‘Star Trek: Lower Decks’ EP Mike McMahan On That TNG Cameo and LGBTQ Characters in Season 2

After 10 irreverent, often wildly weird episodes, “Star Trek: Lower Decks” concluded its inaugural season as the first animated “Trek” series in 47 years with two striking salutes to “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

(Warning: The rest of this story contains spoilers.)

The first “TNG” callback: The crew of the U.S.S. Cerritos run afoul of the Pakleds, a dimwitted alien species that have grown alarmingly lethal since we last saw them on the Season 2 “TNG” episode “Samaritan Snare.” Ne’er-do-well ensign Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsom) and by-the-book ensign Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid) have to team up with Mariner’s hard-charging mother, Capt. Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis), to defeat the Pakleds.

The second “TNG” callback: Just when it seems like the Cerritos has escaped, three more Pakled ships arrive and threaten to destroy the ship — until the U.S.S. Titan, led by Capt. Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) swoops in to save them.

The arrival of Riker and Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirits) marks the strongest connection yet for “Lower Decks” to the fabric of the larger “Trek” universe. Variety spoke with “Lower Decks” creator, showrunner, and executive producer Mike McMahan about the major effect Riker’s appearance will have on the series, the show’s relationship to “Trek” history, and why McMahan says the show will be better about LGBTQ representation in Season 2, due to premiere in 2021.

Let’s start with the very end of the season: Will the Titan be a main location next season now that Boimler has transferred to that ship?

Yep. We’ll see the Titan next season because Boimler is off the Cerritos, and we’ll be seeing Capt. Riker again as well. Boimler has been talking about moving on to bigger and better all first season, and now we’re going to see what happens when he gets what he wants.

Would that suggest that Marina Sirtis will also be on the show?

The stories that are on Titan are really more revolving around Riker and Boimler. However, I loved Marina and we loved working with her first season. The stories didn’t go that way, but I definitely need to get her back, because she was a blast to work with.

Will we see more “Next Generation” cameos as well?

That, my friend, I will not tell you, I would say, feels like a pretty good chance of it.

With Boimler getting promotion and transferring to the Titan, you really do seem to be tackling a question I’ve wondered about this season: How can this be a show about the lower decks if the main cast starts to get promoted?

Yeah, it’s tough. The theme of the show is where do bridge crews come from? What happens when you start ranking up? What did you learn as a lower deck officer that you start taking there? That’s all stuff that we tackle second season, and hopefully beyond.

Other than Troi and her mother Lwaxana on “TNG,” I can’t think of another time we’ve really seen a mother-daughter relationship explored as much on “Trek” as we see with Mariner and her mom, Capt. Freeman. What made you want to put that at the core of your show?

Well, I knew that I wanted the character of Mariner to be this vibrant, questioning of authority-type character. And I wanted the captain of the Cerritos to really seem like a “Star Trek” captain. So there had to be a reason that Mariner wouldn’t be drummed out of Starfleet every episode. The intrinsic mother-daughter relationship – kind of basing it on when my sister was younger and would throw down with my mom occasionally — like, nobody can get under somebody’s skin like their child or their mom.

Another thing about that relationship is that Boimler is often really flummoxed by how well connected and knowledgeable Mariner is, but he doesn’t know that it comes from the fact that Mariner has been essentially born into Starfleet, which is something that Mariner doesn’t always seem quite aware of or grateful for. Were you meaning to explore privilege with that dynamic?

You know, not really. I don’t think it’s a wrong interpretation of it. But the thing about privilege is that some people have it, some people don’t. But everybody has their own story as well. There’s an episode in the first season where you meet Mariner’s close friend, confidant, and probably lover from the Academy days, who literally says, “You used to be the best of us, you were going to be a captain, what happened to you?” There’s a whole other show that has happened to Mariner before we meet her on the Cerritos that she references every once in a while that hasn’t caused her to lose faith in the idealism of the Federation, but in the system itself. Seeing how she grows from that event and then slowly over time finding out things that expand our understanding of why she is how she is, that’s kind of more important to me than the other aspects of it. But yes, there is a part of it that, you know, her dad is an admiral. Her mom is a captain. Not only does that mean that she is kind of Starfleet royalty, but also what does that mean of their expectations of her and her abilities, and that always comes with its own kind of package of trouble.

It sounds like you weren’t necessarily trying to explicitly subvert the idea of privilege, especially as we’ve been in our world talking about it quite significantly in just over the last six months or so.

From my point of view, it was more about experience. Mariner at one point was like Boimler. She was the wide-eyed person who hadn’t gotten enough experience, and at some point, when you have a dream of what you want to do for a living and then you actually go work at it and see how the sausage is made, you either decide one of two things: Do you fit into the system, or do you make a new system? Boimler doesn’t know that yet, and Mariner does.

You also just mentioned something about Mariner that I didn’t really pick up on during the show: Her friend, Capt. Amina Ramsey, was her lover when they were at the Academy?

Yeah. We weren’t explicit about it, because most of the relationships in this show are familial or friendship love. It’s not physical love. That character showing up, the story we’re telling about them has nothing to do with any previous relationships they’ve had. For me and for the writers as we were making this, we didn’t intentionally mean for anybody to be strictly heteronormative or straight or cis. Every Starfleet officer is probably at the baseline bisexual, in a way. That being said, I am not the most amazing person at writing those kind of stories. I think we get a little bit better about it in the second season.

You’re right that no one on the show is exactly explicitly straight, but no one is explicitly LGBTQ either. It sounds like that’s something you’re digging into more for Season 2?

It is. It’s something I think we need to be better about. If there’s anything I can say about inclusiveness — whether it’s about sex or gender or race or anything — is that I know that I can always learn more and be better about it, and I’m always trying to do that. This is one of those cases where we could have done a better job of explicitly stating the things that the writers always knew about Mariner. It seeps in there in little ways, which even irritates me even more, like you start off the season with Mariner saying, “Whoa, she’s like the hottest girl on the ship, are you nervous?” —  that’s one of her first lines. That doesn’t put a stake in the ground, which I wish we had done a little bit more explicitly. It’s always a learning experience. We’re going to be trying to be better about it. And we are more explicit about it in the second season.

You obviously are bringing a level of comedy and irreverence to “Star Trek” that hasn’t been there before, but it also feels like you’re using this show to answer some questions you have about “Star Trek” as a fan. Like, what did ever happen to the Pakleds, the dim-witted aliens from “The Next Generation”?

Yes, absolutely. We didn’t want to set up early in the show that every episode was going to be like, “Hey, here’s a legacy character, and hey, here’s a planet we’ve been to before.” But we do want that to be involved in the show, and part of that was that every episode, it was like, what are the most “Star Trek” episodes we can make? And for the finale one of the themes that we hadn’t hit on for the season yet that explicitly was metaphorically saying something about problems and the world right now. We needed a villain that kind of matched the re-rise of fascism, this thing that we thought we’d nipped in the bud is back! That’s why he wanted to take a character that was kind of a joke from the TNG episodes and say, what if, because they were a joke, people didn’t take them seriously enough, and they got too powerful, and now they are actually dangerous and people are paying with their lives for not taking them seriously?

When the season started especially, some fans took issue with how irreverent the show was about “Star Trek.” Was that surprising to you?

No, not at all. I mean, fans are taking issue with every season of “Star Trek” that has come out since the original series, and they didn’t watch TOS until it was in syndication. If fans hadn’t taken issue with everything, I would have been blown away. And also, I’m a “Star Trek” fan. The thing that was scary to me was that you have stuff that works like “Galaxy Quest” and “The Orville” — they’re just not “Star Trek,” which is fine. They’re almost “Star Trek.” My challenge — this was my chance to get to make a “Star Trek” that I was proud of. And I really honestly felt like, listen, I’m going to do the best show that I can possibly do on a day-to-day basis, that really fulfills the joy and the sanctity that “Star Trek” has to me. That’s never going to please everybody. They might not be fans of animation. They might not be fans of adult animation. They might not be fans of my type of adult animation. I can’t really control that.

You can’t really be irreverent if you don’t have true reverence for your subject, and “Lower Decks” clearly comes from a place of deep awareness of “Star Trek” — it’s packed with so many “Trek” references.

It almost feels like we were a group of kids that were out at night, and somebody left the door in the candy store open, and we all went running in and filled bags of candy and ran off like thieves in the night. When we knew that we had the “Star Trek” name on the show, that changed the kind of storytelling you can do. In any sci-fi show, sci-fi is happening all the time. I worked on “Rick and Morty” so for so long; you need the show to be populated with sci-fi stuff, and eventually you’re looking at a list of made-up words. “Oh, it’s the Glasnars! What did we say the Glasnars were about?”

For “Lower Decks,”  there’s 700 episodes and 13 or something movies! When we needed these characters to be referring to stuff in their sci-fi world, we just pulled our favorite moments, and because there were so many “Star Trek” geeks working on the show, there was never a moment where somebody was like, “Alright, I better start digging through guidebooks or Memory Alpha.”

Were there any references you were most excited to get onto the show?

For me, my favorite thing is probably the Exocomp [i.e. the sentient robot introduced on “TNG”] in the finale. I love the Exocomps. I think the actual model of the Exocomp, the physical model, is somehow both ludicrous and insanely adorable at the same time. Because you can tell in the original episode they’re being held up with fishing line, I had the artists design the way the Exocomp moves, to sway a little bit when she’s on fishing line. The idea of painting a Starfleet uniform onto a little Exocomp just really tickled me. I know that’s a really nerdy answer and it doesn’t have a lot of weight to it but, that’s the kind of silly like thing that brought me a lot of joy that made it worth having to explain to some producers what an Exocomp was! It’s a deep cut, but it’s not to me.

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