Why Star Trek: Lower Decks’ Showrunner Wasn't Sure If Those Huge First Contact Easter Eggs In The Season 3 Premiere Would Happen

Zefram Cochrane and the Lower Decks crew about to take flight
(Image credit: Paramount+)

Warning! The following contains spoilers for the Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 3 premiere “Grounded.” Read at your own risk!

Star Trek: Lower Decks recently returned for Season 3, and as is often the case with its episodes, the premiere was chock full of references to past works in the franchise. “Grounded” took references to another level though, and made some pretty cool nods to the movie First Contact. That even included James Cromwell returning as Zefram Cochrane, and a recreation of the “Magic Carpet Ride” scene. It was all so perfectly executed that fans may be shocked to find out that showrunner Mike McMahan and others weren’t entirely sure they’d get to use Cromwell or the song before working on the episode. 

Mike McMahan was kind enough to speak to CinemaBlend for the premiere of Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 3, and answered some questions about the season and what else is happening in his corner of the franchise. Knowing that stories often develop before the details can be worked out, I was curious if he and the writers already knew they’d get James Cromwell to return as his iconic character ahead of working on the episode. McMahan shared the details behind the scenes, his love for First Contact, and the larger theme of “Grounded”:

We did it before. We're always on the razor's edge of that stuff…That happens every time we have a legacy actor where I'm like, ‘Well if this doesn't work, we're in trouble.’ And luckily, it's always worked! But we wanted to do something that really celebrated, you know, the Earth episodes. That ‘going back to Earth’ episodes of Star Trek. And so, you see that every scene kind of touches on that. From Mariner’s Dad's apartment to a vineyard, you go into Cisco's, to like, every little piece of it is kind of like, 'Hey, we love this type of Star Trek episode. That's what we're doing today.’ And obviously, First Contact is, if not one of, probably the best, ‘Hey, we're going back to Earth,’ movies. You can maybe argue that The Voyage Home takes that, but we really wanted to do something that honored First Contact. I love Jonathan Frakes, I love that movie.

Lots of Star Trek fans love First Contact, especially with all the time-traveling goodness that occurs within it. Lower Decks didn’t tackle any time travel, but rather an elaborate adventure that took Boimler, Mariner, Rutherford, and Tendi all around in an effort to clear Captain Freeman’s name. In the end, it was all unnecessary, but fans had a chance to see Bozeman, Montana, and the attraction it became after the world made official first contact with Vulcans. 

Mike McMahan wasn’t only able to get James Cromwell back in the franchise. He was also able to use a licensed song to recreate one of the movie’s famous scenes. McMahan revealed to CinemaBlend that while acquiring Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” for the episode might seem like the easier thing between that and Cromwell, it also wasn’t guaranteed:

That wasn't a sure thing, and nor was it a thing that I was sure we could afford! We don't have as much of a budget to work with on the animated comedy Star Trek. But there are a couple [of] times a season where we can make something like that work and that felt worth it to me. We have a 60-person orchestra where all of our music budget goes to get this amazing sound for the show. But, occasionally, being able to use the theme from First Contact or 'Magic Carpet Ride' like really land what we're doing at that moment.

The money came through, however, and Star Trek: Lower Decks was able to effectively recreate an homage to Zefram Cochrane’s ride with Will Riker and Geordi LaForge (both of whom will appear in Star Trek: Picard Season 3). The episode also saw other key ships from the movie featured, which were reconfigured to serve as amusement rides for anyone who wanted to visit the spot. 

Overall the episode was a promising start to Season 3 of Star Trek: Lower Decks, which has a lot of fun things coming down the stretch. In addition to the rest of the season, the series will crossover with the much-acclaimed show Strange New Worlds, which will feature characters like Jack Quaid’s Boimler and Tawny Newsome’s Mariner in live-action (something Mike McMahan pitched to happen since Picard Season 2). It’s a bright future for a series that made news at one point for one of the franchise’s raunchiest scenes to date, and hopefully, things are only getting better. 

Anyone with a Paramount+ subscription can check out Star Trek: Lower Decks right now, and tune in for new episodes on Thursdays. You can also check out all the other great Trek shows on Paramount+, which showrunner Mike McMahan heavily encouraged in an impassioned speech earlier this year. 

Mick Joest
Content Producer

Mick Joest is a Content Producer for CinemaBlend with his hand in an eclectic mix of television goodness. Star Trek is his main jam, but he also regularly reports on happenings in the world of Star Trek, WWE, Doctor Who, 90 Day Fiancé, Quantum Leap, and Big Brother. He graduated from the University of Southern Indiana with a degree in Journalism and a minor in Radio and Television. He's great at hosting panels and appearing on podcasts if given the chance as well.