Mike McMahan Explains Why ‘Lower Decks’ Has So Many Star Trek References; Plans To Go Beyond TNG In S2

The first season of Star Trek’s first foray into adult animated comedy wrapped up earlier this month, and work on the second season of Lower Decks is already underway. Now the creator and showrunner is reflecting on that first season and dropping some more hints about where the show is headed.

Trek references in Lower Decks are for worldbuilding

One of the more interesting panels held over last weekend’s Virtual Trek Con 2 was with Star Trek: Lower Decks executive producer Mike McMahan. The panel covered a lot of topics related to the show and his rise through the ranks from being a PA on South Park to becoming showrunner on Rick and Morty.

McMahan is a superfan of Star Trek and talked about how important it was to him to stay faithful to his fellow fans when making new Trek:

You don’t want to betray anybody, but you do need to do something new. Deep Space Nine did something new, Voyager did something new, Enterprise… every one of these new shows does something new. It’s always, are you doing something new without betraying the Star Trek-ishness of it? For me, Lower Decks doesn’t betray Star Trek. We bend Star Trek rules. We are obviously a comedy, but at its heart, this show is Star Trek; everything from the design choices to the music to the words that the characters are saying.

One of the ways Lower Decks has tied itself into the Star Trek universe is through many references to the franchise, something TrekMovie analyzed for each episode. During his solo panel, McMahan explained why references were an important part of the show:

We get a lot of people saying, “Wow, there’s a lot of references in this show.” Some people misunderstand and think that we think that the references are funny. We don’t think the references are funny. We feel like criminals that have gotten away with doing a Star Trek show. And the lower deckers would be huge fans of all this stuff that happens in Starfleet. They would be learning about it at the Academy. They would be reading the logs. And this show is a celebration of all Star Trek stuff, for the characters in it and the audience watching it, and the guys writing it. We almost feel like, ‘Oh crap, we did it, we got a Star Trek show. Let’s have as much fun as possible.’ All these references for us, it’s worldbuilding. These are animated, two-dimensional characters. How could they not be excited about the Gorn? If they know everything about this ship, they know everything about Starfleet.

However, McMahan then acknowledged that there are some references that did get a little meta:

I think the one time they bend the rule is, I think it’s really funny—and I’m sure a lot of people don’t think it’s funny—where the characters are referring to events in Starfleet by the episode names from other series. So, there’s a character who’s like, “I’m half a rascal,” from the episode “Rascals.” But to me it’s kind of like, maybe people title their logs. Or maybe it was something that was referenced. It feels like you can make the episode titles diegetic, because Star Trek fans love their titles.

Mariner cleans out the holodeck in “Moist Vessel”

Expanding beyond TNG for season two

McMahan said that he “lives and breathes TNG,” and that’s why so much of the show is geared towards Star Trek: The Next Generation, but also built a basis to dip into shows like DS9:

When I found out I got to create a new Starfleet ship in 2380 and I got to use some of the visual lexicon of that era and that kind of storytelling, my first inclination was, ‘What is my TNG ship?’… Deep Space Nine is complex. TNG had to be: ‘This is new Star Trek, this isn’t TOS,’ but it has aspects of it that are going to be familiar. Deep Space Nine got to be its entirely different thing, it’s not even on a Federation station. That’s really cool, but you kind of don’t get that without TNG.

So the elements of familiarity are kind of what I built the Cerritos around. That being said… We’re constantly in the writers’ room talking about how can we get onto Deep Space Nine. What is going to make sense? We saw it for a flashback this season. I feel like Mariner would love Quark. They would get blitzed and wake up somewhere and have to find their keys. There are entire movies about other people… Like Quark and Mariner could be trying to get to a White Castle. Or Dude Where’s My Car-ing. I think they would be simpatico.

McMahan then talked about how they want to move beyond doing the TNG “greatest hits” in season two:

We’ve got all of season two written as well and that’s what we are working on for Lower Decks. The first season is kind of like we are playing the hits. Let’s do our trial episode. Let’s do our version of a movie. Let’s do a plague on the ship. Let’s do all these things that I love that feel like familiar area for Next Gen stories. But second season we start to bridge into Deep Space Nine-type stories and Voyager-type stories and even like an Enterprise-type story.

The DS9 station seen briefly in a flashback in “Cupid’s Errant Arrow”

Watch the full panel

Virtual Trek Con was put together by the 7th Rule podcast, co-hosted by Ryan Husk and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine actor Cirroc Loften (Jake Sisko). Watch the full Lower Decks panel here.

Keep up with all the Star Trek: Lower Decks news and analysis at TrekMovie.com.

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Oh they absolutely MUST show more tie-ins to DS9. I want to see Col. Kira in ink and acetate!

The MUST DO for me is that the show needs to acknowledge that it’s set in the post-war period, after the Dominion War and before that Wolf 359.

Boimler, Rutherford and Tendi will have been from the first classes to attend and graduate from the Academy post-war. Mariner, by contrast, comes across as a former star cadet who was derailed by graduating into a wartime Starfleet.

DS9, as the focal point for the Dominion War, would be the ideal place to uncover some of that history and contrast, and reveal to Mariner that others have moved on. Quark would be just the character to point out to Mariner that she’s stuck.

Another great character to challenge Mariner would be Ezri Dax. I’d like to think that by 2380 she will be a rising Command officer on the slipstream experimental ship Aventine (another great model that I’d like to see brought to the screen by LDs).

Beckett and Ezri were almost surely at the Academy at the same time, if not in the same class. Seeing a confident and well-integrated Ezri, whose lifecourse had been altered by symbiosis, would be an amazing opportunity for growth and humour.

I think McMahan is all for STNG. He admits he needs to tackle the other shows, like it is an unknown territory. Also, Lower Decks is comedy. Maybe they are keeping the Dominion War for another show. I am begging for DS9 Season 8.

We have lost our great René Auberjonois and amazing Aron Eisenberg, Avery Brooks has disappeared. Still, all the cast and producers are active in regards to the show and the fans.

Wish Kurtzman hires Ira Steven Behr and his team. If they are back, will be a glorious day for DS9 Fans!!

The thing is that McMahan chose 2380.

Ignoring that the Dominion War ended not long before would be like placing a sitcom in 1950 and pretending WW2 never happened.

Yeah that’s a good point. He could’ve placed the show a decade after the war or even post-Picard. He seem to place it so close to the ending of the war because he’s a fanboy and he knows as a fanboy most fans want to see a direct continuation of this era because naturally they want to hear about things dealing with all those characters and the universe in general. You hear this era called post-Nemesis, post Voyager and/or Dominion but its all basically around the same period, which Cerritos is now in.

I think how they did season one was the right call, focus on their characters and tell their own stories with smaller references to the current universe. But now that we know season 2 starts with Boimler being on the Titan, they can bring in stories from the other shows more without shoehorning them in; especially with Titan being a more important ship than the Cerritos. I also have a feeling we’ll bump into the Enterprise too (or the other other Enterprise ;)).

The Dominion War never happened.

Don’t sound like a Cardassian man. You’re better than this.

Wolf 359 was an inside job!

Well yeah, everyone knows that one already! But you sound like a nut when you start citing Dominion war was faked.

But that pretty much happened all the time in the 50’s.

The WWII references came thick and fast on HAPPY DAYS.

Also, Lower Decks is comedy

I think even that is a point in favor of TG47’s argument. Some of the best comedies I know are written at the backdrop of war. Be it “MASH” (movie as far as sit-com), “One Two Three” by Billy Wilder, the ingenious “The Producers” by Mel Brooks, or my all time favorite “To Be or not to Be” by Ernst Lubitsch.

I think TG47’s approach is very well thought out and brilliant.

MASH was comedy/drama. And it was set DURING a war. The Orville was going more for MASH until they decided they didn’t want to do any more comedy in season 2.

Doesn’t seem like that is the vibe LDX is going for.

Yes, I really want to see DS9 characters on this show. The closest we got was a statue of O’Brien. We know he’s the most important Starfleet officer ever, but that’s still not enough. ;)

I love to see a return to the station in general and see Kira, Quark, Bashir and whoever else could still be there. Again, it doesn’t have to be anything big or earth shattering, just a small slice of what is going on with their lives like we saw the Rikers in the finale.

And I just want to know what is happening in this region post Dominion war. But its just great to know all of this is POSSIBLE again. But they know fans really want stuff like this too so I hope we do get more next season.

This show is the best new show. I enjoy Discovery and Picard. But Lower Decks, the balance of the script and the comedy, is just perfect. McMahan really knows what is doing. The cast is great. Makes me laugh. And brings me back to STNG era. =D


Lower Decks is my number one new show too.

Lower Decks is my favorite new Star Trek show by far. Discovery and Picard are descent but Lower Decks is something special. The cast and crew is great. McMahan gets Star Trek and knows what he’s doing.

I’m watching Lower Decks season 2. That’s for sure! :)

I’ll admit I had reservations about the show before it was released and there were moments I felt characters were a bit too much but the overall feeling I got was this is good stuff and it got even better as the season went on. The last episode was my absolute favourite and there were moments you get lost in the story and forget its an animated show. The comedic factor is great, and the references are the icing on the cake. I’m looking forward to season 2. Its a shame these are only 30 minute episodes.


Enough with the references every 10 seconds.

It makes the Star Trek universe feel tiny. Mike, I get that you worship Trek, and want to put in as many references and callbacks to old shows as possible, but please cut it out. It gets so distracting when every 10 seconds, there’s a reference to something/someone, which of course is from one of the 5 old tv shows. I mean, calling out random episode titles, come on.

I enjoyed season 1 a lot but please tone it down. Or at least reference people we don’t know, there’s a thought, expand the Trek world instead of making it feel like small.

“And the lower deckers would be huge fans of all this stuff that happens in Starfleet. They would be learning about it at the Academy. They would be reading the logs.”

They’re fans.

I’ve been hoping we’d get the occasional reference that we didn’t already know – to show that there’s a big universe out there.

The lower deckers would *not* be reading about TNG missions at the Academy; in anything approaching the real world, much of it would be classified — and “Ode to Spot,” which was genuinely funny, is still not going to be on the curriculum.

Some of those logs may have been written up as declassified case studies, especially as the Enterprise was the flagship.

Anything prewar would be less likely to be considered sensitive at that point.

For that matter, we really have no idea how social media works or general information exchange/privacy works in the Federation. Like McMahan discusses in another interview, information – who has it and who doesn’t – could be a major social currency. There could be “social channels” that just report on the crazy happenings within Starfleet. “Influencers” could be publishing their personal logs. Maybe they “license” their stuff to be made into the next hot holo-novel of the week. Like that planet Voyager runs into in the Delta quadrant, the Federation could commerce in a lot of personal stories and adventures.

As for classification, outside of ongoing threats, it’s possible that the Federation -being the open culture it is – maybe it declassifies the vast majority of stories as soon as the events are over. Once the Dominion War ended, all the War stories were released. This might explain why Mariner and her friends were discussing a relatively old event from the Enterprise while hanging out at DS9 – maybe it just got released as news.

We don’t know how “public” the TNG adventures are, but anything from the TOS era, a century earlier, could be widely public. Starfleet could be a major inspiration for whatever passes for human pop culture in the 22nd century and later. People who *join* Starfleet are the kind who’d be consuming Starfleet histories from childhood, not just during the Academy — one of the Reeves-Stevens novels coins the term “la rêve d’etoile” (“the dream of stars”) for that kind of aspirational adventure-seeker. That would include everyone, not just the Lower Deckers — we’ve got Riker watching holodeck histories of the NX-01, and Ransom with his personal shorthand for the 2260s.


LDS is the best show to come out of the Kurtzman Trek conveyor belt so far (in terms of released content that’s not saying much) but it’s been too much of a [plugged nose] “I bet I know more about Trek than you” fangeek fest. To the effect that the most satirical aspect of the show is the one that feels unintentional.

As someone who genuinely enjoy the references, I can still agree it is probably too much of it. Even McMahan admits having the characters literally say the names of the episodes they are referencing is going a bit too far. He tries to reason why they do that, but that is one of the things they can do without.

And honestly the show works without the references anyway. It does such a great job of just telling stories in a classic Trek way most fans appreciate it on that basis alone. It’s the only show right now that is ABOUT exploration again. That alone won me over lol.

But yeah he can definitely tone down the references. I would love to see more crossovers from characters of the other shows (which it sounds like we will get) but you don’t need to reference them every five minutes either.

The question is whether or not new viewers who have never seen the other series are watching and enjoying LDs.

From Kurtzman’s comments and the demand indices from Parrot Analytics, it appears that the show has that kind of reach.

If it’s not getting in the way of non-fans, the rest of us should just enjoy it on both levels.

Well that’s GREAT to know! Honestly I wonder that about all these shows as you know. Discovery maybe a bit more easier than the other two but looking at its VERY low ratings the first season is doing on CBS right now, I’m not sure if anyone cares about that show that isn’t already paying for it on AA. And most of those will already be fans. But it could be doing much better in Canada since its all on TV there.

But if LDS is reaching a healthy number of new fans, then obviously that’s great. I just don’t know how funny it is without knowing something about Star Trek in general, much less the actual references. And I hope it encourages some of them to watch the other shows like TNG, VOY, DS9, etc.

For Canada, the only public Numeris stat for LDs is for the premiere, when it ranked 25th in the top 30 for the week among English viewers with over 600,000.

But one has to keep in mind that the top 30 shows are almost all news, Raptors NBA, NHL finals and a few reality series. Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon were the only other comedies above the line.

It takes a lot for a premium cable series to crack the Numeris top 30 at all as those top 30 shows average over 500,000 viewers in a market of 38 million. So, cracking the public list at all is the equivalent of having nearly 5 million viewers in the United States.

As well, all the Star Trek series stream on OTT service crave for which we don’t get public numbers.

LDS has a unique opportunity to connect with people who don’t ordinarily get the Star Track thing, it would seem ironic if it was having the opposite effect.

Robert Burnett had some interesting thoughts on the show, if you can stand his long-winded videos. Generally though he’s much more cynical about Modern Trek than I am (and he extends that cynicism to the Kelvin Trek movies, which I generally don’t).

It would seem that the show is completely geared towards hard core fans. The show does not seem to be creating much “buzz” and does not appear to be as well received outside of this site. So it seems safe to conclude that only the hard core fans may enjoy it and even among them it’s not all that universal.

I hadn’t picked up that they were referencing episodes by name, I think the back-and-forth flies by too fracking quickly to notice. But in just the first episode Marina goes off babbling about how Spock was dead and Gensis and blah-blah-blah, it felt way too self-referential.

I already don’t remember most of it because I watched the whole thing in two days. Last two eps stood out for me the most. I especially liked the “movie” episode.

It’s too bad RLM Mike and Rich burned out on Kurtzman Trek, I would’ve loved to hear their thoughts on this show.

I don’t think the references make the universe seem tiny. I feel just the opposite.

With more than fifty years of established Trek canon consisting of eight previous series and thirteen theatrical movies, the Trek universe feels huge. Mentioning things from past canon firmly roots LDS in that gigantic shared universe, connecting it to the more than five hundred hours of filmed content with multiple threads.

Keeping up with the established lore is not only great for storytelling – because you’ve already got an established backstory and don’t have to spend any of your precious 22-minutes of animation per episode on exposition – but it provides a great sense of continuity and scale.

Having no references to what’s come before makes any show feel disconnected. The universe contracts to just what you see on screen. You see one ship, going from planet to planet, but you have no sense of background, of who the characters are or what they’re about.

When TOS first aired, nobody had any idea what a starship captain or crew were. Now, with so much behind us, we know exactly what they are, and the stories can focus instead on telling us WHO they are. Which is much better for building interesting, engaging, and quirky characters than using their anecdotes as exposition on what Starfleet Academy is, how warp drive works, or whether Andorians are telepathic.

Your first two paragraphs make literally zero sense.

If Lower Decks is to be believed, the Trek world consists of 5 crews, and a handful of aliens/entities. Literally no one else ever did anything of note or worthy of reference. The only people in the entire galaxy are people we’ve sn.

What happened to trillions of people, thousands of inhabited star systems?

Making the universe seem large is showing us things we HAVEN’T seen before, or mentioning someone who HASN’T been in a previous Trek show. That lets your imagination run wild. Instead of “oh look, it’s another random callback to Sulu or Quark, greeeat.”

I like the idea that these particular ships featured big in Starfleet PR and the public’s imagination. In the TMP novelization, there’s a preface or something from Kirk, If I remember correctly, that acknowledges as much, isn’t there?

I’m with you on the insane number of past show call outs. And they were made all the more visible by the fact that the audience was not distracted by laughing at jokes. I mean, if they put the same effort into making the show funny as they did into cramming in the references there very well could be a good show there.

Wow, this sounds so great!

I didn’t mind all the references at all. I THOUGHT I would get sick of them but honestly never did (but yes can understand if others did though). The movie episode was a blast because they did so many great references to them.

But I’m excited when he says we will get more DS9 stories next season. I knew we would see and hear more about DS9 canon but to say it out loud is great. I loved the flashback of just seeing the station even just for a few seconds. I was on a fanboy high but yes was disappointed we didn’t actually go inside the station itself. I’m just excited to hear we will go beyond TNG next season and start to see more DS9/VOY stories (it would be fun to see a Janeway appearance on this show and then her main one on Prodigy. See how different she looks in various animated styles ;)). We are even going to get an Enterprise one. I don’t think he’s saying a cross over appearance per se (but love to be prove wrong ;)) but maybe something that would involve the show’s direct canon like the Xindi or Suliban showing up again for example.

Whatever they do, I am 100% onboard. The show wasn’t perfect, but for me, it felt like the most Trek show since Voyager. And it probably had the best first season of any show minus maybe TOS. Again I try not to over think that part since so many of the other shows had tons more episodes but yeah.

I just love that it is a love letter to Star Trek while having fun with those tropes. I honestly have no idea how well this show translates to newbies but for hardcore fans like me it’s great. And it does an amazing job of referencing the universe as a whole, so maybe new fans will get interested in the other shows like TNG, VOY, etc like Picard is doing for new fans.

And please, renew this show for another season already!

“The show wasn’t perfect, but for me, it felt like the most Trek show since Voyager. And it probably had the best first season of any show minus maybe TOS.”

Tiger, I think the complete absence of behind the scenes drama may be part of it which Discovery and Picard had amply (while Discovery’s is fairly open, I dont believe for a second there wasnt more to Chabon’s departure than “I got to do my own show” and there’s been enough indication he was overruled on more than one occasion despite being “showrunner”). I just happened to reread RDM’s epic look back on his disastrous short stint on Voyager and he talked about how the incoherence and infighting among the creative team translated into incoherence on screen. I dont believe everything RDM says and believe, but that I could see and for the new live action shows, all the same. LDS seems to lack that, and it’s all for the better!

I definitely agree with you about Chabon’s departure reason. If he really wanted to he could have been active in both shows and there seems to be some bitterness with him if we read between the lines.

Whatever you think of LDS, McMahan may be the only creative working on Trek right now you feel he’s genuinely “there”. The Kurtzmans, Kadins, Chabons and so on, they talk about hope, optimism, divurrrsity all day (and then deliver something completely different) and you feel they talk about something they READ about Trek but not a decades-long living experience of Trek! But this guy gets “it”…

He does indeed.

Although I’m not as hard on the new stuff as others here, I do agree with this fully. What LDS does so well is a genuine spirit of hope and optimism WHILE also not having the Federation blinders on to everything either. I know Mariner is ‘controversial’ but I like her because she does call Starfleet out on their shortcomings but believes in the spirit of it 100%. Thats what I do miss about the old shows, they all had a sense of hope even when the chips were down, especially in shows like DS9 and VOY where every week something dire was happening. ;)

He may “get it” but it seems like he might be better suited to do a more traditional live action show than an animated comedy. Maybe if he were put in charge of Discovery it might get better? Maybe LDX could have been good but it felt like he may have been restraining himself. They may have had a lot of good ideas in the writers room but those ideas were rejected because “let’s not upset the fans by making jokes about Trek tropes”.

It would be kind of funny if eventually, it was revealed that “Lower Decks” takes place in the REAL Starfleet, whereas all the live-action shows are just holodeck programs about fake Starfleet exploits. So that’s why they’re making all those references.

That would make a lot of sense.

That would be very funny and very meta.

Love this show

Enough with the gimmicks. Just make it better and not so silly, please.

I can’t believe how much I enjoy this show now…and I didn’t think I would. If you guys get more DS9 and other series integration, that would be super awesome :)

Two words: Garak. Also, Garak.

He’d be on Cardassia though, wouldn’t he?

He’s got a Diner’s Club card, he gets around.

Captain Freeman has learned Cardassian diplomatic language.

I suspect that this foreshadows a future trip to Cardassia Prime.

I hope so.

So they didn’t think the references would be the jokes? That makes me even more depressed about the show. Those were the ONLY things that could be called clever. Not all of them, mind you. There were so very many that it got distracting and weird. But since the characters and situations and dialog rarely produced a grin or small chuckle, if felt like they were purring the bulk of their eggs in the reference basket.

The only advice I could give Mr. McMahon is… Forget about the potential to annoy the fans. Do not hold the fans in such high reverence. Just make jokes and if they poke fun at Trek tropes or goofy Trek things that some fans may feel are untouchable then so be it. This is a comedy. Make it funny.

Wow, we actually agree on something! That must mean we are right on this.

I think the core problem is the same as the Orville’s after season 1, and like McFarlane, McMahan clearly had bigger ambitions for his series than a little ‘workplace comedy’. I suppose in both cases, they used this concept as a trojan horse to get their own show financed by TPTB.

Season 2 will decide whether they make the same decision as the Orville (get more serious) or go full blown comedy. With above announcement to go “beyond TNG” and the scope of the season finale, I suspect the former. And yet, I’m more than a little torn by this,that the only NEW 24th century Trek we are going to get is in this cartoon series, while the pre-TOS 23rd century keeps getting expanded thanks to the SNW (where they still face all the common prequel pitfalls).

I’d much rather have the shows switch places, with SNW building new canon in 2380 (and McMahan writing for it!) and the cartoon comedy doing its thing in a fixed setting in the TOS time frame (similiar to Futurama and The Simpsons). I think that way makes more sense and would work better!

oh boy!The Orville(also Discovery) is gonna get some serious competition with this series

What I’d like to see most in season 2 is more of really clever and original plots like episode 9. Crisis Point is my favourite episode by a clear margin because of its clever plot. My second favourite is still episode 3, so although viewers seemed to either love or hate it, I’d like the writers of episode 3 to come back for another episode.

What I also enjoyed in season one is that while meaning has always been a hallmark of Star Trek, so far the writers seem to have focussed on meaningful topics other than political or societal allegories. There might have been a conscious decision in the writers room to do so with the current climate already being saturated with often-divisive political and societal topics. While socio-political allegories have always been an important part of Star Trek, I like that writers have remembered that meaning in Star Trek need not equal just those topics, but there is a whole range of other meaningful and topics to explore (such as workplace, personal development, psychology, family topics). 2 or 3 times during the season, Lower Decks has provided me with real food for thought this way (something which no other recent Trek series did for me). Even from the episode I liked least, I’ve taken away the inspiration to “inject fun into an otherwise boring task”. (If Lower decks were to start going political, I imagine they’d probably do it in a less on-the-nose way than Discovery and go for more general themes such as simplify vs differentiate, assumption vs fact-checking, selective perception, bigotry or bias…there’s a whole playing field.) Comedy is actually a great way to bring up thought-provoking stuff in a fun way.

What I could do without is overly graphic cartoon violence because it makes me uncomfortable, so I’d like to see less arm-breaking and people-squishing next season – while I enjoy food for thought built into the fun, I’d still like this series to be kind of a comfortable place.

Finally, I enjoyed the “story of the week” episode format, where each new episode remains a surprise!, while some character development continuity over the course of the season was also appreciated. I hope this balance continues into season 2.

I’d like the show to continue including references, but not to the extent that dialogue becomes erratic,(for example dialogue with Badgey on the holodeck was probably so chock-full of references that it became erratic). Also I’d like the show to focus more on original and clever plots than on references.

Mike McMahan has stated that he doesn’t watch Star Trek for the morals and meanings as much as he watches Star Trek for the friendships between characters.