frakes on the Enterprise. I was so jealous. It looked amazing.

Nerds and Beyond: Oh my god.

Mike McMahan: Yeah. So I was involved with animation for portions that are using Lower Decks everything, directors, character designs, and all that stuff. And listen, if you love Strange New Worlds and Lower Decks then this episode is going to blow you away.

Nerds and Beyond: Plus it gave us the new bromance of the century with “Spoimler.”

Mike McMahan: I know! The amount of times they were talking about “Spoimler” at Comic-Con this year, I was like, “Is anybody ever gonna notice how in love these two guys are?!” Because they’re both the nicest dudes in the world and they just love hanging out together. So yeah they were “spoiming” it up in San Diego.

Nerds and Beyond: I think one of the things that makes Lower Decks so good is that it’s very funny and very self-referential, but also it’s just telling very good Star Trek stories. Was there ever a time you wanted to go harder on a joke but couldn’t because it would break the world so to speak, and if so could you tell us about it?

Mike McMahan: Gosh, it’s tough because like yes, every episode you know what I mean? Like, I have such a delicate internal barometer about what feels like Star Trek. Like I’ll get a draft in from a writer and I’ll do my first pass on it and be like, “Ehh… This doesn’t feel like Star Trek. This does feel like Star Trek.” Before anybody outside of the show even sees the script it’s kind of been like, Star Trek-ized a little bit because it’s gone through my filter. 

The only time I have said “no we can’t do that” is when we accidentally write an episode that is just Star Trek and doesn’t have a Lower Decks point of view. There was an episode we never did, which I was trying forever to do, but I was trying to get Boimler and Jet stuck in an “Inner Light.” And when they come out Boimler doesn’t remember any of it but Jet remembers all of it. So that they go in as enemies and from Boimler’s point of view, he pops out and it’s been five seconds, but for Jet it’s been like 45 years. And they go in not liking each other and now Boimler irritated that Jet loves him and won’t leave him alone.

But, unfortunately, it diminished from the stories that we were having with Boimler and Mariner, and it kind of changed Jet’s character in a way that I didn’t super love. And you know, there was something about making fun of “Inner Light” that like… When Deep Space Nine does an “Inner Life” episode of somebody like O’Brien in like a torture cell? That’s different than me kind of making a comedy out of “Inner Life.” And so I’m still trying to figure out something to do with that, but that one didn’t feel 100% Lower Decks Star Trek to me for some reason.

But you know, saying it out loud I like it again!

Nerds and Beyond: I mean, it sounds great to me!

Mike McMahan: Well maybe someday we’ll get to see it.

Nerds and Beyond: What do you think is the most underrated episode of Star Trek? And you can’t say one from Lower Decks.

Mike McMahan: I love “The Quality of Life.” You know, like obviously, because in Lower Decks we have an exocomp, but it’s one of those episodes where I’m like, it’s just so adorably Star Trek. And it’s like late into it. And everybody has their pet episodes, like I love “Samaritan Snare” only because I remember the next day being like, “did I watch that? Did I dream that episode?” And then eventually being able to watch it again and being like, “oh, no, it’s real.” And you’ll see those little pet episodes of mine throughout. Kind of like the Tosk episode on Deep Space Nine. It always really stuck with me. But gosh, I really love those episodes.

Nerds and Beyond: Totally. So, in the season two episode “Wej Duj” we get to meet the Vulcan T’lin who quickly became a fan favorite. Did that come as a surprise? And will we get to see her again in season 3 or are you going to make us wait?

Mike McMahan: It was not a surprise that she was a fan favorite. Because when it all came together, I knew I loved her and Kathryn Lyn wrote her based on a Vulcan cosplay character called T’lin that she has played herself at conventions. So I knew that it was going to be really funny. And you know, we write these seasons and then they air and we’ve already written the next season. So it’s tough to take an episode before I’ve even seen it in color and before we’ve had the music, and the emotional components to be like, “Yes, I’m going to change what the show is to get a new character in there.” That being said, in the final moments of this season, she will make an appearance. And in season four she is ubiquitous. And I love writing her. That’s all I can say about that.

Nerds and Beyond: Oh that’s very exciting. Speaking of T’lin, in this season we meet a Vash-like archeologist that I suspect will also quickly become beloved. When you are creating a character like this do you have a sense that you are creating a character that the fans are going to really love or is it usually a surprise?

Mike McMahan: You know, I don’t know. I can never predict it. Sometimes I’m like, “people are gonna love this episode!” And they’re like, “Oh, we hate it.” So I’m not in the prediction game with this stuff. But I did know that I wanted a character that seems like a potentially, troublingly, appealing alternative to Starfleet for Mariner. We wanted to start getting into those kind of tricky situations. So I think that if people respond to Petra, it’s gonna be because weirdly… we all love Starfleet, right? So I had to come up with something that seemed somehow as appealing. And meeting a cool, female, space Indiana Jones would be pretty freaking awesome, so I hope people like her a lot.

Nerds and Beyond: I mean, I was super excited to see her, but also I love Vash a lot. So, you worked with Dan Harmon on Rick and Morty, and on Community he was famous for his mantra of “six seasons and a movie.” Do you have a mantra for Lower Decks? What’s the hope?

Mike McMahan: Oh my gosh, I will keep making Lower Decks as long as they’ll let me. Every episode I get to make I feel like I’m getting away with a nerdy crime. I love it so much. I think I would love to someday do a Lower Decks movie, like a proper, huge, big screen style Lower Decks movie. Just because I think that would be a riot and it would be awesome. I even have a couple of spin-offs in mind that I think wouldn’t fit into the exact show, but would be really fun to see expressed in the Lower Decks style. But I don’t know, I mean, I love writing TV. I love making Lower Decks. If we got to seven seasons, and then we got to do like a crazy funny movie like that would be the coolest thing in the world.  

Another thing I would love, that I wouldn’t do but wish existed: I wish there were like, cheap, funny, spin-off novels about Lower Decks characters that had the old-school Star Trek covers and stuff. That would be a blast. I wish we had somebody out there writing a Lower Decks novel that felt like an old, dime store novel. That would be amazing. But I don’t know, I feel like I keep having to remind myself we’ve only aired 20 half-hour episodes. Like we’re so new. We have fewer episodes than one season of another Star Trek show. Of a 90s Star Trek show. So like, we’re just catching up to the run time of season one of Discovery and it’s been years. So hopefully maybe someday somebody will want to write the adventures of young Jack Ransom. Or…I really want somebody to write a fantasy novel about Billups on his homeworld called “The Dry Prince.”

Season Three of Star Trek: Lower Decks airs Thursdays on Paramount+.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

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