Long read: Behind the scenes of EW's 'Star Trek: Discovery'
The following cover story appeared in the Aug. 4 issue of Entertainment Weekly (subscribe). We go behind the scenes of the dramatic struggle to return Gene Roddenberry’s legendary sci-fi franchise to the small screen…
STARDATE 2017: RED ALERT!
The imposing Captain Gabriel Loca strides across the Starship Discovery bridge, squinting at the raging battle on the viewscreen, rattling off orders to his crew with rapid precision. There’s a Federation ship under attack by Klingons, and the Discovery is rushing to join the fight. “Lock on the Bird of Prey!” Lorca barks. “Basic pattern Beta 9. Hard to port! Fire at something, for God’s sakes!”
The Klingons blast the Discovery. Lorca and his shipmates lurch hard to one side. The high-tech set’s thousands of lights flicker anxiously, conveying the ship’s wounds.
The director halts the action and Lorca, played by British actor Jason Isaacs of Harry Potter fame, steps off the stage. The episode’s writer, Kirsten Beyer, approaches to give a correction on his “for God’s sakes” ad lib.
“Wait, I can’t say ‘God’?” Isaacs asks, amused. “I thought I could say ‘God’ or ‘damn’ but not ‘goddamn’?”
Beyer explains that Star Trek is creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a science-driven 23rd-century future where religion basically no longer exists.*
“How about ‘for f—‘s sake’?” Isaacs shoots back. “Can I say that?”
“You can say that before you can say ‘God,'” she dryly replies.
The director wants to try the scene again. “Sure,” Isaacs gamely shrugs. “It’s not my money.”
Quite true. It’s CBS All Access that’s footing the bill for Star Trek: Discovery, an ambitious venture to not only reboot Trek on television after a 12-year absence but also fuel CBS’ fledging original-content streaming service at a time when traditional broadcasters are striving to compete in the digital era (in fact, Netflix will distribute the show overseas). And while the scene with Lorca might sound like classic, old-school Trek, the show will evolve the franchise in ways never before attempted. Discovery (set to premiere Sept. 24) is serialized, for starters, with a greater focus on characters’ personal lives, and with fatally realistic life-and-death stakes. Plus, there’s the show’s cast. If this was yesteryear’s Trek, Isaacs would be the star. Instead, The Walking Dead‘s Sonequa Martin-Green (who we’ll meet later) is taking center stage as Trek‘s first black female lead.
Yet figuring out exactly how to bring Trek back to television wasn’t easy, and that’s one thing about the franchise that’s never changed.
STARDATE 2015: GENESIS
When the Original Series launched 51 years ago, it changed not only television but the world. Roddenberry’s radical depiction of a harmonious post-racial United Federation of Planets lasted only three seasons amid modest ratings and the creator’s infighting with NBC, yet millions were ultimately inspired by his vision. Generations of scientists credit the show for their career path, and countless Hollywood productions were influenced by its format, characters, and stories. Real-life tech innovations such as the Motorola flip phone were credited to Trek. The whole concept of organized sci-fi fandom events like Comic-Con was launched by Trekkies meeting up at hotels to honor the original series in the early 1970s. And as a business, Trek has earned billions, spawning six TV shows, 13 feature films, and an endless array of merchandising.
You could argue that television has never produced a more impactful title in the history of the medium than Star Trek.
When the last Trek series, Enterprise, was canceled in 2005, the studio immediately started receiving letters begging for the franchise to return. And the pleas never stopped. “I was inundated with letters and literally money from fans, saying, ‘Please don’t let this go away,'” says CBS Television Studios president David Stapf.
But there was a contractual hitch. Following the breakup of Viacom in 2005, Paramount Pictures got the Trek film rights and CBS landed the television rights. The film division was given the priority to reboot Trek as a big-screen franchise (which was successfully achieved by director-producer J.J. Abrams, starting with 2009’s Star Trek), while CBS was under embargo to hold off releasing a new series until January 2017, six months after the launch of Star Trek Beyond.
In late 2015, CBS started eyeing a Trek show to become the first original drama for its All Access streaming platform. “[CBS CEO] Leslie Moonves, our COO Joe Ianniello, and I all sort of said, ‘Wow, this could be a franchise that really puts All Access on the map,'” recalls CBS Interactive president Marc DeBevoise. “It organically grew out of the company wanting to reboot the franchise and having a streaming service that could benefit greatly from having an anchor series.”
The company made a deal for a new show with producer Alex Kurtzman, who worked on the Abrams movies. To lead the writing, the company looked to showrunner Bryan Fuller, the mind behind NBC’s Hannibal, who’d worked on Deep Space Nine and Voyager. For years Fuller had publicly lobbied for the return of Trek to television, specifically with a black woman at the fore. “I couldn’t stop thinking about how many black people were inspired by seeing Nichelle Nichols on the bridge of a ship [as Lieutenant Uhura on 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.”
Fuller sat with CBS executives to deliver his pitch. It wasn’t just for a Trek series but for multiple serialized anthology shows that would begin with the Discovery prequel, 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 show and then seeing how it performed. It was a fair compromise, yet demonstrated the first conflict of vision between a powerful company and an inventive writer that would eventually lead to a dramatic falling-out.
STARDATE 2016: INSURRECTION
Fuller was on stage at the Television Critics Association’s press tour in Beverly Hills last summer, happily talking about Discovery. Each of his revelations inspired a rainstorm of excited keyboard clacking. The protagonist will not be a captain? Discovery will have Trek‘s first openly gay character?
Yet behind the scenes, Fuller’s relationship with CBS was strained. The studio hired David Semel, a veteran of procedurals like Madam Secretary and Code Black, to direct the Discovery pilot against Fuller’s wishes (Fuller and CBS had no comment on this). The two clashed in pre-production, with sources saying Fuller thought he was wrong for the job (Baby Driver director Edgar Wright tells us he was among those Fuller approached instead).
There were squabbles over the Discovery budget, too, with the production eventually going over CBS’ original plan to spend $6 million per episode (a number that’s either on the high side for an original drama series, or a bit lean for an ambitious genre show, depending on whom you ask).
But perhaps the biggest issue was trying to launch Discovery by January 2017, a date some felt was unrealistic. Fuller was striving to design the new show’s uniforms, sets, and aliens, while also figuring out his first season’s complex arc. “It’s taking world-building to a whole new level,” notes Discovery executive producer Gretchen J. Berg. “You can’t cut corners or have 95 percent of what’s on screen be completely original and inspired and then have 5 percent something you bought at a store. It has to be cohesive — and it is.” Nor was this a challenge exclusive to Discovery; HBO ran into issues getting the first seasons of world-building hits Game of Thrones and Westworld off the ground as well.
From CBS’ perspective, executives 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.”
In September 2016, CBS pushed Discovery‘s premiere date to May to give the production more runway. “We didn’t want to cut corners to meet an arbitrary date,” Stapf says. “It was more important for us to get it right.” Construction on the show’s sets was well under way in Toronto, but the show still had no cast. A few weeks later Fuller felt he found the crucial piece of the puzzle when he met with Martin-Green to play his lead, Michael Burnham — a 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.” Executive producer Aaron Harberts was impressed as well. “We read a lot of people who either went too robotic or too emotional,” he says. “She was able to be aloof and logical but still warm and surrendering her emotional side to the audience.”
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 April. The only way the production could hire Martin-Green was if the show’s premiere was delayed a second time.
In October, after months of backstage tension, CBS Television Studios asked Fuller to step down as showrunner. 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 Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg, two executive producers and writers that Fuller had worked with for years. “The good news is Bryan created a really nice template that was unbelievably specifically detailed,” Stapf says. “The other great thing we had was Aaron and Gretchen, and it was the three of them together that birthed this.”
Some of Fuller’s ideas were tossed, however — from the more heavily allegorical and complex story line 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 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.”
STARDATE 2017: THE NEXT GENERATION
Sonequa Martin-Green spent four seasons on The Walking Dead sweating in the woods of Georgia. She finally gets to lead her own show, this one set in deep space. And yet here she is, right back in the woods as she walks around in a forest outside Toronto. Only she’s traded Sasha’s grimy survival clothes for a royal blue uniform and a rifle for a Tricorder. “We were joking that Michael Burnham was having flashbacks of killing Walkers,” she quips.
After her scene, it’s time to give the Discovery star a Trek test.
Best character? Mr. Spock, she says. “Leonard Nimoy was able to bring such a charm and, dare I say, vulnerability to his Vulcan rigidity.”
Favorite episode? “Journey to Babel,” from the original series, which introduced Spock’s father, Sarek. “You’ve got family, you’ve got sacrifice, there’s so much explored in one episode.”
Can she do the Vulcan salute? Martin-Green instantly throws it down, bam, didn’t even have to push her fingers into place. “It was just there, I suppose I’ve always had it in me.”
Martin-Green plays a gifted and ambitious first officer who gets caught up in an extraordinary series of events that take her from one ship and crew (the Shenzhou) to another (the USS Discovery, helmed by Captain Lorca and nicknamed “the Disco” behind the scenes). It’s a journey of self-discovery and redemption, though her casting was initially met with some online trolling by so-called Trek fans objecting to the show’s diversity. “What does it matter?” hits back Harberts. “If you fall in love with the characters, we’ve done our job. And when fans get a sense of the Discovery bridge, I think they’ll see it as a lovely reflection of where we’re at.”
That representation also includes Anthony Rapp as a science officer and the first openly gay Trek series regular. “He’s persnickety and difficult and brilliant and has very strong feelings about why he’s on Discovery,” Harberts says. In last year’s Star Trek Beyond, Sulu was revealed to be gay in the briefest of scenes, but Discovery will go much further. The social lives of all the characters are fair game, with Burnham’s non-captain perspective lending the show a more lower-decks feel than previous Treks. “We actually get to see me with my partner in conversation, in our living quarters,” Rapp says. “It’s treated as any other relationship would be treated.”
And those relationships won’t always be harmonious; there are dramatic conflicts between crew members that for decades were forbidden in the franchise. “There are moments when characters really go toe-to-toe,” Rapp notes. “It’s not contrived or melodramatic, it’s still rooted in ethical conflicts or interpersonal situations where there’s a profound disagreement.”
No Trek show would be complete without an alien perspective, and for that Discovery has Lieutenant Saru, a “Kelpien” played by creature vet Doug Jones (Hellboy). Saru is dryly sarcastic with a sympathetic backstory — he’s the first Kelpien, a perpetually hunted “prey species,” to make it into Starfleet. Consider him an early contender for fan favorite. “Kelpien were born with fear and self-preservation as a part of our instincts, but when I’m being threatened, I can be vicious,” Jones says.
Burnham has a brother-sister kind of rivalry with Saru and a more mother-daughter relationship with Captain Georgiou. On the verge of getting her own command, Burnham has a profound connection to her mentor, under whom she’s served for seven years. “She’s a great leader and war veteran devoted to Starfleet with a very important task to mentor this amazing human,” says Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), who shows off her world-famous fighting skills when facing a Klingon.
There are several other key players in the sprawling narrative, such as Lieutenant Tyler (Shazad Latif), a prisoner of war, and Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman), Burnham’s roommate; there’s even the return of con man Harry Mudd from the original series (played in a less broadly comic manner by Rainn Wilson). “I’m still processing it,” marvels Latif. “Walking onto sets for the first time, you’re stunned at the money that’s gone into it, and you realize, ‘Oh, wow, Star Trek is back,’ and just how big this is.”
If all this seems like a lot of characters to follow, there might not be quite as many around by the end of the season. Discovery has grave consequences baked into its story line. And since CBS All Access is a streaming service, the show can indulge in profanity and nudity — just don’t expect too much. “Every writer’s impulse when you get to work on the streaming shows is to go crazy,” Harberts says. “But how does nudity play on Trek? Eh, it feels weird. We’re trying to push more by having complicated, messed-up characters who aren’t necessarily embraced on broadcast TV.”
Battlestar Galactica showrunner and Trek veteran Ron Moore says he’s optimistic from what he’s heard so far. “Star Trek at its core is a TV show, and there’s never been a Star Trek that’s operated in a post-Sopranos world,” Moore says. “It’s an exciting prospect to take the new way we make television and apply it to Trek. It will be a whole new way of looking at the series. I think Fuller was a great choice… and I also think the world of Gretchen and Aaron; they’re amazing writer-producers in their own right.”
Not that the show needs any more pressure, but the stakes are high: Is one of the biggest and most beloved pop culture titles of all time still viable on TV? Can a traditional TV company transition into the digital world? (All Access has declared a goal of quadrupling subscribers to 4 million by 2020.) And is there still room for Roddenberry’s 1960s starry-eyed idealism, even as it updates to reflect our more cynical times? It’s too much weight to put on any series, but Discovery is carrying it nonetheless. Thankfully, there’s one refrain you hear from all involved: a sincere determination to “get it right.”
“It’s easy to allow yourself to get freaked out if you look at it from a fearful perspective,” Martin-Green says. “There’s a temptation to get overwhelmed. For me, the important thing is the knowledge we’re here for a reason and doing something that will hopefully make a positive impact. That thought will calm you down and help you focus.”
Sounds like captain material to us.
*The “God question” has actually been a point of debate in the Discovery writers room, and months after our set visit the show’s producers clarified Beyer’s statement to Isaacs to note there is indeed room for religion in Trek.