Lower Decks star reveals her character’s surprising link to Captain Kirk
Creator Mike McHahan and Tawny Newsome unpack Ensign Mariner's swagger.
Star Trek's dynamic and multifaceted personalities have always allowed it to stand apart from other sci-fi franchises. Trek is so obsessed with talking about personality dynamics, several episodes see people split into two halves, or outright duplicated. In the Final Frontier, talking to yourself about your problems can manifest itself quite literally.
The newest Trek series, the animated comedy Lower Decks, introduces a character who brings together multiple distinct Trek influences while managing to shine in her own right. Inverse caught up with Lower Decks creator Mike McMahan and actor Tawny Newsome to discuss how they brought the wise-cracking, hard-drinking, fun-loving Ensign Mariner to life.
Light spoilers for Lower Decks episode 1, "Second Contact," ahead.
In the very first scene of Star Trek: Lower Decks, Mariner is drunk on Romulan Whiskey. Throughout the first episode — "Second Contact" — she also demonstrates a habit for breaking Starfleet protocol in order to do the right thing. Case-in-point, one of the biggest plot pivots of the entire episode involves Mariner giving impoverished aliens farming supplies by circumventing the Federation's red tape.
She drinks hard. She makes risky decisions to help aliens in need, damn the rules. Sounds a little like Captain Kirk, right?
According to McMahan and Newsome — the answer is yes. But also, no.
"That’s a big compliment!" Newsome says of Mariner sharing Kirk's occasionally devil-may-care morality. "She is a little mercurial. I'm less familiar with The Original Series, but it feels right to draw upon what I do know of Kirk. That permission that men have gotten to swagger throughout the franchise, that’s useful to Mariner, too."
Still, that comparison is very much intentional. In one of the trailers for the forthcoming episodes of Lower Decks, Mariner is surrounded by alien spears and jokes, "What am I, Kirk? What is this, the 2260s?" Sure, Kirk had to deal with an improbable amount of medieval weapons for a 23rd-century space explorer, but the joke also is a perfect example of how Mariner's personality works.
McMahan also points out that the concept of "swagger" is complicated when it comes to authority figures in the Trek franchise:
"Who gets to have swagger? Not just a male character versus a female character having swagger, but when you see Janeway, does she get to have swagger? Or does that diminish her appearance as captain? Mariner might not define herself as a Kirk, but she does behave in a lot of ways like him. But she’s not a captain of a ship. She’s not gotten her swagger from being on the bridge and leading a crew. Somebody in Mariner’s position, who seems so capable, but who hasn’t moved up, you have to ask, what does she have to learn about herself? You have Data, Spock, and characters who are really capable. Like no one is more capable than Data. He can literally lift like anything. But he’s so desperate to learn about himself and his emotions. And I think, in a way, you don’t have to be an android for that to be true. That’s why Data is so grounded and relatable. We’re all trying to fit in with our friends and our work and our family and everything. And the same thing is happening with Mariner. Sometimes we can write her like Kirk. And sometimes we can write her like Data."
For Newsome, there were some more direct parallels in the franchise, beyond all these dudes. "I draw a lot of inspiration from people like Jadzia Dax or a Kira Nerys. You know, kind of tough, no-nonsense women," she says. As it turns out, Mariner is as much Newsome as it is McMahan and the rest of the Lower Decks writers' room.
Before she got the role, Newsome wasn't sure she would ever be on a Star Trek series, let alone bring her background with comedy and improv to the franchise.
"Everyone comes from a royal academy of real acting and that was never my journey," Newsome explains. "It wasn’t really until Mary Wiseman in Discovery popped-up that I thought, “Oh, maybe they do want a little quirky weirdness.” Then with Tig Notaro and Rainn Wilson, I was kind of getting used to the idea that maybe I could have a small part."
The improvisation aspect of Mariner's quirkiness seems essential to why the character works in the series. She's not just a wisecracking, less-ambitious Kirk, nor is she exactly like Dax. The character is also a 24th-century version of Newsome herself.
"A lot of time as an improviser, and as a general clown, I’m always wanting to make the script my own," Newsome explains. "But sometimes that’s offensive. Writers can be word-perfect. So, I asked permission to improvise, and that set the tone for how the season recordings went. There was absolute freedom to play with whatever I wanted."
Mariner will almost certainly become a favorite character among those who recognize and appreciate the composite aspect of her psyche. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, "The Chase," Picard talks about the concept of the Kurlan naiskos, an alien statue that represents "many voices inside the one." In Lower Decks, Mariner is the embodiment of that idea. She is Kirk. She is Kira. She is Michael Burnham. And, if you've ever made a mistake, or tried to talk yourself out of a sticky situation, she's probably you.
Star Trek: Lower Decks airs Thursdays on CBS All Access.