Published Nov 4, 2022
WARP FIVE: Lower Decks' Mike McMahan on Starfleet, Warp Core Ejections, and Comedy
Lower Decks! Lower Decks! Lower Decks!
By Christine Dinh
SPOILER WARNING: Discussion for the complete Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 3 to follow!
Welcome to Warp Five, StarTrek.com's five question post-mortem with your favorite featured talent from the latest Star Trek episodes.
Praise be the koala for it smiles on the latest season of Star Trek: Lower Decks! With the Season 3 finale, "The Stars at Night," we see another BADmiral put in his place, Starfleet saved from the autonomous Texas-class starships, Mariner back on duty aboard the U.S.S. Cerritos, and our favorite Bajoran security chief Shaxs ejecting the warp core thanks to Bold Boimler.
StarTrek.com had the opportunity to speak with series’ creator/executive producer/showrunner Mike McMahan on the very epic third season.
On Standing Out at Startfleet and Our Good Friend Buenamigo
In Starfleet, the hierarchal structure can inspire, but it can also corrupt as we saw in the actions of Admiral Les Buenamigo. How can one establish a name for oneself when you're no longer at the helm of a starship?
"There's a lot of amazing captains in Starfleet," McMahan told StarTrek.com. "There's over 800 episodes of people doing amazing things in Starfleet. And with the Dominion War over, everybody's kind of back to just exploring and doing their thing. There's only so many opportunities to stand out at that. When you have people like Picard who seem to be able to do all, it does appear in some admirals' minds that they need to do something flashy to be remembered in the history books or the history Holo-vids."
On the trope of bad-faith admirals, McMahan noted, "We typically don't see a lot of good admirals. Star Trek, at this point, if you've got an admiral showing up, it's really learning 80% that they're not going to be the friend of our crew for that episode."
As we witness across the third season and Project Swing By, Captain Freeman herself started to fall into that trap of wanting to stand out and make a name for herself. McMahan explained, "It's so silly. We're such goofballs. It's funny because Captain Freeman, she falls into that same trap of wanting to prove herself. But she's not an admiral; she's a captain of a California-class ship, which is not the coolest ship to be a captain of. It's probably not the ship you imagine that you're going to be a captain of. There's this little part of her that's always wanting to prove that she's got what it takes. If she was just happy with what she was doing, or confident at least, I think she'd be more happy. If she was confident with what she was doing, she wouldn't make these kind of mistakes where she's behaving in a way that's kind of driven by ego and emotion and wanting to prove herself."
On Mariner's Departure from, Return to, and Future at Starfleet
McMahan revealed there was some time between the third season's penultimate episode, "Trusted Sources," and the finale, "The Stars at Night." "Mariner went out and there's a bit of time difference between the end of 309 and the beginning of 310," said McMahan. "Cerritos has been repaired from their battle with the Breen. They're docked."
This time period has allowed Mariner to experience life beyond Starfleet following her resignation from Starfleet and striking it out on her own as an independent archaeologist with Petra. "What happens is the grass is always greener," McMahan commented. "There has been some time for Mariner to experience what it's like, it is really fun, and she does learn that she was right. She's on an adventure, but she's left her home, her friends, and her family. She finds out that those are more important than she realizes. There was a part of her that misses what Starfleet does; even with the stuff that she thinks are a pain in the ass, they are important to her."
On Mariner's revelation regarding Starfleet and what that means for her future, McMahan shared, "Sometimes it's like, 'OK, the system might be flawed, but I don't want to leave it because it's flawed. I want to be there, make it better, and be a part of it. That's what Mariner is falling on, which means that moving forward into Season 4, she's not going to be able to say, 'Oh, maybe I'll just leave.' Now, she has to figure out a way to make Starfleet work for her, or for everybody, because leaving just isn't an option."
On Independent Archeology and Striking Out on Your Own
Circling back to the grass is always greener, there's always the appeal of what it means to operate outside of Starfleet's strict standard operation. But you're not privy to what it entails until you're outside of the system. At the start of "The Stars at Night," Mariner starts to question the reality of hers and Petra's independent operation.
"You got to have somebody finance your trips," detailed McMahan, and making the connection to The Next Generation's Vash. "You're always running into the stuff that Starfleet's running into, but you don't have a big fancy ship and a crew that's backing you up. At the end of the day, Starfleet is kind of doing what Vash does, but they're just doing it slower and more methodically. That's what science is all about. Vash sounds fun, but what she does is more Indiana Jones crypt robbing. When you see Mariner running, at the beginning of the episode, that looks fun; while Starfleet would go down and slowly catalog, and do the work of actually learning about that stuff. Are you in it for the thrill or are you in it for the science?"
"At the end of the day, Mariner's in it for the science," added McMahan. "She wants to do it right. She wants to be around people doing something important and helping other people. At the same time, with Petra, Mariner's like, 'you could be doing bigger and better.' Petra used to be in Starfleet too and didn't like the military side of it. But, at the end of it, Mariner needs the balance of helping other people and learning at the same time."
On Bold Boimler, the Baby Bear
In addition to Mariner, we see all the Lower Deckers step out of their comfort zone this season. Tendi embraced her Orion side, while Rutherford learned the truth about his cybernetic implant. At SDCC 2022, actor Jack Quaid and McMahan both expressed how proud they were of Boimler this season.
On the Boimler we see this season, McMahan expressed, "It's a natural evolution to a character. When we first see Boimler in the first season, he's all enthusiasm, but full of self doubt. He's putting energy into the wrong places. And Mariner, even though she's a foil for him, does unlock the possibility for him to break the rules when he needs to or to speak up for himself or to try dangerous things or to throw himself into danger. Season 3 is an expression of how he, instead of being on his own with the things he learned at Starfleet Academy, he opens up to these other people. When he tries new things and when he puts himself in less than safe situations, like across this season, it actually in the end makes him a better officer and like what he does even more, which I don't think he ever expected to happen."
Boimler may have hurt Shaxs' feelings at the top of the "The Stars at Night," but he redeems himself by episode in when he makes sure the entire Bridge listens to the Cerritos chief security officer.
"I like that moment; he is focusing on Shaxs because he put his foot in it earlier that day," said McMahan, noting the ensign's actions on the Bridge. "At the same time, he goes outside of his usual careful nature with the captain because he's the only one who was really listening to Shaxs in that one moment. It's fun to see that he'll go up against the captain if he thinks that Shaxs is right. And he had to go through his day with misery having made Shaxs gearing up in the hallway and nobody really liked that happen. But at the same time, he's bold in that moment. He's been bold all season and that started to be end of Season 2 when he is diving into the Cetacean Ops."
On Character Development and Comedy in a Tight Series
With 10 episodes to play with each season, how much does that free or limit McMahan, and what does he hope to accomplish?
"It's important for me, for viewers, to have the characters always feel like you're going to come in and you're seeing the characters you know and you like," detailed McMahan. "But because we're on a streaming network and because we only have 10 episode seasons, I do like to slowly push people into new places every season. Not only because it's enjoyable to watch characters grow and not kind of stay stuck in amber where we preserve them. For comedies, a lot of the time, that's helpful. For comedy, you don't want your characters to change because you know want George and Seinfeld to always be the kind of joke machine that they are."
"And if they changed, it means it's going to change the kind of comedy now," concluded McMahan. "And that's hard. But at the same time in Star Trek, you want to slowly see people kind of improve. That's part of what Lower Decks is about; people finding out who they are. What we've tended to do for these characters is finding these new things about themselves in these seasons, even if it's only a little bit, even if it's the Tendi pirate episode or the big thing with Rutherford finding out about the implant. You want them to find it out but then still be themselves after, just a better version of themselves. And those give you different comedy opportunities to write."
All Season 3 episodes of Star Trek: Lower Decks now streaming!