featured Interview

Interview: ‘Rick and Morty’s Mike McMahan Talks ‘Star Trek: Lower Decks’

August 6, 2020Ben MK

Despite its status as an international pop culture phenomenon that spans multiple films, TV shows and decades, Star Trek has, until now, never ventured into one last, final frontier — the medium of animated comedy. But in Star Trek: Lower Decks — the new series from the mind of Rick and Morty writer and Solar Opposites co-creator Mike McMahan — viewers will get to see just how funny Gene Roddenberry's sci-fi universe can be, as they explore the perils of deep space with the intrepid crew of the U.S.S. Cerritos — a hilarious journey as seen through the eyes of the scrappy, young Ensigns tasked with working the ship's lower decks.

I caught up with Mike McMahan to chat about Star Trek: Lower Decks and what it's like working on a TV show during the pandemic, as well as to find out where the show may be boldly going in season two.

First things first, how have you been keeping busy during this pandemic and how are you adjusting to the new normal?

McMahan: I am probably one of the busier non-medical people in the pandemic because we are still making the first season of Lower Decks. With animation, you're still making the final episodes while the first ones are aiming because there's little animation adjustments and audio and all this stuff. But when we went into lockdown, we hadn't even started our music score yet and we hadn't finished doing notes on any of the episodes beyond the first episode. There was a lot to do.

So we turned the entire production mobile so that people could work remotely and I have been very busy. I would say I've been busier during all of this than I was before it. But the headlines are that everybody's safe and the show is exactly how I wanted it to be and everything is looking and sounding great, so it's been an adventure but it's been a good one.

Star Trek has always been more about the human drama more than it's been about comedy. So where did the idea to do an animated comedy set in the Trek universe come from and how do you go about injecting your brand of humor into it?

McMahan: Selfishly, because I'm a huge Star Trek fan and I'm a comedy writer, the only kind of Star Trek that I would ever believably be able to pitch would be a comedy. And there's always been comedy in Star Trek, but the one thing that I really wanted to do — the one that felt like it was the best challenge — was to follow in the footsteps of the original animated series, where it's animated and it's different but at the same time it's intrinsically Star Trek.

So when I met with Alex Kurtzman and the rest of the folks at Secret Hideout, that was my take on it — let's treat Star Trek with reverence but then let's have the characters have a sense of humor. Let's channel those other funny episodes of Star Trek, like the Tribbles episode. There's a lot of comedy in the B stories in The Next Generation, which is what I grew up with. I'm a B story guy — I loved Data and Geordie goofing around together while there was the big A plot that was happening to Picard on the bridge. Or with Worf and Riker — there's so many characters that got to have fun on The Next Generation.

And the big, dramatic plots are still in Lower Decks. We just turned the volume down on them so they're in the background. And then we turned the volume up on the comedic B stories and let them take over the show. So to me, it doesn't even feel like I changed the formula that much. I just changed the amount of how much ingredients you put into it.

Of course, you're best known for Rick and Morty. Can you tell me how your work on that show, plus your work on Short Treks and Solar Opposites, may have influenced Lower Decks?

McMahan: For Rick and Morty, the thing that I came away with really, really loving after working with Dan Harmon for about six years on that show — and that I'll do on every show — is not only breaking the plot and the comedy, but really making sure you break the emotional story that's happening to the characters. More often, you break that first and then you go, "And then why is this also funny and why is this also a Star Trek show? What is the sci-fi element of it?"

Rick and Morty was great but I was really writing up to Dan and Justin [Roiland's] voice as show creators. Everything was to make sure that it fit into what they wanted. And on Lower Decks, everything is written up to the way I wanted — what I love about Star Trek and the kind of characters I want to explore and the kind of comedy I want to have. So Rick and Morty is amazing — I love it and I miss all of those guys — but this just feels like a completely different show to me. I think every show you try and create something different.

Solar Opposites was my expression of a goofy, no-wrong-answers-let's-have-fun-all-the-time version of a '90s family sitcom that just gets crazier every episode. So the real fun of it was just taking what I had learned from all these shows and saying, "Ok, what if we had all the problems and all the fun of trying to figure out the episodes and the character stories on an animated comedy, and now we also have to have to create a full Star Trek episode. And where do those things intersect? What never feels like you got too funny at the expense of Star Trek and what never feels like you got too Star Trek-ey at the expense of having a good time?"

Since you're a big Star Trek fan yourself, what's been the best part so far of being able to be a part of one of the most celebrated sci-fi franchises out there?

McMahan: I am a huge Star Trek fan so this feels like in Willy Wonka when the little kids get to go into the factory. I'm like the Charlie Bucket of getting to work in Star Trek lore. And it was important to me that the show feels — if you don't look too hard it — like it doesn't break canon, it can fit in with all the other Star Trek shows. It was my way to sneakily get to do a real "Star Trek show" while also getting to provide this animated comedy. I love writing characters, I love working with the voice actors — Tawny Newsome, Jack Quaid, Noël Wells, Eugene Cordero and Dawnn Lewis as the Captain and everybody else — and creating this new little area of Starfleet that might speak to somebody like how it speaks to me.

But the number one with a bullet thing that I loved to do was design the ship. As a Star Trek nerd, getting to design a new ship that a whole new show was going to take place on was just heaven for me. I was geeking out so hard. And the ship design references the TNG-era Enterprise D Constellation Class ships, but it also heavily references Khan's ship in Wrath of Khan, The Reliant, that he fights the original Enterprise with. Just getting to do that and getting to figure out the design and where everything goes and what it looks like — getting to add something to Star Trek — I was just a kid in a candy store. It was awesome.

Was there a scene or an episode that was most memorable for you to work on so far?

McMahan: The pilot was fun to write but we were still learning about the show with everybody else, which happens on every show. But the episode [where things] really started to land was the episode where Boimler and Mariner are on this Telgana Four planet where there's a little Risa and a little Andoria town and a little Kronos. That's when things started to click in for me, but I really think that the second half of the season was where we really understood the characters and we really understood the stories we were telling. And that's when the show goes from being good to being great. I really like the first half of the season and I'm really proud of what we did but I'm writing the season finale of season two, and I would say that from the first season's midpoint on I absolutely love it.

Is there a certain character on the show that you relate to the most?

McMahan: I think I probably relate to all the Lower Deckers in different ways because I have been in their position in different ways — I can't really have one rise to the top the most. Mariner being too smart for her own good and getting herself into trouble; Boimler being so proud of where he is and wanting to please everybody; and Tendi just being a ray of sunshine. I used to get made fun of at Rick and Morty a little bit for just being so happy to be there and so optimistic that they would call me Mr. Ray of Sunshine. And that's what I like about Tendi — she just finds the silver lining on everything, she loves being in Starfleet. And then Rutherford is the kind of guy who's willing to take a chance on something — even if he doesn’t get it right, he's always learning.

But I've worked as an assistant, I've worked in bars, I've worked setting up chairs, I've done a lot of jobs where I'm not in charge of a whole television show. And most of my career was that — getting people who are doing bigger things coffee. And all the people I worked with in those positions were great and they were made of stern stuff and they went on to do great things. But we've never seen a Star Trek show about people who start at the bottom and then find out who they are. You get to see how somebody gets to be the officer that you might see on a traditional Star Trek show. So each of those Lower Deck officers feels like a different part of me.

Last but not least, where do you see Lower Decks boldly going in season two?

McMahan: I can say that the season one finale has some questions and some epic stuff that happens that drive right into season two. And that season two delivers on the season one finale in a way that feels like something you haven’t seen in Star Trek before. And, again, it's really funny and we get to learn even more about each characters as season two progresses.

Star Trek: Lower Decks premieres August 6th on CTV Sci-Fi Channel, Crave and CBS All Access.

You May Also Like