Lower Decks' Mike McMahan on How Information Is the Human Heart of Star Trek
We remember the original Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Lower Decks” for the unique novelty of its unlikely ensign stars. While that idea (and name) might have provided the framework for the animated Star Trek: Lower Decks, for its showrunner the series, like the episode itself, is more fascinated with a much grander idea.
“Lower Decks” the episode is, beyond its unique perspective, an examination of where power lies in Starfleet. Our ensign heroes, and we ourselves, are constantly kept in the dark as the episode builds, as Picard, Worf, LaForge, and the rest of the Enterprise officers order them to do things without ever actually wanting to tell them why. They don’t have to: they’re the bridge officers, these are the ensigns. That’s just how Starfleet works, even if in the moment, for our unlikely protagonists and us and audience, that lack of information and respect sucks—and it’s an idea that stretched across all of Star Trek, not just “Lower Decks” as an hour of television
“The funny thing about the original—I love the original episode ‘Lower Decks’—but really we were taking the kind of ‘Lower Decks’ pastiche from across TNG, and from Voyager and from Deep Space Nine,” McMahan recently told io9 over the phone. “There’s always characters that are kind of...as much as there’s the lower deckers in that episode of TNG, you’ve also got Jake and Nog on Deep Space Nine. We were trying to delve into [the idea of] who gets the information and how much it gets disseminated throughout the show.”
That exploration comes through strongly across Lower Decks first season, from its focus on Mariner’s hidden mother, the captain of the Cerritos—Dawnn Lewis’ Carol Freeman—to the later episode “Veritas,” which examined the fallibility of Starfleet officers.
“We’re constantly examining this concept of Starfleet that’s like...everybody knows that Starfleet is the best of us, and they’re perfect, and they’re this unified group that’s out in the stars looking for truth,” McMahan continued, “and everything has to be moral and ethical, and Prime Directive-y. But at the same time they’re also human, you know? Every episode of Star Trek is about humanity as much as it is about our future—there’s aspects of humanity that just feel like...Star Trek has humans in it. It’s not a perfect, ideal, robotic future for us.”
The idea of the humanity (whether it’s Vulcans, Klingons, Trill, or one of the zillion other species in the franchise) that sits at the heart of Starfleet for both McMahan and Lower Decks was that, even in this idealized future, there are still social hierarchies and constructs of power dynamics that are crucial to the function of the Federation’s utopia. “The people working in the lowest positions [in the Federation] are learning that there are things they’re not supposed [to know],” Mc Mahan added. “If everybody had all the information then secret missions would get messed up, or even the day-to-day operations of a ship. So I was fascinated with the concept of context, and who has the information, and who is handing it out.”
That idea doesn’t just fascinate McMahan and Star Trek on the militaristic command level of Starfleet’s operations—it’s an idea that’s endemic to the wider Star Trek universe at large. Knowledge and information are powerful tools in Star Trek’s world, and how it is conveyed matters as much to a Starfleet admiral as it does to, say, a certain Ferengi bartender on Deep Space Nine’s promenade.
“I love sitting around thinking about replicators,” McMahan blurted out, as if about to go on a deeply geeky tangent but instead making a wider point about how information works in Star Trek. “I love that Quark is excited when he gets new replicator programs that nobody else has. Existing Star Trek has created the headcanon for me that there’s artists, writers, journalists in Star Trek—there are people who can design and write these amazing holodeck programs, and they might not get everywhere in the fleet, or might not even get everywhere on a ship. Because it’s just a tradition in navy fleets, but also just logically, like...everybody might not have the same replicator stuff! You would imagine that [in an idealized, equal society] that stuff is everywhere, but not everybody has access to everything.”
The dissemination of information in Starfleet at large isn’t just core to Lower Decks for McMahan, but Star Trek itself. It’s baked into every little thing that we just take for granted about the series as fans, but then also endlessly obsess about the moment we think about it for too long (something that is, delightfully, very clear that McMahan himself has done many times before).
“Who has access to these logs? The idea that there’s a difference between a Captain’s log and a personal log,” McMahan wondered. “Where are those logs going? When do they enter the history books, and when people are logging, how much are the different ships [in Starfleet] talking to each other? Are there rumors going throughout Starfleet, when you’re talking to your friends on other ships, are they telling you about the experiences that they’ve had?”
“You see that a lot with our lower deckers, and with the bridge crew as well—humans are a species that gab,” McMahan continued. “We process and we share information that is interesting to us. Part of the humanity on the Cerritos is they’re talking about Roga Danar! They’re talking about Data! These are the things that are interesting to them, and it serves a dual purpose of making that humanity come through and making that examination of context in Starfleet come through.”
It’s an introspective answer that you would expect from someone as deeply passionate about Star Trek as McMahan is, something reflected in Lower Decks as a whole. But it’s also just what Star Trek fans are like with the show in the first place, according to the showrunner. “One of the subtle things that I think people get about Lower Decks is seeing that this kind of vibe is what we were going for,” McMahan concluded. “This is a show that’s kind of based on what a bunch of Trekkies talk about in a bar. Putting those conversations into [a Star Trek show] through the lens of our lower decks officers.”
Star Trek: Lower Decks is currently streaming on CBS All Access.
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