NEW YORK – Star Trek: Discovery is three episodes into its run, and it’s already sparked one of the liveliest sci-fi discussions of the year. Is Discovery a good show? Is it good Star Trek? What’s up with the Klingons? And, most importantly: where does it go from here?
The cast and crew of Discovery gathered at the Theater at Madison Square Garden during New York Comic Con 2017 to discuss their contributions to the show so far – and give tantalizing hints about its future.
The sheer amount of Trek talent onstage was staggering. Cast members included Sonequa Martin-Green (Michael Burnham), Jason Isaacs (Gabriel Lorca), Doug Jones (Saru), Anthony Rapp (Paul Stamets), Wilson Cruz (Hugh Culber), Mary Chieffo (L’rell), Mary Wiseman (Sylvia Tilly) and Shazad Latif (Ash Tyler). Five producers joined the lineup, too: Alex Kurtzman, Heather Kadin, Gretchen J. Berg, Aaron Harberts and Akiva Goldman. Star Trek guest star and real-life astronaut, Dr. Mae Jemison, moderated the proceedings.
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Star Trek has always put science front and center; Dr. Jemison described it as another character in the show. Rapp pointed out that the show’s focus on astromycology, using fungal spores as a means to spur space travel, is not as far-fetched as it may sound. A TED Talk on the subject declared in its first sentence that “Mushrooms can save the world.”
“Star Trek has always been in both camps of being the fantastical and the imaginative, but also based in real science,” Rapp said. “This may be possible someday.”
Apart from the science, fans have always flocked to Star Trek for its colorful cast of characters who grow and change over time. To make Burnham – a mutineer and disgraced officer – the main character was an unconventional move.
“There had never been a mutineer [protagonist],” Kurtzman said. “We set the audience up to think they were walking into a very specific kind of show, only to have the rug pulled out from under them.”
Removing Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) from the equation two episodes in was also new territory for Trek, getting rid of the reassuring captain figure before the main story even gets underway.
“To feel that [Burnham] has not only killed her captain, but her surrogate mother, her best friend – it gives her a long way to go,” said Kurtzman. “It gives her a redemption story.”
Martin-Green herself had a lot to say about Burnham’s arc as well, particularly how her performance tried to incorporate both the character’s impetuous human side and coldly rational Vulcan side.
“The inner turmoil, I find it quite visceral,” she said. “My emotions inform my logic rather than impede them. Growing up on Vulcan, I had to find something about my emotions to be a point of strength … I decided that my emotions helped me carve out new paths of logic, and that would help me in the midst of this logic-based society.”
Perhaps no actor had as much fun at the panel as Jason Isaacs, who gave fans an unrestrained take on why the somewhat-heroic, somewhat-villainous Captain Lorca is so much fun to play.
“I just like blowing s**t up,” he said. If that sounds different from previous Star Trek captains, it’s not by accident. Isaacs decided early on that he didn’t want to be a second-rate imitation of Captain Kirk or Captain Picard; he wanted to be a wartime captain, trying desperately to impress the severity of the U.S.S. Discovery’s situation on its wide-eyed, scientifically minded crew.
“He’s surrounded by idiots … as far as he’s concerned,” Isaacs explained. “They’re all happy clappy hippies who need to be locked in the shed. Then I find out about this extraordinary woman who understands what needs to be done in wartime. And therein begins this amazing ethical minefield.”
That isn’t to say that Isaacs sympathizes with Lorca completely, however. He said that the very best episodes of Star Trek are the ones where the morality of the episode isn’t clear. After the credits roll, he continued, it’s up to friends and families to talk out amongst themselves what they would have done, and what the “right thing” to do would have been – if there even was one.
Jones was also eager to discuss his role, as Saru represents the first time that Trek fans have ever encountered Kelpiens: an alien race that evolved from prey animals, rather than predators as most other bipedal denizens of the galaxy.
“[Saru is part of] a whole new alien species. That’s pretty heavy lifting – and I’m skinny!” Jones said. “We are the hunted, we are the herded, we are the livestock. It’s rather extraordinary that Saru … has been able to break out of that definition. And I’m the fist one of my kind to go through Starfleet Academy and end up on a starship as a high-ranking officer.”
Discovery is not the first Trek series with a female lead, but it is the first time that both the captain and her first officer have both been women. (In the first two episodes, anyway.) The cast and crew are proud not only that women take center stage on camera, but also that they represent an equal part of the team behind the scenes.
“This was the goal from the beginning: to have women being such a large part of the show,” said Berg. “I’m so proud of the way relationships between women are represented. It’s not competitive; it’s not backstabbing; it’s about collaboration. We don’t play the female/male card at all; it’s just [that] the most capable person gets the job.”
The writing staff is equal parts male and female, with similar demographics in the production and design departments. This is only possible, Berg said, because the male cast and crew give women their utmost respect – and vice versa.
Although Chieffo hasn’t appeared in the show yet, her character, L’krell, will apparently have a large role to play as a representative of the Klingon Empire. One of her biggest challenges has been not only learning Klingon, but also figuring out how to really act in the constructed language, rather than just deliver lines.
“It takes a village to speak Klingon,” she said. “The syntax is the opposite of English. [Its creator] wanted it to be as alien as possible … All the Klingons are really game actors, and we’ll rehearse extra time. We don’t want it to just be saying words we don’t understand; we want it to bear out the meaning behind it, and the moment, and the subtext.”
Chieffo compared her role to performing Shakespeare; it takes a while to develop the ear for the language, but once you have it, there’s a ton of nuance you can infuse into your performance.
Cruz, whose character has not yet appeared on the show, also dropped a hint that his character would be part of the first canonical gay relationship in the main cast of Star Trek; something with extra meaning for him as an LGBT Latino actor.
Goldman took time to address some concerns the fans had about the show airing on the paid streaming service, CBS All Access, rather than being free on broadcast TV, as previous Trek shows had been. Streaming allows the show to be serialized in a way that networks don’t often allow, he explained, and that serialization lets them try a whole new spin on Star Trek.
“We are a wholly serialized narrative,” he said. “We get to tell character stories over plot … If Jim Kirk had to deal with Edith Keeler’s death in City on the Edge of Forever … it would have taken a season, or a series. It wouldn’t have been fine next week.
“We can stretch those emotions out for a season … But we don’t start there. We get there. The name of the show is not by accident … In long-form storytelling, you get the gift of getting to start somewhere that is different from where you end.”
When the floor opened up for questions, a woman in sunglasses and a hat expressed her admiration for Captain Georgiou, and asked if they planned to bring the character back. The woman then threw off her disguise to reveal that she was none other than Michelle Yeoh herself – to a standing ovation from the audience.
Further questions from the audience covered diverse topics. Would there be a romance for Michael? (Maybe.) Will we learn more about Klingon culture? (“If we made them a one-dimensional badguy, we wouldn’t be Star Trek,” said Kurtzman.) Is All Access a sign of things to come? (More TV may go this way in the future.)
Ultimately, Isaacs pointed out that the quality of the show’s narrative and characters are more important than how the show reaches fans.
“We take great parts for great stories,” he said. “Engage with us – tell us what you hate, tell us what you love.” Fans may find some new material to love or hate when the latest episode airs at 8:30 PM ET tonight.
Marshall is indebted to Sarah Lewin for additional reporting during the panel.