Star Trek: Discovery‘s new showrunner Alex Kurtzman below discusses season 2 of the CBS All Access series, which is undergoing a bit of a creative overall for its latest voyage. The show is a bit lighter, has some more humor and adds a couple of familiar characters from The Original Series (Captain Pike played by Anson Mount, and Spock played by Ethan Peck). Kurtzman also worked on the J.J. Abrams Trek movies and is producing the upcoming Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) series. We talked about all of that, plus debated the showrunner a bit on the always touchy issue of Star Trek canon — and how much staying consistent with Trek’s past should actually matter.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So what’s new season for season 2?
ALEX KURTZMAN: The fans have a lot of questions about Michael Burnham’s [Sonequa Martin-Green] connections to Spock. And my strong feeling was if we were going to tell a new Spock story we had to tell an unwritten chapter and fill in some blanks about his character that people may not have known. And one of the things I really enjoyed about my time working on the Trek movies is taking a look at certain areas that had been painted so broadly there was a lot of room for interpretation or gaps that could be filled in. We did that last year with the Klingon war. Why Spock has never mentioned his half-sister Michael Burnham is such a major question to anybody who knows that character that it felt like we needed an entire season devoted to the answer rather than just one small episode.
It also gives an opportunity to show a part of Spock we haven’t seen. When we meet Spock in The Original Series he’s more or less the fully formed Vulcan that he remains for the rest of his run; he has come to understand there’s a necessary balance between logic and emotion. The Spock we meet in season 2 is really not there yet. He’s experienced his event that’s fried his logical brain and his emotional side is not equipped to deal with it and he’s really struggling. The big idea was to say this season is about coming to understand that if it were not for his relationship with Michael he would not have become the Spock we know today.
The ads very clearly seem to signal that the show is more fun this time. It was even put right in the Comic-Con trailer’s dialogue. How deliberate of a shift was that?
It was deliberate only in the sense that in a time of war [in season 1] it’s harder to find levity. Humor was there, but you don’t want to seem like you’re making light of something when people are dying all around you. While the first season was more about the Discovery bridge coming together as a family, in season 2 they are a fully formed family and they’re working together to solve problems. There’s more time to spend in individual moments of pairing characters off who wouldn’t have otherwise had that time together in a wartime scenario. There was a conscious choice in that some of what’s best about Trek is the humor. To me that’s what the nostalgia of TOS is about — watching the bridge crew come together as a family, watching them science out problems and the humor that comes from the dynamics on the ship.
As the new showrunner, what’s different about your creative perspective for the show?
You’d have to ask someone else that question. I don’t know if I have the objectivity to tell you. What I will tell you is I’ve been lucky enough to work on Star Trek in one form or another for 10 years. I feel like we’ve brought a lot of the [big screen cinema] filmmaking technique to this season in a way that didn’t exist last season. But I also feel like we can grow the story in a way we couldn’t have in a two-hour movie. Humanism has always been a fundamental part of Star Trek and I’ve enjoyed spending more time opening that up that we hadn’t had time [to do in] season 1.
Anson Mount told me it’s more episodic this season, less serialized?
No, that’s not true. It’s very serialized. There are no real one-offs. Every piece of the puzzle is connected to the finale, we worked backward from knowing the outcome we wanted to get to. There are episodes that seem standalone that are fundamentally part of where we’re going at the end.
So the season 1 finale teased the arrival of the Enterprise. Then the trailers show Pike coming over and joining the Discovery team. So does that mean we’re not actually spending time on board the Enterprise?
Um…here’s what I can tell you. The show is called Discovery. So the focus is on Discovery. But anything is possible.
Another holdover from last season is the theoretical existence of Jason Isaacs’ Prime Universe Lorca. Should we not expect him to show up this season?
I will tell you that you should not expect to see him this season but that doesn’t mean he won’t be back.
Ah, okay. What can you tell us about Anson Mount as Captain Pike?
Anson exceeded my already high expectations of what he would bring to the part. He’s a delightful human being and he’s really embodied the spirit of Captain PIke. In some way’s he’s the Captain Pike of TOS and in others ways the Pike from our movies but he’s a kind and generous captain who’s always looking for the best version of himself and the people around him. He’s a wonderful antidote to Lorca in that you can trust him out of the gate but he’s got a tremendous bearing of authority.
Our critic Darren Franich asked for more info on Airiam (Sarah Mitich), who he calls “the greatest background character in Trek history since the glory days of the Deep Space Nine bar.”
[Laughs] Yes, you will be getting a lot more about Airiam this season.
What’s the latest on the Picard series? Have you added anybody else to the cast?
No, the writers room has broken about eight episodes and we’re moving quickly and I couldn’t be more excited about it.
How will the tone feel different from Discovery and from Next Generation?
It’s an extremely different rhythm than Discovery. Discovery is a bullet. Picard is a very contemplative show. It will find a balance between the speed of Discovery and the nature of what Next Gen was, but I believe it will have its own rhythm. Without revealing too much about it, people have so many questions about Picard and what happened to him, and the idea we get to take time to answer those questions in the wake of the many, many things he’s had to deal with in Next Gen is really exciting. ‘More grounded’ is not the right way to put it, because season 2 of Discovery is also grounded. It will feel more… real-world? If that’s the right way to put it.
You brought up the canon issue with Spock. Every time I see somebody ask you about a canon concern, you always give such a polite and measured response. And I always want you to say this instead: Franchise canon doesn’t actually matter. Because Star Trek has already been inconsistent in all sorts of ways throughout its long history of nearly 800 hours of content. What’s more important is to tell the best new story you can. Canon should be consistent within your own show, definitely, but bending a story over backward to stay consistent to something said in episode 54 of Voyager is nuts. Some fans will object, but at the end of the day everybody just wants a great new Star Trek show. So that’s my rant on your behalf.
First, I appreciate that you thought that, that’s awesome. I actually think somewhere between what I’m saying and what you’re saying is the truth. We really do spend a lot of time talking a lot about canon and there are people in the writers’ room specifically to tell us where we’re stepping on the line of violation. I did actually note at one point when I was asked about the graphic novels and comics that after 50-plus years it’s literally impossible to stay entirely consistent with canon because there have been very dry years in Star Trek and very full years and so many different writers have attempted to fill in the gaps in the dry years of what happened to beloved characters in the absence of a show driving those answers, they end up inventing things and we end up being faced with whether to call that canon. But it’s always a conversation.
I will agree with you, though, that the best version of the story needs to be the driver. But what’s the best version of a story is an entirely subjective thing. That’s why we have so many different voices in the writers room with so many different points of view. You want to write a nuanced story to get as many different voices as possible to represent how they feel about different ideas. A big part of my process is listening to the other writers. With Trek, you want to go out and beta-test ideas. But as soon as you do that you’ll get 50 percent of people telling you they love it and 50 percent saying you should be strung up and killed. At a certain point you need to follow your own internal compass, but you don’t want to do it in a vacuum — that’s very dangerous — so we hire people to express what they think Star Trek means, and where we’re violating canon and what we can invent within the grey area.
So, yes, we want to stay true to canon, but we’re also doing a lot of new invention that has nothing to do with canon. There’s a lot of conversation online like, “Why don’t you start with new things? Why do you have to look back?” And the answer is, “We can do both.” We have to do both. Star Trek has always done both.
Star Trek: Discovery returns to CBS All Access on Thursday, Jan. 17.