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Star Trek: Lower Decks' creator Mike McMahan on Season 2, Easter eggs, and growing the beard
Who’s ready for second contact? Star Trek: Lower Decks returned for Season 2 last week, and it picks up right where the jazz-tastic first season left off. The series may be known for packing in as many Star Trek Easter eggs as it possibly can, but that’s not where its true power lies. Behind all of the references, bits, and comedy, there are true Trek friendships forming between the characters, and that’s what makes this animated series so great.
Creator Mike McMahan (Solar Opposites, Rick and Morty) is definitely aware of this. He’s not out to make a show that is only about references… although that does come with the territory. SYFY WIRE spoke with McMahan (who was in the middle of writing the finale for the show’s Season 3) before Season 2 beamed in to ask about friendships, references, references to friendships, Captain Riker, Tom Paris, and more. Warp me.
Because it’s Season 2, I could ask which character is going to grow a beard… but instead, I’ll expect that in Season 4 you'll have someone come in with a shaved head and a goatee.
I will say, if anybody needs to grow a beard, it should be Boimler, which means we should probably grow one on somebody else and just have Boimler be like, "I want to have a beard," and he tries to grow one. We haven't talked about changing the character design to give somebody that beard, but I think you're right. I think it's got to happen at some point.
The show is hilarious, but something that sneaks up on you is how real the character bonds are and how much you care about them. You care about Mariner and Boimler as a duo as much as any other duo in Trek. Is that something that you seed into the comedy as it goes along?
Yeah. I mean, that's a huge goal of mine. I think the shows really find their footing when the characters are all becoming a surrogate friend group or family group for the audience. A lot of the time, that happens when you have gotten to a place with those characters and the actors have gotten to a place with each other and the writers have figured stuff out and everything is just humming.
So that friendship, that Kirk and Spock, that Geordi and Data, that's really what I'm here for. I’m not good at episode names. I'm not good at how many decks the Enterprise D has. That feeling you get is truly the most important thing about Star Trek to me. That's why that moment in Wrath of Khan, where they're on either side of the glass, that's what these stories are really coming down to. That's more important than nanobots. That's more important than space seeds and crystalline entities.
I wanted audiences to feel this kinship with these four characters. It might not be the best of the best, they might not be on the bridge, they might not be movie stars, but these are your friends. These are you, these are people that you care about.
Mariner references actual Trek episode titles a lot, at one point coming up she uses the phrase "Last Outpost Ferengi" because the Ferengi depicted are still using those damn whips that you never see again. Is that Mariner just being aware or just breaking the fourth wall or is that stuff that just comes out and recording this too funny not to use?
[In the] first season, that was giving me a real kick, and it all delves back to the moment where Riker and Troi walk off the holodeck on Enterprise, which Enterprise had episode titles, and it was all Riker watching it. So to me, that indicates that if at any one point you looked up what happened in Starfleet history? Did somebody title this file, "The Trouble With Tribbles?" Then that's why Mariner would know that. That's why Boimler would know it. Starfleet is all about going out and doing right and making the Universe a better place, but more than that, about learning. But there's no reason to learn unless you tell other people about it. There has to be a way for a Starfleet to take these episodic moments and tell everybody else in Starfleet about them, and somebody apparently is naming the files the things that we've been watching this whole time.
And possibly playing the theme song too, because last season you had Riker [Jonathan Frakes] emerge from the holodeck speaking the lyrics to it.
That was not in the script. We were in the recording booth with Frakes and he was destroying us. We were laughing so hard and I didn't want it to end. So then, I was literally writing up new lines for him on the fly to have him just take a crack at. That line cracked him up so hard that when he finally got it... It was hard to get him to say it without laughing during it. But then once he did, it was so much funnier that that snuck into the episode. I love that moment.
I have to ask how “Give me warp in the factor 5, 6, 7, 8" came to be.
We were going originally to have Frakes say "engage" as a callback to all of his years on the D. I remember Frakes saying, "I won't say it. That's not right. That's a step too far." He said that and I'm like, "God, he's f***ing right." So I was like, it's such a big thing to give. What he was saying to me was, all right, now I challenge you. What would be Captain Riker's "engage," which is an impossible question to ask. That would take me a year to figure out the exact right thing.
So instead, we pivoted to what is a dad joke/trombone Riker thing? Because, in this era of the Titan... it has to be something that would make Troi sort of sigh. That's my relationship with my wife, she loves me but occasionally there is that like, "oh boy." And "give me warp in the factor of a 5, 6, 7, 8," it was just the perfect trombone energy.
I feel like there’s no Trek reference too obscure for this series. Am I correct in thinking that?
Yeah. Our references aren't there as a joke and they aren't there for people to get. They're there for the characters to be living in a lived-in world. We had a big spreadsheet of alien stuff. It's rare on Lower Decks for the world to be something that we are creating and changing. There's all of this existing. There are 790 something episodes… our show is so different that adding the familiar for somebody is going to be helpful for us. Then, at the end of the day, we're writing Lower Decks for new viewers too, who have never seen an episode of Star Trek.
So what I find, that a lot of Star Trek fans don't understand is, all these little things that they're getting, if you don't understand what they are, it just sounds like sci-fi stuff. It sounds like a lived-in world. You don't have to get a single reference that we drop in Lower Decks to love these characters and to enjoy the episode.
Usually, there's a set level where someone would stop a bit, but you just keep things going well past the point of sanity.
It's always playing with the expectations of the audience, right? Lower Decks, it's almost like, how long can we sustain this real Star Trek show that happens to be a comedy? Or this comedy animated show that happens to be real Star Trek? It makes our job a lot harder, but it's really satisfying to know that... I was just telling somebody, I love that for the next 10 weeks, starting this week, there are new Star Treks every week. The dream is that that is just all the time. That every week, you can turn on your TV and there's going to be this new chance to spend time with Starfleet and with these characters.
Tom Paris makes an appearance this season, do you feel that it was your duty not only as head of this show, but as a fan, to make a "Threshold" reference?
That's our second "Threshold" reference in two seasons because we have that "Threshold" salamander first season. And then Mariner, of course, has to bring it up. Yeah, of course. We love the good Star Trek and what people claim is the bad Star Trek. But guess what? The “bad” Star Trek is what we're talking about all the time. That's how we're expressing our joy in the show. So, of course, the Lower Deckers would do the same.
Any hints or teases as to what fans can look forward to in Season 2?
I'll say this, we've kept almost all of the second half of the season out of the promo, and I think that episode 8, 9, and 10 are going to blow people away. So look forward to that. Okay? I think we may have topped what we did the first season. It's tough. We weren't trying to fight ourselves. We were trying to do something natural and new. But I think especially… Episodes 8, 9, and 10 are a blast. I'll say that.
Season 2 of Star Trek: Lower Decks is streaming on Paramount+. This interview was edited for length and clarity.