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Lower Decks creator Mike McMahan on Trek purists: ‘I am on their side’

The Rick and Morty writer-producer explains why poking fun is a form of nerdy love

The cast of Lower Decks, the animated Star Trek series, roughhouses and goofs off on their starship. Image: CBS All Access

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Mike McMahan is … a nerd.

During an hour-long phone call, the Star Trek: Lower Decks creator is bouncing off the walls to tell me how the USS Cerritos, the show’s main vessel and the first California-class starship, got its yellow stripe. Yellow, you see, is the color associated with engineering, and the Cerritos, which specializes in “second contact,” is an engineering ship. Before I can say “ah, yeah, makes sense” he’s off telling me that the USS Reliant was always his favorite design (even though he was late to the TOS films) so his ship just had to be a variation of that look, mixed with TNG’s Enterprise-D, even though, for a while, he was toying with the idea that the Vulcans let us borrow some of their tech for a kitbash Galaxy-class ship with Vulcan circular engines.

Mike McMahan is a nerd.

Lower Decks, the first Trek cartoon since Star Trek: The Animated Series ended in 1974, is not about the action on the bridge, but the travails of the workaday schmendricks that keep Starfleet humming. Boimler (Jack Quaid) is an eager, booksmart ensign unaccustomed to real life troubles; Ensign Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome) is a corners-cutting thorn in Boimler’s side who always lands on her feet (and is hilarious); a young, wide-eyed Orion, Tendi (Noëll Wells), is a medical ensign and an enormous dork, and Ensign Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), who works in engineering, is also an enormous dork.

McMahan is the ideal candidate to captain Trek’s foray into comedy. After assistant roles on Drawn Together and South Park, he became a writer-producer on the first three seasons of sci-fi sensation Rick and Morty, then went on to create Hulu’s Solar Opposites. He was also the thumb behind the @TNG_S8 Twitter account, which blurted out loglines to a make-believe extra season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The official Trek brand, being unusually cool with creatives playing in their sandbox, actually released a book, Star Trek: The Next Generation — Warped: An Engaging Guide to the Never-Aired 8th Season, which stretched lines like “a pod of quantum dolphins are struck by the starboard nacelle, Picard defends himself in the dolphin murder trial. Guinan learns hockey” into a few illustrated pages.

As a deeply committed Trekkie who also adores the spazzed-out comedy that has become McMahan’s brand, I could not be more delighted by Lower Decks. The dorkiness of TNG, an element which is not found in the recent live-action series Picard, is bursting out of every frame. Below, McMahan gets into the characters and the references, and delivers a message for fans who can’t imagine Trek characters acting in an exaggerated manner.

[Ed. note: This interview contains mild spoilers for the first four episodes of the series.]

Polygon: I watched the first four episodes, some of them twice. How is this real?

Mike McMahan: I feel the same way. There are so many people involved in these things. To get a Star Trek, to get an animated Star Trek, to get a comedy Star Trek ... at the beginning we would ask questions like “well, do we have to explain what sick bay is?” and I realized “no, the audience is going to know all this. Let’s just have a party.”

It’s clear you love Star Trek and have lived with it forever. Did being a Trekkie cause you grief as a kid?

I’ve always been pretty unapologetically nerdy. When I went to college, my girlfriend at the time loved TNG, too, and we’d watch it in our dorm room. She’d turn down the volume when the theme would play. She was like “I don’t want people in the hall to know.” I didn’t think they cared too much.

After college, however, my father passed away unexpectedly. Brains are wired differently when you are mourning. No matter what I tried to read or watch, it never stuck. Like I would open up a book and be like, “wait, I already read this, but I have no memory of having read it.” But science fiction, for whatever reason, broke through that. So that’s all I consumed. I read all the Asimov books and Day of the Triffids and Robert Heinlein and Anne McCaffrey, and that’s when the first TNG box set DVDs came out, those big silver ones with the different color band on them. Every day I had them on, I just let them run.

When something is that close to your heart, do you feel like you have permission, in a way, to make jokes? To rag on it a little?

Never to rag on it. There are shows that make fun of sci-fi tropes, but the stuff I like more is when the sci-fi is actually from the world of the show, and the comedy comes from the people. Galaxy Quest does the best “ragging” on Star Trek, and it does poke fun at tropes, but also lovingly embraces them.

When Futurama came out, I lost my marbles. You can tell the people making Futurama are in love with sci-fi. They are not the usual group of comedy writers. When I eventually ended up on Rick and Morty, it was the same thing. We definitely poke fun, but the sci-fi had real stakes. Rick can undermine it, but never fully diminish the power of the sci-fi they were encountering.

The sci-fi nature of Star Trek is not something I want to tear down. I think that there’s fun stuff in the Family Guy Star Wars specials and Robot Chicken that does a really good job of doing the thing that I’m not good at, which is tearing stuff down.

Lower Decks: Boimler and Mariner touch down on a planet Image: CBS All Access

How have you mentally prepared yourself for fans who just don’t have that elasticity to allow for comedy? For instance: Ensign Mariner is at a mission briefing, and the Captain is there with a visiting captain, and she’s loudly and intentionally yawning and saying she’s bored.

I’m mentally prepared because I am on their side. Every time we bend the Star Trek stuff to get more character stuff, I’m always the one who is most hyper-aware of it. I only let it through if it works.

Star Trek fans love arguing, and they love picking stuff apart to prove or disprove something. In any other Star Trek, could an ensign yawn in front of a captain during a meeting? And it’s like, no, probably not — unless there’s like a yawning virus on the ship, right?

But in our show, in that episode, it is all about Mariner and her mother [the captain] getting under each other’s skin. How you behave when you’re around your parents changes things. We wanted it to feel weird to the other crew members.

Mariner can say stuff to a Starfleet captain that no other character than Q has ever been able to say. But since Q has said it, it is a vibe that exists in Star Trek! And the Cerritos is a lower ship with a slightly flawed captain who’s trying to become better, and it has very flawed ensigns who are trying to become better. But despite the flaws, they’re not bad at their jobs. So we went for it. It’s not the same relationship as Wesley and Beverly Crusher, or Jake and Captain Sisko, but you know what? We’ve seen those before!

There are elements of every fandom on the Internet just itching to gripe about stuff. Some of them make a career of it.

We’re not trying to replace Star Trek. We’re not saying this is the new version of what Star Trek has to be. Star Trek brings me a lot of joy, and as a comedy writer I never thought I was going to get to write it. This is me trying to do the version of the show that I know how to make.

I don’t want people to be bummed out if this isn’t their version, you know? If people don’t love it, they don’t have to love it. But if you do love it, don’t let people get you down. New Star Trek shows come out and they’re always really controversial.

We were really careful to make sure there’s nothing in Lower Decks that would betray anyone. It’s a celebration of people who love Star Trek stuff: if you love TNG or TOS, if you love the minutiae of ships, if you love maps, if you like how nacelles work, if you like the alien races, if you like the morality plays, the characters, it’s all in a package for people who like Star Trek because it feels like family. If people are open to getting the Star Trek feeling in a way they’ve never gotten before, give it a shot.

What’s funny is that the same people who might bristle that it’s a comedy, or not a full hour long, or whatever it is: there are jokes in this show that only they will get! I don’t know how to explain that to people. There are things where they will be the only ones laughing, and they are the ones who won’t be watching the show. It’s like walking away from buried treasure.

Watching some of it the second time, there’s a lot of lines and visual stuff in there that are deep cut references, but I found myself paying less attention to that and realizing just how freaking funny the cast was — particularly Tawny Newsome as Mariner.

The cast is incredible. And that’s what’s important to me — what I love so much about Star Trek is getting to spend time with the characters. There really are no truly bad episodes, because even a bad episode is like, “Well, I’m still spending time with Geordi and Data…”

Lower Decks: The captain and his crew meet a purple alien Image: CBS All Access

Interruption! What’s the worst episode of TNG?

I’m not really a fan of “clips” shows. I’m here for new, you know?

“Shades of Gray” doesn’t even count. It’s an abomination.

Then I guess I’ll say ... [sighs] I’m not the biggest fan of Worf’s family episodes. I have so many questions about Worf! He didn’t grow up on Kronos, but he’s always pushing his Klingon-ness on the Rozhenkos? And, as a father myself, I just don’t get what he’s doing with Alexander. It’s frustrating, I’m always like “be a good Dad, Worf!!”

But I still love it. I mean, the one where Beverly has sex with the lamp [“Sub Rosa,” season 7, episode 14] is pretty bad. But, it’s still well-made. The performances are good, it’s well shot. I still love the characters.

I know you don’t think the first episode of Lower Decks is the best, but that moment where Tendi and Rutherford are nerding out at the end? It just sets up their whole relationship for the series. It isn’t a “will they or won’t they?” it’s a “nerd they or won’t they?” It is so pure and so friendly.

What about the drive to slip in references to Trek lore throughout? Jokes about “Section 31” and whatnot.

I don’t consider them Easter eggs, it’s just the world. Well, there is one episode you haven’t seen yet, where Mariner has her “conspiracy wall,” and for that I did list off all the Easter eggs I wanted in there. But otherwise, when they go to Little Risa or Little Kronos or Andoria Town, we did say “we want these visual references” and they created an O’Hare Airport version. Making sure the details looked right was important to us.

You know, we’d have conversations where we’d say this is the design from the end of TNG but not the TNG movies, and not DS9 because that’s Cardassian tech, and it had to look pre-Voyager. Those were the cues. And then having fun with LCARS, but maybe expanding it to the interior of the ship, which gives the Cerritos those curves. I wanted people to be able to glance at it, and not even see it was animated, but be able to tell what show it was. From the uniforms, the beaming — oh! The beaming, which could have been CG but is hand-drawn, the actual pixels of our beaming is LCARS. These little pill-shaped tubes. It happens quick, but it’s there, and it’s ours.

I suspect your early Windows XP had an LCARS desktop.

Oh, God, yes! I had LCARS on my Kindle before they locked that down. It’s a comfort.

Sounds like whatever you wanted you got. When I saw the use of TNG font in the opening credits I was like “wow, they gave him carte blanche.”

What did you think of the opening credits?

It’s the show in micro. It’s got the look and the sweeping score, it feels like TNG — and then it’s, “Oh, look at this dumb ship getting sucked into a vortex.”

When there’s the Borg-Romulan fight and they just … turn around? I love that. And the music doesn’t get to know it’s in a comedy. But I’ve never gotten a “you can’t do that” with the design of the ship, or the font, or anything.

Let me ask a bold question: Could it be that producer Alex Kurtzman and the gang are so tied up with Picard and Discovery they just didn’t have time to give you too many notes on this, and just let you do whatever the hell you want?

Oh, bless your heart. Listen, I have found that there is always time for executives to give notes. I get notes! They are very involved. Your question was if they push back on me using Star Trek. That’s never happened. Kurtzman and the network people and everyone else are extremely aware of how careful they need to be with this brand. Which is why for the second episode I was like “OK, we’re going to get a bigger tour of the ship, and that’s Rutherford moving through all the departments, and Mariner and Boimler are going to head to a planet, giving a tour of alien species.” By the end of that episode you’ve really toured a lot.

We’re hoping a newcomer who doesn’t get some stuff, that it’ll just be classic Treknobabble to them. But if you do know what jamaharon is, it’s bonus.

You brought up Rick and Morty. You are the credited writer on “The Rickshank Redemption” episode that brought the Mulan-branded Szechuan Sauce back to pop culture. Do you have a hunch what will be the Szechuan Sauce of Lower Decks?

I do not want to curse anyone with another Szechuan Sauce. There was so much fan blowback due to the meme-ification. But I get it, I do think this show is very open to be memed. What’s the thing that will break out like a Pickle Rick or Mr. Poopybutthole? It may just be Mariner herself, because she is so much fun, and Tawny Newsome is just incredibly funny. But also it could be Tendi, because she is such a ray of sunshine, and the way Noël Wells plays her she’s the perfect blissful happy Star Trek fan. If you don’t like Tendi, I do not understand you.

Later in the season there’s a holodeck villain you haven’t seen that may also bridge with new fans. Or they might say I’ve gone cuckoo bananas.

I love that we’ve seen Ferengis, Orions, and Andorians. What is your favorite alien species that was created new for Lower Decks?

There’s a species you haven’t seen yet in episode eight from Katuban Prime that I like. [Katubans] are tribal and warlike, but are also very litigious. Also Paul Scheer’s character Engineer Billups appears more later on, and tons more in the second season.

So a second season is a go then? Will Lower Decks branch out into comics, novels, games?

We already have entire runs of stuff that we know we want to do that seem like no-brainers. There’s an episode you haven’t seen at Starfleet Academy, and a character who is where Mariner ought to be — we could easily spin her off.

I wish Star Trek was like a city-provided municipal service. When you moved into a new apartment they would hook up your Star Trek screen. Star Trek should be paid for by a one-cent tax or something so that we all had it all the time forever.

Those decades of not-having new Star Trek drove me fucking crazy. And we all slummed-it with a little bit of Stargate. We watched Stargate Atlantis or Farscape, but it was a methadone hit. There should be 30 new Star Trek series always running: looking at far in the future, looking at the past, one should be one character, and an ensemble, and a ship of medics, and then Starfleet Academy, people who work in a vineyard — well, we’ve got that one, actually — but you know, let’s go!

Lower Decks wants more Star Trek. Lower Decks acts like there are 30 other Star Trek shows and we are just so pumped to be there.