EXCLUSIVE: Heavy Goes Behind the Scenes of ‘For All Mankind’ With ‘Star Trek’ Legends Mike and Denise Okuda

Michael and Denise Okuda

Gage Skidmore via Flickr / Apple TV Michael and Denise Okuda

In order to make the world of science fiction believable for television or the movies, fans used to “suspend disbelief.” That meant that viewers of the shows needed to cut the filmmaker a break, allowing for some wiggle room with what is considered realistic. 

From the late 1970s to the present, fans no longer need to play along with what is presented on screen. Photo-realistic special effects and computer-generated compositing are the norm, allowing fans to become totally immersed in the story. As one of the great franchises in popular culture, “Star Trek” is part of this maturation process. 

Thanks to folks who toiled behind the scenes of the “Original Series” films and “Next Generation” series, fans of science fiction were treated to a glimpse of the future, which looked like something which could actually happen.

Among the talented people who created the world of “Star Trek,” which is now enjoyed by millions across the globe, are Michael and Denise Okuda. The Okudas are considered by many to be as important to “Star Trek” as William Shatner or Patrick Stewart. Their skill and talent made the fictional unbelievably life-like.

LCARs for Ten Hours

Star Trek LCARS Display Screensaver (10 Hours)2021-06-17T02:50:43Z

Fans know Mr. Okuda’s work well, as he created the computer interface for all the computer screens aboard the Enterprise-D on “The Next Generation.” That system, which is known as LCARs, is so iconic that fans are always trying to alter their Windows or macOS computer interface to look like what Captain Picard used. Fans can also buy LCARs dinnerware, dresses, socks, and many other items. Michael also designed many of the signs seen aboard the Enterprise-D, which often contained initials of the art department or other fun inside jokes. These door labels and directional indicators were never meant to be seen by viewers, but thanks to the recent high-definition conversion of TNG, everyone is in on the joke. 

Denise started her Trek relationship even earlier, as she was part of the crew amassed to hear Captain Kirk (Shatner) speak before the Enterprise engaged V’Ger in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” Mrs. Okuda is known primarily for her work in the art department as a scenic artist for “Deep Space Nine” and “Enterprise” and as the video supervisor on “Voyager.” Denise is also an author and helped supervise the restoration and upgrade of TNG to high-definition. 

The Okudas and Doug Drexler at the Star Trek Set Tour

Doug Drexler, Michael and Denise Okuda give a tour of the Enterprisestartrektour.com2017-10-29T21:16:09Z

In November, the Okudas were recognized by the Art Directors Guild for their contributions to Trek over the years. They were awarded a “Lifetime Achievement Award,” which was very special to both Mike and Denise. 

“We’re used to being in the art department, and as members of the art department, we maintain a low profile in production, and frankly, we like it that way,” said Michael. “So recognition was startling, to say the least.”

“When we received the award, we stood up in front of the Art Directors Guild, and we looked at all these astonishingly talented art directors, production designers, chefs, designers, illustrators, people who are theoretically our peers, but in fact, people that we’ve looked up to all our lives. And that was humbling, to say the least.”

While the Okudas are indeed “Star Trek” royalty, their interests do go beyond the franchise. In a way, their work on the Apple TV+ series, “For All Mankind,” seems like a very logical next move for the duo. The series is based on an alternate history of the United States and the national space program. Instead of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the Moon in 1969, it was a Soviet cosmonaut. Because of this one crucial change in the timeline, many things happen differently.

In real life, NASA discontinued trips to the Moon in 1972 and focused on building a reusable orbiter that could ferry satellites and experiments to space — the Space Shuttle. On the show, because of the Soviet victory on the Moon, the “Space Race” heats up, and permanent bases are established by both the USSR and the USA.

For All Mankind: Season 3

For All Mankind — Season 3 Official Trailer | Apple TV+Over two decades after the Moon landing, there's a new battle to face— Mars. Stream For All Mankind Season 3 now on Apple TV+ apple.co/__ForAllMankind The ensemble cast returning for season three includes Joel Kinnaman, Shantel VanSanten, Jodi Balfour, Sonya Walger, Krys Marshall, Cynthy Wu, Casey W. Johnson, Coral Peña and Wrenn Schmidt, along with…2022-05-16T14:59:48Z

The mind behind “For All Mankind” is Ronald D. Moore, who fans might know as the creator of the “Battlestar Galactica” reboot and many of the great Klingon episodes on TNG and DS9. Moore invited the Okudas to be part of his new show, and the couple could not refuse. “For All Mankind” started airing in 2019, and the Okudas serve as technical advisors for the show.

“So we actually don’t work in the art department,” said Michael. “We work with the writers and the cast and the directors to help guide them toward technical and historic space accuracy. Which, for a couple of space geeks, I cannot tell you how much fun that is.”

“Of course, we worked with Ron on ‘Star Trek,’” said Denise. “He knew about our passion for the real space program and our commitment to science. We were really thrilled that he invited us to come on board. We were also so pleased that everybody in front of and behind the camera has just been super — they welcomed us with open arms.”

The show, which stars Joel KinnamanShantel VanSanten, and Krys Marshall, is now in its third season and is set in the early 1990s alternate timeline. The United States and the Soviet Union (yes, the Berlin Wall still stands in this reality) aim to be the first to put a human on Mars. But a new player enters the scene, played by Edi Gathegi, representing a third challenger in the race. 

Gathegi’s character, Dev Ayesa, is a mash-up of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and perhaps a little bit of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Instead of building computers, electric cars, or social networking sites, Ayesa wants to beat the USA and USSR to Mars in a way that will represent “all mankind.” Ayesa, and his company (Helios), are the wildcard that no one expected to be a part of the competition for Mars. 

For All Mankind: Season 2 Recap

For All Mankind — The Cast Recaps Season 2 | Apple TV+Nuclear space shuttles, Apollo-Soyuz, and a near nuclear meltdown. Recap on Season 2 with the cast of For All Mankind before the Season 3 premiere June 10 on Apple TV+ apple.co/__ForAllMankind The ensemble cast returning for season three includes Joel Kinnaman, Shantel VanSanten, Jodi Balfour, Sonya Walger, Krys Marshall, Cynthy Wu, Casey W. Johnson, Coral…2022-05-31T14:59:46Z

“[Ayesa] has a passion for pushing the envelope and pushing the barriers of space exploration,” said Denise. “And I think that in Season 3, you’re going to see that very clearly. I think that’s admirable. But the circumstances of anybody’s passion always have limitations. I think he’s a really interesting, dynamic character.”

One exciting angle seen in the first episode of “For All Mankind” in Season 3 is space tourism. While the show featured everyday folks on a beautiful 2001-esque space station high above Earth, our time does not have an equivalent. Some wealthy people can stay aboard the International Space Station, and some very famous (Shatner) are also afforded a trip to space. 

Michael is confident that someday, regular people will be able to visit space, like in “For All Mankind.” But he noted that space tourism happened in 1991 on the show, and is not yet here in 2022, because the investment of world governments in space has pushed science to advance much faster.

“One thing that’s really fun about this show is how it combines real space technology, real space history, and real historical events,” said Michael. “It shows them in an alternate universe, [where] some things happen much more quickly — and not just space tourism.” 

The Science of ‘For All Mankind’

For All Mankind — The Science Behind Season 3: Episode 1, Polaris | Apple TV+Is it possible to replicate Earth’s gravity? Join Wrenn Schmidt and discover the science behind For All Mankind in an exclusive series. Watch now on Apple TV+ after you’ve watched the Season 3 premiere episode. apple.co/__ForAllMankind The ensemble cast returning for season three includes Joel Kinnaman, Shantel VanSanten, Jodi Balfour, Sonya Walger, Krys Marshall, Cynthy…2022-06-14T16:00:30Z

“Even something as simple as, as LCD computer screens, are introduced much sooner, there are references to, to internet data, worldwide networks happening much sooner in this universe than in real life,” said Michael. “And that’s part of the design of the show — showing the benefit of investment in space technology, how it benefits not just astronauts, but how it trickles down to society as a whole.”

Michael shared that he’s also worked with the team on “Star Trek: Picard” for the upcoming season. He said it was so much fun to jump back into the Trek world for Season 3 and promised that fans would enjoy. Fans who pay close attention will notice the hints and references to Trek throughout “For All Mankind.” Denise and Michael said that is deliberate and explained why this show might be considered the ultimate “Star Trek” prequel.

“On the very first day of filming, the first season of ‘For All Mankind,’ Denise and I were sitting on set,” said Michael. “And we were actually sitting with Ron Moore. Because we were kind of new to the show, we were pumping him for information… trying to understand his vision for what they’re trying to do.” 

“And finally, Ron looked us in the eye, and he said, ‘This show… this story is how you get to ‘Star Trek,’” said Michael. “And suddenly, we understood.” 

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