We wrap up our detailed coverage of the Star Trek Universe panel at San Diego Comic-Con with the upcoming CBS All Access animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks. Creator and executive producer (and Rick and Morty writer/producer) Mike McMahan joined Alex Kurtzman and Heather Kadin on stage, and he brought along three members of his voice cast: Tawny Newsome, Jack Quaid, and Jerry O’Connell (who also acted as moderator). We previewed some of the artwork and highlights over the weekend, but there was a lot more revealed during the panel.
Animated comedy set after ‘Nemesis,’ focusing on fun personal stories
Mike McMahan gave a general overview of the series:
Lower Decks is a half-hour animated show, so it feels like about the same length as a Simpsons episode. It focuses on four ensigns who are serving on a not important ship in Starfleet. And they have stories that I think feel very Starfleet. They are stories about working on a ship and who are working with. They are social and emotional stories mixed with sci-fi stories, because every Star Trek is about a family, and our show is also about a family, it is just not the same kind of family you have seen before… It takes place in 2380, right after Star Trek Nemesis. I am a TNG guy.
McMahan later explained his approach to the show and how it is focused on what would be the B-stories from other Trek series:
For me and TNG, I was there for the B-stories. You know: Riker is trapped on a planet with his transporter clone, great, I love that. But, Data and Geordi are writing a play and getting into a fight about it? That is what I want. I love that stuff. And to write a show that is primarily the kind of social stories on the ship that also has sci-fi, and a comedy at the same time. Animation helps it bridge from the first frame, that it is like, “Oh this is what I love,” but it is focusing and heightening a thing that I always knew was there, but wasn’t always the main thing in the show.
A comedy for Star Trek fans that doesn’t mock Star Trek
McMahan also wanted to assure fans that the show is made from a love of Star Trek and has no interest in mocking Trek:
There is a lot of familiar Star Trek in it. It was really important to me that even though we are a comedy, the comedy does not come from punching down on Trek, or making fun of tropes. It feels like every episode is a Star Trek episode, but we are focusing on people in the ship who are funny, and you will love.
He also noted how the humor has levels, some of which will only play to more hardcore fans of Trek:
It’s funny enough and it’s clear enough that if you have never seen Star Trek before, this can be your first Star Trek, and then be like: “I guess there is some live-action Star Trek, too.” But if you love Star Trek, it is in a shared universe. So, there are jokes, and jokes that you guys will get, about like Odo’s bucket. You don’t need to know Odo and his bucket for you to believe the characters on the show know about it.
Four main characters – a misfit family of ensigns
Tawny Newsome described her Ensign Beckett Mariner:
She is like what I think I am in my head all the time. She is always very irreverent and a badass and doesn’t follow the rules. I am actually a speed-limit driving total wimp. She is very good at all things Starfleet, she just doesn’t care. She has been demoted a ton of times. She should be way further in the ranks than she is. She is just kind of like a weirdo rock and roll party queen who just wants to ride her skateboard and eat her piece of pizza in peace, man.
Jack Quaid on his Ensign Brad Boimler:
I play Ensign Brad Boimler and that expression [on character preview] says it all. He is basically the opposite of Mariner. He is very by the book. He really wants to be a captain. He is very booksmart but constantly getting in his own way. He gets very in his head. I always say he would nail the written portion of the driving test with flying colors but once it actually got to him being in the car, it would be a complete and total disaster. And these two [Boimler and Mariner], they clash…Boimler is very “pearl-clutchy.”
Mike McMahan described Ensign Tendi (voiced by Noël Wells):
It’s her first day on the ship in the pilot, so we are going to explore this new niche of the Star Trek world through her eyes. She was a huge a Starfleet fan, even through Starfleet Academy. So being on the ship, every day just blows her mind. There is no job…she is in the medical bay, and there is no gross alien illness that she is not just absolutely thrilled to be dealing with. She is kind of like if I got to be on a Star Trek ship and I would be like “yeah, whatever. I will deal with anything, I just want to be here.” That is what Tendi is like. She is also hilarious and just a source of joy.
Mike McMahan described Ensign Rutherford (voiced by Eugene Cordero):
He is our engineer. Like Geordi La Forge he is amazing at engineering stuff. But, unlike Geordi La Forge, he does not solve the problems by the end of every episode. Because he is learning and sometimes science is about learning stuff and making mistakes. He has this cyborg implant on his head that he just got and it’s like when you get a new phone and they got rid of the button, do I swipe now? But that’s, but how he thinks. He is a TNG early adopter.
Set on the USS Cerritos
Mike McMahan also took some time to describe the ship itself:
You guys all know that one of the most important characters on one of these shows is the ship. We have a brand new ship design and class, it is called the California Class. [shows image of standard TNG-style holodeck] This holodeck breaks all the time. It never works right. We are not going to show you the ship today, but I wanted to tell you it is California Class. We have a whole class of ship that operates at the same time as the larger classes of ship, but they do kind of like support work. So, we are going to be exploring. And the show takes place on a ship named [USS] Cerritos.
There still is a bridge crew
Even though the show is focused on the ensigns on the “lower decks” of the USS Cerritos, McMahan said it was still important to have developed a bridge crew for the show:
It was important to me that our ship felt like an operating ship in Starfleet and there were characters on the ship – senior officers – who consider it to be their show, even though it’s not. So, we have a fully fleshed out bridge crew.
He gave a quick summary of the senior officers for the USS Cerritos:
We have Lt. Shaxs (voiced by Fred Tatasciore), a big, muscly Bajoran who wants to eject the warp core all the time. We have Dawnn Lewis as Captain Freeman who is a stoic, ethically-bound, classic Starfleet captain. And then we got Commander Jack Ransom, who is sort of a hunky guy, played by this goofball [Jerry O’Connell]. He is kind of like Riker if you gave him a little bit of speed and a little less shame. And then Gillian Vigman plays Dr. T’Ana who is a Caitian. Dr. T’Ana is our head of medical. She is really, really bad at talking to people, but really good at solving sci-fi space mysteries.
Having too much fun recording
Jerry O’Connell, who has an extensive career in both live-action and voice acting, had high praise for his time working on Lower Decks:
I don’t think professionally I have had as much fun as being in a recording session with Mike McMahan. And I just know that you are all going to have as much fun watching it.
While animated shows often have actors record their dialogue individually, Tawny Newsome revealed that she and Jack Quaid sometimes record together as their characters are often teamed up:
It’s insane, it’s so great. We love doing it together too. Occasionally Jack and I get to record together which is so ridiculous. I don’t think we say most of the words that are on your fine script. Allow us to apologize, sir. What we tend to do is riff and play off of each other. Who knows what you will use, but the freedom to do that is as an actor and an improviser, that is such an amazing gift to be trusted with it. It makes it even more fun.
My favorite parts of our riffs are the last ten seconds where we are like: “There is no way this is getting in the show,” but someone was like, “Keep them going, let’s see where this goes.”
The unusual pitch that lead to ‘Lower Decks’
Executive producer Heather Kadin discussed the serendipity that resulted in Lower Decks:
A lot us in our office are huge fans of Rick and Morty…And our colleague [Secret Hidout VP] Aaron Baiers said you have to meet the guy who runs Rick and Morty – Mike McMahan – because he is a massive Star Trek fan… So, Mike McMahan came in and said: “I don’t know if you guys would be interested in doing the kind of Star Trek like I want to do. I am a lifelong Star Trek fan, but I am curious to do a show on what happens on the lower decks of a ship.” And we were like “yes!” We were blown away.
Alex Kurtzman gave some more detail on McMahan’s unusual pitch:
You can hear [the love of Trek] from the way Mike is talking about it. We knew it the second he came in to pitch the show. He said: “You guys probably don’t want to do this, but I want to do a show about the people who bring the yellow cartridge to the replicator so a banana can come out the other side.” And I said, “Stop, we have to get you an office, right now!”
Expanding Star Trek into animation to make the world a better place
Currently, The CBS Star Trek group is developing two animated Star Trek series. In addition to the more adult-oriented Lower Decks for CBS All Access, they are also at work on a more kids-oriented show for Nickelodeon, which they actually started on before McMahan came in with his pitch. Alex Kurtzman explained why now is the time for Star Trek to branch out into animation:
Obviously, [Star Trek: The Animated Series] is a huge fan favorite. As we looked to expanding the world of Trek and you see that animation is at this incredible renaissance right now. Some of the best stories that are being told, are being told in the animation space. Between [Spider-man: Into the] Spider-verse and Rick and Morty you have got such an incredible moment. The thing that is so fun for us is we get to experiment with different animation styles and different tones.
Kurtzman also took on the notion that Star Trek can be limited:
I think people have perceived that Trek is limited in what it can be. Our thesis it has to be what it has always been to everybody, but it can also be more. It can expand. It has to be a show for the fans, first and foremost, but we want to bring in so many other people. Part of that is bringing them in younger, because there has never been an initiative to get to kids when they were younger. Trek is an amazing thing that teaches you how to be a better person in the world and has incredible values and talks about importance of diversity and the importance of caring about other people and all these really, really essential things that people should be hearing about and knowing about early in their lives, so we can make the world a better place. So, you take that and add Mike McMahan, and you get something really weird.
More SDCC 2019
Check out the rest of our San Diego Comic-Con 2019 coverage, and stay tuned to TrekMovie for more from the Star Trek Universe panel and beyond.