The fourth season Star Trek: Lower Decks arrives on Thursday. To get ready TrekMovie had a chance to talk to producer and supervising director Barry J. Kelly to discuss directing an animated Star Trek comedy, what’s new for the characters, the addition of T’Lyn, visiting Orion for the first time, and even a bit about season 5. [SPOILERS]
So, what’s new for season 4?
At the end of season 3, we saw Mariner more in a happy place. After she left Starfleet when she was sent to Starbase 80, wrongfully, she kind of found herself, finally. Like, “Okay, I’m Starfleet.” She’s going to quit this anti-authority attitude and maybe buy into it a little bit more and accept that she loves her job. She saves the day because she realizes Starfleet is where her home is. And we find her in a good spot. She’s committed. She’s confident when we start this season. She’s inspiring Boimler. She’s at the front of the bridge. She’s got a better relationship with her mom. They’ve come together.
Now we’re starting this season with a bit of a shipping episode where they’re shipping and escorting the USS Voyager off to Earth to become a museum. We also have this little tag at the end. We go back to our character Ma’ah from episode 209 “wej Duj” where we got vignettes of Vulcan lower decks and Klingon lower decks. And we’re kind of showing where he’s been and where he is now. He’s wearing his new captain’s garb. But we also give a little vignette of Klingon lower decks. There are still lower decks people doing lower decks things, and then a mystery ship shows up and destroys the ship and we are left to wonder what that was. This ship isn’t Starfleet. We’re not sure what that is. It’s the first time we’re doing a bit more of a serialized story throughout the season. Like in season 3, we had a little bit with Admiral Buenamigo and then you realize he’s the bad guy at the end of the season. But it’s still very episodic. So this season we’re doing a little bit more. There’s a little bit more of an overhanging threat that our lower deckers don’t know about just yet. And we’ll see how it meets up with them later.
What does adding the character T’Lyn do to the show?
That’s a great question. I love her. Once we started doing scenes with her amongst the lower decks crew I was like, “Oh, this is why you have a Vulcan on board because it immediately makes everything like 10% funnier.” Having them crack jokes and then having this one person in the room not laughing, not reacting, it makes it so much funnier. She doesn’t get it or she gets it and she doesn’t think it’s funny. What I have learned from comedy writers and actors I’ve worked with is that you want to see everybody in a shot because when a joke lands you want to see how everybody reacts to it. And just adding that one element of a Vulcan just not laughing is so funny. She’s a wonderful addition and adds that one little degree of texture that makes every joke funnier and makes every interaction a little better between the crew.
Something established from the beginning of the show is how you and the directors and artists leave the comedy to the script and the performances and shoot the show straight, in the style of The Next Generation. Is that still the way and is it hard, especially for artists who worked on comedy animation, to keep playing it straight?
Fortunately, and it’s a credit to Mike [McMahan] and the writers, but everybody who works on it loves it. In a lot of shows, especially in season one shows, you’ll be in a room full of animators, and the dailies come in and they all watch it together and some people laugh and some don’t, it’s just a job. But on Lower Decks, everybody’s laughing at every shot, every time they’re seeing it. They inspire each other. They try to outdo each other. If they see someone else do something funny, they want to kind of outdo them. But hearing Jack [Quaid]’s voice and Tawny [Newsome]’s voice just inspires so much. It’s a thrill to get their audio in our edits so that we can mine what they’re saying. Sometimes what they’re saying off-mic is even funnier and then we’ll cut that in and the animators can run away with it. But another addition to T’Lyn, a constant note is to do less, do less, do less. Like she’s moving too much. It’s trying to make her look stiff so all those jokes play more. It just plays funnier the less she does.
Yeah, like you were saying how we shoot it like a Star Trek show. The script is already so funny. We get to add a lot of the more visual gags than the script entails. Again, a credit to Mike and the writers is that the descriptions in the script are just general enough that we can run with it. An example from film school I had was aligning Ghostbusters. “Egon, Peter, and Ray trap Slimer in a ballroom in a ghost trap.” And that’s kind of all that is written, but that sequence in the movie is like 10 minutes. So Mike and the writers are just really good at giving just enough specifics for us to take a scene and just kind of build it out, give it more context, more action. We can really spice it up without them having to give us too much direction through the script. We just need to know the attitudes and emotions and stakes of the characters, which is pretty much the most important thing to Mike and we get to run with it. We know who the characters are. We are a well-oiled machine at this point, so all phases and all crews and all points of production are firing pretty well.
You mentioned visiting Voyager this season and last season you visited DS9, all of which are painstakingly recreated. But you also create new canon. Like strangely this season will actually be the first franchise visit to Orion…
I know, right? That’s crazy. How can we not have gotten to Orion before?
So when you’re given a challenge like that to build Orion from scratch, how do you start with that kind of blank page?
Heavy is the burden for making a world that has seemed to exist for 50 years of Star Trek canon that we have never seen before. Our art director Nollan Obena is fantastic. He always points out to me that on our planet Florida doesn’t look like Nebraska. So if you watch the episode, who knows how far the distances are traveled between points on Orion. Like on DS9, they talk about beaming from Starfleet Academy in San Francisco to Sisko’s dad’s restaurant in New Orleans. So in Trek technology, I think once you see a location it doesn’t have to stay looking like that exact location you started with. So we get to see different parts of Orion. I feel like even the first time you see where we go on Orion, maybe it’s not exactly what you thought it was, maybe it looks like farmland or something, but then we still show that they go to a bustling Blade Runner-feeling city. And it feels like all these places can exist on one planet because the planet is diverse. On the live-action shows, the pirate theme is clear. But pirates and drug lords get pretty snazzy homes. They live on island resorts that do not look like a pirate ship or anything like that.
So I think we’re able to give more layers and texture to Orions in general because Tendi herself is someone who’s finding herself in this situation that maybe her social circles are starting to collide. I always get stressed out when that happens. You never know if these worlds are going to collide for the good or worse. So going to Orion is a heavy burden and I think we made enough little pieces that every version that if you had a version in your head of what you thought Orion looks like, we hit it. Because that’s kind of what you’re dealing with adding texture to new canon. All of us have read things, or been a fan of something, and we all have kind of some version in our heads of what that might be. And we’re always trying to make the most iconic version of what we think that is so it supports what you think that planet looks like.
Before we wrap up, can you say anything about work on season 5?
Yeah, we are already working on it. I still have some stuff left to do finishing season 4. But we are already getting scripts from season 5, and they are hilarious. That’s such a great thing about this job. I love getting these scripts for the first time and reading them and I get to just laugh at it and enjoy it. That’s when I get to enjoy it as a TV show, honestly. Then once I finished reading scripts, I’m like, “Okay, how the hell am I going to make this? But that first time I get to read it is like probably my favorite part because I just get to read it and I’m laughing and I’m annoying my girlfriend and she’s like, “What are you laughing at?” And I’m like, “This script is so funny!” and I start repeating it and I blow the jokes for her. But I’m like, “It’ll be really funny in 10 months, trust me.” Or 18 months, however long it takes to make an episode.
Season 4 will arrive on Paramount+ on Thursday, September 7, the day before Star Trek Day. The first two episodes will be made available on the same day. Check out the latest trailer…
Listen to Barry Kelly interview
Audio from the interview with Barry J. Kelly was included in our latest All Access Star Trek podcast. You can listen to the full podcast below or where you get your podcasts. The interview starts at the 32:00 mark.
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