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Bryan Fuller on his Star Trek: Discovery exit: 'I got to dream big'

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Jan Thijs/CBS

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Bryan Fuller candidly discusses his exit as showrunner from Star Trek: Discovery in this week’s Entertainment Weekly — including his original ambitious pitch to CBS All Access.

The Hannibal and Pushing Daisies showrunner initially wasn’t envisioning a single Trek series, but multiple serialized anthology shows that would begin with Star Trek: Discovery (a prequel to Star Trek: The Original Series), journey through the eras of Captain James T. Kirk and Captain Jean Luc Picard, and then go beyond to a time in Trek that’s never been seen before.

“The original pitch was to do for science-fiction what American Horror Story had done for horror,” Fuller says. “It would platform a universe of Star Trek shows.”

CBS countered with the plan of creating a single serialized series and then seeing how it performed. Still, the project was a dream come true for Fuller, who worked on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Voyager and long publicly lobbied for a return of the franchise to television — specifically with a woman of color at the helm.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about how many black people were inspired by seeing Nichelle Nichols on the bridge of a ship [as Lt. Uhura in The Original Series],” Fuller says. “I couldn’t stop thinking about how many Asian people were inspired by seeing George Takei [as Sulu] and feeling that gave them hope for their place in the future. I wanted to be part of that representation for a new era.”

Yet after starting work on the show, Fuller’s relationship with CBS became strained. He objected to the network’s choice of David Semel, a veteran of procedurals like Madam Secretary and Code Black, to direct the Discovery pilot (Baby Driver director Edgar Wright tells us he was among those Fuller approached instead).

There were also squabbles over the Discovery budget, with the production eventually going over CBS’ original plan to spend $6 million per episode (a number that’s either on high side for an original drama series, or a bit lean for an ambitious genre show, depending on who you ask). But perhaps the toughest issue was trying to launch Discovery by February 2017, a date which some felt was unrealistic given the unique world-building demands of a premium sci-fi show.

From CBS’ perspective, sources say they were frustrated that, given the ticking clock, Fuller was spending so much time on his equally ambitious Starz show, American Gods, which was simultaneously shooting its debut season. “It wasn’t just a little teeny side job he had over there,” one insider noted. “It was a massive undertaking.”

Fuller felt he found the crucial piece of the puzzle when he met last fall with Sonequa Martin-Green to play his lead, Michael Burnham — the Vulcan-raised human Starfleet First Officer who serves under the command of Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Philippa Georgiou. “Her audition was fantastic,” Fuller recalls. “I found her incredibly insightful as an actor and delightful as a human being.”

Yet even that decision ran into a seemingly insurmountable roadblock because AMC would not release the actress until her Walking Dead character died on screen in May. The only way the production could hire Martin-Green was if the show’s premiere was delayed, and it had already been delayed once already.

In October, after months of backstage tension, CBS asked Fuller to step down. The company announced he would leave the show to focus on Gods and his reboot of the anthology series Amazing Stories. The captain’s chair was filled by Aaron Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg, two writers Fuller had worked with for years.

Some of Fuller’s ideas were tossed — from the more heavily allegorical and complex storyline to his choice of uniforms (a subdued spin on The Original Series trio of primary colors). “I got to dream big,” Fuller says. “I was sad for a week and then I salute the ship and compartmentalize my experience.”

Yet the piece of Fuller’s vision he was most specifically passionate about for so long — casting a woman of color to lead a Trek revival — was achieved. Producers hired Martin-Green a few months after Fuller left. Ironically, it was the production delays that made her casting possible.

Many months later, Fuller saw the Star Trek: Discovery trailer. How did he feel watching that? Fuller pauses. “What I can say is…my reaction was that I was happy to see a black woman and an Asian woman in command of a Starship.”