When Star Trek: Lower Decks creator Mike McMahan first pitched his idea for the animated sitcom to Trek shephard Alex Kurtzman, the showrunner says it wasn’t even really a pitch at all.
“It was just a meeting to chat with Alex,” McMahan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “[He] just asked me, ‘What would your dream Star Trek be?’ And I literally just laid out exactly what Lower Decks was off the top of my head, not even preparing.”
Right away, Kurtzman was sold, but McMahan still couldn’t believe that he had a Star Trek show in development. ”I didn’t know I was allowed to have that dream,” the showrunner says. “I didn’t know dreams were allowed to be that dreamy…I don’t think I really realized I had the show until like episode eight of the first season. That’s really where it sank in.”
As a life-long Trekkie himself, the former Rick and Morty writer was well aware of how protective Star Trek fans can be of the franchise. Since the show’s premiere in 2020, he’s seen the fan reception evolve from skepticism to appreciation.
“Just in 20 episodes, I’ve seen people go from, ‘Oh no, a funny Star Trek cartoon, that’s going to make me sad,’ to being like, ‘Oh, my comfort show! The thing that made me feel better in the pandemic, the thing that makes me so happy,’” McMahan says. “All of us on the show are here to make people have that feeling — to make you laugh, to make you want to talk about the episode, to quote it, to cosplay it. We’re trying to do a thing that people love.”
Lower Decks is currently in the midst of airing its third season on Paramount+. Earlier this year, CBS ordered a fourth, and McMahan says writing is already underway.
And while it may shock some die-hard Trek fans, Lower Decks isn’t afraid to get raunchy. “If we’re gonna do a raunchy joke, it has to be a raunchy joke that has its origins in Star Trek,” says McMahan. He’s talking specifically about a scene in season two, in which Mariner (Tawny Newsome) walks in on Boimler (Jack Quaid), among other characters, having an orgy.
“It’s not something that hasn’t been in Star Trek before,” the creator added about sexual references in the series. “If you watch [Star Trek: The Original Series], you’re like, well, nobody here is wearing clothing. It wasn’t like I added that…Everybody talks about Star Trek being this hallowed, important, scientific, reserved thing. But really, that’s not what Kirk was. That’s not what any of these characters were. They were human. They were characters, they had heart, they had problems.”
In a conversation with THR, McMahan explains his rationale behind that infamous raunchy season two scene, his dream cameos for the show and whether or not he thinks franchises like Star Wars or Marvel could also translate to an animated sitcom format.
Lower Decks returned to Hall H at Comic-Con this year. Being a show that first premiered in the pandemic, what was it like to have that experience with the fans?
I used to work on Rick and Morty, and I started there before the show even got picked up. So, I kind of saw the feeling of going from a show that only we know about, that we love, to now people are dressing up as Rick Sanchez and putting decals on their cars. And then kind of seeing that again with an entirely different fandom with Lower Decks.
I think that Star Trek fans are so protective of this thing that they love, that when a new thing shows up, instinctively, we’re like, “What is this?” We’ve aired 20 episodes, and now we’re about to have another 10 air. And just in 20 episodes, I’ve seen people go from, “Oh no, a funny Star Trek cartoon, that’s going to make me sad,” to being like, “Oh, my comfort show! The thing that made me feel better in the pandemic, the thing that makes me so happy.” All of us on the show are here to make people have that feeling — to make you laugh, to make you want to talk about the episode, to quote it, to cosplay it. We’re trying to do a thing that people love. And it feels like we’ve gone from “Oh, no, what is this?” to “This is one of my favorite Star Treks” with a lot of people. I told the writers the first day: our mission is to do a show that is so funny, but also Star Trek. When people talk about all the Star Trek shows, they have to at least include us in the conversation. Even if they don’t, even if they don’t consider as “real Trek” because I saw how people treated the original animated series. You know what I mean? It doesn’t get brought up all the time with everything else. So, when I see a list where people are like, “Here are my favorite Star Treks” and we’re on that list among them, I’m like, “What have we done? This is amazing.”
I understand you’re a big Trek fan, yourself. Coming from animated comedies like Rick and Morty and Solar Opposites, was it always the plan to pursue a Star Trek animated project one day?
No. I mean, that was the dream I didn’t think was possible. I didn’t know I was allowed to have that dream. I didn’t know dreams were allowed to be that dreamy. When I got a call to go in and pitch an animated show to Alex Kurtzman at Secret Hideout, Aaron Baiers brought me in and we had been assistants at 20th Century together back in 2008 when I was writing a Star Trek Twitter (about a fictional 8th season of Next Generation.). He knew I was on Rick and Morty, and we just kept in touch forever, and we’re friends. And I told him going in, “I’m going to come in and pitch the only Star Trek show that I have the skill set to make, but you will never make it. So, apologies in advance.” And he was like, “Shut up, just come in and pitch.” It wasn’t even a pitch. It was just a meeting to chat with Alex. And Alex just asked me, ‘what would your dream Star Trek be?’ And I literally just laid out exactly what Lower Decks was off the top of my head, not even preparing. Just going in and being like, well, “I’d want it to be about the lower decks and I’d want it be in the Next Generation era. I would want it to feel like this, with this type of art.” And he turned to one of his executives and said, “Well, I guess we have another Star Trek show because we have to make that.” In my car, I called my wife, and I was like, “I’m not quite sure what just happened, but I think I have a Star Trek show in development?” And we were both like, well, that’s clearly not going to happen, because it’s too amazing. I don’t think I really realized I had the show until like episode eight of the first season. That’s really where it sank in.
And now you’re three seasons deep.
And writing season four. It’s crazy.
It’s great to see people working on projects they truly love. Is everyone who works on the show also a big Star Trek fan?
Some of them are brand new to the world, too. The original Star Trek was made by people who had never seen Star Trek because they were creating it. I wanted that feeling of brains that didn’t know Star Trek as well, but were just thinking about the characters and the comedy. So not only is it fun to see geeks getting to work on what they’re geeky about, but also see civilians who aren’t as geeky, who are watching all these things for the first time, and coming in and being like, “Wrath of Khan is amazing! How have I never seen this?” And then they find things that are super funny that they love, and you’re like, “Oh, right, that was normal to me because I’ve seen it my whole life, but that is an amazing, weird, funny thing.” I do think it’s a mix of people who love it and Star Trek is a world for them, also mixed with people that just love TV and love characters and comedy and are experiencing it for the first time.
Lower Decks can get pretty raunchy at certain points, which might be a shock for die-hard Star Trek fans. Specifically, that orgy scene in season two had a few mixed reactions from the fandom. As a creative, how do you walk the line of pushing the limit comedically, while also keeping true to the heart of Star Trek?
The comedy has to be unexpected and has to be funny, right? I’m very often being like, “OK, if we’re going to do a raunchy joke, it has to be a raunchy joke that has its origins in Star Trek.” That one orgy scene in the show had to drive Mariner out of the room with shock because that was part of the plot, you know? I remember, for better or for worse, we got the animation of that scene in, and I was like, I don’t think it’s raunchy enough because I don’t believe that Mariner — a character who’s seen a lot of stuff — would get driven out of the room by that. In the first season, she’s making holiday programs of all nude gyms and stuff. So, what would cause Mariner to leave a room? I literally was like, “Put Boimler on the countertop spread eagle.” Of course, that’s the thing that everybody lost their minds over, but narratively, it made sense. That’s probably where it got away from me slightly. I just got too in the weeds on what we needed structurally to have happen there.
But you know, there’s TNG episodes of a whole orgy of frozen naked dead people, you know what I mean? It’s not something that hasn’t been in Star Trek before. It’s funny, the sex stuff — even if we’re being very careful about it — tends to ping people as not feeling like Star Trek, which I find to be crazy, because everybody was fucking on Star Trek. If you watch [Star Trek: The Original Series] you’re like, well, nobody here is wearing clothing. It wasn’t like I added that. Data is fully functional. That’s part of the DNA of Star Trek, no pun intended. At the same time, you don’t think of it being like that because everybody talks about Star Trek being this hallowed, important scientific reserve thing. But really, that’s not what Kirk was. That’s not what any of these characters were. They were human. They were characters, they had heart, they had problems. They were the best of us, they were ethical and moral, but at the same time, they had feelings, and they felt like real people to us.
At Comic-Con, it was announced that Lower Decks is going to be crossing over with Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. What was it like seeing your characters brought to life in live-action?
First off, they look amazing. I was supposed to be up there [on set], but schedules didn’t align. They were there, and I was getting selfies of Tawny and Jack in their uniforms, hanging out with Jonathan Frakes and Ethan Peck, making fun of me that I couldn’t be there. They were all up there having this friendship bloom, and I got to see that when they all came together again in San Diego at Comic-Con. I also got to punch up the script and help make sure it felt like Lower Decks, so I was getting to write lines for Spock (Peck) and Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) and Pike (Anson Mount). I will say, they may have gone to strange new worlds before, but they have never had strange new characters like mine showing up on the show. It’s funny, I feel like the Enterprise crew is really good at figuring out and handling aliens, but they’re completely flummoxed by how to deal with human beings like I created.
And are there any bucket list actors or actresses that you would love to cameo in the show?
Gosh, I would love to work with Geordi (LeVar Burton) and Data (Brent Spiner). I’m a huge fan of [Star Trek: Enterprise], and I would love to work with as much of that cast as possible. I’ve been trying to figure out a respectful, cool, funny, surprising way to celebrate that show with Lower Decks and, you know, we’ve had 30 episodes. We haven’t gotten there yet. But I’ve spent so much time with Star Trek as part of my family in a way, like watching it when I was a kid. I’m one of those people that puts it on the background when I’m working on other stuff. I feel weirdly like I somehow know all these people — even though I’ve never met a lot of them — just because of their work and their characters. Getting to work with people like George Takei — that already feels insane to me. Gosh, getting to work with Gates McFadden. I don’t know, what am I gonna do, list off every person in the Star Trek world? Not only the bridge crew, legacy characters, but I’d love to work with more one-off characters. We like to celebrate deep dive, deep cut characters that were just on maybe one or two episodes of TNG, 30 years ago. Bringing them back and getting to work with them is kind of a trip, too. I feel like a kid in a candy store with this stuff. I want to work with everybody.
The world of Star Trek is so vast, and lends itself so well to this animated format. Are there any other worlds or universes that you would love to see in an animated format like this?
Lower Decks is so specific and tonally surprising that it’s very Star Trek. Obviously, Star Wars has some amazing animated dramas. My son and I just watched Star Wars Rebels and just loved it together. But you don’t want to undercut. The magic of Lower Decks to me is that it’s funny, but weirdly Star Trek at the same time. I think that there’s a way to do a Star Wars version of that, there’s definitely a way to do a Marvel version of that. She-Hulk and Deadpool both kind of play in that “We’re funny, but we are also at the table canon-wise as these legitimate stories in these worlds.” I think Star Wars could do to let its hair down a little bit. I think you see some parts of The Mandalorian where you’ve got so many comedic actors doing an amazing job in it. Like, I love Adam Pally in the first season. There is totally a way to do an animated, but also deeply respectful, deep-dive canon-safe version of those worlds. At the same time, it would have to be an idea that — like, when you read Star Wars comics and you’re like, “Yeah, this medium is really working for this idea.” For anybody out there working on this kind of stuff, it’s all about balance. You’ve got to be as funny as you can, but also, as weirdly respectful and careful as anybody doing the dramatic sort-of canon versions of this.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Star Trek: Lower Decks streams on Thursdays on Paramount+.