RED ALERT! This interview contains spoilers for Star Trek: Lower Decks season 4‘s finale, “Old Friends, New Planets,” now available for streaming on Paramount+. Stop reading now to avoid spoilers!

Lower Decks season 4 has come to an explosive conclusion! To mark the release of “Old Friends, New Planets,” Comics Beat caught up with showrunner and series creator Mike McMahan

L-R Jerry O’Connell as Jack Ransom and Dawnn Lewis as Captain Carol Freeman in episode 9, season 4 of Lower Decks streaming on Paramount+, 2023.
Photos: Paramount+

We asked all about the inspiration behind the ship name Passaro, about bringing back one of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s most memorable supporting characters, and about whether the USS Enterprise or the USS Cerritos has the hornier crew.

This interview has been edited for clairty and length.

AVERY KAPLAN: What is the significance of the ship name Passaro?

MIKE McMAHAN: There was a man who was helping us with a lot of the CG models for the season, Fabio Passaro. He passed away last year in October, and he was a digital artist. And he designed a lot of the ships, he made the CG models for a lot of the ships that we would actually use and translate into the show and it really helped us out. And we were always really happy to get to work with him. 

So when he passed away, we like to name ships not only after people who’ve helped the show out a lot, but who we feel like it would mean a lot to. So that was the thinking behind the name Passaro.

Robert Duncan McNeill as Nick Locarno and Tawny Newsome as Beckett Mariner in episode 10, season 4 of Lower Decks streaming on Paramount+, 2023.
Nova Fleet.

KAPLAN: Are there any neat details about Nova Fleet that viewers might have missed on their first several viewings?

McMAHAN: What they might miss is some of the ships are not finished being painted yet. I really liked that. The ship Mariner steals, the Passaro, is not finished. I like that the starburst maneuver starburst is on them, that Locarno thought that was cool. It’s not cool.

There’s some stuff I don’t want to give away. Because there’s some stuff people have noticed. But I don’t want to confirm because I just like it being sort of, “Wait, why did they choose to do that?” 

I’ll say this: the designs of the planets they go to in episode 9, “The Inner Fight,” and some of the designs of the mixed fleet, are all inspired by something that is not very Star Trek to me. And so I wanted to make the designs of them all match in a way that doesn’t feel like it should be in Star Trek. Because it shouldn’t be. 

So that’s a little bit, I’ll give you that much. And then I’ll say that the main ship itself was originally inspired by the shape of an ocarina. I thought that would be different enough that we haven’t seen it in Star Trek, but also kind of odd enough that it had a sort of an interesting shape. So that was the original idea. And then we went off of that, but that odd little ship he’s flying was that silhouette of an ocarina.

KAPLAN: Did you always know that you wanted to directly connect Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Lower Decks” with Lower Decks? 

McMAHAN: I had this suspicion that I was going to, but I was never sure how much I could do it and have the audience believe I’d earned it. Because legacy characters come back on Lower Decks all the time. Just the timeline sort of works out a little bit like that.

But I got to the point where I hope any showrunner gets to, where I said, “I don’t give a fuck what the audience wants, it feels right to me.” You just have to get past that fear a little bit. 

And I’ve said this before, but just to reiterate: losing Sito at the end of the original Lower Decks was really affecting to me. It was also really affecting to Tawny Newsome, who’s a big Star Trek fan. And having it affect Mariner was a combination of Tawny’s performance and my writing. 

Tawny Newsome as Beckett Mariner in episode 9, season 4 of Lower Decks streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Paramount+
 M & M.

In the timeline, that works, being the thing that happens right before Mariner goes to the Dominion War. I knew I wanted Mariner to be a person who was affected by what they saw in the Dominion War. But having this piece really crystallized it for me, and knowing that we could get Shannon Fill to do the flashback in the next episode really brought it all together. 

So it was something I had been percolating. But at the same time, I don’t like to lock in fully to stuff until it’s in the episode and it’s aired, because I can tinker with the episodes in animation for quite a while. And sometimes I think something’s cool, and then I think, “I might have gone too far there.” So it was a probably, but not a definitely.

KAPLAN: What went into asking Shannon Fill to return to Star Trek?

McMAHAN: I’m such a fan of her work. And I love getting to find people that haven’t been in Star Trek for 30 years or more and have them come and respectfully reprise their role and let them know how important it is to all of us. And how important it is to the characters. 

It’s sort of a magic thing Lower Decks gets to do with the power of animation that I didn’t go into it knowing that was going to be a thing I loved about it. But right after we had Jonathan Frakes come in to be boisterous Riker at the end of the first season I realized, “Wait, I love doing this! This is really cool.”

And obviously, Robert Duncan McNeill playing Locarno after he already played Tom Paris for us in “We’ll Always Have Tom Paris” was another aspect of that. Or bringing the Bynars back, or even bringing exocomps back, or the Pakleds. Lower Decks exists to love and honor and expand on all of that stuff in ways that feel right but you don’t see coming. And that was another aspect of trying to get Shannon again.

KAPLAN: Do you have a favorite background character aboard the Cerritos?

McMAHAN: On the Cerritos? The internet has nicknamed this one Vulcan we have “Buddy Vulcan,” which is pretty cute.

We’ll start a season and I’ll bring up the crew of the Cerritos and I’ll point at one and say, “Get that motherfucker off of… I’m sick of seeing that guy. My eye always get drawn to that guy.” So there’s a couple of characters that I’ve said, “Get him out of here!”

I really love the Merps. I really love the towel guy. I’ve actually given the towel guy a little bit more in Lower Decks season 5, because I love the towel guy. Obviously Delta Shift is really fun.

But my favorite is probably the Merps. I don’t know why, I just think they’re so funny. And there’s a joke with the Merps people haven’t realized yet. If you rewatch the show enough, you’ll be like, “Wait a minute!” 

I’ll go with the Merps.

KAPLAN: I also love how there’s a towel guy on every ship.

McMAHAN: Well, and in every dorm.

L-R Jerry O’Connell as Jack Ransom, Fred Tatasciore as Lieutenant Shaxs, Dawnn Lewis as Captain Carol Freeman and Noël Wells as Tendi in episode 10, season 4 of Lower Decks streaming on Paramount+, 2023.

KAPLAN: Ransom cites a statistic that the Cerritos is the horniest ship in Starfleet. Assuming this only includes contemporary vessels, I’m curious. In your opinion, which is hornier: Kirk’s Enterprise or the Cerritos?

McMAHAN: Well, it’s tough. Kirk’s Enterprise was probably hornier than the Cerritos

But I don’t know if Kirk’s Enterprise was the horniest ship in the fleet at the time, because horny levels were off the charts back then. So I’d say, TOS Enterprise: hornier than the Cerritos, but not the horniest ship in the fleet.

KAPLAN: We’re getting some scoops here! So, in “Parth Ferengi’s Heart Place,” we see both clothed and non-clothed Ferengi women. What kind of conversations were had about Moogie while working on this episode?

McMAHAN: I didn’t want to get too deep into every, every character. I mean, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine did such a great job of diving into so many aspects that I like to dive into too, especially with the Ferengi.

I wanted to make sure that it looked like there were still background female Ferengi that weren’t clothed, and that was their choice. It was important that it felt more like a choice than something that was being foisted on them.

Personally, I think once you opened up clothing to female Ferengi, there’s so much more profit to be had, that why wouldn’t they suddenly start, you know. “Look at all this new revenue stream.” That makes a lot of sense. That’s probably how it got pitched to everybody. But Moogie didn’t come up and and neither did Zek. I really wanted to focus on Rom (Max Grodénchik) and Leeta (Chase Masterson).

KAPLAN: Do you have any dream guest stars, Trek alums or otherwise, whom you hope to one day have appear on the series?

McMAHAN: Yes. But I don’t want to tell you, because Lower Decks season 5 has some of them. So look forward to that.

KAPLAN: Okay. Conversely, are there any Trek characters you’ve resolved not to use for whatever reason?

McMAHAN: Yes, but I’m not telling you that either. That’ll have to live secretly in my brain.

KAPLAN: Eventually we’ll know, right?

McMAHAN: Someday, when when I’m old and gray, I’ll be like, “I didn’t want that guy because he was mean or something.”

I love this book: The 50 Year Mission. It’s the oral history and interviews of making all of Star Trek. And once they do that for this era, maybe I’ll drop some hot goss.

KAPLAN: I’m also a huge Solar Opposites fan. I’m curious if your work on that show has informed your work on Lower Decks at all?

McMAHAN: You know, that’s an interesting question. And thank you for asking that.

It has. Because I’ve worked on Rick and Morty for a number of years. And working on Rick and Morty is really trying to make the best Rick and Morty episode, which is writing something that Dan Harmon can then take and make even better. Like, getting it that close for him. And then I left and I started making Solar and Lower Decks in the same year. I was showrunning both shows.

And in that time we went from… It’s been five years and a lot’s happened during that five years. I don’t know if you remember, but there’s been pandemics and insurrections and strikes and all sorts of stuff. But along with that… I just wrote Lower Decks episode 510, and Solar Opposites season 5 is written. And it made me realize that in the last five years, between the two shows, I’ve written or edited and produced and done writing on over 100 episodes of television. Which, when you write that much, you’re learning a lesson every single time.

I do think that each season, each show is teaching me something that I’m using on the other. And I’m learning which show can be weirder, which show has to be more heartfelt. And when I go to write Solar, it really does feel like the difference between school and camp.

It’s just different vibes. You’re still “you” but, Solar is insane. And disgusting. And funny, and extremely gay. Just a celebration of these two gay aliens that don’t even know that they’re gay. And Lower Decks is a celebration of Star Trek. And that’s two different sets of rules you have to work in.

Jack Quaid as Lt Brad Boimler appearing in episode 3, season 4 of Lower Decks streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Paramount+
Figure A: Lt J-G Boimler to the Black Mountain came.

I really think that getting to do both at once has made me a much better writer across the series. And actually, in your background [Figure A], the Black Mountain is something that I added to Rick and Morty, and then I used in Solar, and now I used it in Lower Decks

I’ll use it in everything. I just think it’s so funny that when you’re when you’re dying, you start to ask, “Is that the Black Mountain?” I don’t know why.

All 10 episodes of Star Trek: Lower Decks season 4 are currently available for streaming on Paramount+.

Keep up with all of The Beat’s Star Trek coverage here.