After an acclaimed crossover episode with Strange New Worlds, Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 4 certainly hit the ground running when our favorite ensigns got promoted to Lieutenants Junior Grade. The crew of USS Cerritos definitely have their work cut out for them as the season long arc of a mysterious vessel finally comes to a head.

L-R Tawny Newsome as Ensign Mariner, Eugene Cordero as Ensign Rutherford, Noel Wells as Ensign Tendi and Jack Quaid as Ensign Brad Boimler appearing in season 4 key art of Lower Decks streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Paramount+

Ahead of the final two episodes of the season, The Beat had the pleasure of participating in a press roundtable at New York Comic Con with Star Treks: Lower Decks creator showrunner Mike McMahan. During our conversation, McMahan discussed not only the new character dynamics of the Lower Decks Season 4 but also teased his long-term plans for the series. 

Q: Star Trek: Lower Decks is known for its comedic take but still remains true to the franchise. How does that continue to play out with Lower Decks Season 4?

Mike McMahan: Obviously, Lower Decks inverts the usual Trek paradigm of a lot of serious and a little comedy. [Lower Decks] is a lot comedy and then it gets really serious and you’re like, “Oh no! I’m having feelings!” It’s been really fun this season promoting them because I was worried at first that this would change the basic DNA of the show. Would it not feel like Lower Decks anymore? Would it feel like the college years or something? You don’t want somebody to come back and say, “Here’s a show I love. It’s different now?”

In producing this season not only did it give us a ton of lower decks situations that still feel lower decks, but I still feel lower decks. [Alex] Kurtzman is my boss. I’m still getting notes from the network. There are very few times in life where you don’t feel lower decks. I think that’s a strength and not a weakness. There are people you meet and things you learn when you are lower decks in life that you end up carrying more than what you learn when you are the top of your game. There’s a lot more paths for Lower Decks to go where they’re not captains. I do want to explore lots of stuff before I’m in charge of a whole crew because it changes the types of stories you can tell. And it makes the audience not be on board with choices those characters might make. When you’re a captain, it can’t be about you, it has to be about something bigger. Star Trek: Lower Decks going through Season 4 really showed me there’s so many more stories to tell and I don’t have to worry about that.

Q: Does getting promoted affect how you write Mariner as a character and her arc?

McMahan: Mariner I’m not really worried about because I have a long-term plan for her. The last two episodes of the season are pretty Mariner focused. We’ve been leading up to them across the season and across the series. What I really love about Mariner as a character is unlocked by [actress] Tawny Newsome. I wrote Mariner before having met Tawny. Having worked with Tawny, I’ve adjusted her to embody the way Tawny loves Star Trek the way I do. It’s not really making fun of Star Trek; it’s having fun with Star Trek. It’s the fun you have with your friends who love something as much as you do so you have a shorthand, and you can make fun of it together. But if somebody else made fun of it you’d go, “F**k off!”  

I thought we were going to hold the secret of Mariner being the captain’s daughter for at least two seasons or more. At the end of the first season, I found that was a bad idea. When I revealed the secret in the finale of the first season I said, “I can breathe again!” I can tell stories with this character that doesn’t need that. It was really “Crisis Point I” that made me start to understand what we could tell with Mariner. I have an internalized backstory for Mariner and I know why she’s been behaving the way she has.

Q: Whose arc has been challenging to write?

Mike McMahan: From the get-go I loved the idea of a Starfleet officer who’s getting kicked off multiple ships. It’s almost the opposite of Ryker who’s turning down promotions. I remember talking to Kurtzman, “The person who does the lowest level job on any Federation ship has to be the best of us. There’s no bad actor on any Starfleet ship.” How do you get a comedically flawed person out of that? Mariner, and her whole story, is easy in that I know where she is coming from.

L-R Noël Wells as D’Vana Tendi and Eugene Cordero as Rutherford in episode 6, season 4 of Lower Decks streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Paramount+

Rutherford originally was going to be a person who went on a lot of dates and the person you got to see what the social life was like on a ship because I thought there was some comedy from that. At the end of the pilot I said, “No, this feels disgusting! This is very not Star Trek. I don’t want to do a dating show with Star Trek. What was I thinking?” His “shipmance” with Tendi and them being in love with the ship together at the end of the pilot was another moment where I could breathe again because this feels Star Trek. Because I’m writing up to what we know about Rutherford as we’re going and completely changed his character, it still had to have meaning to me. So that was a little tougher. Even though that stuff is hard, when you find stuff about the characters that you didn’t see coming, you have to be brave enough to make your job harder by creating something that’s a little different than what we had before. The structure shouldn’t beat these wonderful things you find while you’re making it.

Q: Are we going to learn more about Boimler besides the raisin farm?

Mike McMahan: It’s a vineyard, I’ll have you know! [Laughs]. Boimler’s backstory is not steeped in mystery to me. Boimler is all of us. I write Boimler as a straight man who is being stymied by comedy all around him. But then Jack Quaid is so funny that he ruins that and makes him funny and make you want to know more about him. It just speaks to the character and to Jack. Especially writing Season 5, what we learn about Boimler in the show is always going to better than what Boimler was before he ended up in Starfleet. We could tell those stories but I like throwing in a little mystery.  

Episode 6, season 4 of Lower Decks streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Paramount+

Taimur Dar: Without a doubt, a highlight of this season was the “Parth Ferengi’s Heart Place” episode. Obviously, you write these so far ahead, but I think a lot of people felt the themes of individual and corporate obsession for profit is particularly topical with the Hollywood strikes. Does that episode have a different meaning for you now?  

Mike McMahan: To me, Rom has always been, “Workers of the world unite.” I’m cribbing from Deep Space 9 on that aspect. Anything you were reading from that was because I was stealing from better writers than me. [Laughs]. We did that episode because I wanted to work with Chase Masterson. I had met her at different comic cons when I was an assistant a decade ago and she was super nice to me back when I was writing TNG Season 8. She showed me such kindness when there was absolutely no benefit to her. I never forgot it. On Star Trek Day after Lower Decks started, I met her at that and went running up to as a fan and said, “Please let me write an episode where you and Rom can be in it. I want to see you again.” That was really the Ferenginar instinct.

These little vignettes with the characters on Ferenginar and getting to see a lot of Ferengi jokes was a lot of fun like “Landlord Cops” and all the signage. I was actually worried people wouldn’t dig that episode. I see online a lot people saying, “This is filler!” Well, what is filler? Lower Decks exists to take all this stuff that we know and have seen and have thought about and fill in the “frog DNA” of the Alpha Quadrant a little bit more. That’s why I like bringing in the Pakleds and the exocomps and going to Orion. After that episode it’s “Caves” and then it’s two really plot driven episodes. I just wanted to take a break and check in with everybody. I’m really glad everybody loved it because I loved it too.

I love that Rutherford and Tendi story. I remember when I got engaged me and my wife had to do an engagement photo shoot. They made us touch foreheads. I’ve never felt worse when the person I’ve loved most in my entire life says, “This is ludicrous.” That Tendi and Rutherford story was all out of the feeling of making you touch your forehead to your fiancé’s forehead [which is] not a good feeling.    

Q: What does it take to get a California class ship name?

McMahan: If you look at the California class ships that show up at the end of Season 3, it’s just going right up the California map. Tawny grew up in the Modesto area and so did Brad Winters, my producer, whom Boimler is named after.  

L-R Tawny Newsome as Beckett Mariner and Noël Wells as Ensign D’Vana Tendi in episode 5, season 4 of Lower Decks streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Paramount+

Q: T’Lyn, the new Vulcan transfer, has been a great addition to the cast. How do you balance her with the established cast?

Mike McMahan: I’m just stealing from [Leonard] Nimoy. I grew up watching Wrath of Khan. Kirk and Spock are the perfect tonal combination of comedy. Playing T’Lynn exactly like that and treating the rest of the lower deckers like Kirk is fun. Somebody comes in and says some second level dialogue that isn’t what they want but how they feel. Let’s say you took my seat. I wouldn’t come in and say, “You took my seat.” I’d come and go, “What are you doing here?” But T’Lyn doesn’t use second level dialogue. She only uses first. So she’d go, “You took my seat.” Having someone who doesn’t change what they’re saying in other levels ends up being funny but also relatable. Guardians of the Galaxy was kind of homaging it with Drax. It’s just a great comedic tool to have when everybody else is so big and fast. She can say four words and it just makes you laugh. It’s just a superpower that Vulcans have.   

Q: Can you discuss the crossover with Strange New Worlds?

Mike McMahan: Strange New Worlds led the charge on that episode. I got to nudge and bump and pitch lines. I knew Tawny and Jack were going to improvise on set. That was always the plan. I didn’t know how much they were going to use. That’s what I loved. One of the things I did get to choose is when did this episode get to take place in  Lower Decks. Boimler could not have done that episode Season 1 and he could not have done it Season 2. There’s a lot of interesting Boimler stuff in Season 5 and you can track that from the crossover episode.     

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