The CBS All-Access series Star Trek: Discovery returns to active duty tonight with Brother, the franchise’s high-intensity Season 2 premiere and its strongest showing to date after a bumpy inaugural season.
The hour-long season opener marks the small-screen return of American television’s greatest alien, Mr. Spock, this time as portrayed by the young, bearded and soulful Ethan Peck, grandson of Hollywood icon Gregory Peck. The last time Spock was featured in a new Trek television episode was in November 1991 when Leonard Nimoy beamed aboard Star Trek: The Next Generation (a series that also had an uneven first season).
Spock is the title sibling in Brother — the episode reunites him with his sister, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), the fiery Discovery crew member who was raised on Vulcan by Spock’s parents. Spock and Burnham may be the keys to unlocking a cosmic mystery that will tug the Discovery crew toward a new danger in deep space.
Discovery may live in the future, but its greatest challenge is living up to the past. Star Trek in its assorted iterations has yielded 14 feature films and 740 television episodes to date (not to mention all the novels, comic books, video games, etc.). On the eve of the season premiere, Deadline caught up with Discovery showrunner Alex Kurtzman to discuss his ongoing mission to find a future that is fresh yet also familiar.
DEADLINE: The new season finds a classic Trek character, Captain Pike, leading the crew. It’s a character you have history with since Bruce Greenwood portrayed him in the 2009 feature film Star Trek and its 2013 sequel, both times off of scripts you cowrote.This time around Anson Mount plays the early-days captain of the USS Enterprise. What did you explore in the character? He seems to hold a special place in Starfleet lore…
KURTZMAN: Pike definitely holds a kind of mythological place in canon because he preceded James T. Kirk as the captain of the Enterprise but was seen only once in the original series [in the two-episode story called The Menagerie that aired in November 1966]. It’s allowed people to mythologize him because there’s so much guesswork you can do about who he is. I suppose we played with that a little bit in the movie but this season we get inside his character in a way that we we didn’t get to do in the films. And the events of this Pike’s life are synchronous with canon whereas with the films were on the Kelvin timeline. That Pike’s story is different.
We are coming off a season where a ship’s captain [Lorca, played by Jason Isaacs] deceived his crew. They are understandably untrusting of their new captain and Pike is really the perfect guy for that. He is in his soul and at his core very decent. He is quick to recognize that his crew needs not just reassurance but also the kind of leadership that Lorca did not give them. That leadership not only allows them to realize their fuller potential as individual officers but it requires him to acknowledge very quickly when he’s wrong and for Pike that is one of his defining traits as a captain. We delve into his background a bit and find out by the end of the second episode a little bit about his home life growing up. And the fact that we will synchronize with canon by the end of this season, that means we may see shades of where we all know Pike will end up.
DEADLINE: That sounds grim.
KURTZMAN: It depends on how you look at it. That’s one of the things that’s been really interesting, actually. That story has always been told one way and we’re going to tell it in a new way.
DEADLINE: The new season has a more cinematic look and it takes the scale and visual effects up a few notches as well. I know, from our previous conversations, that you view the show as a “sweet spot” somewhere between film and television productions. Can you talk about that a bit?
KURTZMAN: The line between film and television is disappearing and will disappear completely at some point soon. We get to make a movie every episode yet what we also have going for us is beautiful longevity of character development that can play out over a season of shows. So we get to live in nuance moments that movies often don’t have time for, especially movies that have as much action as the Trek movies have in them. Which is not to say that we didn’t always go for them in the films. We always did there was just less time to do it in. Now with this 14-episode season you can get to know characters at a much deeper level just because you’re spending more time with them.
From a filmmaking perspective we switched to anamorphic for this season. All our lenses are different than they were last year and it immediately conveys a sense of scope and scale. The frame is longer, wider and you feel more. It’s more the experience you have in the old-school Cinerama Dome kind of viewing experience. And to be able to bring that to television is awesome. The standard that we hold the work to is that if it was projected in a movie theater you would not really be able to tell the difference. The image is that great.
DEADLINE: The ambition shows. I haven’t seen a television series that has the sci-fi look and spectacle scale of the new season…
KURTZMAN: I’m sure we’re not the first to use anamorphic lenses. I don’t know what Game of Thrones shoots on. But I do love anamorphic lenses. It’s also the lighting, that has a lot to do with it. You have to light very, very differently for anamorphic lenses. I’m always telling the crew not to be afraid of high contrast lighting. The darks are just as interesting as the lights and the character doesn’t have to have high-key lighting on them all the time. We can let half of their face live in shadow if it’s appropriate and so that immediately contributes to a much deeper sense of cinema. Television doesn’t usually light that way. At least old-school television doesn’t light that way.
Color is something that we think about now in a focused way since the beginning of production for the season. All the departments have to be synchronized about this; cinematography has to talk to production design which has to talk to costumes and everybody has to come up with a lighting scheme, a color scheme where each element of the design complements and contributes to a sense of a consistent whole.
DEADLINE: The benefit being symbolic and for emotional tones?
KURTZMAN: You might not recognize why you feel the way you feel about something but it’s actually partly because scenes have literally been color-coded. And lighting has literally been designed around enhancing the color of the scene so that you feel a certain way. Colors immediately trigger emotions for human beings. You can read many, many studies on it. So the key is to look at the emotional psychology of a scene and how color translates that emotionally. That has been a huge part of what we do. It sounds heavy but actually once you start playing that game, it’s incredibly fun because each scene becomes a stone in a path of a character and once you know what the scene is doing you can design around what you want the audience to feel about that scene. Once things come together in the right way you have this tremendously satisfying experience that is pretty atypical of television — although, as I say, I think that is less atypical now that the line is getting blurred more and more. These are things happening more and more as the change is moving fast.
DEADLINE: Can you offer a specific example? Maybe something that appeared in the Season 2 trailer?
KURTZMAN: Yes. There’s a scene where Spock is kneeling on the ground and I’ve seen a lot of speculation about where he is and what he’s potentially crying about. The floors are filled with beautiful calculations and everyone is wondering what he’s drawing. The intention of that scene is to show both his isolation and his confusion and so we designed a frame that’s center punched, almost to Kubrick-style, so everything is very ordered even though there is tremendous chaos on the floor. The windows are very deliberately blown out so that he is just a little blinded and there is something about the sense of the shot that is compositionally beautiful but also a little bit disconcerting.
There’s a million choices that go into how we shoot the show. A lot of it has to do with emotional reactions to visuals. We get to play like that in film a lot more but now our mandate with the show is: don’t think of this like television. We never want to be doing coverage. And by coverage I mean a very typical way of shooting is coming in and doing a master, you do a couple different sides if you’re lucky to have enough time on a television schedule. Then you would move on. For us, though, one of the challenges that we put to our directors this year is to shoot a scene where you’re never using the same shot twice. That forces everybody to try to think differently about how they’re shooting scenes. The best episodes are the ones that have a real point of view where you feel choices are being made that are deliberate and when that happens the viewers are more willing to put themselves in the hands of the show. If it feels like there is a grand design, the audience responds.
DEADLINE: Is there any downside to that? Can it become a distraction or limit the options in editing in a way that undermines that grand design?
KURTZMAN: That’s the challenge, for example, in Spock’s disorientation; we started using 10- and 8-millimeter lenses, which are super wide almost to the point of fisheye lenses. And that can either be a choice that is really cool or really self-conscious, so you have to figure out a way to balance that out as you’re shooting. Some of the choices you make you can calibrate in editing. We always tell our directors to give us enough choices so that we have options. They need to know what they want from a scene. If it feels like “We’re on that fish-eye look for too long and I’m starting to become aware of it,” that’s never good. So we modulate as we go in post-production.
DEADLINE: One of the trademarks of Star Trek has been its quasi-naval culture. Some of the most memorable scenes through the decades have been rituals that evoke naval heritage, like court martial hearings, funerals and crew formals. Is that something you have delved into for inspiration and material?
KURTZMAN: Completely. There’s a tremendous amount that was shot on the bridge this season and it was on several bridges of several different ships. Gene Roddenberry obviously had a very deep military background that is just embedded so deeply in the DNA of the show so to me a key thing is to try to translate that visually in a way that is cool. It’s funny Crimson Tide is one of my favorite action movies, but maybe it’s more of a thriller, really, not really an action film. But that film has a very specific look and when I went back not that long ago and watched it again I was struck by how much of a Star Trek episode it is. And then it got to that line that I think Quentin Tarantino wrote for the script: the whole Scotty reference about Star Trek. So funny how the first time I watched the movie, back when I was a kid, that line didn’t land for me and I didn’t get why that reference was being made. Now that I’m living it day-to-day I completely understand why they went there. And that is completely awesome. But the answer is yes, for sure, Trek is a naval show. It was always designed as a naval show and you will certainly feel that in the way we’ve shot the Discovery bridge. It’s funny you mentioned a funeral because there will be a funeral this season and it’s done entirely in naval style.