Alex Kurtzman: 'This is part of what Star Trek is about — controversial debate and moral quandary'
The first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery delivered on producers’ promises of a serialized, high-stakes, life-and-death war story unlike any other show in the 51-year-old franchise. The two-part series opener shocked fans by having its hero, First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green ), commit Starfleet’s first act of mutiny, and then at the end of the second episode killed off her mentor, Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). Below executive producer Alex Kurtzman takes our burning questions following those first two hours (so this includes the episode that only aired on All Access, spoilers within).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: One thing I loved about the story of the first two hours is it’s a very unusual structure for the beginning of a series, particularly a Trek series. You don’t even really get to the U.S.S. Discovery yet.
ALEX KURTZMAN: It’s been 12 years since a new iteration of Trek has been on television and understandably there have been a lot of crossed arms about it. What are you guys doing? How are you going to make it different? How are you going to make it the same? How are you going to honor Star Trek? And those are the right questions. I had the same questions. Even before [executive producer Bryan Fuller] was hired, I raised with CBS that we cannot do a new version of Trek until we have a reason to do it, a really solid idea and movement that feels new.
So when Bryan and I started talking early on we came to the idea that there’s something very powerful about setting the audience up to believe they were going to be able to predict what was going to happen and then pull the rug out by the end of the second episode so that you’re left going, “I really can’t stay ahead of us, this is not what I thought it would be.” And we weren’t trying to do that as a gimmick, we did it because Burnham is Starfleet’s first mutineer, and that’s a deeply emotional story. In so many ways, the rug is pulled out from under her as well. Timing the audience’s experience to hers is critical. Every reason she did what she did is called into question. She doesn’t know where to turn. And I think that’s why we watch television — to experience those kind of whirlwind emotions and to sit on the edge of our seats and live in the deep emotional experiences of a character’s arc. The other thing is the Klingon War, while having been mentioned, has never been elaborated on. So there’s a wonderful opportunity there to stay consistent with what’s been set in canon but open the door to what really went down. So it felt like the right idea.
I will also tell you is the beginning of the season and the end of the season were planned a year and a half ago and are inextricably linked. So as deliberate as the beginning is, we’re also setting up where we’re going. There’s a grand design to season 1.
I like that it felt like your hero is doing the wrong thing. Captain Picard would have been horrified. Was there a debate in the writers’ room about it?
I think the debate is the fire of the idea. It’s not like she commits mutiny for the wrong reasons. She’s genuinely trying to save the crew and captain she loves. Burnham has a very specific understanding of the Klingons based on her history and the Vulcans’ history with the Klingons. She recognizes that diplomatic negotiations are not going to go down well at all and they require something far more severe in order for Starfleet to be taken seriously. She’s doing the best she can. But the truth is she’s not ready for the captain’s chair. We set up at the beginning that Georgiou says, “I think you’re ready now.” But by the end of episode 2, it’s very clear that she is not, and has to live with the consequences of her decision. I look at something like the movie Crimson Tide, and the debate whether to launch the nukes between Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington, and there’s no right or wrong answer there. The chain of command exists for a reason, and once you break the chain of command you are jeopardizing the lives of your crew. It’s a tricky debate, and that’s part of what Star Trek is about — controversial debate and moral quandary. The Original Series and best versions of Trek were always complicated morality plays. It felt like the right idea to launch a series.
Maybe this is unanswerable at this point, but if Burnham had fired at the Klingons, would the outcome would have been different? Is this basically a trap that would have resulted in the same outcome no matter what they did?
Well, that’s exactly it. One of the questions I think the audience will be asking, and Burnham is asking, is: Did I start this war or would this war had happened anyway? And what is the difference there? And would my friend and surrogate mother still be alive if I had acted differently? That’s going to be a point of debate. I’ll spoil one thing: We’re never going to answer that question for you. The audience will have to decide.
How does this experience change Burnham?
One of the things I love about the character is she’s really a mirror image of Spock, who is half human and half Vulcan. He’s wrestling between two sides of himself. Burnham is all human but was raised on Vulcan. So what happens to a human being when they’re taught to emotionally suppress everything they’re feeling all the time? It’s an easier thing for a Vulcan to do because they’re alien. But it’s really hard for Burnham. Because of the loss she suffered as a child she grew up as an outsider in a world that didn’t want her. And as we’ll come to understand over the course of the season, there were factions on Vulcan who resisted the presence of a human there. So when Burnham first comes onto the Shenzhou — she’s there for reasons that will be revealed later — she’s not happy to be there. She’s emotionally confused and doesn’t know where her place is on that ship. And she’s immediately met by a captain who’s loose, kind and open-hearted. In many ways, Georgiou is the person that brings her back to her humanity. Now take all that and add that Burnham feels responsible for Georgiou’s death. It’s a lot to sort through.
So Georgiou is really dead, right? You’re not pulling a Jon Snow on us?
Here’s what I will say: Yes, 100 percent, she’s really dead. That being said, have patience with us.
I loved the bit about not being able to transport her body due to her not having any life left — using Star Trek tropes in new emotional ways.
I love that you recognize that. What we loved about that moment is the fact that it’s such an emotionally horribly moment for her. Everything has gone so wrong that you’d think the one thing she’d want to do would be to give her captain a proper burial and she’s denied that in a nanosecond. Sonequa’s performance when she’s transferred back onto the pad is so heartbreaking because not only did she recognize that she’s failed but also realizes in that moment she’s never going to get a goodbye. And that’s what she’s going to have to live with for the rest of the show.
I think given the unusual structure of the first couple hours, a lot of questions that fans will have after watching are things like: Will we continue to have ongoing Burnham flashbacks throughout the first season?
And how much Sarek are we going to get?
A lot of Sarek and happily so. I think one of the questions the audience has is how come we never heard of this relationship [between Sarek and Burnham] and I think we owe them a very solid answer. So we will get to know all about Sarek and the relationship.
And how much of the show is told from the Klingon’s point of view moving forward?
Quite a bit of it. And there’s a specific reason for that. Star Trek in its heart and soul is about an understanding of what we perceive as the Other. And the Klingons have always been presented as one or two-dimensionally represented as a war-faring race. Of course, there have been a lot of Klingon lore. But if we’re going to tell a story about war we want to tell a story about both sides in a complex way. So we couldn’t do that without spending a lot of time with the Klingons. I hope people are comfortable reading subtitles because there will be a lot of them.
Our critic Darren Franich had this question: “The Klingon has a ship covered in corpses. This is awesome. Explain everything about the ship covered in corpses.”
[Laughs] Well it’s called the sarcophagus ship. It is indeed covered on corpses dating back over 1,000 years. We’re going to spend a lot of time on this ship and learn the origins of the ship. It’s a big and beautiful set. People will hopefully be very delighted by the fact we built these massive practical sets and everything you’re seeing in those spaces is entirely practical.
What else can you tell us about the Klingons and the political perspective you’re playing with here?
Well, our goal is to humanize them, which is an ironic term in this case, and to just get the audience to understand them and see them a bit differently.
There’s clearly a significant budget on display here, but we’ve all seen broadcast network pilots that somebody spent $20 million on and the following weeks the show looks like $3 million. Does Discovery stay at this level of production for the rest of the season?
Yup. I can say with total confidence that the show does not get any smaller.
Eventually, Starfleet crew members get different uniforms. Will that happen in, say, the first season finale?
There’s been a lot of debate about this. And I understand the debate. What I can tell you is we originally thought of putting everyone in [The Original Series] uniforms and we designed them and made them. Then we looked at them on the cast and went, “Um, no, that’s not going to work.” We felt people are not going feel like we’re living up to the promise of the scope and scale and design in paying for a new Star Trek. So then we got into a months-long debate about how much to adjust the costumes to be consistent with canon and where we landed at end of the day is this is an era that — I don’t want to say “take some liberties with” — but we knew it would be more exciting to feature a new design, and not necessarily negate the previous designs. So, yes, anything’s possible, they could end up that way.
Tease up episode 3 for us?
There’s a time jump. It’s not a radical time jump. In many ways we designed episode 3 to almost be a new pilot. People were set up to expect one thing, and something very different episodes. The USS Discovery doesn’t show up until the third episode, along with its crew — which is our main cast. Burnham and the audience are going to have a reset. Burnham believes she’s headed to a prison colony and is met with an unexpected surprise that has to do with the Discovery and its captain.