Published Nov 13, 2023
WARP FIVE: Mike McMahan Reflects on the Fourth Season of Star Trek: Lower Decks
From the Orion homeworld to a follow-up of a TNG thread, the series showrunner shares how each installment impacted our intrepid crew.
By Christine Dinh
SPOILER WARNING: Discussion for Star Trek: Lower Decks - Season 4, Episode 10 finale "Old Friends, New Planets" to follow!
That’s a wrap on the fourth season of Star Trek: Lower Decks!
This season, the creative team behind the hit animated comedy series took us aboard a historically significant starship, promoted our Core Four Lower Deckers, and gave each of them the opportunity to show off those new pips in a medley of new adventures.
Ahead of the season finale, “Old Friends, New Planets,” StarTrek.com had the opportunity to sit down with series creator and showrunner Mike McMahan to look back at how each installment culminated into the season’s two-part cinematic “Lower Decks movie.”
The Next Generation Connection
Prior to the creation of Star Trek: Lower Decks, Mike McMahan connected with the Star Trek audience with his popular Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 8 Twitter account, which comes full circle with this season’s “The Inner Fight” and “Old Friends, New Planets.” These two episodes tie back to 30+ years old storylines from the TNG era’s “The First Duty” and “Lower Decks.”
“It’s my ultimate little sneaky nerdy joy to be like an assistant writing fake episodes of Star Trek for free on Twitter, and I’ve now manifested them into some real episodes,” McMahan enthusiastically shares. “It’s awesome. I love Wrath of Khan. I love submarine movies in general, and this is our Lower Decks homage to all of that.”
Referencing to events in the season finale, McMahan adds, “I got to put a mini Genesis Device with a seatbelt on the bridge and have Mariner call it ‘GD.’ I was in heaven. This ruled!”
As for the reemergence of Nick Locarno, McMahan notes, “Usually, I like Starfleet officers to kind of have figured things out and get to move on up. But then other times, I like to go and punish characters for making me feel bad for when I was a teenager and I first watched it.”
Star Trek: Lower Decks - Nick Locarno
“’The First Duty’ really upset me,” states McMahan. “Just like how I had the Lower Deckers kind of reach back and [prank call] Armus. I was like, ‘It’s time for Nick Locarno to get his due. It’s time for me to get a little back on Nick.’”
“We already have Tom Paris,” adds McMahan. “We get to see what a redemption story for a character like that. So we have that one, but now what’s the ‘Harry Mudd didn’t get it together, Tom Paris sort of did’ story. It was a blast getting to do that. And I love working with Robert Duncan McNeil. Robbie, we’d had him on the show Season 2 and I had just been dying to get him back [in the recording booth], and this was the perfect way to do it.”
Reuniting the Nova Squadron
Star Trek: Lower Decks - Cadet Mariner
The season finale not only got to bring back Robert Duncan McNeil, but it also included the return of Wil Wheaton as Wesley Crusher and Shannon Fill as Sito Jaxa.
Fill had largely retired from acting following her appearance on TNG. McMahan gives us insight on how they brought her back out of retirement for the series. “It was a lot of work from my producer Brad Winters and our casting team because I don’t believe she had acted in 35 years. We had a really hard time tracking her down.”
“When we finally did, she drove down from Central California to reprise her role for us,” shares McMahan. “She was the nicest, sweetest human being. She brought her daughter to watch her record. It was such a blast. My producer still texts with her. We love her. We’re begging her, ‘You’ve got to come out.’ The fans haven’t gotten to talk to her in decades. We need her to come to conventions and see how much the fans love Sito and that was awesome.”
“We told her this was a story that affected us when we watched it,” elaborates McMahan. “Now, we are channeling that through a character through one of our leads. For [Shannon], it was almost a surprise that… it was kind of news to her how affecting this work was that she had doc. This arc that she made so many years ago almost when she was a different person. It’s cool on Lower Decks when we get to dive into stuff that you or I might watch because we throw it on in the background or because we’re rewatching a season. But then to actually sit down with the performer and revisit that, it’s almost like a time machine. It’s really interesting.”
“When I record with [Jonathan] Frakes, I’m doing a variation on Riker,” McMahan continues. “I’m doing fun, loud, that new era Post-Nemesis, pre-darker stuff Riker where he is out there having a blast. And with Shannon, it was like we’re trying to recapture a performance that she gave that makes you feel like there’s one more. I like finding performances that are like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this exists.’ There’s one more little moment for this character to shine. It was really cool to get to do that.”
In “Old Friends, New Planets,” we see Nick Locarno lamenting about they’ll graduate and go their separate ways, and why he wanted to pull off a stunt like that, as opposed to seeing our Lower Deckers promoted at the end of the Season 4 opener, running their own missions, but still finding time for their friendships.
“When you leave the Academy, you’re going to end up on another ship, but you might make new friends there,” reflects McMahan. “You don’t have to lose the friends you made before. Nick Locarno is all about fame. He’s all about showing off. He knows he’s the best and he makes choices that I wouldn’t agree are very Starfleet-worthy. I really like that we’re learning about what Starflight officers should be by seeing his mistakes. At the same time, you can see a great Starfleet officer. Occasionally, you’ve got to see one that lets you down to be like, ‘Yeah, that just doesn’t feel right.’”
Tendi’s Starfleet Future
In the closing moments of “Old Friends, New Planets,” Tendi fulfills her promise to her sister D’Erika to leave the Cerritos behind and return home.
Speaking to where that leaves one of our Core Four, McMahan reaffirms his New York Comic Con statement that “Something Borrowed, Something Green” won’t be the last of the Orion homeworld we’ll see.
“We are not only going to see more Orions and more of Tendi, but what I wanted to do was make you feel for a moment that this was the end,” McMahan cheekily reveals. “This was something that was happening to her she didn't want. Then, we see her in that moment realize that she has been reactive for so many instances where she's like, ‘Am I Starfleet or am I Orion? How are other people defining me and do I have to be careful?’ And there's that moment at the end of this episode where the music hits and she gives this look and she has this confidence where you see the Mistress of the Winter Constellations for a second, where she's like, ‘Fuck waffling around anymore. I'm going to define myself and chooses.’ She's not being forced to go back. She's choosing to go back. For her, that felt like a cool moment for Tendi, just like how we had a cool one for Mariner this season.”
The Rest of the Lower Deckers
In “The Inner Fight,” it’s Ma’ah who helps Mariner see what Starfleet means to her.
“He redefined it [for Mariner] when he was like, ‘You're not wrong to be mad. You're not wrong to be sad, but there's another option if you want to take it, how to express it,” McMahan explains. “You're allowed to feel lost. You're allowed to mess up. You're allowed to let your emotions take over, but there's also a way for you to let your emotionality be a power, to let it fuel you to do what's right and to honor.”
“Klingons are so about honor,” adds McMahan. “It was the perfect entity to hear what she was saying and just even without even thinking, he's like, ‘You need to honor her. If you care this much about her, you don't want to be destroying yourself. You want to be destroying your enemies.’ And just hearing that take, and Mariner does have a relationship with Klingons before that, I think she just had never spoken. This season brought her, she got a promotion and she couldn't get rid of it. Ransom wouldn't let her get rid of it.”
“And then she starts trying to put herself in a violent situation,” McMahan states. “She starts being unpredictable and it isn't until she's in a fight to the death with a Klingon and then there's a rain delay that she can even speak about these things she's never spoken about before because she thinks that they're just going to fight to the death anyway. And then I like that there's this change in her, this pretty quick change in her where she knows that she can go about it differently. But Boimler and Rutherford and Tendi and T'Lyn weren't in that cave. She still gets to have it as her thing. And will she ever tell them about that moment? I don't know. But it's something she shares with Ma’ah, and Ma'ah keeps things on lock. You know what I mean? So I like that she can make that choice and it's still a part of herself that isn't necessarily out there for everybody else to have an opinion on, but that she still was able to address it. I loved getting to do that.”
The finale also gets to see Boimler in the captain’s chair aboard the Cerritos when Captain Freeman and the senior crew are aboard the Orion warship. On that moment, McMahan notes, “What's interesting to me about Boimler is Boimler is kind of the part of all of us that's like, ‘If I get this, I'll be set.’ And then you get it and you're like, ‘Oh wait, there's all this other stuff, or I wish I could have done it better.’ Boimler is always two steps forward, one step back. And so there's really fun stuff in Season 5 where now he's had a taste of it and how does that cause him to move forward? We don't pull him back down, you know what I mean? But now he's like, that little boost of confidence causes some really fun stories to happen next season as well.”
Can we contribute that to Boimler surviving death leading his first away mission in "In the Cradle of Vexilon"? “He seems to survive a lot of death, doesn't he?” jokes McMahan. “Part of surviving death medicinally in Starfleet is you never get used to it.”
On What to (Not) Expect in the Upcoming Fifth Season
In a lightning round with McMahan, we covered on what fan-favorites we can or cannot expect to see next season.
During Nick Locarno’s all comms address in “Old Friends, New Planets,” we see Goodgey react to the transmission along with the crew aboard the Cerritos. Commenting on our new A.I. friend, McMahan remarks, “You'll see Goodgey a little bit. There isn't a big Goodgey story in Season 5 because I had told three. I like to take a season off sometimes, and we just did a big Badgey / AGIMUS / Peanut Hamper episode.”
“So, Season 5, there's not a big robotic A.I. story,” continues McMahan. “I've kind of put that to bed for the moment. And there's other things we're doing in Season 5.”
Don’t take that to mean the series is done with our motley crew of A.I. companions. “I would love to tell more,” clarifies McMahan. “I love Goodgey. Goodgey makes me laugh, and I would love to check in with AGIMUS and see how those other base computers are doing. I like those guys. They make me laugh.”
Our odd-numbered seasons saw “Crisis Point” (Season 1) and “Crisis Point 2: Paradoxus” (Season 3). Will the fifth season see the next installment for a possible holodeck trilogy?
“In Season 5, we don’t get a Crisis Point 3,” concludes McMahan. “But I use that time for something really fun. You will get some really cool stuff next season.”