Star Trek comedy Lower Decks' No. 1 rule: Don't make fun of Star Trek

Star Trek: Lower Decks creator Mike McMahan talks Trek and the mind-bending challenges of his other job, Rick and Morty.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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Star Trek: Lower Decks
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Star Trek: Lower Decks

Boldly going nowhere with the Lower Decks crew.

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Mike McMahan has a question for Star Trek: Lower Decks star Tawny Newsome. "What's our No. 1 rule whenever we're doing Star Trek jokes?" he asks. Newsome tries to remember. "Let's eat lunch first?" 

"No," laughs McMahan, writer and producer of Rick and MortySolar Opposites and Star Trek: Lower Decks, which premiered Thursday on streaming service CBS All Access.

"It's don't punch down on Star Trek."

McMahan is keen to insist that although Star Trek: Lower Decks may be a Rick and Morty-esque animated comedy set in the Trek universe, it doesn't make fun of Trek. In fact, both Newsome and McMahan nerd out about their love of all things Star Trek on a Zoom call before its Aug. 6 release. (Disclosure: ViacomCBS is CNET's parent company.)

McMahan describes Star Trek as "the baseline of sci-fi." It's been around all his life, and he's inspired by Trek's utopian vision of a human race acting in harmony to explore the cosmos. 

"It's almost like sci-fi comfort food," he says. 

The utopian ideals of Gene Roddenberry's long-running creation are certainly an interesting contrast to a previous show McMahan worked on: Rick and Morty. Fans love to dissect whether Adult Swim's sci-fi comedy about mad scientist Rick and his long-suffering nephew Morty is a study in nihilism. But the creative process starts in a similar way: "Rick and Morty and Lower Decks [episodes] both start in a very sci-fi place and then they spiral off from there," McMahan says.

Rick and Morty is a harder show to write, McMahan admits. "Every episode has to be, y'know, the most brain-twisting mind-fucking episode ever... [And on top of that] Rick has a portal gun that can take him anywhere so you're always trying to figure out reasons he left it on the toilet."

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Emmy-nominated Rick and Morty is available to stream in the US on HBO Max.


Although he's in command of Lower Decks, others were at the helm of Rick and Morty. The show was created by Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, and the writing staff had to think of things that would make these two laugh. But do they like Star Trek?

"Harmon is a huge Trek fan," McMahan says. "He's the kind of guy who's consumed so much media and stored away all these different iconic mythologically broad ways to tell a story and make TV and make people laugh. I don't know Justin had as much of a relationship with Star Trek, I think that he was more into horror movies ... I know he loves Sliders and Farscape for some reason."

Lower Decks certainly has a dash of Rick and Morty's anarchic spirit. When the show opens with a main character's leg sliced open by a drunk colleague waving a Klingon bat'leth, you know you're not on the Enterprise. When you're following a group of galactically hapless losers on a lesser starship, you're even in for some un-Starfleet language (bleeped, of course).

"I thought that was gonna be cut out," Newsome says. The star of Netflix's Space Force and the podcast Yo, Is This Racist? had fun providing the voice for Ensign Mariner, possibly the wildest character in Starfleet ("I've got to get that on a T-shirt," she laughs.)  

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Ensign Mariner (right) boldly goes too far.

CBS All Access

When he had the opportunity to pitch a Star Trek show, McMahan immediately opted for the Next Generation era familiar from his youth. "I remember watching Data and Geordi," he remembers, "like, these are my guys." As much as he loves the characters and campiness of The Original Series, the '90s era of Trek shows felt like home  -- and also proved it was possible to tell stories beyond the Enterprise. "With Voyager and Deep Space Nine, it became like a genre," says McMahan. "The TNG era is kind of a genre of Star Trek, and [for creators] it's just a playground."

For the look and feel of the show, McMahan nerded out over hundreds of variants of the uniforms and the starship USS Cerritos. But although the animated format allows a lot of freedom in depicting this fantastical future, it comes with certain limits. 

"Everything you see on screen is not only a choice, it's got to be painstakingly tracked and drawn and moved," McMahan says. "That's why when you watch those old Looney Tunes the background just repeats over and over when they're running. And the special effects are handled differently -- beaming in a cartoon doesn't quite look as magical as it does in live action. But then you can meet alien races that don't have to have an actor sit for 13 hours to apply a prosthesis."

CBS All Access will release Lower Decks on the streaming service on Aug. 6. The first season will span 10 episodes, available each Thursday. 

Lower Decks joins a slate of live-action Trek shows on CBS All Access , including Star Trek: DiscoveryStar Trek: Picard and the upcoming Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.

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