Interview: Mike McMahan On ‘Star Trek: Lower Decks’ Getting Grounded And More Legacy Characters For Season 3

On Thursday, the animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks returned with a bang for its third season with the episode “Grounded.” TrekMovie had a chance to speak with series creator and showrunner Mike McMahan about putting together the episode and how it sets up what’s coming in season 3.

The title of the season opener “Grounded” feels like it has many meanings, like how much of the humor is more character-based. Is that something you are moving towards in season 3?

For the first episode back, we wanted to feel like not only setting the stage for this season, but we also wanted to pay some of the bills from last season. And we wanted to celebrate episodes where you go back to Earth. So it has a little bit of all those flavors. I really love the episode because I love First Contact. I love James Cromwell. And I love all of the Earth-based episodes of TNG and Deep Space Nine. I like being there for that stuff, but yeah, I think it does set the stage for like, ‘Hey, this season is going to have a lot of heart in it.’ It’s not just going to be goofing around. We’re going to be goofing around! But also, we’re going to be doing some stuff with the characters that sets up more stages for the future.

Even though it takes place shortly after the season 2 finale, the season 3 opener feels like the characters are being slotted into new positions, literally and emotionally—Tendi shows off her science, Boimler shows more confidence. Was the intent to reposition the four lower deckers to set up their arcs for the season?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. It might feel sudden, but at the same time, we’ve had a year to watch that finale, where Boimler is literally diving through a threshold that he didn’t feel like he was prepared for. When you watch all 30 of these episodes in a row, all the characters change each season. They’re all based in experiences they’ve had in the seasons before. And the trick is, none of us have a huge change, right? Like there are things in our lives that make us feel more confident. And then we test to see if that’s who we are. And Lower Decks is all about exploring personal truth, not maybe galactic new planetary truth. And so, every year I challenge the writers and myself to say, “Okay, what are we learning about the characters this year?” What did they not know about themselves? What were they wrong about themselves? And, as any good Starfleet officer might do, how do they allow themselves to move forward and to actually learn from the experiences they had, without changing what the DNA of what Lower Decks is all about.

Tawny Newsome as Ensign Beckett Mariner and Dawnn Lewis as Captain Carol Freeman in “Grounded”

The senior officers are really in the background in this episode, but they are also the big heroes of “Grounded.” It feels like the sitcom lesson that Mariner has to learn is to trust the system, to trust Starfleet. Is that her lesson?

I don’t know if I’m saying trust all systems with that episode. But I think what I was trying to say is that Mariner very often is saying Starfleet can be better, Starfleet can do better. She’s a part of Starfleet, but she has notes. In this episode, I wanted to say: Listen, you’re not wrong, we could all always do better, but you can’t turn against the system that you want to be a part of that actually does have good elements to it that we’ve seen in so many episodes. Starfleet and the bridge officers need to have wins as much as they mess up. Lower Decks isn’t about fumbling, bumbling officers or tearing down Starfleet. It’s about there’s always ways to improve. And sometimes Mariner’s right. Sometimes Starfleet isn’t great at some things. But also, she can be wrong. And in that premiere episode, she’s so sure that she needs to take the reins that the last thing she expects is what her dad tells her at the beginning, which is to trust in Starfleet.

When it came to references, this time you went big with that huge First Contact sequence. Is that indicative of a different way to go beyond Easter egg references and just indulge in a thing?

Yeah. I think the reason we did that was—part of it is that I love First Contact. I love [director Jonathan] Frakes. I love that era. I love all the performances in it. Part of it was, that this was an Earth-themed episode and that’s one of my favorite Earth-based Star Treks. So it had to be on the table. But then on top of that, it was partially based on the Enterprise episode, where they go back and change the footage for the Mirror Universe. I loved that for an episode of Enterprise they literally went back to the movie and had it on screen. I was like, “How can we recapture that feeling, but in a Lower Decks way?” Because everything in Lower Decks is kind of like what are we getting inspired from in the Star Trek that we love? And so, it didn’t feel like a huge change of pace for me, because it was like, Oh, this has been done in Star Trek a couple of times. This is just our version of it.

Of course in First Contact, the Enterprise crew didn’t have a real sense of who Zefram Cochrane was really like, but here your Bozeman theme park shows his full rock-and-roll style. So from a canon perspective, are you saying they built this park after the Enterprise came back around what used to just be a simple statue monument kind of thing?

Yeah, because in the movie First Contact, when the Enterprise went back, the way Geordi describes as, “Oh there was a statue here.” But then part of the history of Zefram Cochrane is the movie First Contact. Them going back and logging about that becomes part of common knowledge. So now they are kind of celebrating the guy a little bit more as a person instead of like an idea.

So in your mind, it is well known that Picard and his crew went back in time and visited Bozeman and Cochrane, and they may even be featured in the theme park somewhere?

Yeah, I don’t know why they would have to keep secret about that. I know, there are rules about time travel, but that felt like a thing that happened to them, as opposed to a mission that time travelers decided to do. Like, if you didn’t tell people about that, couldn’t the Borg just keep trying to do that? To me, that would be common knowledge and not a protect the secrets of the past kind of thing.

Was getting James Cromwell back easy or complicated and what was it like directing him?

I was the voice director on that one. We have animation directors and voice directors and this season I got to direct Cromwell, and I got to direct all these fun legacy folks. But it was really hard to get him because half the time he is filming Succession, which I love. And the other half of the time he is protesting, causing mischief, which I love. So we had to wait for him to not be gluing his hand to a Starbucks counter, but also not be filming Succession. We were able to record him at his house remotely, which was great.

James Crowmwell returns as Zefram Cochrane in “Grounded”

And he really nailed it. It’s him but different. He got the schtick right away, is what you are saying?

All our legacy actors get the schtick right away. And by schtick, I mean they all fall into this role that they’ve played before—and obviously, Cromwell has been in the movies, but also he’s been episodes of Star Trek, like on Deep Space Nine. So everybody from the legacy cast, they come in and they’re like, “Here’s how I would play this.” And we get them playing it exactly as they want to. But then on top of that, we’re like, “Okay, now give it to us a little faster, give it to us a little bit more of a smile.” We get both versions. We get the Lower Decks version, and we get the sincere kind of classic Star Trek version. And then, depending on what the scene is, we might use the kind of classic take instead of the “fun” take.

When you are bringing in a legacy character, how far into the scripting process do you go before you make sure you can get the actor?

We kind of write it in the script, and then we keep our fingers crossed. And we haven’t run into anything yet. Usually, at outline, I’m talking to [Alex Kurtzman’s production company] Secret Hideout, Henry [Alonso Myers] and Terry [Matalas] and Akiva [Goldsman] and the Hagemans [Dan and Kevin] and all the showrunners. And it is who’s planning on doing what with who, and here’s our plan. And as long as all of those align, and as long as I talked to John Van Citters [VP at Paramount Star Trek Group] and I’m like, “This is what I think would be happening in the timeline right now.” And I talk to [Star Trek author] Dayton Ward and [science consultant] Dr. Erin [Macdonald ]. We have all these brains that are working to make sure that it makes sense canonically, it makes sense comedically, it makes sense for the character, it makes sense for the other shows. And then we go out to find out if they’re available.

This episode wrapped up some storylines quickly, like even the Gavin thing was wrapped up in the end. Is that your way of keeping this show episodic? Because at first, it felt like you might be setting up his return later.

Yeah, we want every episode to feel like they are their own unique little island. And then at the same time, like with Peanut Hamper, we want them to feel like that and then sometimes we want to tell more of a story with them. But like my favorite Star Trek episode, I like to feel like things are resolved and that the stuff that we saw on that episode doesn’t rely on you having to wait to see more unless I’m very sure of what I want to do with it. So I love Gavin the character and I like ending on seeing him—like some people would have been like, “Oh, Gavin is out there having an adventure,” but other people might have been like, “Did Gavin die?” And I didn’t want those people to be left unresolved, because I liked Gavin. I like Bobby Moynihan and I wanted to see him maybe not being arrested but like being like, “Come on buddy, it’s time to get off the theme park ride.”

Do you feel that the balance of heart and comedy, the balance of deep cuts versus overt references in “Grounded” is sort of a new normal for Lower Decks, at least for season 3?

I don’t think there is ever a normal for Lower Decks. Every episode plays with balance, with comedy, with character. It’s up to you guys to deem if we are successful. But thematically for each episode, some episodes are about one character, some are about being a lower decker in general, some are about having a good time, and some are more dramatic. I would like to believe that we’re always pushing ourselves to be better and better every single episode and that there isn’t kind of a normal ever.

Fred Tatasciore as Lieutenant Shaxs, Dawnn Lewis as Captain Carol Freeman, Phil Lamarr as Admiral Freeman, and Gillian Vigma as Doctor T’Ana in “Grounded”


New episodes of Star Trek: Lower Decks stream Thursdays in the USA on Paramount+ and CTV Sci-Fi in Canada (where it’s also available to stream on Crave). It streams on Fridays on Amazon Prime Video in international territories around the world. In Latin America, Lower Decks debuts (both seasons 1 and 2) in September.

Keep up with all the news and reviews from the new Star Trek Universe on TV at TrekMovie.com

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I really appreciate this look at the process and the thought that goes into the show. Thanks, TM and MM.

Same!

So what happens in three years when they keep getting promoted and doing more important stuff? It won’t really be “lower” decks then, will it?

Boimler got promoted then got demoted just as quickly. Mariner self-sabotages to remain an ensign

I haven’t watched this episode, and probably won’t until the next live action Trek comes out — if ever — but a THEME PARK? Good God. Do we have a theme park at Independence Hall in Philly? At Omaha Beach?

Agreed — that’s in really poor taste and is just so juvenile. It should be an official historical park, like say the Lewis and Clarke National Historical Park in Oregon.

Another “middle-school level groaner” on this show. They just keep coming. Buy hey, if it gets a laugh that’s the goal…not impressed!

LOL at you being mad that a science fiction show’s ‘monument’ is being lampooned…

Well I am at least funny, unlike that moronic scene.

There is an Independence Hall at Knotts Berry Farm, which is a theme park…

So? That analogy attempt makes zero sense.

I kid you not, I was just there like a week ago lol. But it’s not inside Knott’s Berry Farm and free, but yes part of the property.

That’s freaking hilarious!! Cool!

Yeah I been going there since I was a kid. I’m a local and we sometimes just go to the shopping area outside of the park to eat and go there to listen to the ten minute audio show they have inside debating over the Declaration of Independence. It’s on Youtube if you’re more curious about it.

Yeah, just took a look. I dropped off my kids and their friends there for the day a number of years back but have never gone to the park myself. Need to add it to my list. We did do the cheesy Medieval Times nearby once.

We’ll probably be on Lower Decks season 8 by the time we get another movie lol.

And I can live with that! McMahan just gets the heart and spirit of Star Trek so right while still being able to have fun with it. LDS should really be an utter disaster but it actually works lol. It just shows what an amazing writer and creator he is.

its good to know that Secret Hideout now has a framework with the likes of John Van Citters and the novels writers (Ward here, but Mack is attached to Prodigy) to keep everything straight. Citters when he was incharge of the novels and licensing help keep the lit verse consistent. I’m glad that has been picked up by the show runners as a group here

Good point.

While Discovery and Picard have had Kirsten Beyer, another high quality Litverse writer, he books were mainly mainly with Voyager in the Delta Quadrant (Full Circle series). Also, as she was progressing as a writer to producer within the writers rooms, her role was different.

Lower Decks actually also had Mack for season one. It looks like he not continuing with Prodigy which is unfortunate, but it’s clear he’s made a great contribution in terms of helping them choose canonical and Litverse aliens that will pull kids in. Mack’s a NY film school grad, with DS9 script and story credits, who isn’t shy on social media to say he’d really like to be writing for television. So, again, it may impact the relationship as a consultant.

Dayton Ward, like Mack, has an encyclopaedic knowledge across all the eras and has written books across all of them. He’s also a former US marine with 11 years of service. He commented on social media a while back that he had been pleased that when he started a consulting gig, he was specifically told that they wanted the benefit his knowledge from his service as well. So, I’m wondering whether that’s influencing not only the LDS action sequences (which are well done in his own books) but also some of the growth of the characters and their relationship to the hierarchy.

On Von Critters, I have mixed feelings. I agree he’s done well on licensing with the Litverse and the transition back to books that tie into shows currently in production. The product licensing remains really weak, with too much focus on collectors and inadequate quality in the kids toy market. The online games and apps are not great either. But promoting him to be the ViacomCBS exec who holds it all together seems a smart move to keep the franchise momentum going without the big resets that DC or Marvel have had to do.

The NY Times has an article this weekend on Star Trek as the ‘quiet franchise’ that is quite positive.

Love Mike McMahan! This guy is the real deal and brilliant at what he does! Keep it up bro, you’re making Star Trek great again! 🖖👍