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Star Trek: Lower Decks creator Mike McMahan talks S2 finale, Pakleds, and what's next
It's safe to say that "Captain Freeman Day" did not go how anyone thought it would. Star Trek: Lower Decks has ended i's second season in classic Star Trek fashion, and by that we mean it ended in a way that we really should have seen coming but didn't.
Season 2 was full of surprises, including more Pakleds than any Trek fan ever thought they'd get. Some forgotten favorites returned, a lot of Tamarian sayings were heard for the first time, and Beckett Mariner sat in front of a taco salad. Series creator Mike McMahan and his crew said "warp me" with every episode, so SYFY WIRE took the opportunity to talk with McMahan about the finale, the season, and where they all may boldly go next.
***WARNING: Spoilers will follow for the Season 2 finale of Star Trek: Lower Decks. If you have not seen it yet, then slingshot around the sun and warp out of here.***
Was it always your intention to leave us with the "to be continued" in the classic blue font?
It's so funny you ask that. I knew where I wanted to end the season with Captain Freeman being arrested, but it wasn't until post where I was like, "Wait, what are we doing?" I literally went to our composer, Chris Westlake, and I was like, "I need a little more music at the end, because I'm going to put in the classic 'to be continued' in the blue font." And once that was in there, I was like, "How could this not have been the goal the whole time? It's awesome." It just works. Man, they just knew how to do it in the '90s.
I'm assuming the Pakled/Klingon alliance that you introduce an episode before the finale has something to do with Captain Freeman's arrest?
I don't want to give away too much of season three, but yes, the events of all the Pakled/Klingon stuff, the reason the Pakleds have Klingon disruptors, that does culminate in what has happened to Captain Freeman and is continued into the next season.
Is there a bigger villain behind all of this, someone we haven't met yet who is pulling the strings?
That is a good guess, and I've seen a lot of people guessing that. But there is not a "villain in a villain" here. It's really Pakleds, Pakleds being manipulated by one Klingon, and then them getting bigger and stronger than you could believe they could.
It's not Okona?
Unfortunately, it's not Okona, although he is outrageous. You've been given all the pieces to the puzzle right now, and then we're going to make it come into focus next season.
The Pakleds are this one-episode race of the week from Star Trek: The Next Generation, why did they serve as the perfect antagonists for this series?
That alien race stuck in my mind because I couldn't believe it existed as part of Star Trek. I thought I had imagined it until I saw it on DVD again. It was almost mythological. But then at the same time, when I was doing the finale at the end of season one, the one thing we hadn't called back to or Easter-egged explicitly was a commentary on real-world social issues and politics. And we were in this mode, deeply in this mode where the rise of fascism across the world, these things that were occurring around us… that felt like they had been solved. That even some of them felt like a joke, but that if you treat them like a joke and you allow them to grow, they become more dangerous for it, if you're not vigilant.
Not only did you bring Sonya Gomez back to Trek for the finale [TNG Season 2's "Q Who" and "Samaritan Snare"] brought back original actor Lycia Naff. How did that happen?
We're a show that lives in the little personal interplay before the episodes start to happen. So there were a couple of us, including me, that were like, "Why did Gomez get written off the show?" She seemed like somebody who was going to grow to become either a love interest or a friend for Geordi. And now in my adult life, I've read all of the histories of Star Trek and stuff. And I'm like, "Ah, it was intended like that. And ten things change as you're writing and then as you start filming."
But this character that stuck out to a group of people that were kids when they originally watched TNG, we were like, "Everybody gets so excited by Marina Sirtis and Jonathan Frakes coming back in season one. Let's bring somebody back that's exciting to us that might not be the person that you would expect. It might not be the person who's in all the movies." In fact, I'm not even sure of the last time Lycia Naff performed a fictional character. It was like, if anybody's going to do it, she's one of the original lower deckers. Let's make her a captain. Let's give her a win. In this episode, I tried to write her as an amazing captain. Where does she end up? What is her attitude? How does she treat her subordinates? Because we see her having a tough time on the Enterprise. And a real theme of this show is where do these characters end up in the end.
Deep Space Nine has a lot of characters like that too, if you ever wanted to throw some of them in there I wouldn't mind.
Interesting. I guess I should watch Deep Space Nine — I'm just kidding. It's interesting, Deep Space Nine is really, really important to the show. It's almost like how you can't look at the sun directly at the sun, because there's been little things, little character pieces of info that we've been getting about some of our leads because of Deep Space Nine. I loved Deep Space Nine. I think in Season 3, you shouldn't be too surprised if there's a little bit more DS9 action happening, or at least people referring to it.
I'm really just being selfish. Do the Trek "powers that be" ever ask you to steer clear of certain areas? For instance, "look we've got a Tellarite main character on this new show [Star Trek: Prodigy] so can you steer clear of inventing new stuff for them?
No. I mean, well, yes. It's not really the "powers that be." It's more that me and the other showrunners talk. And we don't want to take any big swings on anything that's going to ruin things that they're excited to do as well. So there have been a couple of times where — it really is mostly coming up with Prodigy and with Picard because they both take place just after my show. And so what we'll do is when we hand in a story, I highlight the things that might have a chance of affecting theirs. And then I jump on the phone with those showrunners and we talk through what we were thinking and this and that. There was something this season I changed slightly that I can point to as being a little change because they asked me to do it and it would make more sense.
Is it true that Jennifer and her resulting arc all started with a Tawny Newsome ad-lib?
That's true. Jennifer The Andorian had been drawn into a scene earlier in Episode 2 of the first season. And I loved her because she was wearing her hair the way my wife wears her hair sometimes. And then we had a [later] scene where Mariner has to run to try to get to save Boimler and Tawny just threw in. I was like, "Just give me effort and just... you're running, you're running. Just say whatever comes to mind while you're doing this." Because we improv a lot of stuff too. And she was like, "Got to save Boimler. Move, Jennifer!" And that just made me laugh so hard. And I was like, "Mark that. That's going into the show." And then on top of that, the artist chose, whoever was boarding that episode, put in the Andorian design because they knew that I liked it there. And that's how the whole Jennifer arc started. You find these serendipitous things and they just feel better than if you had made it happen on purpose sometimes.
How of those serendipitous things tend to happen because of Tawny Newsome riffing?
Oh, I don't know. I think it's hard to count because the bigger things like that, that's few and far between. If I could make that happen all the time, truly my life would be so easy. But with Tawny, it's really, Tawny's turns of phrase, the way she changes a line to say exactly what we wanted to say, but in a way that makes us bark a laugh unexpectedly. Because the better we get to know Tawny, the better we can write for Tawny. And sometimes we'll write a line where I'm like, "She's going to have fun with this one." And other times, I'm like, what I call a load-bearing line. If this line is changed, the episode won't make sense afterward.
So she, and honestly Jack [Quaid] and Noël [Wells] and Eugene [Cordero], they're all so amazing at giving me exactly what we need and then pushing it, and giving us funnier and better and unexpected. And the door is open for that. Anytime that stuff is improving the episode and making us laugh or even inspiring a character choice like that, they're our collaborators, why wouldn't we do it?
How many new Tamarian phrases did you and the staff create?
Oh my god. You do not know how much time I spent sitting around making up "made-up name" and "made-up name" at "made-up place" and being like, does this... I have a Word doc that's six pages long, single-spaced, of existing Tamarian phrases. We created Tamarian phrases we haven't used, what they mean, all these different things. And it's both really fun, but also exhausting to make it sound funny. And I think that the hardest one, man, going to Carl Tart [Kayshon] and being like, "Okay, now as a Tamarian, you have to use a pickup line." That was hard.
Aside from what you already told me, what can fans look forward to in Season 3?
We learn some more mysteries about Rutherford and his implant. We get to see a little bit more about the Pakled homeworld and how Freeman is embroiled in the detonation and destruction of it. It's all written. It's all being animated right now. And I think there's going to be a lot of new stuff, and some old favorites from our own show who will be returning as well.
Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 2 is now streaming on Paramount Plus. This interview was edited for length and clarity.