THE FIRST DAYS OF DISCO
As Star trek warps back to the small screen, Ian Berriman visits the set of Discovery and talks to the showrunners
As mission statements go, you’d be hard-pressed to beat the one declaimed by William shatner over the stirring strains of Alexander Courage’s Star
Trek theme: “to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilisations…” But what’s the mission statement of the makers of Star Trek: Discovery, the new tV series set 10 years before Kirk’s time?
Asked what legend he might hang above the door to the writers’ room, Aaron Harberts (who stepped up to co-showrunner level after producer Bryan Fuller – who laid the groundwork for the series – moved onto
American Gods full time) barely pauses before declaring: “the journey can be external and internal.” sounds like something from a motivational poster or a fortune cookie, but the phrase makes sense when Harberts’s co-showrunner gretchen Berg unpacks it.
“the show is so perfectly titled,” Berg explains. “While it’s about travelling across the universe, you don’t have to travel far to learn more about other people, or yourself. We can tell as much story about a relationship between two people who happen to share quarters as we can about going to new planets.” Like Enterprise, Voyager and DS9 before it,
Discovery takes its name from its main location. But this time the title has a deeper resonance.
“one thing that sets it apart from a lot of other iterations is that often when you meet the characters they come to you quite fully formed,” Harberts reflects. “With many of our characters, we’re catching them not quite knowing where they belong and how they feel about certain things. Discovery is apt because we have people discovering who they are.”
Captained by Jason isaacs’s gabriel Lorca, the Uss Discovery is just one of two Federation vessels that are the focus of the show – the other being the Uss shenzhou, commanded by michelle Yeoh’s Philippa georgiou. the precise nature of the relationship between the ships is a fiercely guarded secret (“i could tell you, but then i’d be fired – or possibly killed,” says a stubbornly stonewalling isaacs). What is clear is that our point-of-view character, michael Burnham (sonequa martin-green), begins as first officer on the shenzhou, then moves to the Discovery. it also seems reasonable not to
assume that every crew member will make it to the end of this 15-episode first run, since the show centres on a Federation at war. “Discovery is the latest and greatest ship to roll off the assembly line,” Harberts explains. “it’s a repurposed science vessel, whose crew’s been turned towards using their abilities to turn the tide of the war with the Klingons, which is reaching fever pitch. But it also serves as a metaphor for michael Burnham and her journey, with the shenzhou being an older ship and the Discovery representing starfleet’s future.”
Just as the two ships belong to different classes, the two captains have different command styles.
“A large theme is duality,” Harberts says, “and these captains represent two ends of the spectrum. georgiou is an optimistic, hopeful captain who
embraces starfleet’s ideals. Lorca represents a captain in a starfleet that’s at war, and has to make certain decisions based on situational ethics. He’s darker, more pragmatic. so they’re playing tug of war with michael Burnham in terms of which captain is going to shape her.” Hailing from a place which, 400 years ago, was in the southern UsA, Lorca has a flavour of the south, as star Jason isaacs explains. “Having spent a lot of time with soldiers, it made sense to me. When i trained for Black Hawk Down i spent time with marine guys, and the south provides a lot of America’s military. Lorca’s an interesting and complicated man with all kinds of… not exactly hidden agendas, but nuanced relationships with people that aren’t apparent from the beginning. And he’s not without his sharp edges. He’s a great military leader, but not necessarily the greatest manager...” And the way he tells it, Lorca’s relationship with Burnham is an intriguingly enigmatic one.
“i hope the audience will be thinking, ‘What’s going on there?’” the actor says, “Because not everything is on the surface – there’s more going on than it seems…”
StARS IN OUR EYES
on a July day in toronto, SFX sees the sites of that “tug of war” over Burnham’s identity when we visit Pinewood studios and tour the sets. our first reaction to the shenzhou is openmouthed awe. Because its bridge is on the underside of the saucer section, it’s raised up high to allow camera angles looking up into it from space. gazing down, it’s quite a drop.
"The two captains are playing tug of war over Michael Burnham"
"Bryan Fuller didn't want Klingons just to be thugs of the universe"
on the bridge of the Discovery – whose crew, we’re told, shorten it to “the Disco”, as military personnel are wont to do – SFX grabs the opportunity to try out the Captain’s chair, half expecting a red alert siren to start screeching. though distinct in design, both bridges feel of a piece with what’s gone before – there’s a familiar curve to Discovery’s bridge stations that screams “enterprise-D”.
Wandering the corridors of the Discovery, you feel you could easily get lost in them. in the vast transporter room, we twist dials and flick satisfyingly low-fi switches on a control panel, and peek into chambers on either side lined with spacesuits. We check out Lorca’s weaponry collection – guns, samurai swords, and a Klingon bat’leth (presumably a memento of battle) – and squint at georgiou’s framed certificate from the Raal institute For interspecies studies. A mess area nods to the past with a print of the Uss t’Plana-Hath – a namesake of the Vulcan craft that made first contact with humanity. And in a corner of the engine room, we discover a display of weird, colourful fungi belonging to Anthony Rapp’s science officer, Lieutenant stamets (Trek’s first character specifically devised as gay – a long-overdue milestone.)
there are further mysteries here beyond the basic relationship of the two ships. on the shenzhou’s bridge, we find the captain’s chair encircled by a curtain of plastic sheeting, the dais it stands on covered with brown paper and tape. And in georgiou’s quarters, the shelves have been emptied of props in advance of episode 10 (helmed by Next Gen’s Will Riker, Jonathan Frakes). Why remove personal effects, and why paper over that dais? Four days later, isaacs tweets about filming some “particularly weird, fabulous shit”…
Perhaps it’ll be another fan-pleasing touch to set alongside the inclusion of characters from
The Original Series: intergalactic conman Harry
mudd (Rainn Wilson), and spock’s dad, sarek (James Frain) – who, it’s been revealed, is Burnham’s adoptive father. this revelation prompted howls of disapproval from some, who questioned how we’d never heard of spock’s sibling before. it’s a reaction that raises a question. After 51 years, Trek’s continuity is vast. How do you navigate a path through its dense thickets without limiting creativity? Where do you draw the line? “there are definite boundaries in terms of where our show is set,” Harberts says, “it has required all our writers to make sure we’re not undoing anything that’s going to come after. We find the spaces in-between, the grey areas where we can play and have fun.” “We take it very seriously,” Berg continues. “our writing staff are hardcore fans, who’ve been going to conventions since the ’70s and ’80s. often we’ll come up with stuff and decide it’s something we don’t wanna touch because it’s too important in canon – we don’t wanna be controversial for controversy’s sake. But there are certain things you can examine a little closer and maybe kick the tyres of…” one set of tyres being the knobbly-browed fellas on the other side of this war.
“With the Klingons,” Harberts says, “Bryan Fuller’s vision was that they not just be the thugs of the universe. the approach was to dimensionalise them: to examine what’s motivating, and make sure their stories felt as emotionally resonant as starfleet stories.”
that drive to make the Klingons more than a one-dimensional “other” is very much in tune with some of the themes which, in timehonoured Trek tradition, the show addresses.
“Do you abuse a creature if it can help you win a battle?” says Harberts, reeling off some of the issues tackled. “How strong is nature vs nurture? How not tending to natural resources can end in everyone’e demise. Debates between isolationism and multiculturalism. things we grapple with today are being explored.”
With Discovery combining Trek’s classic blend of action and philosophy with the serialised storytelling we’ve grown used to from the likes of Game Of Thrones, along with a greater emphasis on evolving characterisation, it certainly sounds like the journey – both internal and external – is going to take us where no fan has gone before.
Star Trek: Discovery launches on Netflix on 25 September in the UK.
Mary Wiseman plays cadet Sylvia Tilly.
The Star Trek: Discovery cast say a big hello.
Michelle Yeoh is the captain of the USS Shenzhou. Captain Georgiou becomes a mentor and mother figure to Michael Burnham.
Doug Jones is the Discovery’s Kelpien science officer Saru.
Does the Discovery’s captain have an agenda of his own? The exterior of the USS Discovery. We know that stern gaze... Spock’s father Sarek returns.
Klingons will be more layered this time round.