The creator of the animated series says there are plenty of stories to be told of the support crew on a not-so-important spaceship
Ardent Trekkie Mike McMahan never thought he would get to make a Star Trek show till Alex Kurtzman (the showrunner of Star Trek: Discovery has a five-year deal with CBS Television Studios to expand the franchise) asked him what his dream Star Trek show would be. “I told them there have been so many shows that are about the bridge,” Mike said. “We keep seeing these different ships, but there has never been a show that has taken place on parts of the ship where they don’t have as much responsibility or experience.” And that was how the animated series, Star Trek: Lower Decks, which looks at life below decks of the U.S.S. Cerritos, was born.
Over a call from Los Angeles, the writer and producer of the animated sci-fi sitcom, Rick and Morty, spoke of Star Trek, Star Wars, animation versus live action, the lower deckers, the setting and visual style of the show. Excerpts.
Why did you choose to focus on the support crew?
Whenever you read a book about the different Star Trek shows, everybody says after 800 episodes of Star Trek, there are no stories left to tell. Nobody had told stories about the crew on the lower decks or about a ship that wasn’t as important. No stories had been done yet with these kind of guys. It felt fresh and exciting to me.
I wanted to do a Star Trek that felt that it was proper Star Trek but at the same time was funny. It is faster at 25 minutes, and being animated we could bring an animated look to the comedy. The last animated Star Trek was a Saturday morning show and now we are doing an adult show on streaming. The concept was to do a funny show that is also Star Trek.
You mentioned Lower Decks is only the second animation Star Trek series after the ‘73—‘74 one. What has become easier or more difficult?
I watched that one as a kid and it was obviously great for somebody my age. It was exciting to do an animated show for adults or for the kid inside of us. Animation for television at that time was completely different.
I work with Titmouse Animation that does a lot of shows. Everything is done on computers. We are all working from home as we are in lockdown in Los Angeles. It is interesting that we can have meetings every day where everybody is looking at the art. We can change stuff and use computers to make stuff look more realistic but also much more scientific and vibrant than people were able to do back in the ‘70s. It is partially easier but there is also a higher bar. I was looking at computer-generated models of the Cerritos today and all of the detail we put into it. There is a lot of work going into every single frame now. So even though we can do more, it doesn’t mean that it is easier because, we are working even harder.
What are the pros and cons of animation versus live action to tell a Star Trek story?
Animation lets us do some cool stuff like aliens that that might be too hard to do for special effects. It helps with the comedy, because we get to draw this stuff funny, the ways the characters are reacting or the situations they are in. We also get to go to parts of the ship that you might not be able to see because it would break the budget to build those sets. We try to find a balance, to make our animated show look like it was done on a physical set and we try to shoot the show like live action. We can also do battles and these kind of big, cool CG beautiful things that look even more beautiful in animation than maybe you would get with live action models.
Can you comment on the visual design?
From a character standpoint we wanted it to look like an adult animated comedy like it might live in a primetime Sunday night setting. I grew up loving the Simpsons and Futurama and I worked on Rick and Morty. Those big, expressive white eyes and those characters call out as adult animated comedy to me. We also wanted things to look like they are from Star Trek so the technology, ships, rooms and even sounds, are all taken and modified from Star Trek The Next Generation (TNG) and that era of shows.
Mariner is named after your sister. Does she share any of her characteristics?
(Laughs) They both speak their mind, are awesome at what they do and drive their moms crazy but at the end of the day they are both great people. My sister, however, knows what she likes to do while Mariner is still trying to figure stuff out so the similarities end at some point.
Who is your favourite character from Lower Decks?
I can’t pick between the four lower deckers—Tawny Newsome is so hilarious as Mariner, the same for Jack Quaid as Brad, Tendi is the sweetest played by Noël Wells, and Eugene Cordero as Rutherford is always so funny and singular. If I had to pick one character on the Cerritos that always makes me laugh, it is Jack Ransom voiced by Jerry O’Connell. There is literally no scene or moment that he doesn’t have me rolling.
Do you subscribe to the theory that Star Trek is about discovery while Star Wars is more about conquest?
No, I think Star Trek and Star Wars are both different expressions of a fantasy. Star Wars is a fantasy about trying to bring light and goodness through adventure. Star Trek is post Star Wars. They are both fantasies about bettering oneself in fantastical settings. Star Trek is in the future while Star Wars is a long time ago.
Do you have a favourite Star Trek character?
Star Trek is about the friendships. Every series has an amazing friendship. My favourite one is Data and Geordi on TNG. I could watch those two characters hang out all day, two friends geeking out over the same stuff is a lot of where the friendships in Lower Decks come from.
Why did you set Lower Decks after Nemesis?
When I was creating Lower Decks, I was told that I could choose which era it took place in. I grew up watching Star Trek The Next Generation, that is the one that feels like home to me.
Star Trek Lower Decks is presently streaming on Amazon Prime Video