At San Diego Comic-Con the first details were revealed on the upcoming CBS All Access animated comedy Star Trek: Lower Decks. The show is just going into production for animation and will arrive in 2020, but at the Lower Decks panel at Star Trek Las Vegas we learned a lot more about the show, the ship it is based on, the characters, and the approach creator Mike McMahan and his team of Trek fan writers are taking.
A team of Trekkies (including newly converted)
Star Trek: Lower Decks was created by Rick and Morty writer/producer Mike McMahan who successfully pitched the show to executive producers Alex Kurtzman and Heather Kadin, even though they were already developing another animated Star Trek show for Nickelodeon. Kurtzman and Kadin were sold on McMahan’s deep love of Star Trek (his dog is named Riker) and his vision of an adult animated comedy focusing on lower-ranked characters on a less important ship in Starfleet.
To develop the show, McMahan has put together a team of writers who share his vision and many of whom are also super-fans of Trek. He brought some of his writers to Star Trek Las Vegas where they said they felt they fit right in. Even if one of the writers wasn’t wearing a Captain Jellico tee and another didn’t have a tote bag with Michael Piller’s face — the way they talked about Star Trek throughout the panel made it clear that these people are having the time of their lives playing in a franchise they love and cherish.
That being said, Star Trek fandom was not a pre-requisite for the writers. McMahan spoke about how he put together the writers’ room:
We all love Star Trek. I have put together comedy rooms before and it is really complicated and really hard, because there is a lot of stuff you are trying to balance. You want people who are going to write towards the voice of the show that you pitched, but you also want to have people with different comedic voices and different kind of access points…While staffing this group of people I wasn’t just looking for people who knew absolutely everything about Star Trek. What I wanted to do is put together different comedic voices and people who just felt like they either loved Star Trek or they wanted to watch it all the time and learn about it as we were writing it.
One of the writers who was new to Trek – Ann Kim – was given a special “Star Trek Expert” hat to wear on stage as a sort of joke, but she said she actually wore it proudly:
This hat is ironic, but it is also the most earnest hat ever, because the past six months of my life have been dedicated to Star Trek in the most passionate way. I feel so lucky to have been brought into the Star Trek family…When I had my first staffing meeting for the show, to prep for it I watched an episode my friend recommended which was “Darmok,” and I literally cried…It truly affected me.
Star Trek: Second Contact
With the show just starting animation, McMahan said it was too early to share anything, but he did want to provide the fans at Star Trek Las Vegas with more about the show than was revealed at Comic-Con. For example, at SDCC we learned the name of the ship the show takes place on, but at Star Trek Las Vegas Mike McMahan revealed the mission of the USS Cerritos:
Lower Decks takes place on a ship called the USS Cerritos and it’s a new class of support ship – called the California class – that has always been out there, but maybe haven’t been important enough to have screen time yet. So, you will be meeting the crew of the Sacramento, the crew of the Fresno. And the specialty of the Cerritos is Second Contact, that is their gig. So, First Contact is super important, really dangerous. You don’t want to set off any wars, you don’t want to ruin any lives. Second contact, you are showing up to the planet, you are finding all the good places to eat, you setting up the communications stuff…I wanted to explore how [after] first contact happens and you are starting to join the Federation and you already have warp capability…but, what is happening next? What is Starfleet doing to back up that offer of joining?
The Ensigns of Lower Decks
Star Trek: Lower Decks focuses on the lives of four ensigns on the USS Cerritos. The panel provided some more insights into these four. Here is what the show writers had to say about his the four ensigns of Lower Decks:
Ensign Mariner: She is kind of a classic Star Trek hero. She is a little bit Kirk, a little bit Riker. She doesn’t really play by the rules necessarily and thinks outside the box a bit, but gets the job done. And she is really, really good at Starfleet stuff. She is the ultimate Star Trek nerd. She knows a little bit about everything.
But she has been demoted so many times, that is why she is on the lower decks. So despite knowing everything, she is really bad at taking orders. She is kind of like Maverick from Top Gun. She would buzz the tower.
Boimler: He is our by-the-book and obsessed with rank. He wants to be captain one day and thinks following protocol is the only way he is going to get there. He is wound super tight, which makes him a perfect foil for Mariner. He will get to the captain’s chair one day, if he can take a page from her and learn there is more to Starfleet than just following the rules.
Tendi: Tendi is a huge Star Trek fan who has got into Starfleet and is an Orion and this show his first day getting to work on a Starfleet ship and it is wish fulfillment. We are channeling what if one of us got to work on a Starfleet ship. The original pitch for her is there is no job too lower decks that she isn’t losing her mind for joy over…She’s like if the optimism of Starfleet was turned into a person.
Rutherford: An engineer who just recently became a cyborg and isn’t used to it yet. He is only complaining about his implant because he doesn’t understand how to use it. Rutherford is like Geordi La Forge, if you don’t solve the problem in 40 minutes. Every episode he’s like “I got this,” but he sometimes does not have it.
[example exchange between captain and Rutherford] “I need 20 minutes” “well, you have 10” “no, seriously I need the full 20”…I’m not doing the Scotty thing, I probably need 30.”
Someone has to do the dirty jobs on a Starship
Star Trek: Lower Decks shares its name with a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Lower Decks.” And that is no accident. Mike McMahan says “Lower Decks” was the first thing he showed to the writers’ room, adding:
“Lower Decks” is my favorite episode of TNG, of any Star Trek. TNG is my jam and getting to see people on the Enterprise that felt like if like if I were on the Enterprise, that would maybe be me. And how did they interact with Riker.
Later in the panel when asked about the worst kinds of jobs the ensigns of Lower Decks have to do, McMahan gave a bit of flavor of what we can expect from the show:
Our lower deckers are always scraping carbon off of slightly harder carbon and they hate it. And maybe the second worst job is cleaning the holodecks. People mess up the holodecks. A lot of weird stuff goes down there.
The bridge crew are the ‘lower decks’ of bridge crews
Star Trek: Lower Decks focuses on the four ensigns, but like any ship in Starfleet, there is a bridge crew. During his time at both SDCC and STLV, McMahan made it clear that everyone on the USS Cerritos are still members of Starfleet, noting “it was important for us for that the bridge crew feel like a real bridge crew.” However, he did acknowledge they may not be flagship material:
The show is about the lower decks of the ship, but since the ship is in charge of Second Contact, these guys are kind of the lower decks of crews too.
McMahan and the writers also gave some more details on the main four members of the bridge crew:
Captain Freeman: She is as capable as a Starfleet captain as you would want them to be. But she is just not on the most important ship in the fleet.
Commander Ransom: He is kind of like a chill, smug Riker.
Lt. Shaxs: He is our beefcake Bajoran.
Dr. T’Ana: She is kind of like a super-Palaski, angry cat from a junkyard. She is not purring at anybody. She is a good doctor, but she’s an unpleasant cat.
Lower Decks will not be Star Trek’s first foray into animation, that honor goes to the 1970s show Star Trek: The Animated Series, which ran for two seasons. The character of Dr. T’Ana being Caitian like M’Ress from TAS is one of the ways Lower Decks is honoring that first animated Trek, but McMahan says there is more:
We love the original animated series – it has its ups and it has its downs – but it was important to us to feel like when you are watching our show, that it treats ALL of Star Trek equally. So, we have characters and alien designs casually and featured in our episodes from TOS, TNG and from The Animated Series showing up. It really feels like we are tightening the bootlace on making The Animated Series feel like it actually even more canon that it was before.
Hinting at TNG cameos
Star Trek: Lower Decks is set one year after the events of Star Trek Nemesis, which leads to the obvious question — which was asked during the audience Q&A — Will the show have cameos from Star Trek stars from the TNG era? McMahan assured the fan, cameos are something they are working on:
Yeah, we are trying to get everybody. I don’t want to tease anything yet, but all is I want to say is these are all of our heroes. If we can figure out a way to not mess up the show and get to geek out over working with all these people we love, we would do it… Our TNG crew is out there in 2380 – that’s all I’ll say.
Who says funny and canon can’t mix?
As he did at SDCC, McMahan made it clear that Lower Decks is not a parody of Star Trek or making fun of the franchise, but is celebrating it by finding the humor within Trek. McMahan notes that humor has always been part of the franchise:
We have an animated Star Trek show, that isn’t for kids, that is a comedy, that is 20-something minutes long. We want to get a full dramatic Star Trek episode happening in it, but not focusing on it. What we are focusing on are these social emotional stories happening to the lower decks crew. The fun thing about that was, to me Star Trek is funny. When you are watching a TNG episode and there is funny stuff happening in it, that is intentional.
McMahan made it clear the even though the show leans into the comedy, it will stay within the ideals of Star Trek
An important part of this show is figuring out how can you be Starfleet but still be funny. As [Lower Decks writer] David Wright says often: you don’t want to mortgage your characters for the sake of the story you are writing. Part of what we wanted to do on Lower Decks is make it like you are watching Star Trek, like a fast, good episode of TNG. What that means is there is nobody in Starfleet – no matter what deck you work on in the ship – that isn’t excellent, that isn’t the best of us, that doesn’t embody that optimistic goodness which is what we love about Starfleet. So, when writing a comedy about Star Trek, you can’t be punching down on Star Trek stuff. All of the people you are writing about have to love Starfleet as much as we do, which is why we love watching stories about it.
McMahan also noted how they take their cue from Star Trek shows on how to approach humor. The writers pointed to a scene in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Q Who?”:
We have watched that scene so many times. Picard walks into engineering and an ensign dumps her [hot chocolate] on his shirt and our whole series is based on those moments. What’s it like to be on these ships…Every Starfleet ships feels like a different family and you get to make fun of your family because you love them and you are with them all the time. That is the kind of sense of humor that TNG has. And our family is like that too, on our ship, it is just a slightly funnier family.
McMahan summed up the show thusly:
If Deep Space Nine feels like drinking a nice slow cup of coffee that is expertly made, our show feels like getting a cup of coffee thrown in your face and then you fall down stairs and you are there and saying “what the hell just happened?”
Another burning question that came up regarded how the show will approach canon. Even though Lower Decks is an animated comedy, McMahan says they are approaching it as canon:
We are trying to make it as in-canon as humanly possible, because why do a Star Trek show unless you are going to be in canon? It’s part of what makes it great, right? Star Trek is about the characters, even if there is a bad episode of Star Trek I don’t care, I am watching it because I love the characters.
One of the ways the show is staying within canon is with the help of veteran Star Trek novelist David Mack, who is a consultant for Lower Decks. McMahan talked about Mack’s contributions:
[David Mack] is an infinite wealth. So, sometimes we’ll be writing something and everything is going exactly right and it feels really Starfleet to us and then we will send Mack the script and he will give us a note and we’ll be like, oh, we should not have been calling that character a lieutenant, it doesn’t make any sense. What Mack is amazing at is taking what we are doing and really clicking it into place where you can watch a TNG episode and then bounce to ours and then to TNG and it doesn’t feel like you are making two different kinds of entities.
New uniforms based on unused design from Star Trek: Generations
Like any new Star Trek show, Lower Decks features new Starfleet uniforms. McMahan talked about how they developed the design:
There were designs that weren’t used for Generations and there were kind of like designs that were used across all the series and we wanted to do something that felt like if you saw somebody cosplaying it, you would immediately be like “that’s TNG and that has to be the animated show,” but it doesn’t not look Starfleet. I also just love that flap.
As the show is set right after Nemesis and being that the Picard series is set two decades later, a fan asked how the uniforms will fit into canon and with the new Picard series. McMahan replied:
There is a lot of stuff going on with Picard. Picard is doing a lot. What I’ll say is, if you are on a California class ship in the year 2380, you better be wearing that uniform.
More STLV to come
The TrekMovie team was in Las Vegas to bring you all the news, so check back soon for more articles from the convention. Check out all of our coverage on STLV.