TrekMovie spoke with Mike McMahan in a roundtable interview at New York Comic Con, where the wide-ranging discussion covered the latest Lower Decks episode (“Caves”), as well as what’s coming in at the end of season 4, how the writing’s going on season 5, and how Mike’s journey to creating a show for the new era of Star Trek began with rejecting an offer to join the staff of Discovery.
Honoring TAS and a last-minute change to “Caves”
McMahan talked about how important it was for episode 8 (“Caves”) to be a standalone episode. He described a last-minute change he made to remove a subtle connection to the season 4 plot arc about the missing ships. The showrunner told the press roundtable about preserving the tone and intention of the story:
“There’s one line I cut at the end of this episode when the Vendorians show up and they’re like, ‘Give them a little minute.’ Originally, they said ‘… after this, it gets a lot harder for them.”’ The Vendorians kind of know where it goes and I cut it in the edit because it was such a beautiful friendship moment at the end of the episode. I didn’t want to fly in the ointment at the end, it just felt wrong. It felt right on the page, but people are only going to have to wait a week to find out for themselves to see it… It’s better to end on a happy note.”
McMahan confirmed the season plot will come into focus in the next two episodes:
“The finale does. Episode 9 does to a lesser extent. But 10 is like a movie. It’s wonderful.”
He also mentioned that “for heart, I think this upcoming episode 9 is my favorite,” meaning his favorite episode of the series.
Thursday’s episode “Caves” featured a storyline involving Vendorians, shape-shifting tentacled aliens first featured in the Star Trek: The Animated Series episode “The Survivor.” After “Caves” was shown to the NYCC crowd, Mike joined the Star Trek Universe panel discussion and talked about how he used to watch VHS tapes of Star Trek: The Animated Series and loved being able to bring in elements of that show into Lower Decks “with equal respect” to all the other Star Trek shows:
“So obviously seeing the Vendorian design, that was straight from The Animated Series. Getting to translate that and put it in there not only makes a fun Lower Decks episode but now you can go and watch that Vendorian episode of TAS and now you get to enjoy that again through new eyes for the first time. That’s a really special fun thing that I like about getting to make one of the current Star Trek shows… which [is to] recontextualize things you know and love. When you go back and watch Star Trek shows like before, now you get a whole other part of your brain activated while you’re watching. That’s what I love about TAS stuff.”
Season 5 is not being written as series finale
At the NYCC panel, McMahan revealed he was working on the final script for the show’s fifth season. At the roundtable, he talked about how he approaches writing season finales, both past and future:
“They always want me to make sure that I’m writing something that feels like a new viewer can understand it and that the finales feel finale-y, so if it doesn’t continue or if there’s going to be a gap it doesn’t feel like when ALF originally ended and he got surrounded by FBI agents pulling their gun on him, and that was the last episode and you’re like, ‘No!’ But as much as they want me to feel like I’m writing [season] finales that are series finales, I just don’t think I’m ever going do it, because you want to feel like these characters are going to keep going. Lower Decks isn’t The Iliad. It’s not a place to go. You are dipping in on these character arcs that are going to resolve and grow, and people will change, but Ross and Rachel aren’t going to get married. We are not drilling to this thing. For me, I want you to be satisfied at the end of the season and I want you to want more.”
Earlier this week, we posted part of our interview in which McMahan clarified his thoughts on the possible future of the series in response to a widely circulated article where he expressed concern about getting a pickup after season 5. He told the roundtable group that even if it doesn’t happen, he will still hold out hope for more Lower Decks in one form or another:
“Let’s say we did get canceled—knock on wood, I hope we don’t—but I love comic books, I love novels, I love video games. I would love them to hire me to write a movie. There’s always ways for this to grow. A part of why I got into animation was because of Futurama, watching that in high school. Then they cancelled it when I was working at Fox, because I love Futurama, and then they brought it back and then they just brought it back again. One of the powers of animation is it’s deciduous.”
The showrunner wrapped up the topic by saying he’s “not worried about Lower Decks because I know how good it is,” with the caveat that pickups are based on people subscribing to Paramount+ and watching the show while it’s current. He said his one worry is that people will wait to watch the show later, making it become a cult hit “ten years after we made it.”
McMahan was asked if he gets pressure from above to balance the show’s comedy with drama (or vice versa), and said he has free rein:
“I never got pressure. The only pressure is coming from me … I am just always trying to surprise everybody and to do a show that is something you’re going to want to go back and watch over and over… It’s funny because the longer you work on a show, the more you learn about it while you’re making it. Like season 1 was almost a ‘How long will they let me get away with this?’ I better do the greatest hits of Star Trek. We’re doing a trial episode, we’re doing a holodeck episode. As I have been making Lower Decks more and as I’ve been learning about the characters and finding out you feel for them as much as I do, that’s when I’m like, ‘How much can this comedy show take on before it starts to feel maudlin?’ … I find the rule of thumb is, if TNG was a lot of drama with a little comedy, then I’m a lot of comedy with a little drama.”
Enterprise might get some love in season 5
Lower Decks is known for making connections to Trek canon from all different eras of the TV shows and movies, which often results in guest spots from legacy stars. When asked if there is part of Star Trek he still wants to tackle, he singled out one particular series:
“It’s hard to get Enterprise. Because Enterprise is so proto, it’s so before TOS. It’s so tempting because it feels like TNG and that’s the world I play in and I love Enterprise. And that’s been the hardest, but I think in season 5 I figured out—if the deals work out, there is some Enterprise love in season 5. We are early enough so I could be wrong about that so tune in next year.”
Based on what McMahan said, it sounds like they have a clear plan that would involve actors from Star Trek: Enterprise but can’t lock it in until these “deals” are finalized.
Journey to Lower Decks began with Discovery
Lower Decks was first announced five years ago, but it turns out that wasn’t McMahan’s first offer to work on a new Star Trek series. Back when McMahan was an assistant at Fox (and writing his TNG season 8 Twitter account), he was friends with another assistant, Aaron Baiers, who would go on to run Alex Kurtzman’s Secret Hideout production company. Aaron remembered Mike was a big Trek fan when work started up on Kurtzman’s first Star Trek series, so he gave him a call:
“He called me and said, ‘We’re making Discovery, did you want to come in and meet to be a staff writer?’ And I said no. And he was like, ‘I’m sorry, what the f–k did you just say?’ And I was like, ‘I’m on this show Rick and Morty, it hasn’t aired yet, but I think it’s going to be really special. I really love working on it… Call me in season 3 when you figure out who’s friends and who likes to work for the most.’ I don’t want to be figuring it out in the first place. I want to come in in the middle of it, you know? Then Rick and Morty aired and after Discovery did well enough they started building out and other shows. And he called me in he was like, ‘You’re right. I love Rick and Morty, Alex [Kurtzman] loves Rick and Morty. Will you just come in and have a conversation with him?'”
McMahan had that conversation, and the rest is animated Star Trek comedy history. He told the group that even before he was working on Star Trek, he was working on Star Trek.
“Star Trek has always been a comfort show. My manager used to yell at me, ‘Why are you writing spec scripts to take place in spaceships? Those are expensive.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know. It’s just where I love to be.’ Those are the stories and the characters that feel like home to me. Then I ended up working on a couple jobs that were that were fine, but then Rick and Morty felt like home to me. I was the Star Trek guy. I was the sci-fi guy at Rick and Morty. So people would look at me and I’d be like, ‘All right, in season 3 of Stargate SG-1 they did this and we could do this…’ My wife and I used to watch all these different serialized sci-fi shows when we were we were falling in love. Like finding Farscape blew my mind, now it’s one of my all-time favorite shows. Weirdly, you find the things that that speak to you and you just want to tell stories that both honor that but push them in a new direction.”
He has a lot of merch ideas
When asked about the Lower Decks merch he hoped to see, McMahan was simmering with ideas.
“So here’s the merch I’ve actually pitched that’s never been made. Number one: I want an action figure line that is in the style of Lower Decks but is every other Star Trek show ever. So you can have Kirk or Spock or Jadzia or Archer or anybody in the Lower Decks style so that you can have this new thing that’s fun to collect and watch grow. And I just love action figures. And then nobody’s ever made the planets of Star Trek. I want them to make inflatable beach ball planets and have a tiny little micromachines ship attached to the side in orbit..”
“And the other dream thing is, I love tie-in novels… I remember I got into Star Wars when I was a kid because I read The Courtship of Princess Leia because I had been left in a car while my mom went shopping at Sears too long. Then I was like, ‘I guess I love Star Wars now.’ I would love softcover Lower Decks novels. I even said, ‘Guys, I’ll work with them. Let’s find great young never-been-published fan fiction writers and give them stories and make the covers all match and do a box set.’ And make them f—k up canon and all sorts of stuff that really good novels [do] when you read back, and you’re like, ‘This is wrong,’ but that’s what’s fun about it.”
More from NYCC
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