What was old was new tonight on CBS’ Star Trek: Discovery.
For the first time in the history of Starfleet, two women from diverse backgrounds were in command of a Starship. And while that’s a remarkable glass ceiling to smash into smithereens in Star Trek canon, such career revolutions in Starfleet are quite common and traditional. Star Trek in its various iterations has always celebrated equality and shined a light on an empathetic, integrated society. Star Trek: The Original Series was unprecedented in the 1960s featuring an African American actress (Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura) and an Asian-American actor (George Takei as Lt. Sulu) in respectable roles as high-ranking spaceship officers as opposed to parts that painted them as stereotypes.
It was former co-creator Bryan Fuller’s vision to pass the diversity torch again in a big way on Star Trek: Discovery, in addition to shaking up other elements in the sci-fi show, including but not limited to making the Klingons a sexy, but thoroughly complex race in a way that no other Star Trek has accomplished before.
Though Fuller left the series nearly a year ago over creative differences and reported escalating costs (the per episode budget spiked from $6M to about $8M), co-creator Alex Kurtzman and EP Akiva Goldsman, both contend that the Hannibal creator’s fingerprints permanently remain on future episodes. In fact, much of what was seen in tonight’s two-hour pilot –“The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars” — and next Sunday’s “Context is for Kings” can be attributed to Fuller.
There is much talk that next week’s episode is a reset of sorts for the series. But apparently, that’s not to course correct anything that Fuller originally designed. As shocking as it may have been for viewers tonight, it was always intended for Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Georgiou to die; pulled into a Klingon fight by her heretical second-in-command Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) with the latter headed to jail for her war crimes, specifically starting the first mutiny in Star Trek canon. If Yeoh’s Georgiou failed to die, Burnham’s arc could not propel forward, at least in the way that Fuller, Kurtzman, and Goldsman have laid it out.
Without giving too much away about episode 3, which is directed by Goldsman, let’s just say Burnham gets a second chance to show off her brilliance in Starfleet. Kirk’s rebellious ways never cost him his career, so it stands to reason that Burnham won’t be shackled for her radical tendencies. It’s easy to assume at the end of tonight’s episode that Discovery will be about Burnham getting her ship and her crew back — scenarios we’ve seen with Kirk time and again — but her arc is more complex than that.
Goldsman calls it “Burnham’s dilemma.”
“The design of the first three episodes has to do with the ending. In order to plot the season, we had to know where we were ending. When Bryan (Fuller) worked on the story, part of what excited us was the internal life of Burnham and the design for where we wanted her to go in season one. It had to do with setting up an idea where you think you know where we’re going, but it’s not where we end up,” explains Kurtzman.
When it comes to sequels, Goldsman loves those movies where the events don’t immediately pick up from the previous chapter. Rather, for the A Beautiful Mind Oscar-winning screenwriter, the best sequels, such as James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement, are those where events have transpired. And so, episode 3 begins six months into the future.
“What you saw tonight was typical Star Trek in that Burnham is having a congenial relationship with her Captain, their mission is benevolent and life-saving and then by the end, everything has gone pretty much awry. Substantial life, love, and rank are lost. We start with loss, and therefore hope, and that for me was super fun,” says Goldsman who wrote the teleplay of the first hour “The Vulcan Hello” with Fuller.
“We’re not doing this as a gimmick. The fundamental question that Burnham will be asking is ‘If I behaved differently, would my best friend and surrogate mother still be alive and would this war with the Klingons be happening or not?’ Now, we’ll never answer those questions, but the series will be about Burnham understanding the consequences of her actions. It’s a complicated problem.” And on that note, one that’s more conducive to a streaming series rather than a two-hour film.
As we say in tonight’s episode with the Klingon evangelist T’Kuvma (Chris Obi), the alien species stands on the shoulders of its prideful warrior history, with an eternal distrust of the so-called ‘peaceful’ Starfleet and its imperialism. It’s an animosity that echoes North Korea’s sentiment toward Americans. Even though the thematic underpinnings of many TV series and movies today (take your pick from Fargo season 3 to Fox Searchlight’s Battle of the Sexes) challenge the divisive society propped by the Trump administration’s inflammatory rhetoric, Goldsman says that Star Trek: Discovery‘s socio-political nature isn’t “anything specific to America, but it’s reacting to global isolation trends; just like Star Trek spoke to the world in the 1960s.”
“When Bryan and I were working on the story for the pilot a year and a half ago, it was very important to present both sides of the argument,” says Kurtzman on the Starfleet and Klingon war.
“We wanted to create a world where we could see what it was like being the Klingons with these long-extended subtitled scenes. You wouldn’t be able to pull these scenes off on film,” says Kurtzman. While one might think that has to do with average moviegoers’ intolerance to subtitles, it’s more so because in a tentpole “you need to be white hat and black hat. There’s little time for grey areas” adds the co-creator who penned the first two J..J. Abrams’ Star Trek movies. Hence the upside of a streaming platform when it comes to storytelling. “You get to understand the Klingons as a race, to live in their customs and the internal lives of these characters. Star Trek 3 didn’t have time for this,” says Kurtzman referring to one of the more prominent Star Trek films that starred Klingons.
As has been widely reported, Star Trek: Discovery will take place entirely within the TV series canon, specifically ten years before Star Trek: The Original Series, which began around 2260, and 90 years after Star Trek: Enterprise. How much closer will we get to the characters from the original 1960s show? Essentially, this season is as close as it gets: We have Spock’s father Sarek (James Frain) as Burnham’s stepfather (“She’s a mirror image of Spock,” says Kurtzman about Burnham, “She’s all human, but she was raised to repress her emotions.”), and we’ll soon see Spock’s wife who Fuller promised during TCA sessions. Also, as previously reported, Rainn Wilson will star in nine episodes as Harry Mudd, the affable con man and android appointed ruler of the planet Galor IV who had repeated run-ins with original Star Trek TOS crew.
But what about villains like the Romulans? “You will not see Romulans. That would be canon violation, but there are other Star Trek aliens you will see — potentially allies,” says Kurtzman on how Star Trek: Discovery is sidestepping the canon established by Abrams’ pics, “For reasons we can’t explain, we don’t violate canon.”
It’s all part of Kurtzman and Goldsman’s m.o. to fly Star Trek: Discovery to strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no one has gone before. And while they, of course, aim to be fresh, they’re not about carrying out a mutiny like Burnham when it comes to canon.
“The tricky tightrope with Star Trek is how to deliver an experience for fans that feels real, authentic, and consistent with canon, but to bring something totally surprising and unexpected to the table,” explains Kurtzman on tackling Star Trek: Discovery, “Those moments in canon that are not expanded upon, that’s our sweet spot.”