On Thursday, the animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks returned with a bang for its third season with the episode “Grounded.” TrekMovie had a chance to speak with series creator and showrunner Mike McMahan about putting together the episode and how it sets up what’s coming in season 3.
The title of the season opener “Grounded” feels like it has many meanings, like how much of the humor is more character-based. Is that something you are moving towards in season 3?
For the first episode back, we wanted to feel like not only setting the stage for this season, but we also wanted to pay some of the bills from last season. And we wanted to celebrate episodes where you go back to Earth. So it has a little bit of all those flavors. I really love the episode because I love First Contact. I love James Cromwell. And I love all of the Earth-based episodes of TNG and Deep Space Nine. I like being there for that stuff, but yeah, I think it does set the stage for like, ‘Hey, this season is going to have a lot of heart in it.’ It’s not just going to be goofing around. We’re going to be goofing around! But also, we’re going to be doing some stuff with the characters that sets up more stages for the future.
Even though it takes place shortly after the season 2 finale, the season 3 opener feels like the characters are being slotted into new positions, literally and emotionally—Tendi shows off her science, Boimler shows more confidence. Was the intent to reposition the four lower deckers to set up their arcs for the season?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. It might feel sudden, but at the same time, we’ve had a year to watch that finale, where Boimler is literally diving through a threshold that he didn’t feel like he was prepared for. When you watch all 30 of these episodes in a row, all the characters change each season. They’re all based in experiences they’ve had in the seasons before. And the trick is, none of us have a huge change, right? Like there are things in our lives that make us feel more confident. And then we test to see if that’s who we are. And Lower Decks is all about exploring personal truth, not maybe galactic new planetary truth. And so, every year I challenge the writers and myself to say, “Okay, what are we learning about the characters this year?” What did they not know about themselves? What were they wrong about themselves? And, as any good Starfleet officer might do, how do they allow themselves to move forward and to actually learn from the experiences they had, without changing what the DNA of what Lower Decks is all about.
The senior officers are really in the background in this episode, but they are also the big heroes of “Grounded.” It feels like the sitcom lesson that Mariner has to learn is to trust the system, to trust Starfleet. Is that her lesson?
I don’t know if I’m saying trust all systems with that episode. But I think what I was trying to say is that Mariner very often is saying Starfleet can be better, Starfleet can do better. She’s a part of Starfleet, but she has notes. In this episode, I wanted to say: Listen, you’re not wrong, we could all always do better, but you can’t turn against the system that you want to be a part of that actually does have good elements to it that we’ve seen in so many episodes. Starfleet and the bridge officers need to have wins as much as they mess up. Lower Decks isn’t about fumbling, bumbling officers or tearing down Starfleet. It’s about there’s always ways to improve. And sometimes Mariner’s right. Sometimes Starfleet isn’t great at some things. But also, she can be wrong. And in that premiere episode, she’s so sure that she needs to take the reins that the last thing she expects is what her dad tells her at the beginning, which is to trust in Starfleet.
When it came to references, this time you went big with that huge First Contact sequence. Is that indicative of a different way to go beyond Easter egg references and just indulge in a thing?
Yeah. I think the reason we did that was—part of it is that I love First Contact. I love [director Jonathan] Frakes. I love that era. I love all the performances in it. Part of it was, that this was an Earth-themed episode and that’s one of my favorite Earth-based Star Treks. So it had to be on the table. But then on top of that, it was partially based on the Enterprise episode, where they go back and change the footage for the Mirror Universe. I loved that for an episode of Enterprise they literally went back to the movie and had it on screen. I was like, “How can we recapture that feeling, but in a Lower Decks way?” Because everything in Lower Decks is kind of like what are we getting inspired from in the Star Trek that we love? And so, it didn’t feel like a huge change of pace for me, because it was like, Oh, this has been done in Star Trek a couple of times. This is just our version of it.
Of course in First Contact, the Enterprise crew didn’t have a real sense of who Zefram Cochrane was really like, but here your Bozeman theme park shows his full rock-and-roll style. So from a canon perspective, are you saying they built this park after the Enterprise came back around what used to just be a simple statue monument kind of thing?
Yeah, because in the movie First Contact, when the Enterprise went back, the way Geordi describes as, “Oh there was a statue here.” But then part of the history of Zefram Cochrane is the movie First Contact. Them going back and logging about that becomes part of common knowledge. So now they are kind of celebrating the guy a little bit more as a person instead of like an idea.
So in your mind, it is well known that Picard and his crew went back in time and visited Bozeman and Cochrane, and they may even be featured in the theme park somewhere?
Yeah, I don’t know why they would have to keep secret about that. I know, there are rules about time travel, but that felt like a thing that happened to them, as opposed to a mission that time travelers decided to do. Like, if you didn’t tell people about that, couldn’t the Borg just keep trying to do that? To me, that would be common knowledge and not a protect the secrets of the past kind of thing.
Was getting James Cromwell back easy or complicated and what was it like directing him?
I was the voice director on that one. We have animation directors and voice directors and this season I got to direct Cromwell, and I got to direct all these fun legacy folks. But it was really hard to get him because half the time he is filming Succession, which I love. And the other half of the time he is protesting, causing mischief, which I love. So we had to wait for him to not be gluing his hand to a Starbucks counter, but also not be filming Succession. We were able to record him at his house remotely, which was great.
And he really nailed it. It’s him but different. He got the schtick right away, is what you are saying?
All our legacy actors get the schtick right away. And by schtick, I mean they all fall into this role that they’ve played before—and obviously, Cromwell has been in the movies, but also he’s been episodes of Star Trek, like on Deep Space Nine. So everybody from the legacy cast, they come in and they’re like, “Here’s how I would play this.” And we get them playing it exactly as they want to. But then on top of that, we’re like, “Okay, now give it to us a little faster, give it to us a little bit more of a smile.” We get both versions. We get the Lower Decks version, and we get the sincere kind of classic Star Trek version. And then, depending on what the scene is, we might use the kind of classic take instead of the “fun” take.
When you are bringing in a legacy character, how far into the scripting process do you go before you make sure you can get the actor?
We kind of write it in the script, and then we keep our fingers crossed. And we haven’t run into anything yet. Usually, at outline, I’m talking to [Alex Kurtzman’s production company] Secret Hideout, Henry [Alonso Myers] and Terry [Matalas] and Akiva [Goldsman] and the Hagemans [Dan and Kevin] and all the showrunners. And it is who’s planning on doing what with who, and here’s our plan. And as long as all of those align, and as long as I talked to John Van Citters [VP at Paramount Star Trek Group] and I’m like, “This is what I think would be happening in the timeline right now.” And I talk to [Star Trek author] Dayton Ward and [science consultant] Dr. Erin [Macdonald ]. We have all these brains that are working to make sure that it makes sense canonically, it makes sense comedically, it makes sense for the character, it makes sense for the other shows. And then we go out to find out if they’re available.
This episode wrapped up some storylines quickly, like even the Gavin thing was wrapped up in the end. Is that your way of keeping this show episodic? Because at first, it felt like you might be setting up his return later.
Yeah, we want every episode to feel like they are their own unique little island. And then at the same time, like with Peanut Hamper, we want them to feel like that and then sometimes we want to tell more of a story with them. But like my favorite Star Trek episode, I like to feel like things are resolved and that the stuff that we saw on that episode doesn’t rely on you having to wait to see more unless I’m very sure of what I want to do with it. So I love Gavin the character and I like ending on seeing him—like some people would have been like, “Oh, Gavin is out there having an adventure,” but other people might have been like, “Did Gavin die?” And I didn’t want those people to be left unresolved, because I liked Gavin. I like Bobby Moynihan and I wanted to see him maybe not being arrested but like being like, “Come on buddy, it’s time to get off the theme park ride.”
Do you feel that the balance of heart and comedy, the balance of deep cuts versus overt references in “Grounded” is sort of a new normal for Lower Decks, at least for season 3?
I don’t think there is ever a normal for Lower Decks. Every episode plays with balance, with comedy, with character. It’s up to you guys to deem if we are successful. But thematically for each episode, some episodes are about one character, some are about being a lower decker in general, some are about having a good time, and some are more dramatic. I would like to believe that we’re always pushing ourselves to be better and better every single episode and that there isn’t kind of a normal ever.
New episodes of Star Trek: Lower Decks stream Thursdays in the USA on Paramount+ and CTV Sci-Fi in Canada (where it’s also available to stream on Crave). It streams on Fridays on Amazon Prime Video in international territories around the world. In Latin America, Lower Decks debuts (both seasons 1 and 2) in September.
Keep up with all the news and reviews from the new Star Trek Universe on TV at TrekMovie.com