The new adult animated comedy Star Trek: Lower Decks was born from a meeting when Star Trek: The Next Generation superfan and Rick and Morty writer/producer Mike McMahan pitched his dream job, and got it. TrekMovie had a chance to speak to the show creator about his Star Trek inspirations, character cameos (both big and small), deep cut Trek jokes, and more.
Every good show is dependent on developing good characters, perhaps even more so with comedy. For the four main ensigns of Lower Decks, did you draw any particular inspiration? Possibly from other Star Trek characters?
All four of them are based both on Star Trek characters, on myself, on people I know, and a whole kind of mosaic of different things combined but with the headline being: Do they feel Starfleet? Could you believe that these are characters that love exploring and serving on a ship and would be in Starfleet?
I would say that Mariner is a bit of a combination of many, many types of Star Trek character… The challenge for Mariner was: How do you get a character who’s comedically vibrant and causes friction but still feels like she would fit into Starfleet? So partially she’s based on elements of Kirk and Janeway and Picard, where she knows what she’s doing and it feels like she kind of has an understanding of the galaxy. She knows the rules, but also sometimes feels like she should bend them because she knows better. And it’s that intimate knowledge of knowing everything, but then deciding how you’re going to express it that makes Mariner feel new to me.
What I used to say is that she’s kind of like Maverick in Top Gun, like he’s great at flying a jet but he also buzzes the tower. And her story is kind of based in watching a character who knows everything but who just doesn’t fit in, and seeing how she slowly finds her place in Star Trek.
And then her foil Brad Boimler is partially based on Sam in the “Lower Decks” episode from TNG. I wanted to take that sort of character but then expand it to a place where I’ve been before, where maybe I know everything but I’m so getting in my own way and I’m so busy trying to follow the rules that I’m not letting myself and my instincts speak to the situations and different jobs that I’m in that would have helped me.
Brad Boimler is a great Starfleet officer, but he’s just so dedicated to trying to rank up and he’s so careful about everything that he doesn’t get to be Kirk. And that’s kind of slowing him down. And that’s also why when he’s around Mariner all the time, that they have such friction. And even though they support each other, they’re a bit of like an odd couple in Starfleet in a way. And they’re also not a couple. [Laughs]
Tendi actually came from when I was first talking to [Alex Kurtzman’s production company] Secret Hideout about this and they were like, “We would love a character who, in the pilot, it’s their first day on the Cerritos. Just so that we get a great baseline of somebody else’s view of the ship.” And I totally agreed. And it made me realize that I just really love writing characters that are all silver lining. That they find a way to love everything. And what’s fun about Tendi is that if I got to serve on a Starfleet ship, I’d be Tendi too! There’s like literally nothing on the ship that she doesn’t get excited about.
Having that passion and having that voice of enthusiasm and a character who just wants to know everything and wants to consume all things about the ship and learn and grow in there and who loves the technology. That’s a perfect character for me to have as an ensign, as a lower level officer, who we will also watch grow throughout the series.
As for Rutherford, he’s kind of like my Geordi a little bit, but not really—which is one of the reasons he has a half-VISOR, in a way. And the VISOR is one of the few things which kind of bends Star Trek’s rules, because we all know that Starfleet and the Federation sort of frown on altering yourself with technology. And that’s something we explore with him a little bit more in season two. But I just wanted to have an engineer on the ship that was not the classic definition of an engineer that you’ve seen before, which I think Star Trek does well. And that he’s kind of an early adopter. He loves new tech. He likes trying new stuff out.
And he’s not a Scotty or a Geordi in that he’s still learning. He’s really great at what he’s doing, but he’s not able to solve everything at the end of 40 minutes, because he’s not the chief engineer on the Enterprise. He’s a low-level ensign engineer on the USS Cerritos. I love that with science you’re not always right all the time, but you’re actually testing and we learn from getting stuff wrong. Rutherford started there, but his friendship with Tendi—they’re kind of the Geordi and Data of the show. Watching them be friends and just geeking out over Star Trek stuff is… it’s such a joy to write.
Just a quick clarification on Rutherford. So his cybernetic implant is a choice? It’s not to fix something, he wanted to have it.
We say in the show that it’s a choice. Yes… I would say if the cybernetic implant seems odd to somebody who knows Starfleet stuff, then they are not wrong.
So you have confirmed that we will be seeing some legacy actors and characters in season one, right?
Yes… I would love you guys not to expect anything so you can shriek in delight when you see stuff. But I would say that a real pleasure of the show is that I do love TNG and obviously it’s a dream to get to work with these legacy actors. But there also has to be a reason that they would be on the Cerritos in 2380. And that’s, that’s not an easy task to accomplish unless it really means something. So I would tell an audience don’t expect legacy actors to just be showing up to wave and say hi and pick something up off the ship and then make their way. They’re there for important reasons when they do show up.
But can we also expect to see some minor characters return? The Mot the barbers of this world?
Yeah… I love on Lower Decks where we can take something or somebody who is a standalone episodic character from TNG and let them sort of bubble to the surface again and get more from them. Because our ship is all about second contact, it just felt very organic to go back and look at the standalone episodes of TNG, and of other Star Trek shows, and be like, ‘Okay, it was standalone for them, but what if it’s not standalone for our guys?’ Like what if they will encounter characters or species that might have only seen once or twice but for Lower Decks, they could become recurring.
There were some jokes on the show that were so rapid-fire, I wondered if you were doing them just to amuse yourselves. There is a moment with a Vulcan in the first episode where he looked like Mirror Spock. Are these brief glimpses real jokes, or am I reading too much into it?
I would say that we are designing episodes to be rewatched. I love when I watch an episode of something and I really like it because the story is fun and the jokes are fun but then every time I watch it again you’re finding something new. It’s kind of not my job to police all the little things that we hide in there. Nor are we trying to create something that is hard to watch once because you feel overwhelmed. But we want it to feel rich and we want it to feel like we are having fun when we’re making it. So yeah, we do put a lot of jokes in there and I’m ready to enjoy watching as people pick it apart and find little favorite things that people haven’t noticed.
There’s actually something in the clip we released of Boimler in the closet in the beginning of the first episode. There is something in that closet nobody has pointed out yet. I think only [CBS Consumer Products VP] John Van Citters has noticed it. So I’m excited to see people find that stuff.
You have talked about how important it is for these characters to feel like they belong in Starfleet. But so much of comedy comes out of characters making mistakes or even being stupid sometimes. Is it a challenge to have these characters be heroic Starfleet people, but also be making decisions that create funny situations?
For me, it was a priority to never have somebody in Starfleet be stupid or dumb. Nobody in the show is like Morty from Rick and Morty or like Jerry from Rick and Morty, who’s a character I really like to write. I would say that Starfleet officers can make mistakes. They can have their own pastiche of personality that causes them to want things that are not what other characters would want. We don’t have as much interpersonal conflict as much as we have people who are excited and focused on different things. And that kind of gets in the way of each other.
But also, because this is the Cerritos and not the Enterprise, I wanted the human beings to feel human. Q is always testing humanity to see if we have what it takes. And most of the time humanity is found to be worthy because we have emotions. It’s what Data is always wanting about us. It’s what Spock was always grappling with. And so having characters that have real emotional texture to them is something that feels hand-in-hand intrinsic with the experience of watching Star Trek. For every episode where they are going to a morality play-type planet, there’s also an episode where Worf is demanding an honorable death because he broke his back. It’s like, “No man! Just get the back healed, let’s go!”
I think to find the comedy in these characters and their relationships with each other, we’re never leaning on them being stupid or being or being mean-spirited. Really, it’s coming from them loving each other, and how much you can drive people around you crazy when you love them. Because the last time I checked, I love everybody in my family, and they’re constantly driving me crazy. But at the end of the day, we’re all supporting each other. So, Starfleet ships are like a family. It’s a pretty easy one-for-one comedic point of view for me to draw.
That brings up something for me that was perhaps my biggest surprise. And don’t take this the wrong way, but the show kind of feels like a traditional family sitcom. There is a literal family with the captain and Mariner. Is family a theme, and do you see it as kind of a family sitcom, in a way?
It’s interesting because it sort of straddles the line. Sometimes it feels like a family sitcom. Sometimes it feels like a workplace comedy. To me, the way that I kind of distill that all into one focused area is the B-stories from TNG. The A-stories from TNG always had the same sort of Star Trek exploratory and mysterious tone. But the B-stories got to be a bunch of different stuff. Sometimes it was workplace stuff. Sometimes it was family stuff. Sometimes it was romance and dating. Sometimes it was little mysteries. Sometimes it was comedy.
All I’ve tried to do is everything that you could do in a B-story in TNG I’ve tried to grow. And those are our A-stories. And my favorite things about TNG were the elements of the crew feeling like a family. But they were all working together and that they were extremely good at what they did. So the Cerritos crew is the same, they’re just not as functional as a family. [Laughs]
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