Visiting the set of Star Trek: Discovery on the day of a total solar eclipse seems like a serendipitous meeting of geeky and nerdy interests. (I even credit the event as being the reason why I’m able to sit in the captain’s chair at one point). But the show films in Toronto, which is well out of the path of totality, so the day just ends up being especially sunny. It’s hardly a disappointment, though–journalists have come from all over the world to stand on the bridge of the first new Federation starship (on TV) in 12 years, after all, not just to witness another act in the cosmic ballet.
But before we tour the U.S.S. Discovery and Shenzhou, the fortuitous situation on the Discovery cast and executive producer minds’ is the return of a famously optimistic—and progressive—franchise at a time when a phrase like “a second Cold War” is being thrown around without irony. Co-EP Aaron Harberts comes out and says it early on: “Star Trek is a show made for times like these.” The writer-producer isn’t just referring to U.S. relations with Russia, which are alternately strained and weirdly chummy, depending on Dear Leader’s mood. Harberts and the cast—including series lead Sonequa Martin-Green—also want Discovery to address the internal division in this country, which has reached a point where white supremacists are out of the shadows and marching in broad daylight.
“I think [Discovery] is very political,” Harberts tells the group of reporters I’m with, which includes writers from Scotland and Germany, as well as editors from Chile and Australia. And it’s not the last time we hear it. Martin-Green refers to “the civil rights movement 2.0” when describing the themes of the new series, while Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz—who play the first openly gay Trek couple—talk about the excitement for and backlash to LGBTQ representation in the franchise. Shazad Latif and Doug Jones praise the inclusive casting, which, despite being a hallmark of Gene Roddenberry’s beloved sci-fi show, was described by certain dank corners of the internet as “white genocide” when news about Discovery first began to break.
No one shies away from talking about how the current climate in the U.S. informs the first season of the series, which launches September 24. The Klingons stood in for Soviets when The Original Series debuted, but now they represent nationalist factions right here at home. You don’t even need to watch the pilot, which has yet to be made available to critics, to pick up on that. Harberts, who originally signed on to the series at Bryan Fuller’s behest, cites those increasingly less fringe elements as inspiration for the new Klingons:
That frank discussion continues throughout this whirlwind trip, which is both surprising and welcome. Junkets (even ones for sci-fi shows) rarely ever delve into topics of nationalism and homophobia, but it doesn’t look like anyone in the cast has been warned against expanding on just how the show addresses those things, however obliquely. Even if it scares off some viewers, Discovery is steering right into the skid and making its progressive objectives known.
Instead, the lid is being kept on character and story details. Of course, we arrive with some foreknowledge about Michael Burnham (Martin-Green), first officer of the Shenzhou and later, the Discovery, thanks to the year of coverage that’s preceded the series’ debut. Burnham is a human raised on Vulcan by Sarek (James Frain), which, yes, makes her Spock’s adopted sister. Martin-Green has previously spoken about her character’s “Vulcan conflict,” which is similar to her brother’s internal struggle to keep his emotions in check and let logic rule. Dispatches from Comic-Con and other events broke the news of Paul Stamets (Rapp) and Dr. Hugh Culber’s (Cruz) relationship. And many of us already know the tale of Jason Isaacs, who plays Discovery captain Gabriel Lorca, inadvertently pissing off longtime Trek fans by saying he wasn’t concerned about winning them over. The serialized storytelling has also been touted before, though, after recalling Deep Space Nine, presumably, it’s been amended to “fully serialized” storytelling. That means the Federation-Klingon war will span the two halves of the first season, even as shorter arcs play out over two or three episodes.
Still, we were able to glean some new info about the Discovery crew, including Captain Phillippa Georgiou’s leadership style, what makes up this “war story,” and what Martin-Green has learned from Lt. Uhura and Nichelle Nichols.
Discovery takes place in 2255, a full 10 years before The Original Series (and is in the Prime timeline). As Isaacs put it, this is well before Starfleet’s mandate became one of peace, which is why he plays a captain unlike any we’ve seen before. Eventually, we’ll learn exactly why Lorca’s “the right person to be in charge during the war,” but for now, there’s a huge, unsettling clue: This is a guy with his own “menagerie.” This tidbit is dropped when we’re in the ship’s brig, which suggests Lorca doesn’t have a collection of Tribbles. Isaacs also literally stands apart from other Trek captains—he made a conscious choice not to sit in the captain’s chair, to avoid it as much as he could. He says he was concerned about the weight of the legacy, or “enormously talented buttocks” that have sat in it before.
Harberts describes the first, 15-episode season as a “war story,” one that will parallel “the violent times” we’re currently living in. Again, certain isolationist Americans are the inspiration for the Klingons, which could be related to their reimagining in Discovery, which goes beyond their altered appearance. Cruz says, “We are seeing our adversary through a lens that we haven’t before. We’re really getting to know the Klingons and what makes them tick and why they do the things they do and why their culture is set up the way it is and how it affects us directly.”
The series will explore both sides of the Federation-Klingon struggle in new ways, including some dazzling new tech. Transparent TV screens will serve as displays on the bridge as well as Lorca’s ready room—while we’re milling about, Harberts points out a map that will show a literal divide between the Federation and the Klingon empire. More important, Harberts promises that “the goal of this year is to get to a place where we find a way to end that conflict.” Don’t celebrate yet, though—everyone from the co-EP to Michelle Yeoh, who plays Captain Phillippa Georgiou of the U.S. Shenzhou, reminds us that because the stakes are so high, everyone’s life is in danger. (Here’s another clue: “copper shirts” are the new “red shirts.”) Even more ominously, Harberts says we’ll eventually learn why the Discovery and Michael Burnham aren’t household names in Star Trek canon (and it’s not just because this series is the latest addition to the franchise).
When describing the relationship between Burnham and Georgiou, Martin-Green and Yeoh both touch on how the adopted Vulcan struggles to reconcile her emotions with logic. Georgiou wants to “instill in her and make her understand these emotions have value for humans.” (Not only that, but Yeoh teases we’ll see Burnham and Georgiou team up again, even after the former has been reassigned). Martin-Green says it was just as much of a journey of self-discovery behind the scenes, “making sure that things track logically, tactically, emotionally, you know, there’s a lot to mine. I just had to make that decision that I was gonna allow myself to grow, along with my journey on the show.”
And while the war is ever present, it’s just a “backdrop.” Rapp feels “the genre of Star Trek is about the exploration of these characters. The war has impact… but it’s not the whole of the plot.”
Yeoh isn’t the first woman to play a Starfleet captain, and Burnham isn’t the first person of color to lead a Star Trek series, but their leadership of the Shenzhou is still groundbreaking for featuring two women of color. The actresses’ and writers’ feminism comes to the fore throughout, whether it’s Georgiou having a “compassionate but firm” style of leadership that’s all her own and not just a response to her male counterparts’, or Mary Chieffo portraying Klingon Battle Deck Commander L’Rell. Chieffo says because L’Rell comes from such a patriarchal species, her storyline will address women in the workplace. And it’s all part of adding dimension to the Klingons outside of their highly sensitive scalps.
Bryan Fuller co-created Discovery with Star Trek Into Darkness writer Alex Kurtzman before bringing on Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg, his Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies collaborators. Everyone but Fuller remains aboard; they’ve fleshed out the rest of the series from the “spine” he built before departing over creative and scheduling conflicts. Though the remaining EPs lack Fuller’s Trek writing background, Harberts says the real issue was time—sets were already being built when Fuller fully stepped away in October 2016, because the show was originally set to debut in January 2017. Now, eight months later, Harberts says “as nerve-wracking as it was with that sort of a timeframe, there had been too much passion and too much artistry and too much talent from really great people to say, ‘Yeah, we’re not going to do it.’”
Still, our guides are admittedly light on institutional knowledge as we tour the Discovery. At various points, everyone from Harberts to costume designer Gersha Phillips says they’ll have to ask someone else for an answer to a journalist’s question. This does little to abate excitement, but there might be cause for a yellow alert. Isaacs tells us the writers’ room is full of “diehard Trekkies” who know the Starfleet manual inside out, but only Nicholas Meyer and Joe Menosky have any previous experience working on Star Trek. (The Next Generation’s Jonathan Frakes directs one episode.) Despite inheriting Fuller’s outline—not to mention having 12 episodes in the can at the time of our visit—the show’s vision doesn’t seem very clear at the moment, politics aside.
But there’s no denying the obvious passion for the project from even the cast members who didn’t grow up watching the show. As for what they bring to Discovery—and what the show will offer fans new and old—they agree that their diverse backgrounds are very much in the franchise’s tradition. Though, as Yeoh points out, she’s only considered a minority when she’s in the U.S.
Representation is key for most of the crew. Rapp and Cruz say they’re excited for the LGBTQ Trek fans who “have been waiting for so long” to see themselves onscreen. Latif, who plays Lieutenant Tyler, a former prisoner of war, believes the show reflects progressive ideals while also exploring more reactionary ones: “It’s very deep and complex, and I think it’s going to be great.” And as for being one of several actors of color in the cast, “it’s the way I see the world anyway, so it’s just exciting that things are finally getting this way. For me, it’s good to be normalized.”
Discovery will meet today’s issues head on, Isaac says, showing just how splintered we are as a country while also depicting a more unified front. For Martin-Green, the ongoing fight for civil rights is everywhere, but she believes being a part of Discovery means being “a part of the solution.” The Walking Dead alum hopes Burnham will be as much of a shining beacon as Lieutenant Uhura from the original series was for young black girls. But she also hopes “people of all ages and genders and orientations see [Discovery] and see themselves. And see us unified. Because it is possible. And we show what that looks like. We show that it’s possible, but we also show how it works.”
Similarly, Yeoh says she’s proud to be one of the proponents of “love, compassion, and kindness” on the show—“without them, we would all be fighting wars.”
Star Trek: Discovery premieres Sunday, September 24, on CBS and CBS All Access; subsequent episodes will stream weekly on All Access.